I used to think that holiness was a private matter between me and God. Holiness, as I understood, was a list of do’s and don’ts’. It was purely about private actions that filtered down into moral upstanding. Eventually the list of do’s and don’t’s went beyond the Bible’s own admonitions, the fruit of the spirit et cetera, and grew to include what clothes to wear, what movies to see, what music to listen to and what words to use. Eventually I’ll be hold that my tattoo has all but secured my journey to hell.
I used to think that Christian mission began and ended with a zealous call to get people saved. Everything I did with non-believers was to that end. I was trained in Bible College to establish relationships with people and to give someone food for the sole purpose of getting them to trust you enough that they will hear your gospel presentation and get saved. And what happens if they’re not interested in getting saved? The relationship was a disingenuous pretence that you quickly abandon.
Holiness and Mission: Hand in Glove
My views have changed quite radically. I still believe in a need for personal moral character and I believe that a part of our mission is to preach a gospel message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But that pictures (which used to be the complete picture) is dangerously shallow. In reflecting on holiness lately I find myself continually drawn into mission. At first I reacted against this, “that can’t be right, I’m trying to think about holiness, not mission”. But the more I thought about holiness, the more I thought about mission too.
The biblical narrative begins by telling us that God created humans as ikons made to reflect God’s glory into the world. But we messed up. Big time. Ever since. Yet in the Old Testament we are told “be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2). Be like me, God says. Reflect me, my character and actions. Of course the law is there to show us the way, but even in the law we don’t just have commands about moral uprightness, but also of loving our neighbour and feeding the poor. Still, humans have never been able to look at some stone tablets and say, that’s a great example, I’ll do it. We need living examples. The problem was, there were none. Ever.
So God incarnates himself, Jesus Christ, and says here I am, let me show you how. Jesus instructs his disciples to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Later on, Jesus tells one of his disciples, “anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
So God says be like me and let me show you how, then he incarnates himself and does incredible things. He’s not just morally upright, but also socially active as if to say, a part of what it means to be holy is to be socially active. Why? Because holiness is a consequences of divine love. That is why the fruit of the Spirit begins: “Love…” and the great ode to love chapter (1 Cor 13) is a chapter on how to treat your neighbour. That is why when Jesus says, “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, he makes that statement on the heels of this one: “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44).
When holiness is thought of – intentionally or implicitly – as being in a category of its own, the biblical picture becomes distorted and legalism ensues. But when it is thought of in the proper context of love and divine likeness – God’s own character and actions – holiness and mission cannot be separated. In fact, to do so, would be unholy.