What images and thoughts does that word evoke for you?
I’m not sure where these thoughts come from, but as I think of “holiness” my mind drifts to images of stereo-typical stoic saintliness, smug expressions, rolling-eyes, and a “you know better” death stare accompanied by a wagging head of disapproval.
I don’t know why I think of that first, I really didn’t have a tough childhood growing up in the church. But perhaps when my mind wanders it migrates toward the lowest common denominator.
Another image that comes to mind is the “holier than thou” type of encounter. When addressing this subject of holiness, I have met a certain number of people who confess (or act as if) they have cornered the market on being “holy.” They have a hard time remembering when they last committed a sin, and they carry themselves with a kind of hovering bravado, very aware of their own virtue, and very condemnatory of other people’s lack.
As I study Scripture, I don’t think anything I have referred to thus far is even close to what the Bible calls “holiness.” My text for this coming Sunday is 1 Peter 1:13-21, a passage within which Peter exhorts the Christian to “be holy in all your conduct.” He also re-quotes God’s command found throughout the Old Testament, “You shall be holy for I am holy.” To really discover what this means, I think we need to start by tearing down the caricatures of holiness that we can all call to mind.
A truly holy person, who lives in their identity as a child of God through Jesus, will not carry themselves like a stoic saint. Rather than being less transparent, I think they will be more real, particularly about their own sin.
J.C. Ryle’s book Holiness has been a great help to me this morning, as I have been studying this subject. I’ll leave you with three extended quotes that I think summarize these thoughts well:
I have yet to learn that there is a single passage in Scripture which teaches that a literal perfection, a complete and entire freedom from sin, in thought or word or deed, is attainable, or ever has been attained, by any child of Adam in this world…As to an absolute literal perfection, the most eminent saints of God in every age have always been the very last to lay claim to it! On the contrary, they have always had the deepest sense of their own unworthiness and imperfection. The more spiritual light they have enjoyed the more they have seen their own countless defects and shortcomings. The more grace they have had the more they have been “clothed with humility” (1 Peter 5:5).
What saint can be named in God’s Word, of whose life many details are recorded, who was literally and absolutely perfect? Which of them all, when writing about himself, ever talks of feeling free from imperfection? On the contrary, men like David, and St. Paul, and St. John, declare in the strongest language that they feel in their own hearts weakness and sin. The holiest men of modern times have always been remarkable for deep humility…No one can read the writing and letters of these men without seeing that they felt themselves “debtors or mercy and grace” every day, and the very last thing they ever laid claim to was perfection!
When a man can talk coolly of the possibility of “living without sin” while in the body, and can actually say that he has “never had an evil thought for three months,” I can only say that in my opinion he is a very ignorant Christian! I protest against such teaching as this. It not only does no good, but does immense harm. It disgusts and alienates from religion far-seeing men of the world, who know it is incorrect and untrue. It depresses some of the best of God’s children, who feel they never can attain to “perfection” of this kind. It puffs up many weak brethren, who fancy they are something when they are nothing. In short, it is a dangerous delusion.
How amazing would it be for a church to live and speak in such a way that the term “holiness” could forever be ransomed from the characterization of a smug-faced judgmental hypocrite? I want to be that type of church.