Holiness means set apart, to be different. But as I scan the landscape of the church, so often I see sameness with our culture. The divorce rate is the same. People are sleeping together before marriage without so much as a blink of conscience. You see Christians swindling others (one stole our house when we moved to France), believers worshiping at the altar of the almighty dollar, and a push to all to approve every kind of sin in the name of tolerance. Even more gravely, we see syncretism at work in the American church, where our Christianity looks an awful lot like American individualism.
We have conformed to the patterns of this world.
Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity. (Romans 12:2, Phillips)
We’ve preferred the opinions of the masses to the still, quiet voice of the Holy One. We’ve chased popular opinion instead of following the narrow path. We shrink back from calling others to be set apart because it feels just so judgmental. We emphasize grace to the degree that it becomes cheap, doled out for everyone even if they never repent, never acknowledge their grievous sin, never pursue a relationship with Jesus although they say they do.
We have failed to serve the Creator. Instead we herald the created, elevating people above the holy, holy, holy God. (We forget that nowhere in Scripture do we see loving, loving, loving God, or merciful, merciful, merciful God. The triplet of words is reserved for God’s holiness, a strong, important emphasis that we conveniently push to the side.)
We memorize verses on love, grace, compassion and mercy, but this verse seldom reaches our Pinterest boards:
For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:16 NLT
It’s too out-there. Too inconvenient. Too scary. But it is true. And we are called to holiness.
Of course this is not a post about working our way to Jesus. It’s not a rant about how we need to make more rules to prove our piety. Holiness relates to who we are related to. It comes by being conformed to the image of Christ, come what may. And when we pursue Jesus, we will not be popular. The pop culture around us will sometimes malign and despise us because we no longer conform to their view of what is right. In fact, much of what we believe runs in high contrast to what the world values.
The “world” is not what I’m talking about, though. I’m more concerned about the church and its apparent fall from following Jesus. It is within our ranks that we are crumbling, chasing after a New-age inspired, feel-good, no-morality-except-my-truth “gospel” that is actually no gospel at all.
We preach “love” (which I would argue is not love at all) to the extent that we approve of any sin, as long as that sin is in keeping with a person’s desires and identity. We forget Jesus’ cautionary words:
You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. Matthew 7:13-14, NLT
Only a few ever find the narrow way.
We can wear the Christian costume, say the Christian mantra, go to all the hip Christian events, and we can even name the name of Jesus, and yet still miss Him. There’s a huge difference between forcing Jesus to conform to our kingdom than abandoning ourselves to His. Jesus warned his followers of this very problem, and his warning gets back to a lack of holiness, of breaking God’s laws. He says:
“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’ Matthew 7:21-23 NLT
I never knew you, Jesus says.
It seems to be entirely possible for someone to know about Jesus, but not to be known by Him. John 14:21 reminds us that our connection to God is revealed in our obedience to Him and His laws. Jesus said,
“Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me. And because they love me, my Father will love them. And I will love them and reveal myself to each of them.”
Obedience and holiness are out of date though, right? Isn’t the Gospel all about me and my fulfillment? Isn’t about having my best life now, all my dreams realized, and a life of peace and ease? Don’t I get the freedom to choose my own truth, to conform God to my image (or my way I’d like to conjure Him)?
If the Jesus you follow looks like a composite of every cool celebrity, then you are following the wrong Jesus. You’re chasing after an illusion. If the Jesus you follow applauds people for being brave as they unashamedly chase after sin, then you’re following a Jesus made in your image. If the Jesus you follow pats notorious, unrepentant sinners on the back and says, “Hey, that’s cool,” you are following a fun guy at a party, but you’re not following Him.
