What do the Sacraments have to do with my Salvation?
By Philip Brown
Holiness. When you hear the word holiness, what comes to mind? Responses from college students in the course Doctrine of Holiness include: “a kind of church that sings traditional hymns,” “a specific set of lifestyle commitments,” “being set apart to God,” “entire sanctification,” and “I don’t know.”
That’s quite the range of ideas! What would you add to that list?
For many, holiness is a ‘have to’ subject not a ‘get to’ subject. By ‘have to’ I have in mind an externally imposed requirement for which we don’t have much heart. A ‘get to’ is something viewed as desirable and enjoyable. How many times have you heard the whine in a child’s voice when they draw out the word “have” in, “Do I have to?” Children don’t generally ask, “Do I have to eat candy?” or “Do I have to go play?” We’re much more likely to hear “Can we go to Grandma’s?” And despite our correction of their use of “can,” they excitedly say, “Oh goody! we get to go to Grandma’s!”
I’d like to explore holiness as a ‘get to’ subject. If that language strikes you as too childish, then we can talk about holiness as privilege and holiness as potential. (Scriptural holiness is a continent too vast to explore in one article. The vast tracts left unexplored are by no means denied or demeaned.)
THE BASIC MEANING OF HOLINESS
Let’s start with defining what we mean by holiness. In Scripture, holiness has as its most basic meaning, “the condition of being set apart to God.” When a thing is set apart to God it is “holy,” and its set-apart-to-God status requires people to view and treat it as special. It is not ordinary and is not to be treated in ordinary ways.
For example, at Creation, God made the seventh day holy (Gen. 2:3). It was set apart from the ordinary days of the week. As a result of its set-apart-to-God status, it was to be treated differently. We receive God’s blessing of rest on this day. That makes it special.
As an aside, it seems worth noting that God’s sanctification (setting apart to Himself) of the seventh day teaches us three things about the holiness of things other than God: 1) holiness is initiated by God; 2) holiness involves relationship with God; and 3) holiness has as its fruit the well-being, the life, the good of the ones encompassed within it. From the very first occurrence of holiness in Scripture, it points toward blessing and benefit, not burden!
When holiness or holy describes places (holy city) or events (a holy convocation) or things (holy bread), it always has this basic sense. When it describes people it can also have this sense. For example, the holy prophets (Luke 1:70), holy angels (rev. 14:10), all firstborn Israelite males are holy (Exod. 13:2), and God made Jeremiah holy (set him apart to Himself) before he was born (Jer. 1:5).
CHRISTIAN HOLINESS FLOWS FROM BEING IN CHRIST
When we were children in Sunday School, we were told that Jesus wants to come into our hearts. This is true. Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23) What a marvelous truth! Christ in us, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27)!
But there’s more to this story than Christ in us. We must be in Christ in order for Christ to be in us. The Scriptures tell us that God chose us “in Christ” before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless (Eph. 1:4). It is “in him” that we have redemption through his blood (Eph. 1:7). It is “in him” that we have obtained an inheritance (Eph. 1:10-11). It is “in him” that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). It is “in him” that we are made alive, raised up with him, and seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:5-6). We are created “in Christ Jesus” for good works (Eph. 2:10). It is “in Christ Jesus” that we who were far off have been brought near by His blood (Eph. 2:13). And, it is “in him” that we have access to the Father by the Spirit (Eph. 2:18). Every spiritual blessing we have as believers flows from being in Christ (Eph. 1:3)!
I was six years old when I asked Jesus to come into my heart. At that young age, I didn’t need to understand everything God was doing for me in that moment. It was enough to know that Jesus had died for my sins and risen again so that I could be forgiven. I asked him to forgive me, and He did! It was years later that I learned that God saved me by uniting me with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4). As a result of that union, it is “no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me and the life that I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Since Jesus is the “Holy One of God” (John 6:69), all those who are united with Him are holy. The Son of God set himself apart to bring salvation so that we would be set apart to God as well (John 17:19). This is why we preach and teach that Christian holiness begins in salvation.
TWO GREAT PRIVILEGES OF BEING HOLY IN CHRIST
God has given those who are set apart to God in Christ an amazing set of privileges! We can’t explore them all in this short space, but I’d like to explore two in particular: citizenship and sonship.
Peter tells us that we “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). Being set apart to God in Christ makes us members of God’s holy nation. In Christ we were transferred out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Col. 2:13). We have turned from the dominion of Satan to the dominion of God (Acts 26:18). Jesus is our king (Psa. 45:6; Heb. 1:8). His law is our light (Isa. 51:4)! His love is unchangeable (Rom. 8:39). All the citizens of this holy nation know the Lord, and some day the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:9).
As members of this holy nation, we are citizens of a kingdom that will never pass away (Dan. 4:34). It will never be relegated to the dust bin of history (Dan. 7:14). It will eventually fill the whole earth (Dan. 2:35). All other kingdoms will pass away and be destroyed (Dan. 2:44). Our citizenship guarantees our participation in the New Heavens and New Earth where God will dwell with us forever (Rev. 21:1-3). In the New Earth, the whole world will know peace and righteousness (Isa. 2:4; 9:7).
