Holiness is an odd topic for many Christians, primarily because many have never heard it taught. They know that God is holy, and they think that means he’s some great “other” and unique, which are both true. But, that is hardly the full extent of holiness. The idea of personal holiness isn’t something that crosses the minds of many individual believers. Yet, it is not a minor theme in Scripture:
For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:45 ESV)
So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. (Numbers 15:40 ESV)
[B]ut as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16 ESV)
[E]ven as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. (Ephesians 1:4 ESV)
Even from this tiny sample of verses we can see a few things about holiness. First, the people of God are Holy because God declares them to be. Leviticus 11:45, as well as countless Old Testament passages speak to the holiness of Israel as a then present, effective, reality. The people of Israel were holy because God said they were and had made them so by the act of His will and redemptive work. The same is said of the Church in the New Testament; we see this in verses such as Ephesians 1:4. So, in one since holiness is a declaration that God makes based on His work alone. In this sense, it is connected to our understanding of justification and the knowledge of our righteousness in Christ.
Unfortunately this is as far as most believers get in their understanding of holiness, but the Bible does not stop with our declarative holiness. The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments speaks of a sort of progressive holiness. We see this in Old Testament passages like Numbers 15:40 which encourage the people of Israel to keep the commandments of God. In this sense, holiness is something to be worked out. The odd thing is that, despite the difference in declarative versus progressive understandings of holiness, the exact same Hebrew word is used. This signifies that a full understanding of holiness must incorporate both an understanding of being declared holy and set apart, as well as being conformed to a God-given standard of conduct.
As Christians it is clear in the New Testament that works of the Law can not save. Only the work of Christ is able to accomplish salvation, and it is applied as the result of faith alone:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV)
But, even such well known passages as Ephesians 2:8-10 don’t leave room to wonder about whether progressive holiness is necessary. Ephesians 2:10 is crystal clear that the Christian is expected to “walk in” the “good works, which God prepared.” This idea is further reinforced by 1 Peter 1:15-16 and other New Testament passages that expect holiness in connection with the conduct of the believer.
So, the call for the Christian to be holy is inescapable. But, what is the standard the believer is to use to examine their walk? Paul encourages the Galatians to “not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1 ESV). In that context he is explicitly referencing circumcision, but he is clear that submission to even that one tenet of the Law makes the believer “obligated to keep the whole law” (Galatians 5:3 ESV). So, if the Law is not the standard the believer is to adhere to, what is? That is the question we will take up in “Holiness and the Law of Christ – Thinking About Holiness Part 2.”