- I would like to begin a series of studies over the next few weeks in rotation with our Acts study concerning the subject of holiness. Holiness is a characteristic that is often talked about but hardly understood as to how it can be obtained. Too often holiness is considered an attribute of God that is not attainable to man. Holiness is considered something impossible.
- However, our key text for this study is in 1 Peter 1:15-16, “as the One who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; for it is written, be holy, because I am holy.” God has commanded all people to be holy. God’s command for holiness is found under the old covenant and new covenant. So let us consider our need for personal holiness.
I. Holiness Means Separation
A. God’s separation
- Our first step in attaining holiness begins with a proper understanding of what God means when He calls us to be holy. Holiness has been defined in all sorts of ways. Sometimes we have allowed our minds to think of holiness as sinlessness. Perhaps we consider holiness as perfection.
- The first time we come across a strong concept of holiness is in Exodus 3. In this passage we see Moses is shepherding a flock in the wilderness and comes to Horeb. The angel of the Lord appears to Moses as a flame of fire within a bush, yet the bush was not consumed by the fire. In verses 4-5 we read, “When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called out to him from the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ ‘Here I am,’ he answered. ‘Do not come closer,’ He said. ‘Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.'”
- Why was this holy ground? How could ground be considered holy? If Moses had taken a handful of “unholy” ground and compared it with the “holy” ground at the burning bush, would he been able to see a difference? If Moses had traversed this ground last week while shepherding, would the ground have been holy then? Consider for a moment what made this ground holy!
- The only reason the ground where Moses stood was holy was because God had said it was holy. The word “holy” simply means “separate.” God had separated this land from the other parts of the earth as the place where He would reveal Himself to Moses in the burning bush that was not consumed. If God had spoken to Moses at another place, that location would have been holy. The ground did not change its characteristics or organic components. The ground was the same dirt that it always had been. The only way Moses knew that this ground was holy was because God revealed to Moses. The only reason the ground was holy was because God declared it separate from other ground.
B. Holiness requires separation
- Holiness requires separation from one thing and separation to a different thing. The ground that God used to appear to Moses was separated from the rest of the ground of the earth and separated to God for His purpose. Holiness requires division. This is one reason why the word “holy” and its various derivatives are translated with terms like “set apart, dedicated, consecrated, sanctified, and separated.” Holiness is about distinction and division from one thing and separation for or to another thing.
- Suppose the temple priests required a new knife to be used for the preparation of the sacrifices to God. The priest could not merely take a knife from home and start using in the temple sacrifices. The knife may have been separated from the home but it had not been dedicated or separated to God. Further, the knife could not be considered holy to the Lord and remain in the house of the priest. The knife had to not only be separated to God, but it also had to be separated from the common use in the house. Holiness requires subtraction and addition. With this idea in mind, we see that God has called us to abandon our unholy ways and pursue His holy way. Without both actions, holiness is not possible.
- Consider 2 Timothy 2:22, “Flee from youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” In this command we see the dual command of separation. We are to separate ourselves from youthful passions and lusts. But that is not all that is required for holiness. We are to separate ourselves to or dedicate ourselves to righteousness, faith, love, and peace. This is the two-part equation to holiness. Separation from plus separation to equals holiness. We are not holy if we only separate from the youthful passions. Neither are we holy if we only dedicate ourselves to righteousness, faith, love and peace. Both separation from youthful passions and separation to righteousness, faith, love, and peace leads to the holiness of God. When we return to 1 Peter 1:14-16 we see that we are to separate ourselves from the desires of our former ignorance and inappropriate conduct and separate ourselves to Him and appropriate godly conduct.
II. Holiness Has Standards
A. Holiness is only defined by the Lord
- Every culture has some form of holiness which it keeps. Certain actions are considered taboo and improper in a society, while other actions are considered good and acceptable. But this is not the holiness that God is speaking about. Society does not dictate what is holy and what is common. Holiness has high standards.
- I cannot simply say that I dedicate this paper to God and it is no longer part of my common papers. Biblical holiness is specific separation as revealed by the Lord. People can claim to be holy and dedicated to the Lord but that does not make them holy to the Lord. The scriptures are full of illustrations of those who claimed to be holy to the Lord because they declared that their actions were for God yet God condemned them.
- A clear example of this is in Leviticus 10:1-3 with the sacrifice presented by Nadab and Abihu. Nadab and Abihu offered a sacrifice to God which they considered dedicated to God. However, God killed Nadab and Abihu for offering an unholy or unauthorized fire. Verse 3 says, “This is what the Lord meant when He said, by those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.” God defines what is holy and dedicated to God and what is not.
- This is an important lesson that we cannot gloss over too quickly. Too often many in the religious world believe their actions are authorized as long as it is dedicated to the Lord. They seem to think that church bingo parties, church funded golf tournaments, church funded recreation and feedings, and anything else can be considered worship and acceptable to God as long as we simply declare that it is dedicated to God. But this is clearly not the case. Only God has the right to declare what is holy and what is common. Man has no right to make such declarations.
