I’m (I’m)
Giving you everything (I give you everything)
All that joy can bring (all that joy can bring)
This I swear (yes I swear)[1]

Introduction

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about the topic of wholeness in our souls or holiness. If you’re interested in catching up you can check out my previous posts on the foundation of holiness (which is God himself)  and the character of holiness (which is grace, mercy and kindness). My basic idea is that holiness sums up not only what we were created to be like but what we wish we were like. To give an obvious example, I don’t know anyone who gets mad with their kids and goes away thinking, ‘yes, that’s definitely who I want to be.’

Today I want to begin to move from looking at God’s holiness to ours.

It is possible to despair even before we start. The temptation is to begin with ‘noone’s perfect’ and in one sense that is obviously true. As St John wrote in 1 John 1:8-9

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Yet Jesus says tells his followers, including John, that they ‘must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’[2]

Jesus seems to feel that it is possible to be ‘perfect’ or ‘complete’. I’m going to argue that this is indeed possible but it means something different from what we expect.

What Does It Mean to Be Holy?

So what do we mean when we talk about being holy? As with watching World Cups, this is a time when it doesn’t help to be English. The idea of perfection or holiness in English conjures up ideas of an absolutely flawless performance – of doing the right thing in every circumstance. That isn’t what the writers of the Bible meant by the term. For them, holiness is not the same as sinlessness or infallibility.

That might seem surprising so let’s think about an example. In 2 Samuel 22:24 King David is recorded as saying that:

I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from guilt.

David then uses the same word to describe God two paragraphs later in v.31:

This God—his way is perfect;
the word of the Lord proves true;
he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.

Anyone who knows the story of David would consider it remarkable to say that David is blameless or perfect just as God is blameless or perfect. David repeatedly sinned. The rest of 2 Samuel relates how he was an adulterer and a murderer as well as a brutal warrior.[3]

Yet he was described as ‘blameless’ or ‘perfect.’

This idea of holiness does not imply that we always do the right thing, that we never make mistakes, or that we are infallible. It doesn’t mean that we are sinless or incapable of sinning. Nor does it mean that we always do what is right. Rather it is about a wholeness of heart towards God and others.

To be holy is to be complete in our love for God, giving ourselves over to him and his will in our lives and decisions. It is a question of the heart.

To put it another way, biblical holiness comes when we are living without reference to deceitful and self-serving motives; when we are given over to doing God’s will and seeking the good of others. This ties in with the idea we find in Jesus’ teaching of being complete – fully given over in our hearts to God.

It is to live completely, to be everything that could be expected of us in our situation.

Ancient Examples

We can see something of this worked out in the lives of two ancient kings.

The first is called Asa and we read about him in 1 Kings 15:1-11.

In many ways, Asa was a good king yet he did not do everything right. He allowed idol worship to carry on in his kingdom that God had specifically forbidden. Yet he was commended for being ‘fully committed’ or ‘whole heartedly devoted’ to God. He was a holy man because his motives and his attitudes were complete, unblemished even if his performance was not perfect.[4]

Our second king was called Amaziah and we read about him in 2 Chronicles 25:1-4.

Amaziah did what was right. His performance was fine – as good as Asa – yet his heart was not whole. He was doing the right things but not from a devotion, love and commitment to God and others.

  • Asa was completely surrendered to God in his situation and Amaziah was not.
  • Asa gave himself as completely as he was able and Amaziah held himself back.
  • Asa did everything he could with what he had and Amaziah did not.

The question is not ‘what is perfect performance?’ but ‘did each of us give ourselves as fully as we are able in the situations in which we found ourselves?’

Jesus

As we might expect, we see this whole hearted surrender to God and other most beautifully illustrated in Jesus’ life. Over and over again Jesus emphasised how completely he chose to surrender his human will to the Father’s. When he was criticised for behaving as if he was God and making himself equal with God, he said:

“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does…By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.[5]

Again, we see this when Jesus was attacked by sceptical religious leaders:

They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father. So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”[6]

In his humanity, Christ’s heart was completely surrendered to his Father in everything. Similarly, his whole life was lived out in love for others:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[7]

Holiness is a question of the heart.

Implications for Us

How should we respond to this?

First this should prompt us to worship and give thanks. God is good and gracious and has come so that we can be complete. He works in us to make us whole hearted and we should rest in that and worship him.

Second, this should inspire us. Holiness, wholeness, perfection are not distant dreams that can never be realised. They are real possibilities for us and that should inspire us and push us forward. We do not have to be this way – Christ has made it possible for us to be perfect in love.

Finally, it should prompt us to renew our prayer that God reveal where our hearts are not whole, where we still act from a place of selfishness and self-regard and seek him for a new heart, to be surrendered to his Spirit, laying down our ‘will’s and our ‘won’t’s to give hearts completely in whatever situation we find ourselves.

Helpful Resources

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[8], 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[9] 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,[10] is heavy going but has some brilliant insights.
  • Let’s Start with Jesus: A New Way of Doing Theology[11] 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[12] is an excellent introduction to Wesley and his approach.

[1] Eliot Kennedy / Jonathan Buck / Victoria Beckham / Geri Halliwell / Melanie Chisholm / Emma Bunton / Melanie Brown © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Peermusic Publishing

[2] Matthew 5:48.

[3] See particularly, 2 Samuel 11-12.

[4] Cp Oswalt, p.51.

[5] John 5:19-23

[6] John 8:27-29

[7] Matthew 20:28

[8] John N. Oswalt, Called to be Holy (Nappanee, IN: FAP, 1999)

[9] Oden, Thomas C.. Classic Christianity: Systematic Theology (HarperCollins Kindle Edition, 2009)

[10] Coppedge, Allan, Portraits of God: A Biblical Theology of Holiness (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2001)

[11] Kinlaw, Dennis F, Let’s Start with Jesus: A New Way of Doing Theology (Zondervan Kindle Edition, 2005)

[12] Oden, Thomas C.. John Wesley’s Teachings, Volume 2: Christ and Salvation (Zondervan Kindle Edition, 2012)

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