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Talk 4 - Holiness

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"Keys to Holy Living"


introduction to holiness

In 1535 Sir Thomas Moore faced death with cheerfulness because he knew he was doing the right thing.  Rather than endorse Henry the Eighth's divorce, Moore chose the path of holiness. The King threw him in the Tower of London but he stood firm. Moore was sentenced to death. He smiled on the scaffold, kissed the executioner, gave him a gold coin, and quipped with a grin, "Don't be afraid, my good man. Take care to do it well, for I have a short neck, and you mustn't ruin your reputation”.

For the Christians the idea of “holiness” is a fundamental one. And not without good reason – holiness is a key concept in the Bible. The Greek word is hagios – the hag family of words occurs nearly 300 times in the New Testament. And of course the idea of holiness is important in the Old Testament – the Hebrew family of words appearing nearly 1 000 times. Almost 1300 times this word “holiness” occurs in the Bible. And the idea of holiness goes well beyond the number of times a word occurs – every biblical author knows that God is holy and by nature we are not. The rift between God and creation is best described in terms of holiness and lack thereof.

The hag family of words – one Greek word for holiness becomes two words in English. We use the words “sanctify” and “holy” as translations of one Greek word. I suppose you could “holify” someone – but we say a person is sanctified – not “holified”. You could speak of a “sanct” person – but we say a “holy” person. One Greek word – one idea – the two English words “sanctification” and “holy”. Now the general idea of “holiness” is that of “separation” or “being set apart”. A person can be holy, an object can be holy, for either one can be set apart for a special purpose. So “holiness” carries the idea of “cut”, “separation” and “apartness”. For example the holy scriptures are words set apart from all other words because they are the words of God.

[I think these ideas come together in modern English in the expression “old hag” – someone rudely says “she’s an old hag”. Pardon me using that expression but its is an example of a hag word - meaning “she’s old and separate, so unlike us” – ]

In the Bible the idea of “holiness’ emerges in four ways: (1) the nature of God. God is holy; (2) the duty of man. People are charged with the task of holiness; (3) the gift of holiness upon the Christian and upon the church; (4) holiness in relation to future glory. Four ideas that come together to describe holiness: the nature of God, the duty of men and women to be holy, the gift of holiness, and holiness in relation to future glory.

We ought not think about holiness without these ideas firmly in our minds. So often Christian people seeking holiness have become self-centered, small minded and conceited, because they think too much about themselves and not enough about God. Some think about holiness in ascetic categories – the denial of meat – abstinence from sex, alcohol, jeans, jazz, jokes, food, rock music, sideburns – abstinence from anything that is enjoyable. Some think of holiness only as a special experience – the Toronto Blessing, the fullness of the Spirit, speaking in tongues, dreams and visions and all sorts of other experiences that make others feel “less spiritual”.

"Before I die I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land," a nineteenth century fellow once said to Mark Twain. "I will climb to the top of Mount Sinai and read the ten commandments aloud”. And Mark Twain replied, “Why don't you stay home and keep them?"

We need to ensure we understand what actions are holy and what actions are not. We will avoid self-deception if we relate our thoughts about sanctification to God’s holy character, and if we relate our thoughts to his holy law by which we are commanded to live. There are four aspects to holiness: the holiness of God, the duty of man, the gift of holiness and the hope of eternal holiness. Time is a little restricting, so this morning we consider the first two points and return to the others at a later time.

the holiness of God

                        infinite superiority

Jim Packer describes the holiness of God in these terms, it is “all that is distinctive and transcendent in the character of the Creator [...] all the brings home to us the infinite distance and difference that there is between him and ourselves. Holiness in this sense means the ‘God-ness’ of God, everything about him that sets him apart from man”.

Most of what the Bible says about the holiness of God is in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 6:3 the angels worship God because he his holy, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory”. Later in Isaiah 40:25 God asks, “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal? says the Holy One”. When the Lord speaks in the Book of Job his otherness breaks through. Job 38:1, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said, ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man, and I will question you, and you shall answer me”. The holiness of God – without the word “holy”.

