The concept of holiness conjures up different images for different Christians. It's pretty abstract to some and as clear as a stone to others. Some see it as an issue of one's moral behavior. Others see it as a measure of Christ-like character. There's probably a lot of truth in both since true Christ-like character would certainly lead to moral behavior. But maybe there's one other aspect that we typically don't associate with holiness — an outward-focused concern and responsibility for others. In fact, W.E. Vine's An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines it as "separation to God, and the conduct befitting those so separated."
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews placed a lot of importance on holiness. He said, "Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness, no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). Sounds essential, doesn't it. William Barclay calls these admonitions the two aims of the Christian — peace and holiness.
Live in peace. A lot of believers I know (and non-believers, for that matter) try adamantly to follow this command. They try to live in harmony with everyone at all costs, including the frequent compromise of many of their own principles and values.
They embrace the buzzword of the postmodern era in which we now live — tolerance. Postmodernism tells us that, since there is no absolute truth, no basis for certainty and therefore no ultimate meaning in life, we can all create our own reality. And since one person's reality is as valid as another's, we need to be tolerant of every reality — unless, of course, that reality is itself intolerant (which is how they see traditional Christianity). We just need to get along. We need to live in peace.
But Barclay points out that the peace referred to here is not simply freedom from trouble, but the presence of a supreme welfare, complete obedience and the highest form of happiness, which only comes from seeking a neighbor's good. Living at peace is supreme care for others, not tolerance of their views for the sake of serenity.
Be holy. There are four root words used by New Testament writers to refer to holiness. The author of Hebrews used hagiasmos, which understands holiness as a process or the result of a process. It is progressive sanctification and consecration. The New English Bible translates it "a holy life." Barclay says it is a Christian's separation from the world — different standards, different conduct, different ideals. It is one's preparation for the presence of God. Each of these authorities sees an external aspect to holiness.
Unfortunately, few Christians I know place the same priority on this half of the Hebrews' injunction as on the first. Personal holiness is viewed more as an option or luxury than as a primary, divinely expected essential of knowing God — especially with regard to its external aspects. They care about others, but they really don't have time to personally see that no one misses the grace of God or that no bitter root (corruptive influence) grows (Heb. 12:15). While many agree that the church's goal should be to see that no one is sexually immoral, they don't see how that is any of their business. And hardly any feel a personal responsibility to see that no one is godless (Heb. 12:16).
These issues are not considered part of being holy. They are external. Personal holiness shouldn't interfere with anyone else, right? Personal holiness is personal, after all. It's concerned with me, not with the welfare of those around me. It wouldn't be right to impose my values on others — even if those values do originate from God.
How did intolerance get such a bad name? In large part, we are a people of faith who have bought into the propaganda of the ungodly world, compromised our own truths in order to live in peace with the heathen, and even accepted the agenda of relativism that has characterized our culture for decades. Statistics today show that the same percentages of Christians participate in immoral practices and behaviors as do nonbelievers. In order to live in peace with all men, we have not held ourselves to be holy, we have not been critical of immorality in our midst and we have allowed many to be godless without any protest. Instead, we have focused inwardly with unrighteous tolerance of the external and said the rest of the world is not our concern.
We are a generation guilty of compromise, guilty of tolerance, guilty of apathy, guilty of ungodliness. We are in serious trouble. A little holiness, both in character and deed, wouldn't hurt.
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