There are people who name the name of Jesus who are reading this post today who are actively participating in sexual sin. And it seems like no big deal. Everyone around them is participating. EVERYONE. But practicing sexual sin is a big deal, just like any continual and willful disobedience against God is a big deal. In fact, if you are indeed “in Christ,” it should haunt you because the Scripture reminds us that those who love Jesus cannot continue in repetitive sin:
Those who have been born into God’s family do not make a practice of sinning, because God’s life is in them. So they can’t keep on sinning, because they are children of God. 1 John 3:9 NLT
The problem comes when we delude ourselves in any area of our lives where sin runs rampant. We lose our conscience. We can no longer see things clearly. Instead of pursuing Jesus, we pursue our own base desires, and then we join coalitions who applaud our errant choices. We do this to salve our consciences, to make us feel better. But Paul warns us that when this chase happens (chasing after sin instead of pursuing Jesus), God gives us over. Our consciences become corrupt. He allows us to worship people, making them objects of desire. We then replace our desire to live right before Jesus with a desire to have every whim of passion fulfilled. This slippery slope does not end well.
Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. Romans 1:21-25 NLT
This is a wake-us-up reality.
If you’re continually doing things that break the heart of God, God will (in his love for you) allow you to stray farther and farther away. This is because He will not violate your will. The good news is that even in your rebellion, He is like the prodigal’s father, longing for your return. But your return will be delayed if you continue to satisfy only your sexual desires. Paul warns,
Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 NLT
I fear that many preach a soft gospel, one that welcomes people to Jesus without repentance, without remorse. He is the way, the truth, the life, but we, too, must bow our will before Him, subjugating our will to His through the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us the uncanny ability to choose Him and His ways. Again, this is not a pro-bootstrapping post. It’s a post about the importance of our dependence on Him. It’s a post about acknowledging our own inability to walk in a manner worthy of the Gospel. We can’t, in our own strength, live the Christian life. But we can ask for help. We can depend on the Spirit. We can keep choosing to follow after Jesus.
That’s the pathway of holiness: our dependence.
In our crowded, loud world, I fear the voices of those who revere God’s holiness are getting drowned out by little messiahs with myths about our comfort. In contrast, though, we should listen to those who truly preach from God’s word, the whole counsel of Scripture. It’s not convenient. It rattles cages and unsettles lukewarm folk–the very thing Jesus did when He walked this earth. Paul charges,
I solemnly urge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he comes to set up his Kingdom: Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. 2 Timothy 4:1-4 NLT
My prayer in writing this post is that those who are chasing myths will have the scales of their eyes removed so they can see clearly what is the truth of the gospel. Bonhoeffer reminds us that when “Christ bids a man, he bids him come and die.” Dying is not fun. We recently walked through the Lenten season toward the cross, where we see just what Jesus had to endure for the sake of our sin. Going to the cross means death. It means leaving behind the ways we used to live and chasing the heart of God–a God who is holy, holy, holy. It means taking up that cross daily, trusting that resurrection will come, that true, genuine life follows death. Jesus said it best:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. Matthew 16:24 NLT
Yet holiness is not a joyless pursuit. In fact, if you’ve been taught to run after your own paint-by-numbers truth, you have missed out on the genuine joy that comes from finally living for the One who created you. Truth is a person. Truth is Jesus. And Jesus loves you so much, He died for you. He willingly suffered on the cross for you. He conquered death for you, for us. A savior who does that deserves our unashamed allegiance. And our obedience.
We see Jesus in beautiful action when he meets the woman caught in adultery. He does not cast a stone her way, not even a sideways glance. He offers salvation from her dire predicament, and I’m so grateful. I see myself in her–wholly incapable of saving myself. But Jesus doesn’t stop with her rescue. Watch their interaction:
Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” (John 8:10-11 NLT).
Go and sin no more.
Five words that say so much, yet sometimes seem impossible. Jesus rescued her TO something, to a life of obedience and stature. And He does the same for us.
Let’s not forget that when we bow the knee before Jesus, He sends an advocate, a friend, a companion, who empowers us to live right and love well. This Spirit has an adjective before Him, and it is HOLY. If we, indeed, have the Holy Spirit within us, then holiness should be a natural byproduct, a joyful outpouring of our lives.
That’s my prayer today as I finish this post: that the outpouring of our lives would reflect our holy, holy, holy God.