APPLYING THE ATTRIBUTE OF HOLINESS
People go to church for many reasons ranging from social encounters to business connections to filling a hole created by the emptiness of materialism. Some come to learn about God and the Bible and some even come to deepen their personal relationship and understanding of God. Given that progression of commitment, very few actually come to learn more about theology, but sound doctrine and good theology is what needs to be taught in churches today. The term theology can be defined many ways. For the purpose of this discussion I will agree with John Frame’s thinking, that it is and must be essentially, a study of Scripture.
Scripture, at its core, is about God’s revealed plan for mankind from before creation to after the events of John’s Revelation. To teach any level of theology in a church, it is of paramount importance to know who the players are. Who they are, what they are like, how they think, how they are inclined to act in a given situation are just part of the context of that must be understood. To be effective in teaching theology, one must begin with God. Who He is, what He is like, what has He revealed about himself and how has He revealed it? Beyond that, how are we to communicate with him and what are the steps to building and fostering a relationship,
not just with the Creator, but with our Creator?
Beyond his personality, God has many attributes that reveal more about himself. One list includes the following: love, goodness, righteousness, holiness, knowledge, power, will and his ability to be Lord of time, space, matter, light and breath. It is fitting and rightfully easy to say, God is love, all knowing and all powerful, but that is just a good start. The “notion” that God, the perfect, infallible, Almighty, Creator Being can be understood and known may seem unfathomable to some, but according to Jeremiah 9:23-24, not only is it an admirable goal, it is also possible. According to Frame, “Knowing God is the key to all other knowledge: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” (Proverbs 1:7) So, we cannot know and understand God unless we grasp his attributes, specifically holiness which I will address later on.
Before any individual attributes can be taught or applied, a deeper understanding of God’s essence is required. Before considering God as omniscient, omnipotent, righteous, holy and the rest we must know that He is the Triune God. He is the three in one, yet still one. Each person of the Godhead has and shares the same attributes fully and eternally in both time and space. The three are separate and distinct while being unified and complete. Each is fully God from before the beginning and beyond eternity future. They are not modal or one third (1/3) God, they are each fully God, all the time, or circumincessio. Any discussion of attributes begins with the understanding that they each apply to all three parts of the Triune God. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each equal, yet God the Father is supreme and the Son and Spirit are subordinate in an economic hierarchy.
The strength of the LORD God Yahweh is perhaps best seen in the light of the underlying and interconnecting relationships between the individual persons of the Godhead. Bruce Ware expresses this very well. “The relationships in the Trinity exhibit so beautifully a unity that is not redundancy, and a diversity that is not discord.” Each person of the Godhead is equal and somehow different, yet they model how our relationships should be one with another.
The Holy Spirit is often listed after the Father and Son. Ware rightly states it seems He takes a “backseat” to Father and Son, however that doesn’t make him lesser. The Holy Spirit’s strength is in carrying out his role of always pointing others to Jesus, to the glory of God. He is the power or Spirit that God gives that Paul referred to in 2 Timothy 1:7, for I did not give you a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self control. As He carries out his mission as comforter, helper and advocate He never seeks glory for Himself. He is all power, yet He is subordinate to God the Father and God the Son. There is a lesson in that for us.
In the Son we see the essence of obedience and submission. In fact, we see power and authority through obedience and submission. In Jesus’ relationship with the Father and Holy Spirit we see a model to emulate in our relationships towards others for two reasons. First, we may be the only Jesus, others will ever see and our witness needs to be good. (Matthew 28:19-20) Secondly, the more we think and act like Him, the more we Christ-like we become as we move along the walk or journey of sanctification. In Jesus the Son, we see all authority, yet He is subordinate to Father. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)
Finally, in the Father we see one who is supreme, yet willing to share in the glory. He has all knowledge, wisdom, presence and power, yet He reigns with love, fairness and compassion. In the Father’s relationship with the Son we see the perfect example of fatherhood. So while it is important to understand each attribute of God, perhaps there is greater value in affirming and applying the example of the internal relationships of the Godhead to our own lives. Going one step further, these relationships should be evident not just with individuals, but within the community of believers as well.
