Yesterday I blogged on culture-watching and the youth worker. Should we or shouldn’t we? And if we should, how should we? Yes, it can be a dangerous balancing act if we aren’t thinking carefully as we take each step. Each step needs to be grounded in “holiness” . . . the very thing that most people believe should keep them from walking in the first place. But holiness is what should drive us to know and engage the culture, rather than causing us to run from it.
Understanding “holiness” has to start with the only “Holy” one. What does he say in his word about “holiness?” And rather than make the mistake of looking at and interpreting a few isolated verses on the subject, we need to examine the full context of Scripture – examining all the parts of the Bible from start to finish as a comprehensive worldview. What do we find? Stated simply, what follows is a short summary of what the Bible says about holiness.
First, holiness is first and foremost a divine quality. In fact, the word captures the essential nature of God and includes all his other attributes of sovereignty, mercy, awesomeness, separateness, power, wrath, etc. When the Bible speaks of God’s holiness, it means that God and only God is morally perfect, and God and only God is uniquely set apart from all his creation. No one who has ever walked this earth – besides the God-man Jesus – has ever by nature been holy. It’s a truth we affirm every time we sing these words from the great hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”: “Only Thou art holy – there is none beside Thee, perfect in power, in love and purity.”
Second, to be holy is to be set apart by God. We are declared and become holy the moment God, by grace, brings us into a relationship with Himself through Christ. The source of our holiness is Jesus himself, who makes us holy by forgiving our sins. There’s absolutely nothing we can do to make ourselves or anyone else holy. Our holiness, righteousness, and redemption are in Christ. As the writer of Hebrews says, “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb ).
Third, to be holy, is to be consecrated for service to God. We are called to be set apart to serve our Creator. As a result, we are to distance ourselves from the ways and values of the world. . . the believing and doing that marks the ways and values of the world. Even though we are holy in the eyes of God, we continue to struggle with sin – something we all know the reality of all too well. We must prayerfully seek to separate ourselves from sin and hold fast to Christ. To be holy means to be “different.”
Fourth, Jesus is not only the source, but the standard and example of holiness. Holiness is the opposite of sin. That means it’s conformity to the character of God and obedience to his will. We are to actively seek to express our new life in Christ and our holiness by following the example of Christ. To be holy means that we will prayerfully and earnestly strive to avoid sin while reflecting the image of Christ in how we love others both inside and outside the body of Christ. “Holy, Holy, Holy” is the short answer to the great question Dean Borgman insists we ask as we minister in our contemporary culture: “How would Jesus move through the crowd today?”
Fifth, holy people live the will of God, including his call to be in, but not of, the world. This is the great paradox of holiness – that the God who calls us to be “set apart” turns around and tells us to “go into” the sinful and fallen world, both through the example of his Son and the commands of Scripture. We cannot forget that on the night before his death, Jesus prayed the will of his Father for all his disciples in all times and all places: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. . . . As you sent them into the world, I have sent them into the world” (Jn &16, 18). Looking at, listening to, and understanding that world for the sake of the advancement of God’s rule and reign is not a compromise of our holiness. Instead, it is an expression of it. It’s clearly part of the role God’s called us to play in his grand plan of redemption. While our resolve should be to avoid “living” the ways of the world, we are called to live in and understand a world that has its ways. This is the service for which we’ve been set apart. To do otherwise is to keep the Christian faith locked up in the bunker of separation and fear.
Sixth, to be holy doesn’t mean we keep a long list of behavioral do’s and don’ts. Sadly, this is the un-Biblical reality many have adopted simply because that’s what they were taught growing up. This was exactly the problem with the Pharisees. They mistakenly believed that it’s what’s outside a person – rather than what’s inside – that makes him “unclean.” Charles Colson warns us of four problems bred by this view of holiness. First, it limits the scope of true biblical holiness to just a few but not all areas of our lives. We wind up living the “out of” and not the “in” the world, thereby forfeiting our mission influence. Second, we fall into the trap of obeying rules rather than obeying God. Third, the emphasis on rule-keeping leads us to believe that we can be holy through our efforts. And fourth, our “pious efforts” can lead to self-righteousness – an ego-gratifying spirituality that turns holy living into spiritual one-upmanship. The apostle Paul once lived that Pharisaical life. But after experiencing God’s grace on the road to Damascus and coming to a proper understanding of holiness, he referred back to that old way of living as “dung” (Phil 3:8).
Finally, we can’t go places we can’t go. Christ has never called us to deliberately sin in order to engage the world for the sake of the Gospel. If you can’t watch it, listen to it, or read it without falling into sin, then don’t. But don’t fall into the trap of equating temptation with sin. We know that Jesus, our example of holiness, was tempted in every way but did not sin. Being tempted or plagued by evil thoughts isn’t sin. If a lustful or ungodly thought enters our mind and we choose to reject it, we have not sinned. But if we seek out, embrace, or entertain those thoughts for the purpose of pursuing their pleasures, then we’ve fallen into sin. Martin Luther likened the tension to the fact that evil thoughts will come like the birds that fly over our heads all the time. That’s out of our control. What we can and must do is stop them from building nests in our hair. And lest we forget, the one who was tempted in every way but did not sin promises us that we won’t be tempted beyond what we can bear, nor will he leave us without a way out (1 Cor 10:13). Maybe our problem is that we wind up trying to do God’s work (imparting holiness) because we don’t take him at his word.
So now I’ve got a question for you: What are your kids listening to, reading, and watching? For the sake of Christ and the Gospel, maybe you should be listening, reading, and watching right there with them.