I wanna know what love is
I want you to show me
I wanna feel what love is
I know you can show me
Sorry I’ve been missing for a couple of months – somehow stuff got a bit hectic and I dropped the blogging ball (it’s like a normal ball but stripy, and with a handle). Anyway, I’m going to pick up my (so far quite short) series looking at the idea that the secret yearning of our hearts is to be changed to love God and others completely. If you can’t remember what I’m talking about, then you might want to check out my earlier posts.
The temptation when looking at a topic like this is to jump straight in with commandments like ‘you must do this or you must not do that.’ When we do that we miss the point. At the beginning of our journey it is more important to understand the character and the heart of holiness rather than specific commands.
This week I want to look at the character of holiness.
- What is holiness like?
- What are the values that underpin it?
- More than specific ideas, what are the big themes that tie a holy life together?
To do so, I want to focus on the first mention in the Bible of holiness after the stories of the creation of the world. You can find the story in Exodus 4:1-10.
Holiness and Relationship
The story begins with Moses coming across a unique event – fire that is not behaving like normal fire. Suddenly a voice tells him to remove his shoes because the ground is holy.
This is a curious thing when you think about it. There is nothing physically different about this soil. The holiness is not inherent in the soil – the dirt is still dirt. Rather the ground has become holy because God is there.
This is the first and most fundamental value underpinning holiness – it is about relationship.
When we talk about being changed to share in the life and character of Jesus this isn’t, in the first place, about doing or not doing certain things. When we see holiness as primarily as a type of divine scout badge or reward chart, earned by behaving in a certain way, we can appear good but it is only ever skin deep.
Holiness is first and foremost about a relationship with, and a desire for greater intimacy with and knowledge of, God in our lives.
As the great writer on holiness, John Oswalt puts it:
‘“Am I holy?” is the wrong question.’ Far better questions are “Is Jesus’ mind being created in me? Is Jesus being glorified because of my behaviour?…In this way we will de-emphasize ourselves, with our performance and achievements and recognise that everything in us is as a result of his life being lived through us.”
To be holy is to love God and love others, to have a relationship, not to amass credit.
Holiness and Grace
Second we see that holiness is linked with grace.
In our story we have Moses, a man who had failed in every sense – politically he was deposed and rejected; morally, he had become a murderer; socially, he was in exile caring for sheep. There was nothing to recommend him; naturally speaking he deserved to be rejected by God. Yet God comes to find him, without condition, gives him a new purpose and the promise of reconciliation with his people.
We can think of holiness as being focussed on merit – these people are worthy of acceptance and these are not. There is some truth here – holiness does require a response from us. But at a far deeper level, to be holy is to be gracious – to seek out the other and seek their good irrespective of whether they have earned it or what they have done.
God is holy and God is gracious – finding us and bringing us close to him even when we don’t deserve it.
The same is true of us. We can only be holy if we are willing to accept that we do not earn God’s love and his presence – it comes by grace through faith. Moreover, to be holy is to have an attitude of grace towards others.
This doesn’t mean saying that things that are wrong are right. It doesn’t mean going denying that there is any right or wrong. But it does mean being willing show people love and work for their good irrespective of who they are or what they are doing.
Holiness and Compassion.
That brings us to the final characteristic of holiness – compassion. God wants to make Moses holy in order that he can go and help the Israelites. In other words, Moses is shown grace so that in turn he can show grace.
True holiness is not an end in itself; it is there to work for the good of others.
A version of holiness that is not expressed in concern for others is not true holiness. This is written throughout the lives of the great saints of history. It is echoed in Paul’s instructions to the Galatians:
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Those who are holy act for the good of others, building them up, not putting them down.
Again, this doesn’t mean that we are never critical. At times love requires that we are able to correct each other. But it always acts from a desire for the good of the other rather than a desire to make ourselves look good by comparison with another.
Moreover this commitment to the good of others is not a short lived or trivial.
- God does not forget his promises.
- He is faithful, even when we are not.
- He goes on showing compassion, goes on seeking our good, even when we forget or fail him.
There may well be times when God needs to correct us, when he needs to put an end to destructive or harmful behaviour but even as he does it, he is seeking our good and his glory.
True holiness is compassionate and committed to the good of others.
How should we respond to this?
First, I think that it is helpful from time to time to ask what we are pursuing when we think about God. If we have always believed that God’s first desire is that we act differently, then we’re missing the point. God doesn’t want what we can do for him; he wants to know us. That new relationship will produce new behaviour but it is the relationship that comes first. One way to help get our thinking straight is to take some time each day to be quiet for 15 minutes, read a chapter of the gospel and talk with God.
Second, we can find a time to pray and reflect on whether we are behaving with grace towards others. It doesn’t mean approving of everything everyone does. But it does mean treating others with compassion and a commitment to their good which is not conditional upon how they behave.
Finally, some of us may not be not sure whether we are Christians or not, God is not waiting for us to be good enough to come to him. He has come to us in Christ. He has come to offer us restoration, new purpose, acceptance and forgiveness that we often crave. That journey can begin for anyone today by accepting his grace, trusting him, and being baptised.
You can find a book of 9 reflections covering the material I’ll be sharing in these posts by clicking here that can be worked through as part of a small group or on your own. You can also check out our website to hear talks on the same subject.
If you’re interested in reading more, here are some of the resources I have found particularly helpful and which I have used to prepare these articles.
- John Oswalt’s book, Called to Be Holy, is a very helpful study of what holiness means beginning at the start of the Bible and working all the way through to practical questions.
- Tom Oden’s Classic Christianity is huge both in its significance (hint: it should be on every pastor’s bookshelf) and weight (it’s massive). Oden tries to present consensual Christian teaching as broadly and clearly as he can. His section on ancient views of sanctification is very helpful.
- Allan Coppedge’s textbook, Portraits of God: A Biblical Theology of Holiness, is heavy going but has some brilliant insights.
- Let’s Start with Jesus: A New Way of Doing Theology by Dennis Kinlaw is a short and very readable book that has a (correct) emphasis on Jesus as the starting point for everything we know about God.
Finally, Tom Oden’s John Wesley’s Teachings, Volume 2: Christ and Salvation is an excellent introduction to Wesley and his approach.
 I Want to Know What Love Is, Mick Jones, 1984
 John N. Oswalt, Called to be Holy: A Biblical Perspective (Nappannee, IN: Evangel, 1999), p.192
 Galatians 5:14.
Image Credit: Derriel Street Photography
 John N. Oswalt, Called to be Holy (Nappanee, IN: FAP, 1999)
 Oden, Thomas C.. Classic Christianity: Systematic Theology (HarperCollins Kindle Edition, 2009)
 Coppedge, Allan, Portraits of God: A Biblical Theology of Holiness (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2001)
 Kinlaw, Dennis F, Let’s Start with Jesus: A New Way of Doing Theology (Zondervan Kindle Edition, 2005)
 Oden, Thomas C.. John Wesley’s Teachings, Volume 2: Christ and Salvation (Zondervan Kindle Edition, 2012)