On holiness – Part 1

One of my earliest memories of childhood is a painting that hung on the wall in my grandparent’s living room. The painting was a fox hunt, and it was rather large.

The scene detailed a vast stretch of fields and tree lines boxed in by fence rows. Despite the pastoral nature of the setting, the painting depicted power and frantic pursuit, as men riding horseback galloped through the serene setting. Wild-eyed and determined, the horses bounded forward, throwing mud with powerful hoofbeats. In front of them a gang of hunting dogs raced on ahead, equally crazed in pursuit of their goal. The dogs were baring their teeth and snarling, crawling over and under logs and fenceposts.

In the midst of all the chaos, almost as an unnoticed afterthought, at the very bottom right corner of the painting stood a tiny fox slipping away into some bramble.

Even as a little child this painting had an impact on me. Of course, I did not catch the full significance at the time, but I have often thought back on that painting, seeing its depiction of the elusive goal and effort expended in the hunt.

In the two posts prior to today’s, I have detailed the elusive goal of “holiness.” I write that word in quotes, because the pursuit discussed has not been that of the biblical ideal of holiness so much as chasing after a misunderstood concept. Holiness has become that thing we know we should be, but have no idea how to reach. We treat it like any number of self-help topics or we try to scare ourselves holy, landing flat in legalism.

Yet, one thing is clear. When we chase after this misunderstood ideal, our efforts so often look like that fox hunt. We pursue an elusively sly goal that cannot be obtained. We pant, fight, claw and scratch for a goal that will always be on the other side of the fencerow.

Why is that?

Because it does not exist. It is a mere mirage built by our own felt need to earn salvation. When we live this way, we have replaced the biblical understanding of holiness with our own definition. It becomes a thing we must work to obtain. We know the Bible tells us to be holy, so we have this idea that there are things we must do so that we are holy.

Unfortunately, this is exactly backwards and a trap that keeps us from our real goal. In fact, for us to ever do the stuff we are trying to do (live right, love God, avoid sin, etc.), we must first realize we are already holy.

The word holy is simply a word that means “set apart.” It is a word that denotes people or a thing as different, separate, unique, and not part of the whole.

The Bible has much to say about this concept of holiness. Countless times in scripture we see that God is holy. He is the ultimate other. There is nothing like him. He is “set apart” from everything else. Yet, God is not the only thing labeled holy in scripture.

In the Old Testament, we also see this language being used to describe the people of Israel. They were said to be a holy people. But what made them holy? Was it something they had done? Not at all.

To the contrary, they had nothing to do with their holiness. For out of all the peoples of the world, God chose the Israelites as the ones who would bare his name to the nations. He chose them to be holy and made them holy. He placed his divine favor on them and therefore set them apart. They did not set themselves apart.

In the writing of Moses we see this unique position for Israel play out. They were told that God had made them holy like he is. Then, they were told holiness comes with responsibility. “Be holy, for I am holy,” was the continual refrain Israel received. God informed them that, like him, they were now holy. They were now set apart, and must act as though they were unique, different, and not like all the nations around them.

So, for Israel, they were not told to earn holiness. They were not told to find, figure out, or make themselves holy. However, because of the unique position they had been given by God, they now must live in their new identity.

It is no different for the people of God today.

Peter, in his letter, mimics the language of Moses and applies it to the church. Peter tells us we are a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation, a people for his (God’s) own possession.” (1Peter 2:9, ESV)  He is literally quoting Moses.

So, just as Israel was set apart by God and made holy, we, the church, have now been grafted into that same promise. We, like Israel of old, are a holy people. We are not told to become holy; we are told we are already holy. God has set us apart. And, just as God told the people of the Exodus to “be holy, for he is holy,” those same words ring true to us today through Peter’s letter.

In short, God has told us we are already holy, we are already set apart, so we must be holy. By Christ’s act on the cross, all who call on his name are holy. They are set apart as part of his chosen, holy, unique people.

If you are trying to earn holiness, you misunderstand the term.

 

Next week, I will talk application and how we can live holy, since we are already holy…

 

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