A Beginner’s Guide to Holiness

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So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. 15 But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. 16 For the Scriptures say, ‘You must be holy because I am holy.’

1 Peter 1:14-16

Have you noticed how we tend to avoid things that we don’t understand? If there is an idea or concept that we find a bit perplexing, it is tempting to just hurry past it and get on to something more manageable.

Like when a brainy physics professor is describing what a muon is, or how a black hole occurs, you might just shake your head as if you understand what they’re saying, but in reality you haven’t the foggiest idea.

Can someone bring it down to my level, please?

This would describe my past relationship with the concept of holiness. Anytime I read about or heard someone talking about holiness, I was secretly shut down by the whole idea. I would think to myself, “I‘m not sure exactly what holiness is, but if it means what I think it means, it probably is not workable in this day and age.” In my mind I equated holiness with legalism and performance-based religion.

But in reading through the Old Testament book of Leviticus recently, I got a different perspective on holiness. For the first time, I saw holiness as a helpful idea – not a threatening one.

As I read through Leviticus 19, suddenly holiness did not seem as complicated as I previously thought. It became clear that this code of ethical conduct that God laid out for His people was actually very doable, and even helpful at that.

Though this Old Testament list of best practices was later updated and simplified in the New Testament, in its time it was a basic guide on how to honor God and treat people with love – all kinds of people – including old people, young people, blind people, deaf people, related people, or even foreign people. In context, this set of rules was a hands-on and practical description of how to actually “love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 18).

Nothing mysterious or complicated about that.

Keeping it simple, when God says that we are to be holy because He is holy, it just means that we are to be set apart from the world around us. We are to have an outstanding quality about us. Unlike Waldo, or a chameleon that blends into its surroundings, followers of Jesus are to be noticeably and positively different. Rather than conforming to the prevailing attitudes and practices of our culture, we should have a subtle yet distinct “pop” about us (Romans 12:2).

It may help to think of holiness at two basic levels, positional and practical:

  1. Positional holiness simply refers to the holiness that comes from being in relationship with Jesus. It’s a gift and part of the grace package you received at conversion. When you placed your trust in Him, you became holy, or set apart from the world (1 Corinthians 6:11). Whether you feel it or not, or whether you always live up to it or not, you are positioned “in Christ” and that means, among other things, you are holy. Just like the relationship to your biological parents means that you share their DNA, so a relationship with Jesus means that you share in His holiness.
  2. Practical holiness is when we allow our secure position in Christ to influence the way we live. In Him we are already holy, but if we’re honest, we don’t always practice our holiness because we don’t think it would be practical to do so. All too often we are thinking, believing, and acting like everyone else because, let’s face it, there’s a constant pressure to conform. But when we intentionally apply biblical principles in our everyday lives, we are living in the practicality of holiness. This doesn’t mean we walk around in white robes and a perpetual smile. It just means we are actively loving God and loving our neighbor in whatever arena we find ourselves – work, school, home, church, etc.

I like how this teacher once explained holiness:

“Holiness is thus not so much an abstract or mystic idea, as a regulative principle in the everyday lives of men and women. . . . Holiness is thus attained not by flight from the world, nor by monk-like renunciation of human relationships of family or station, but by the spirit in which we fulfill the obligations of life in its simplest and commonest details…”

-J.H. Hertz, Leviticus. London: Oxford University Press, 1932, p. 192

So maybe now is a good time to revisit the idea of holiness? Sure, it sounds a little intimidating at first but the truth is holiness helps. In fact, our world could really use a bit of holiness right about now.

It’s a new day with God. Run with it.

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