Holiness is not and can never be ankle-length skirts, purity rings, or immersion in Christian media to try to fight against the world. Holiness is so much more than that, and we’ve taught ourselves to settle for the symbols instead of the real thing.
I think it’s time we change that.
I grew up the good girl.
You know the one I’m talking about. I was the girl wearing only dresses in church, the one raising her hand too often in Sunday School to answer the trivia questions. I was the one accused on two separate occasions of having memorized the Bible – both times while still in elementary school.
Just a few days ago, I got rid of the neon nail polish I earned in junior high youth group for memorizing Bible verses, for bringing my Bible, and getting my friends to tag along with me. I look at those prizes, and part of me smiles at the memories, and another part of me cringes – because while I was sincere, I was terribly misled in my faith as a young Christian.
I was always a pleaser – always trying to get good grades in my classes, always trying to help out at church, always trying to say just the right things, to be the first student to lead the Bible Study at youth group, to read my Bible perfectly for 365 days in a row.
And it’s not as though I think any of those things are inherently bad, I’ve just come to see them differently now, as I’ve learned to live out my faith for me, and not because anyone was watching.
As I see it, it all comes down to what our view of holiness is. Is holiness a list we check off, a roster of dos and don’ts for us? Or is holiness something greater than that?
If you’d asked me five years ago what the definition of holiness was, I probably would have tried to spout off something impressive, something I would have thought was biblical. I may have said it means reading what the Bible says and following it exactly. Everything from Genesis to Revelation that even remotely resembled instruction was ours to copy.
When I looked at Jesus, I saw a Savior – but He wasn’t my Savior from the bondage of the Law, in my mind. He saved me from Hell, but required me to be the good girl in return.
Because lip service is pleasing to Him, right? Staying late after church is glorifying to God, right? Reading my Bible before I drink my morning coffee is honorable, right? Raising my hand to rededicate my life to Christ for the seventh time at a youth event is noble, right?
Not in the way most of us approach it.
In pondering holiness, I’ve realized something.
Holiness is something we were created by God to live in — and cursed by our sin to run from.
We talk about the Garden of Eden all the time, blaming our first parents for cursing humanity, for sinning when all they had to do was avoid that one tree. Thanks a lot, Eve, we say sarcastically, when presented with pain in the world as a result of sin.
But something we avoid talking about is this, and that’s the enticement of sin, and the prevalence of temptation in our world. We claim that when Jesus saved us, He washed away our sin and took away the struggle — but that’s only partially true. The struggle is still there, because our old nature, the one in us from the beginning, is still enticed by sin.
Often, as Christians, we have no idea how to deal with this, and so we put rules and regulations in place to try and prevent sin as much as we possibly can. And as much as boundaries are generally good, what we’re really doing is worshiping holiness itself.
We’re neglecting to worship our Savior who was perfect and holy for us because He knew that on our own, we could never be.
But forgetting this, what do we do instead? We make teens sign purity pledges and agree to modesty standards in order to avoid sexual sin — we scare girls into modesty. We teach kids the Ten Commandments in Sunday School, and feed them the underlying message that disobeying any of these is WRONG and BAD and GOD HATES SIN SO MUCH AND YOU BETTER NOT MESS UP. We teach young people that “Courtship is Christian” and “Dating is of the Devil” because we’re scared of doing the wrong thing.
I think we’re afraid of sin, and somehow, we miss the whole “Jesus defeated sin, and death, and overcame the Devil” message in favor of a seemingly safer, “Accept Jesus so you won’t go to Hell, and meanwhile, live a good life.” But this message only instills more fear, more legalism, more public charity but private sin.
And why do we do this? Because we like having control of grace, a concept we cannot wrap our finite minds around. We like thinking that at the end of our lives, we’ll get to Heaven and say to God, “Look at all the things I did for you! Look how clean the life I lived was!”
In our imperfect humanity, there’s something in us that doesn’t want to accept that Jesus’ holiness was enough for us. But instead of putting our feelings about the logic of grace aside, we make holiness into a list, we boycott what we see as evil, we do what we think is right – following all the commandments we’ve found in the Bible. But that’s not holiness, that’s legalism.
We’re too soon forgetting what Christ died for us on the Cross, spilling His precious blood to make us blameless and righteous in the sight of God. And if this isn’t what Christ died for, then what did He die for? He certainly didn’t go to His death a gentle moral teacher, one who came to pacify people by telling them that their works were adequate to win God’s approval.
“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
He came to take our place in the death we deserved, and add His holiness, His goodness, His perfection to our account. And we cannot be righteous apart from Him, no matter how hard we try, how many covenants we sign, how many church events we attend or Christian movies we go see.
In Romans, we read about Israel’s rejection of Christ, and this one passage sums it up so well, this holiness we’re falsely chasing:
“For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.“
Christ fulfilled what we could not. He was holy when we were sinful, faithful when we were unfaithful, good when we were evil, loving when we were unlovable. And He gave that righteousness to us.
2 Corinthians 5:21
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
We have become the righteousness of God. It’s not something we need to work towards, it’s something we must hold our hands out to and simply receive by believing.
And our Christian culture still drills holiness, it does. And they point to verses like the ones in 1 Peter.
1 Peter 1:15-16
“But 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.’”
I don’t disagree with this verse, but I propose a different approach to our pursuit. I propose that we see righteousness and holiness as things to walk in, empowered by the Spirit and energized by the love of Jesus – not terrified of sin.
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
I propose we seek to honor God with our everything because we’re overwhelmed by the magnitude of His grace – not because we’re afraid of Hell.
I propose we learn to listen to the Holy Spirit before we make purity and wholesomeness our idols – and instead, that we worship the only One truly worthy of praise – God.
Not our standards. Not our checklists. Not the boundaries we hide behind to try and avoid the sin that Jesus paid for.
Let us worship God, and let Him lead us as we live lives pleasing to Him – simply because He loves us and we love Him back.