In the New Testament references to divine holiness are less common, but still there. In John 17:11, Jesus prays, “Holy Father”. The Comforter’s name is the “Holy Spirit” and his name is mentioned almost 100 times. In Rev 4:8, the living creatures are clustered around the throne and day and night they never stop saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come”.

The holiness of God.

When God is called “holy” it points to God as standing above and apart from men and women. God is infinitely superior to his creation. When God is called “holy” it focuses attention on everything in God that makes him a proper object of awe and worship and reverent fear. God’s holiness serves to remind his creatures how un-god-like they really are. God’s holiness refers to his infinite greatness and power, contrasted with the smallness and weakness of ourselves. God’s holiness refers to his perfect purity and uprightness, which contrasts with the unrighteousness and uncleanness of sinful humanity. God’s holiness speaks about his determination to maintain his own righteous rule in the face of resistance and opposition. God’s holiness makes it certain that all sin will eventually receive its due reward.

            judgment on sin

There is therefore a strong connection between God’s holiness and his judgment upon sin. Isaiah 5:16 makes this link, “But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness”. When the holy God asserts himself in righteous judgment against sinners, then he is “sanctified”. When God who is holy passes judgment on sinners his actions truly reflect his character. The holy God shows himself to be holy by his righteous actions. And the glory of God is revealed through these acts of power and justice before men.

Let’s illustrate this from the Book of Ezekiel. In Ezek 38:22, God is speaking about judgment upon the men of Gog. God says, “I will execute judgment with plague and bloodshed; I will pout down torrents of rain, hailstones and burning sulfur on him and on his troops and on the many nations with him”. Not a verse we find particularly attractive. If I did this at home I’d be in all sorts of trouble. The distribution of plague and bloodshed upon sin show God to be holy and righteous – and loving. These acts of judgment reveal God’s glory. Picking up Ezekiel again. God says in verse 33, “And I will show my greatness and my holiness, and I will make myself known in the sight of many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord”. By acting this way – in the way of justly judging sin -  God magnifies his name and he shows himself to be holy.

            the nature of true worship

God sanctifies himself as he reveals his holiness in acts of judgment. We sanctify God when we honour his revelation by lovingly obeying his will. And right here lies a very important point:

The honouring of God’s holiness is the essence of worship.

When we come together to worship God we are honouring his holiness and all that means for our lives. So worship is not entertainment - nor is it a therapy session or self-indulgence – worship is the honouring of God’s name and we do this when we hear his voice and respond in loving obedience. Trust and obey for there’s no other way. 1 John1:5-6 puts it so well, “but if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him (in his holiness): Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (and Jesus walked in loving obedience to the Father).

The honouring of God’s holiness is the essence of worship. Look up 1 Pet 3:15 {pause}, Peter exhorts us, “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord”. The words “set apart” come from that hag word meaning “holy”. Now time for the Armstrong translation, ”Sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts”. This whole section in 1 Peter is about holy living – abstaining from sinful desires, doing good deeds and thereby glorifying God. It’s a section on holiness – and after talking about being holy in the way we relate to the world, and then to one another, the command in 1 Pet 3:15 brings it all together, “Sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts”. We “sanctify” the Lord Jesus by letting him rule over our lives. Our worship services are times when we come together – listening to God’s voice – responding in obedience – honouring his holy name. This honouring of God’s holiness is the essence of true worship.

the holiness of man

            the call to holiness

We can now talk about the holiness of man. Not that we are to imitate God’s infinite power and infinite knowledge – that’s his alone. We are to imitate God’s purity. Holiness is the Bible word for the response we owe God. God has called us into covenant relationship with him through faith in Christ Jesus, and holiness describes the response due to God within this framework. God commands those whom he has separated from other peoples to be his people. God commands that we should separate ourselves from all that displeases him and is contrary to his will. God commands of life of holiness for those who are in relationship with him.

The requirement of holiness goes right to the heart of the Old Testament legal system. Lev 19:1, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy”. Earlier Israel were standing at the base of Mt Sinai, and God says to them in Ex 19:6, “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. And scattered through Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy are reminders through COMMANDS such as this, “You are to be my holy people”.

