Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control your own body[a] in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:1-7).
Holiness is not a fashionable word in the church today. All too often when the term is uttered people hear “holier-than-thou,” a judgmental form of Christianity that looks down on others who don’t measure up to a certain form of legalism. The Holier-Than-Thou individual turns following Jesus into drudgery focusing on just following the rules, many of those rules being trivial—as the old saying goes, “I don’t drink, smoke, or chew nor go with folks who do.” What it means to pursue holiness is often misunderstood or caricatured into something negative.
It is difficult to read the Bible without seeing that holiness is a major theme in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, the word “holiness” (Hebrew; qādȏš) is found 431 times. In the New Testament, the word (Greek; hagios) is used 200 times. Without even looking at the specific contexts of these two terms, it is clear that holiness is a concern of the biblical writers. Indeed, I suggest that the holiness is not only important for Christians; it is required. The journey of following Jesus is impossible without the pursuit of holiness.
God’s holiness has clear implications for God’s people. “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy (Leviticus 11:44; see also 1 Peter 1:16). As God is set apart from creation, so God’s people Israel in the Old Testament are to be set apart from the other nations of the world. They do that by reflecting the holy ways of God in the world. “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6). Such set apartness does not mean isolation from the other nations; it means a way of life as an alternative to the nations. In their holiness God’s people demonstrate their set apart ways to bear witness to the set apartness of the one true God of Israel in contrast to the false gods of their neighbors. Such holiness becomes an invitation to the nations to worship the God of Israel, to enter into God’s presence that they too may be taught the ways of God.
The importance of holiness is answered by Scripture. The pursuit of holiness is necessary for God’s people. The problem, however, as was stated is that too often what passes for holiness in the church today does not look like the holiness we see in the Bible. Too many believers have experienced in the church, and too many unbelievers have experienced from the church a harmful form of “holiness” that is toxic, hurtful, and unlike divine holiness. Such toxicity too often pushes people away from God instead of fulfilling the vision of Isaiah 2:2-3 where the nations gladly come to the mountain of the Lord that the holy ways of God may be taught to all the world.
In order to understand holiness, we must know that it is inextricably tied to love. Holiness is our loving response to the God who loves us. This holy response can be seen throughout the Bible from beginning to end. Indeed, there is a narrative thread of holy love that runs through Scripture. If we are to love God, we must also love our neighbor. Love for God cannot be had without love for neighbor; and if holiness is our loving response to the God who loves us, then love for neighbor is a necessary part of the holiness package. The biblical writers provide us with no wiggle room on godly neighbor love.
The problem is not holiness itself; it is holiness separated from love. How we demonstrate holiness is just as critical as being holy.