Holiness is a word that I did not initially have on my list of words to feature as "Bible Vocab". I thought that it was a word that was pretty easy to understand. While I think most of us have a concept of what the word holiness means, do we really grasp it? Do we really understand the scope of it? These thoughts came to mind as I was preparing the sermon for February 19, 2017 and read Leviticus 19:2 where it says "Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy". Preparing a sermon on this really caused me to ponder what exactly the word holiness means.
As part of the sermon preparation process I looked up the word holy in English dictionaries and Bible dictionaries. The idea of purity and righteousness was in those definitions but what I found to be most important in the definitions was the idea of being set apart. When we think about the idea of God's holiness and righteousness it is so much deeper than our human understanding of holiness. If we were to see someone as holy we would think that they had kept certain rules or that they were more "spiritual" than other people. While that may be accurate it only begins to scratch the surface of what holiness is.
The concept of God can be difficult for us. We cannot even begin to fathom his vastness and his majesty. We have a hard enough time fathoming back to the founding of our country much less understanding a God who is eternal and without beginning or end. Grasping the distance from sea to shining sea in the United States is difficult to get our minds around. How much more difficult it is to even begin to understand the distance to the stars in the night sky. Just like our limited understanding of time or distance we also have a truly limited understanding of God's holiness. We can fathom someone who is morally strong but the idea of perfect holiness is truly out of our grasp. God is perfect in every way. He does not lie. He speaks and it is truth. That is just the beginning of it though. Humans can surely keep the commands of God but often we succumb to tempation. Even if we don't act out some of the sins we are tempted with we often succumb to the temptations in our minds. That is not the case with God. He is pure, holy, and just all the time. He is completely other and set apart from creation by his holiness.
This is both good and bad for us. It is good because that is the kind of God that we want to serve. We do not want a god who is like the tempermental and flawed gods of mythology. A God who is without blemish is how God should be, but that is also a bad thing for us. He is holy and I am not. I am a sinner. I don't deserve to be in the presence of God because my sin is an affront to his perfect holiness. If I were to be in the presence of God as a sinner I would be undone just like Isaiah was. In Isaiah chapter 6 we read about Isaiah being taken into the presence of God. He responds by saying "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" Isaiah understood that God was holy and he was not. He was shaken by the complete holiness of God. In order for Isaiah to be in the presence of God, he needed to be made clean by God. A coal from the fire comes and touches his lips and makes his unclean lips clean.
God and his holiness is what drives us to Jesus Christ. Just like Isaiah we are a people that is unclean and we cannot be in the presence of God without being undone. Jesus took on our flesh and he lived the holy life that we could not live because we were born dead in trespasses and sin. He bore the wrath of God for our sin and we receive perfect righteousness by faith. Because of the work of Jesus for us we are not just forgiven and given a clean slate as though we have never sinned. Instead it is as if we have never sinned AND as if we had perfectly kept the law of God. That is the great exchange and that is why we can say that we are holy as Christians. It isn't a cause to brag because it isn't our righteousness at all. It is Christ's.
This is not a reason for us to go off and do whatever we want. Instead it drives us to be holy ourselves because of what God has done for us in Jesus. We strive to keep God's commands because he has saved me and declared me righteous. That is the proper way to understand our drive for personal holiness. It is living our life in light of God's gifts instead of hoping our good works will earn God's gifts. It isn't a magic formula. Holiness is hard work but you can work on your holiness and personal sanctification knowing that you have received God's gifts in Christ. Your salvation is secure and isn't dependent on you. That is the freedom we have in Christ. The freedom to live a life of holiness knowing we have been declared righteous on account of the work of Jesus for us. That holiness drives us to holy lives.