Jack Wisdom is one of the scholars who helped us on The Voice Bible. Recently, I heard him give a talk on holiness and thought we ought to share it. Holiness is an important kingdom quality, but it is often misunderstood. In this guest blog, Jack deconstructs our false notions and replaces it with something more genuine.
The Nexus of Holiness and Mission
by Jack Wisdom
God, the Holy One, calls his people to holiness: “You are to be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). What does that mean? Before I attempt to tackle that question, I want to be very clear about what it does not mean. God is not calling his people to be “holier than thou.” One of the problems with discussing holiness is that Christians, in various ways throughout the history of the church, have managed to give holiness a bad name by being “holier than thou,” by assuming and exuding an attitude of moral superiority based on technical compliance with carefully selected rules and regulations of religiosity. Jesus denounced and ridiculed certain Pharisees and the scribes for their competitive and hyper-technical “holier than thou” approach to holiness, but we—Jesus’ followers—have managed to recapitulate the sins of the Pharisees in the name of Jesus. So, whatever it means to be holy, it does not include being “holier than thou.” We are called to be sanctified, but we are warned against being sanctimonious.
What does it mean for us to be holy? The word holy means “set apart;” to make someone or something holy means to set that person or thing apart for God. Does that mean that we have to disengage from this broken and rebellious world in order to be holy? That seems to have been the strategy of the desert fathers and mothers, who disengaged from the corruption of theRoman Empireand the complacency of the institutional church in order to pursue intimacy with God in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. There is no doubt that some of these men and women knew God well, but many, in their quest for purity, augmented the strategy of disengagement with extreme physical deprivation. For some, the quest for holiness seemed to be based on a very negative view of the physical, the corporeal; the physical body was an enemy to be subdued by the rejection of pleasure and the pursuit of pain. A notable example of this approach to holiness is Simeon Stylites, who deprived himself of food, drink, rest and human companionship by living on top of a pillar for the last 36 years of his life.
The problem with the disengagement strategy is that it cannot be reconciled to the mission of God. The Voice, “who was and is God,” who “remained ever present with the Creator” before “time itself was measured,” did not pursue a strategy of disengagement. “The Voice became flesh and …chose to live alongside us” in the midst of the mess, true Light in the darkness of the broken and rebellious world. Jesus was fully engaged; he performed his first miracle at a festive wedding when he changed water into exceptionally good wine; he ate and drank with notorious sinners; he physically touched those who were deemed to be unclean by the religious authorities; and he did all of this without compromising his holiness.
Jesus is our role model for what it means to be holy. He was set apart for the mission of God. So are we. In his prayer for his people in John 17, Jesus shows us the inextricable link between holiness and mission:“ Just as You sent Me into this world, I am sending them. It is entirely for their benefit that I have set myself apart so that they may be set apart by truth” (John 17:18-19).The context makes the purpose of being set apart very clear: “so that all will know that You sent Me, and You love them” (John 17:21, 23). This is the call to missional holiness: being set apart by grace from the corruption of the world, in order to participate fully and effectively in the mission to redeem the world by God’s love.
In order to understand the call to missional holiness, we must understand several basic biblical principles about holiness.
First, holiness is a gift from God. We are set apart for God’s mission by God’s grace. Jesus died on the cross to make his church holy (Eph. 5: 25-27); he “suffered and bled outside the city walls ofJerusalemto sanctify the people” (Heb. 13:12). Therefore, no one can take pride in holiness as a human achievement based on scrupulous discipline or extreme self-deprivation.
Second, holiness is a struggle. In order to live out (or to live into) the gift of holiness in this broken and rebellious world, we must—each and every day and throughout the day-- say “yes” to God’s grace and say “no” to our disordered desires and the distorted values of this world (Titus 2:11-14). This why we are commanded to respond to God’s mercies by offering “our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice” (Rom.12:1-2).
Third, the pursuit of holiness is not a solitary endeavor for a few heroic individuals. The pursuit of holiness is a communal endeavor. Paul calls Christians "saints" or "holy ones" in the context of the church, as the community of the Holy Spirit; he never calls an individual Christian a "saint." As a people, we are “an order of priests, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). Stanley Hauerwas observes that “Christians are not simply called to do the ‘right thing’, but rather we are expected to be holy. Such holiness is not an individual achievement but comes from being part of a [worshipping] community in which we discover the truth of our lives.”
Many years ago, John Stott eloquently summarized the integral relationship between holiness and mission:
It is one of the great paradoxes of Christian living that the whole church is called (and every member of it) as much to involvement in the world as to separation from it, as much to “worldliness” as to “holiness.” Not to a worldliness which is unholy, nor to a holiness which is unworldly, but to “holy worldliness,” a true separation to God which is lived out in the world—the world which he made and sent his Son to redeem.
Given this nexus between holiness and mission, we must recognize how our lack of holiness may compromise the mission, or disqualify us from participating in the mission. Consider, by way of example, the disturbing reports about the conduct of certain Secret Service agents in Colombia. The Secret Service, of course, has a clearly defined mission: protect the lives of the President of the United States and other high ranking officials. Whatever else may be said about the agents’ choices and actions, there is no doubt that they could have compromised the mission. How could they make such reckless, selfish choices in light of their vital mission? That is a good question, and Congress will no doubt attempt to get to the answer. We—as followers of Jesus who have been set apart for God’s mission to make all things new by love--should be asking a similar question about ourselves: How can we continue to make reckless and selfish choices in light of our vital mission?