My friend Dalton probably wouldn’t describe himself as holy, but I see him as a holy man, and I believe God does too. When Dalton came to know Jesus as his Savior while in prison about seven years ago, his life was radically transformed. Now, he’s a part of the Celebrate Recovery leadership team here at Mechanicsburg (Pa.) BIC Church, and in one of our meetings a few months ago, he shared, “When I came to Christ, He instantly freed me from alcohol and an anger problem, but I’ve continued to struggle with chewing tobacco. Recently, I was reading the autobiography of my childhood hero, Steve Borden, a professional wrestler known as Sting, who had also come to faith in Christ. He wrote of his addiction to chewing tobacco and how God had instantly delivered him. I put the book down and prayed, ‘God, if you can do it for Sting, you can do it for me,’ and I was instantly delivered.”
Is my friend holy because he stopped chewing tobacco? No. He is holy because he opens his heart to the power of the resurrected Christ and His work in him. Dalton is holy because he is being transformed into Christ’s likeness.
No more holy rollers
Holiness is not an everyday topic of discussion at the local Starbucks or Tim Horton’s—or in many churches, for that matter. And when the word “holy” does sneak into the conversation, it often has derogatory connotations: holy roller, holy Joe, holy terror. Other times, it’s used in a slang phrase to express less-than-holy surprise: holy cow, holy smoke, holy cats.
Little wonder, then, that a 2006 report from the Barna Research Group on the topic of holiness found that “most adults remain confused, if not daunted, by the concept.” Three out of four respondents said they believe it is possible for someone to become holy, but only half said they know someone they would consider holy. And less than one-fourth would label themselves as “holy.” These percentages are only slightly higher among self-identified Christians. We can conclude, then, that most people, including many Christians, don’t understand holiness, have no personal desire to be holy, and do little to pursue personal holiness. In other words, “holy” is not the sort of label we’re likely to claim for ourselves.
A holy solution
What we need is an antidote for the confusion about holiness that prevails on both sides of the church walls. That antidote is found in sound teachings on the biblical message about holiness and holy living. Holiness is not about the things we do or don’t do. It is first and foremost surrendering one’s life fully to the triune God who has chosen us in love and called us to be His holy people, reflecting His image to our world (Leviticus 26:12, Hebrews 8:10, 1 Peter 2:9). When we truly understand who we are as God’s chosen people, we can give ourselves up to His will and follow His call to “be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44; 1 Peter 1:16).
The call to holy living points us to Jesus. To live in relationship with a holy God requires a remedy for the human struggle with sin. Jesus became our remedy: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). And Jesus not only forgives our sins, but also calls us to live “in Him.” As Paul knew well, this union with Christ, though mysterious, is the key to our growth in holiness. To be holy is to become more like Jesus. He must become our first love, the focus of our attention, the One we worship. As we contemplate His glory—the essence of who Jesus is—we may become transformed more and more into His image.
And when it comes to moral, biblical living, God has given us much more than a set of commandments. He has written His law on the tablets of our hearts by sending His Spirit to live in us: “I will put my spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:27). Drawing from this promise, the BIC Articles of Doctrine and Faith articulate the rich life of faith in this way: “The Spirit-filled life results in a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, inner strength in times of temptation, godly living, and wholehearted service to the Lord. The Holy Spirit produces virtuous character—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These virtues characterize the believer’s walk in the Spirit.”
Growth in holiness engages the will and spiritual disciplines, which makes us more open to God working in our lives. Holiness is not just something we believe, but a lifestyle we practice, a continual decision to invite God to change and guide us. As Paul writes in Philippians 2:13, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” We work out our salvation as God works in us.
Properly understood, then, a holy life is one as God designed it to be. Or as author Richard Foster writes in Streams of Living Water, “Holiness is loving unity with God. It is an ever-expanding openness to the divine center. It is a growing, maturing, freely-given conformity to the will and ways of God. Holiness gives us our truest, fullest humanity. In holiness we become the persons we were created to be.” We discover our true identities when we deny ourselves—when we are crucified with Christ and then become alive in Him.
Living as God’s holy people is about a lot more than personal piety. While it certainly includes moral living, and even a cursory look at the Scriptures confirms that, it is primarily about relationships—with God and with people. So the laboratory for holy living is in the nitty-gritty of life: in our homes, our churches, and our neighborhoods.
Just recently I had a conversation with a young mother of three who was concerned about what her children, husband, and neighbors are seeing in her. She wept over her failure to reflect the image of Christ to her children. She felt grieved by her need to be in control in her home and by her apathy toward her neighbors who don’t know Christ. Yet she was alive with holy desire—desire to live in intimate relationship with Christ and to work out her holiness in relationships. She is on a journey and she is a holy woman.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to this: the call to holy living is not a call to somber or austere living but a call to celebrate life as God intended, living as His holy people and reflecting His glory to the world.