The vast majority of Christians are confused by the concept of holiness, George Barna reported last month.[i]
Barna, the eminent Christian demographer and opinion researcher, interviewed 1,003 adults to find out what they knew about holiness. His conclusion: not much!
“The concept of holiness is woven throughout the Bible and is one of the foundational teachings of many Protestant churches,” Barna wrote, but “most adults remain confused, if not daunted, by the concept.”
Barna found that Christians can’t even agree on what “holiness” means, let alone on how they might become holy. “Holiness is a matter embraced by the Christian Church, but it is not one that many Americans adopt as a focal point of their faith development,” he wrote. “This is partly because barely one-third of Americans (35%) contend that ‘God expects you to be holy.’”
How can we come to understand holiness? And once we understand it, how can we be holy?
What Is Holiness?
R.J. Rushdoony’s Leviticus defines the term.[ii] “Holiness means separation, not simply separation from evil but dedication to God. Holiness means morality, but not simply moralism, because it requires morality in obedience to God, not because for us it is the best policy” (p. 54). “The word holy means dedicated, sacred, or separated” (p. 110), and “The opposite of holiness is profanity, the unclean” (p. 203).
Personal holiness, Rushdoony said, “means obedience, keeping God’s commandments or laws … ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’ (John 14:15).”[iii] And in Leviticus, “[H]oliness is attained in the context of this world, in the spheres of community life, work, and action … Our holiness requires our action in this world, in the work of Christ’s Kingdom” (p. 45).
Now we’re getting somewhere. Holiness is dedication to God and action that demonstrates that dedication. We are to be holy because God commands it. “Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
Do we want to obey God’s commandment to be holy? Because if we love Him, we keep His commandments. And we love God because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).
The results of his survey, Barna said, “portray a body of Christians who attend church and read the Bible, but do not understand the concept or significance of holiness, do not personally desire to be holy, and therefore do little if anything to pursue it.”
Why don’t people pursue holiness? Because, said Barna, America’s churches are full of “masses [of people] who claim they love God but who are ignorant about biblical teachings regarding holiness.” You can’t pursue it if you don’t know what it is; and they don’t know because their churches haven’t taught them.
Barna recommended three steps to address the problem: (1) “we must move them away from a ‘cheap grace’ theology”; (2) “replace people’s self-absorption with focus on God and His ways”; and (3) “help them comprehend and accept biblical theology regarding God, Satan, the purposes of life on earth, the nature of spiritual transformation and maturity, and the necessity of bearing spiritual fruit.”
It’s bad enough that we have a sinful nature that insists on rebelling against God, no matter what. St. Paul, in Romans chapter 7, spoke from the heart about his own struggle with sin. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (v. 18).
Paul at least knew what he ought to do and longed to be able to do it. Churchgoers who receive no real teaching don’t even know that much.
We can understand holiness if someone teaches us. Biblically, this teaching and preaching has always been the function of the church. But we will not find the teaching that we need in sermons about politics, church growth, or diversity. There is too much preaching about us, and our “needs” and concerns, and not enough about God and what He expects of us. Ignorance of that is dangerous: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge,” said the prophet Hosea (4:6).
Holiness is not something we can achieve on our own. Rushdoony said, “Man’s salvation and sanctification [the process of becoming holy] are acts of God’s grace, not human effort” (Leviticus, p. 54). Even so, God has said He expects us to act in obedience to His commandments.
Much of that action is centered on our departure from unholy behavior. “[G]o, and sin no more,” Christ told the woman taken in adultery (John 8:11).
But how are we to sin no more? Who can stop sinning?
“The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighteth in his way,” King David wrote. “Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand” (Ps. 37:23–24). We will surely fall into sin again; but if we trust in God and not in ourselves, He will pick us up when we fall.
St. John wrote, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9). And we learn in Hebrews 4:15–16 that in Jesus Christ “we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”
So as hard as it is to be holy, we have the most powerful help that can be imagined, that of Jesus Christ Himself.
Once we understand what holiness is, and rely on God’s power to sanctify us, we can make a real effort to lead holier lives. “How God delivers the thief from his sinful habit is how God will deliver us from ours,” wrote Rev. Christopher Ortiz.[iv]
Because God judges actions, we are to amend our actions in conformity to God’s laws. Putting his trust in God, the thief is to stop stealing: that’s the first step. He is then to take a positive step and start working for a living. And finally, to go beyond the spiritual break-even point, he is to earn enough money so that he can use the surplus to help someone else who is in need, and so complete his transformation from criminal, and social parasite, to servant of God. This is called “turning outward and putting on the new man” (Ortiz, citing Eph. 4:24).
Is this kind of discipline in daily life hard? Yes. Does it go against the grain of our sinful nature? Yes. But there is nothing too hard for the Lord; and when we have the inevitable relapse into sin, we rely on Him to pick us up, dust us off, and start us moving again toward holiness.
We need to know what God requires of us, and then we need to do it. Our churches have the duty to teach us the first. The Lord will accomplish the second.
[ii] R.J. Rushdoony, Leviticus, (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2005).
[iii] R.J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1994), p. 412.
[iv] “The Way We Are Changed,” Faith for All of Life, Jan.–Feb. 2006.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.