- Further proof of this principle is found in Acts 10. Peter has a vision with all sorts of creatures and God said to Peter, “Rise, kill and eat” (Acts 10:13). “But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:14-15). Peter did not have the right to declare something unholy which God had declared holy. By the same token, we have no right to declare something holy which God has declared unholy. God defines holiness.
- Therefore, attaining holiness is a very simple proposition: do what God says. Since God defines holiness, if we are to be holy as He is holy we must simply do what God says. This is what God said to Israel in Exodus 19:5-6, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This same command is generally reiterated to us in 1 Peter 2:9, where Peter tells us that we are chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation.
B. External holiness alone is unholy
- In Matthew 15:1-9 Jesus drew this clear distinction. First, Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were keeping their own traditions and not following the commands of God. Jesus called them hypocrites, for such was not the holiness of God. But the second point that must be considered is that the external holiness that the Pharisees attempted to keep was also unholy. The reason they were unholy was because their hearts were far from God. In other words, it is possible for a person to do something that the Bible defines as holy or that people believe is holy yet not fulfill biblical holiness.
- When we engage in actions that would seem holy, like prayer, study, and worship attendance, but permit our hearts to remain distant from God or even rebellious to God, we are unholy even though we appear holy to others. We cannot be holy to the Lord unless both our actions and our hearts have been separated from the world and dedicated to God. One without the other is simply to be unholy. A clean heart that does not do what God says is unholy. A person who do what God says yet has an impure heart is also unholy. We must have heart and actions separated from the world and to God to be seen as holy unto the Lord.
Transition: so why are we not holy? If holiness is so basic and essential to the Christian life and is as simply as separation from the unclean and separating to God, why are we constantly defeated in our attempts at holiness? Why does it seem we are losing the battle for personal holiness?
III. Why We Are Not Holy
A. Our attitude toward sin is more self-centered than God-centered
- Often we are more concerned about our own victory over sin than we are about the fact that our sins grieve the heart of God. Many times the only reason we are upset about sin is because we are success-oriented, and not because we know that we have done something offensive to God.
- I believe W.S. Plummer said it well, “We never see sin aright until we see it as against God… All sin is against God in this sense: that it is His law that is broken, His authority that is despised, His government that is set at naught… Pharaoh and Balaam, Saul and Judas each said, ‘I have sinned’; but the returning prodigal said, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before thee’; and David said, ‘Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned.'”
- God wants us to walk in obedience, not personal victory. Obedience is oriented toward God; victory is oriented toward self. One shows a self-centered attitude and the other shows a God-centered attitude. We cannot consistently walk in holiness as long we continue to make sin merely a personal battle. We must realize that we are an abomination to God by our actions. Until we do that we cannot be victorious. God wants us to experience the victory over sin, but that is not the end goal. Personal victory comes as a by-product of obedience. As we concentrate on living an obedient, holy life, we will certainly experience the joy of victory over sin.
B. We must take personal responsibility for holiness
Too often the religious world has tried to impress upon us that true holiness can only come from God and there is nothing one can do to attain it. While holiness is defined by the Lord, as we have noticed, living by faith does not mean that we are to exert no effort at all.
We have a personal responsibility to walk in holiness. We will be judged based upon our choices and decisions in this area. We are not passive participants in this world. We are not victims of sin. We have been empowered by God to choose our course and have the responsibility to walk in holiness. Human nature tells us that we need to blame others for our shortcomings and problems. We see this was done in the very beginning as Adam and Eve blamed everyone else but themselves for their sins. The devil made Eve do it and Eve made Adam do it. Holiness will never come as long as we are laying the blame upon others. No one has caused us to sin. No one is to blame for our condition. Certainly we have been affected by other people’s actions, but we have control over our choices. A denial of this fact will continue to lead us into a life of sinfulness.
C. We do not take sin seriously
- Subconsciously, many have categorized sins into those that are unacceptable and those that are not so bad and perhaps tolerated. But there is a grave problem with our general categorization of sins which causes us to wonder if obedience or disobedience really matters: we are forgetting that God tolerates no sin.
- Consider the problem this way: is the Lord to be obeyed in all things? Is God the holy lawgiver? Are His creatures bound to give complete assent to His will? We cannot categorize sin if we are to live a life of holiness. God has forbidden the action and that is the only category that must be considered. There is no such attitude as “big sins” and “little sins” with God. God forbids the action or allows the action. There is no other way to look at sin.
- We need to take our actions seriously and see the devastating effects of sin if we are going to live in holiness. We must not rationalize our weaknesses as tolerable or generally okay. We are committing sins and God does not find our sins acceptable. When we accept this harsh reality we are now ready to separate ourselves from these actions so we can separate ourselves to the Lord. In future lessons, we will consider in greater detail how we can work to attain the holiness of the Lord.
- But for now, let us consider a few points. First, we must separate from the things of the world and dedicate ourselves to God. Only God can define what is holy and unholy, not us. Second, we need to look at sin as a personal offense to God. Will we see our actions as offensive to God and not merely a person defeat? Will we take personal responsibility for our sins, realizing that we must depend upon God’s grace for what we have done? Will we decide to obey God in all areas of life, no matter what is commanded of us? If so, we have take the first steps down the road to the holiness of God.