The New Testament is equally concerned with our holiness. 1 Thess 4:3 couldn’t make it clear, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified”. Now that’s clear – straight to the point! There’s lots of arguments over God’s will, but here it is one sentence! Be sanctified. Be holy for the Lord your God is holy. The demand is for a family likeness: the children of God must be like their Father. This was the demand for Israel – this was achieved by Jesus – we must strive to be like our Heavenly Father. The call to holiness – disassociating ourselves from the practice of sin and devoting ourselves to the life of Christ-likeness. There is therefore a negative side to holiness and a positive side to holiness.

            negative side of holiness

The negative side of holiness is separation from activities that defile. God says to his people, “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people”.

Paul picks up on the implications of this in 1 Cor 6:17, “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. Then I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty”. These references to Isaiah and Ezekiel were written for us. Paul goes on in 2 Cor 7:1, “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God”. The logic is indisputable. God is holy – we are called to be holy. This is a call to purification – a call to separation – a call to be like Jesus – living in the world but separate from the world. It’s a call to be the person described in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers”. It’s a call not to arrogant. For the psalmist says in Ps 5:5, “The arrogant cannot stand in your presence”. Here’s a sample of arrogance, “lies ... deceitfulness ... Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with destruction”.

Holiness is a call to hate sin expressed by active separation from sinful practices. What really defiles is not food, but sin – its helpful to say this as we approach Good Friday. The world is confused. Sales of fish go through the roof on Good Friday – as if holiness is the abstinence of meat on one day of the year. In Hay, the local supermarket sold truck loads of seafood leading up to Good Friday. Few of these people found themselves in church to hear the real message of holiness. As if laying aside meat and eating seafood makes you clean. Jesus demolishes this  nonsense in Mark 7. Food goes into stomach then into the sewer. The state of our heart determines whether or not we are clean  -what comes out not what goes in. I ordered pork for Good Friday.

After Paul speaks about God’s will as our sanctification in 1 Thess 4, immediately he warns against sexual immorality. Though the avoidance of sexual sin is not the whole of holiness, all God’s people need special warning at this point. The state of holiness and the practice of filthiness have nothing to do with one another. [And so, young men and women, be wise as you date one another. Do not sleep together before marriage. Don’t be like the world. Be holy. Control yourself, “for God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life”. Separation from activities that defile.

            positive side of holiness

The positive side to holiness is the desire to live a life which bursts forth qualities of faithfulness, gentleness, good-will, kindness, self-control and uprightness. God has displayed these qualities in his dealings with us. The New Testament stresses that righteousness  - right living - is the pathway to holiness. obedience is the pathway to holiness. So in Eph 4:23 Paul talks about the desire “to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness”. Loving obedience is the pathway to holiness. Holiness is neither a feeling nor an experience, but following the example of Jesus, holiness is a kind of living in which the character of the Father and the Son is mirrored in our outlook and conduct.

This means that a holy person’s life will not centre on material things. Instead there will be a sense of stewardship of all possessions, and a readiness to let them go for the Lord’s sake. Holy people do not undervalue the good things of this world but we refuse to be enslaved to them. We know that keeping up with the Jones is not holiness, even if the Jones go to their church. The holy person lives free from the passion for possessions and avoids self-indulgence. A holy person’s treasure is with God, and there too lies his heart. As Packer says, “The cheerfulness of his disregard of  the world’s scale of values, and the straight-forward, single-minded, enthusiasm of his love for God make him somewhat unnerving company”.

Wesley said that as there is nothing more unchristian than a solitary Christian, so nothing is more contrary to holiness than losing interest in other people. Holy people are committed to the needs of other people. Jesus took special interest in the poor, the obscure and the underprivileged, whom society treated as refuge. This attitude must also be part of our holiness.


The world “holiness” often suggests to people something pale, anemic, withdrawn and aloof. That shows how little people understand the nature of holiness. Scriptural holiness is positive, practical, vibrant and potent – bringing forth a passionate quality that reflects the very nature of God himself. “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”.

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