You may wonder what difference this holy privilege should make in our day-to-day living. Here’s one: it should keep us from getting angry when the wicked prosper. The Holy Spirit says through David, “Do not fret because of evildoers … Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who carries out wicked schemes. Cease from anger and forsake wrath; do not fret; it leads only to evildoing” (Psalm 37:1, 7-8). As best I can tell, the word translated “fret” means “to heat oneself with anger,” as most commentators note. Regardless, the reason God doesn’t want us to get upset when evildoers prosper is clear: they won’t last forever, but we will.
As citizens of God’s holy nation, we will inherit the earth. God assures his holy people five times in this psalm that they will inherit the land (Psa. 37:9, 11, 22, 29, 34). Jesus repeats and clarifies that the “land” his citizens will inherit is the entire planet (Matt. 5:5; cf. 2 Pet. 3:13). The wicked will be rooted out of the earth. Because we know that ultimately the wicked will be altogether destroyed (Psa. 37:38), we can rest in the LORD and wait patiently for Him (Psa. 37:7). That doesn’t mean we don’t care about justice or politics. But it does mean that we see the present in the light of the future. We set current setbacks in the light of total future victory.
A second privilege of being set apart to God in Christ is the privilege of sonship. Now I know this may sound a bit theologically old hat. You may think, “Doesn’t every Christian know that they are sons of God?” Perhaps. But I wonder how many see a clear connection between sonship and holiness. Because we are holy in the Son, we too are holy sons of God. Our union with the Holy One means that we are all holy brothers and sisters (Heb. 3:1). Our adoption into the Holy Family means Jesus’ Holy Father is our Holy Father. The Father promises to provide for us. The Son promises we can ask the Father in His name and receive good things. The Spirit promises that we have been written into the Father’s will. And perhaps the greatest of present privileges is that the holy sons of God are led by the Holy Spirit of God in freedom from slavery to sin.
THE POTENTIAL OF BEING HOLY IN CHRIST
Being set apart to God in Christ opens amazing potential. In Christ by the Spirit, we are freed from sin (Rom. 6:7). We are dead to sin and alive to God (Rom. 6:2-4). When we reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God and present ourselves as servants of righteousness, we live lives of righteousness (Rom. 6:11-19). We are no longer bound to sin (Rom. 7:4-5). The good that we want to do, we can do. The evil that we do not want, we can resist doing. We are empowered to fulfill the desires of the Spirit and not to fulfill the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).
The potential of holiness highlights another sense of this word. In addition to meaning “set apart to God,” holiness also means “set apart to God by character and behavior that reflects God’s character and behavior.” Because we have been set apart to God in Christ, we have the power by the Spirit to behave the way God behaves. Said another way, union with Christ enables likeness to Christ.
A common American evangelical narrative about holiness is that, despite being born from above and united with Christ, Christians are still just sinners who will not attain holiness until they are in heaven. Jesus denied this narrative when he told those he forgave, “Go and sin no more” (John 5:14; cp. John 8:11). Jesus denied this narrative when he describes believers at Sardis who have not soiled their garments and are worthy to walk with him in white (Rev. 3:4). The apostles deny this narrative in their descriptions of early believers: of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3), good, full of faith and the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:24), and righteous and god-fearing (Acts 10:22).
The apostles deny this narrative in their expectations of believers: stop sinning (1 Cor. 15:34), add to your faith moral excellence and godliness (2 Pet. 1:6-7), “I write these things so that you do not sin” (1 John 2:1). The apostles deny this narrative in calling believers “holy ones” (saints) more than 60 times in the NT. The apostles deny this narrative in their personal testimonies: “I have lived my life before God in all good conscience to this day” (Acts 23:1) and “Our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you” (2 Cor. 1:12).
In Christ by the Spirit there is grace to share God’s character. We have been made partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). God actively disciplines us so that we can share His holiness (Heb. 12:10). We are not yet what we shall be (1 John 3:2; 1 Cor. 13:12), but neither are we what we used to be (1 Pet. 4:3-4). We are being changed from glory to glory by the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18). We are pursuing peace with all men and holiness, i.e., greater and greater likeness to Christ (Heb. 12:14). We are by the Spirit putting to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13). Peter’s command, “Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Pet. 1:15) echoes the command God gave Moses.
Seeking the good of others, i.e., love, seems to lie at the heart of God’s character and behavior. This is why love of God and others is the primary expression of this sense of holiness. “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 19:2) heads a long list of instructions that primarily have to do with how to love other people. Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18) is at the heart of God’s call to be like Him in our behavior. The beautiful truth is that the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead extends his power to us (Eph 1:17-20) to shine as lights in the world, living as blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation (Phil. 2:15)! The same Spirit that filled and led Christ fills and leads us to be diligent to be found by Christ in peace, spotless and blameless (2 Pet. 3:14).
Holiness grants us marvelous privileges. Holiness offers amazing potential. We get to be holy! We get to be a holy nation. We get to be holy sons and holy brothers in the holy family of the Holy Father. We get to live free from the penalty and power of sin. We get to be led and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live holy lives to the glory of God. Thanks be to God for the unspeakable gift of holiness that we have in Christ Jesus our Lord!