My local Church has decided to make the focus this year the pursuit of holiness. Now, as someone who has been around church circles, when we first talked about the idea, I have to admit I had a slight lurch in my stomach. Holiness? Does that mean we’re going to be going around like Saudi Arabia’s Mutaween, making sure that people who go to our church always do the right things according to the Bible? Am I going to be measuring skirts to make sure they’re not an unacceptable amount above the knee, and reporting when I see people going into the liquor store or (gasp) a movie?
You see, these methods have been historically the way some of our more holiness-inspired brothers have sought to make the church “holy” in its conduct. When people have a standard of behaviour, the (apparently) natural outworking is to see how many others are adhering to that standard. If we are called to live holy lives, then I should make sure that my next door neighbour adheres well to those standards, even moreso if they are fellow believers and may be straying from the godly path by going to see the latest animated musical in theatres.
The impetus isn’t limited to churches either. Irate fellow tenants often castigate their neighbours for not recycling properly (or at all), and there are the judgemental stares that follow families with a lot of children around. When we’re given a standard, our natural inclination is to get others to follow it.
It gets so bad that many will simply deny the need or existance of standards. From churches that refuse to talk about (rather obvious) evils, to the more extremist libertarians and anarchists who seem to be want to be rid of any government at all.
Yet God has said that holiness is a good thing, a necessary thing. God Himself points out that holiness is one of his attributes (Ex 15:11), He tells us to worship Him in holiness, and even calls that holiness a splendour (Ps 29:2). We are called to control our bodies in holiness (1 Th 4:4). We’re even warned that without holiness, none of us will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
So what are we to do? Should we be installing trackers in people, and grading behaviours, dress, and language?
Probably not. First of all, there is the frequently misused warning Jesus gave us in Matthew 7 to not judge others in any way you are not willing to judge yourself. This doesn’t mean we all should avoid judging entirely, but that any judgement is first to be levelled at yourself.
But the more important reason is that the holiness God desires, and that the Christian pursues is not primarily a function of behaviour, but of faith. This is not to say that the behaviour is unrelated, and that we shouldn’t be troubled by the sin we see in ourselves (indeed, we are called to repent of any sin we see in ourselves), but rather that it is a fools errand to go around fixing external behaviours when the real problem is that we have hearts far from God. The sin is bad, what is worse is that we sin because we want to, and that sin of willful rebellion to God is far worse than the symptomatic instances of bad behaviour we can control with rules and social isolation.
Holiness isn’t something you create by force of will, but something you put on in the grace of Christ by faith in Him. Ephesians 4 is instructive:
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Eph 4:17–24.
Notice a couple of things. While Paul (the writer of Ephesians) does actually expect his hearers to act in ways that are in keeping with Christ, his call is not to make them act better, but rather to “put off” the old self and to “put on” the new self that is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”. What’s the difference between essentially pretending to be holy until you actually are, and this “putting off and putting on”? Paul gives us a rather direct hint when he says that those who are acting in unholy ways are in the “futility of their minds” and in an ignorance born of their “hardness of heart”.
Instead of being a moral reformation method, the holiness that is expected of Christians, and provided in Christ is instead a transformation from one type of person to another. From a person that is self-made in sin, to one that has been made by God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Thus true holiness is found, not primarily in avoiding sinful actions (or even actions perceived as sinful), but rather in forsaking your own hard heart and having God remake you into the likeness of God. It is a transformation of the heart before it is a reformation of the morals.
Thus as I embark on the year of pursuing holiness, I am not beginning a year where I call myself and others just to better action, but where I daily point myself to Christ, and cast myself on His grace and mercy, trusting Him to change me, and calling those around me to do the same.