Holiness can be a confusing subject:
“…We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:10)
…By one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:14)
So is holiness something we already have, simply by virtue of being Christians (Hebrews 10:10), or is it something we are in the process of acquiring (Hebrews 10:14)? Or perhaps both?
We have been made holy (Ephesians 5:25,26)
The primary meaning of the word ‘holy’ is ‘belonging to God’ or ‘set apart for God’. The Israelites were a holy people because God had chosen them to be His own people (Deuteronomy 7:6). (And the Jews are still holy – despite having rejected their Messiah – Romans 11:16) This had nothing to do with any merit or good behaviour on their part; it was purely the fact that they had been singled out by God and belonged to Him in a special way.
The same principle applies under the New Covenant. Christians are holy – not because we are intrinsically better than everyone else, but simply because God has chosen us to belong to Him. Again and again, Paul addresses the recipients of his letters as ‘saints’ (literally ‘holy ones’) – despite their moral failings and doctrinal errors.
Isaiah’s call (Isaiah 6:1-8) demonstrates how God’s holiness is communicated to us. When the fire from the altar of sacrifice touched him, cleansing him from his sin, he was able to bear the presence of God without fear and communicate with Him directly. In a similar way, Christians have been cleansed by Christ’s death and made fit to live in the presence of a holy God (Ephesians 5:25,26). It doesn’t matter how badly we have behaved in the past (I Corinthians 6:9-11). “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (verse 11) And when the Holy Spirit comes to live inside us, He makes us holy by His very presence (Ezekiel 37:28; I Corinthians 6:19).
We are being made holy (I Thessalonians 5:23)
The other meaning of the word ‘holy’ is ‘morally pure’ or ‘perfect’. Since our God is pure and perfect, anything associated with Him should have the same characteristics. It is precisely because believers are already consecrated to God that Paul exhorts them to live accordingly (Ephesians 5:3). Now it is very obvious that in our ‘natural’ state we are a long way from being like God! So we have to be changed – we have to be made holy. And although in the first sense of the word we are made holy ‘once and for all’ when we become Christians, in the second sense we don’t become holy overnight; it’s a gradual process. So Paul prays for the Christians at Thessalonica: “May God Himself sanctify you through and through.” (I Thessalonians 5:23) And Peter tells his readers to “be holy in all you do” (I Peter 1:15) – even though they already are “a holy nation” (I Peter 2:9).
God wanted Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). That was why He gave them the Law; a certain type of behaviour (i.e. high moral standards) was to be the logical consequence of them being a holy people (Leviticus 20:26). And the Church has the same calling: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.” (I Peter 2:9) So holiness is not an end in itself; it has a purpose. By being distinct from the rest of the world, we are appointed as God’s representatives – His ambassadors. Just as we see the Father by looking at Jesus (John 14:9), so the outside world should be able to see Jesus by looking at us, His people (Matthew 5:16).
This being the case, it is lack of holiness above all else that brings the Church into disrepute. This is not a minor matter; without the ‘correct’ wedding clothes (righteous deeds – Revelation 19:8), we shall be ejected from the wedding feast (Matthew 22:11-14). This is not because good works justify us (they don’t), but because a complete lack of holiness indicates the absence of the Holy Spirit (without whom we cannot be genuine Christians). An unsanctified ‘believer’ is like the seed in the parable that fell on poor soil and never came to fruition (Mark 4:16-19). Holiness is the ‘seal’ that the Spirit stamps on us, the ‘stamp of authenticity’ that marks us out as belonging to God (Ephesians 1:13).
Justification, then, is just the first stage of our salvation; it is incomplete without sanctification. Jesus “bore our sins in His body on the cross”, not so that we can carrying on living in the same old way but “so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” (I Peter 2:24) So let’s get on and do it…