What is holiness?

Holiness is NOT
– an ability to spout religious jargon. It’s not talking the talk, but walking the walk.
– frequent church attendance, or enthusiasm for religious ritual.
– withdrawal from the world.

Sanctification (the process of becoming holy) is the complete restoration of God’s image in us, so that we perfectly reflect the nature and character of God.

What does it look like?

The Pharisees of Jesus’ time regarded holiness supremely as separation from the ‘uncleanness’ of the world (especially the Gentile world). The purity laws enabled them to maintain clear boundaries. Hence their emphasis on rituals of washing, for example (Mark 7:3,4), to rid themselves of what they perceived as ‘contamination’. This concept of holiness is rather cold and clinical. Like a squeaky-clean operating theatre, it smells of antiseptic and radiates a dazzling light. It isn’t welcoming or comfortable. You have to obey the strict rules: wear the wrong colour cap (as I once did, as a medical student), and you will be ordered out!

But Jesus showed us a very different vision of holiness. He happily touched ‘unclean’ people such as lepers, and ate with outcasts such as tax-collectors. And His presence changed them. His style of holiness was just as uncompromising, but as attractive and wholesome as the smell of freshly baked bread.

What’s the difference? It isn’t anything to do with degrees of cleanliness; like the hospital, the bakery has to meet very strict hygiene standards (in fact, it’s probably inspected more rigorously!). It lies in their differing ethos: ‘hospital’ holiness is a negative, protective holiness, dedicated to keeping those inside clean; whereas ‘bakery’ holiness is a positive, outgoing holiness, devoted to the benefit of those outside.

If we are afraid of being contaminated by the sinful world, we will define holiness as avoidance of certain people, places and activities. But if we are living close to Jesus our Lord, His holiness (manifested in us) will ‘contaminate’ the world! Our light will shine in the darkness – and the darkness will not overcome it (John 1:5).