The specific attribute I want to discuss is holiness because it holds one particular distinction from the others. A readily accepted definition of holiness is to be set apart or separate. Churches are holy, the Bible is holy and we say we are on holy ground when God’s people are gathered together because where two or more are, He is there also. Frame says, “Holiness, then is God’s capacity and right to arouse our reverent awe and wonder. It is his uniqueness, his majesty, for God is like a great king, whom we dare not treat like other persons.” It is a short lesson to teach that God is holy, but where the rubber meets the road is when we admonish people as God did when He said to be holy, because He is holy. God is special, unique and beyond reproach. As impossible as it sounds, God is our model or standard … because He is holy. If that is as far as we get in our theological instruction about God’s holiness, it is only a little better than saying … “sports cars are red, I like red, therefore I am a sports car because I like red,” so we must purposefully teach a more through understanding and application of holiness.
The verse that makes personal holiness so important is Hebrews 12:14, “without holiness no one will see God,” There are two possible implications to the verse, one more correct than the other. The first is that Jesus is holy and without Him no one will see God. That is good as far as it goes, but there is more. The other view is that because we do not have holiness on our own, it is the holiness we receive from Jesus, that makes us acceptable to God and that is not possible without Him. Without holiness (Jesus) in our lives it is not possible to see or please God.
Understanding God and applying the attribute of holiness are concepts that must be taught and pursued on purpose. Again, to more fully understand God we must teach that the different attributes apply to each person or entity in the Godhead and that they are in relationship with each other. Personal holiness begins in our understanding God’s holiness. It may show up as a byproduct from whatever else we teach, but holiness, should be taught for it’s own value. On one hand we do want God to be pleased with us, but on the other we may not want to be made fun of for being too Christian. What was that Jesus said about us being ashamed of him on earth? (Mark 8:38)
Appling holiness begins with understanding there is a sliding scale between holiness (God) and sin. He is positioned firmly on one side of the scale with sin on the other. The more we sin, the less holy we are and the more we eliminate or mortify sin, the holier or closer to God we can become. 2 Timothy 1:8-9 says, “… So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life-not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time,” (Emphasis added, mine) Also, note how the Trinity is fully present in the verse. We are saved by his power and called to be holy; that is our calling. He makes our holiness possible by saving us. Being called to a holy life makes the impossible, possible; not because of anything we have done or could do, but because of God’s own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of the beginning. Paul echoes the same thought in 1 Thessalonians 4:7, “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”
We were saved to be holy and live a holy life. That is the message that churches need to hear; it is the attribute that needs to be applied, it is the theology that needs to be taught. The song says “They will know we are Christians by our love” and that is true, but perhaps more importantly, the world will know we are Christians by the way we act, or by our holiness. Though not specifically speaking about holiness, John Frame makes an interesting statement. “People ought to be able to see the nature of the gospel by seeing how it changes us.” Peter makes a similar statement in 1 Peter 2:9. “But 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 the darkness into his wonderful light.” (Emphasis added, mine) There is the sliding scale again. As a holy nation we are called out of the darkness of sin and into his wonderful light, i.e. holiness.
With God’s help, by his grace, we can slide the scale towards holiness and away from sin and that begins with the type of obedience we see between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Drawing from Leviticus 11:44, Peter restates it well in 1Peter 1:15-16, … “Be holy, because I am holy.”
Of God’s many attributes holiness has a special distinction for us because it is something we can attain. We will never have omniscience, omnipotence or omnipresence, but we can become holy. We get it by God’s power, according to his grace, but not without our surrender. We cannot become holy apart from salvation, which comes only from Jesus. He died for all and his gift is free to whosoever will accept it. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life; no one goes to the Father apart from me. (John 14:6) Paul further admonishes us in Philippians 3:16 … “to live up to what we have already attained” which is the calling that those who have been saved do share.
If an increased or heightened emphasis on the attribute of holiness was applied in churches today, the world could change as never before. It would see Jesus the Son in the way God the Father always intended. As churches lean into the storm, supported by the Spirit’s wind, ever-trusting God and understanding that His character is reserved for those who are called by His name, they will grow, but more importantly, the people in the churches will grow as well.
Praise ye the name of the Lord!