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« Three Things the New Pastor Wants Most | Main | 50 Websites on Teaching and Preaching Holiness »

Does the Church Have Any Business Teaching Holiness?

Let’s cut to the chase.  Holiness directly impacts the way we live—and that’s the problem for many of its detractors.  Holiness is a personal change agent that modifies our behavior, informs the way we present ourselves to the world and provides us with a pattern of living to which we must conform.  How invasive it is depends upon how it is perceived and taught by the particular pastor, teacher, preacher, leader or denomination.  Even if holiness is virtually ignored by the leader, it must still have some effect on a believer.  After all, the Bible does plainly say that God is holy.  Nobody with a scintilla of credibility can deny that.

But the next step is intrinsically tied to the first.  If we acknowledge that God is holy, then we must accept the programmer’s Boolean condition that we must be holy.  Conveniently, the Bible does not leave it to us to figure out, but goes ahead and spells it out in 1 Peter 1:16 (KJV). “Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.”  The Old Testament reference is Leviticus 20:7.  The sobering basis for this command is the perverse worship of Molech, a pagan god.  And, in case Israelites justified their behavior by saying that their worship was not connected to Molech, the passage then expands the condemnation to anything else that resembles this wicked behavior.  And the soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards, to go a whoring after them, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people”  Leviticus 20:6 (KJV).

Today, some stiff-arm this holiness idea by claiming that any holiness we have is because God is holy.  They believe, therefore, that if God indwells us, we are holy because He is holy.  Others claim that teaching holiness in any tacit or practical application is an attempt at perfection, and, since no one is perfect, then the entire school of thought is futile.  Still others believe that it is impossible for any flawed human being to be holy; therefore holiness can only be imparted or reckoned.  God, so they say, simply counts us as holy, even though He knows we are not.

These ideas are tantamount to telling students that matriculation guarantees graduation, or informing workers that training for a job is accomplished immediately by getting hired.  Specious claims like these represent an invalid interpretation of Scripture.  If living a holy life was essentially out of reach for born again Christians, or if the very idea of personal holiness was a pipe dream, then the Bible is a bloated, pretentious book of allegories.  The goal of discipleship presupposes a learning curve.  “Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9.  This learning refers to aspects of following God, not just how to do ministry, as the Apostle points out in Ephesians 4:24.  And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.”

Back to the question of whether or not the church has any business teaching holiness.  The inescapable fact is that it IS our business!  This task lies at the very heart of the ministry’s work.  Our mission transcends the go of the gospel; it also mandates teaching.  Moreover, we are given the curriculum to teach, so the content of our message cannot be left to our imagination, our fickle preferences or our personal agenda.  “Preach the word,” Paul said.  He also wrote to Timothy, “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.” 1Timothy 6:3-5 (NIV). 

In terms of visible and tangible application of holiness principles to believers, the Bible contains emphatic teaching on the holiness of the body, mind and spirit.  Many references could be used here, but let’s just look at two.  2 Corinthians 7:1 (KJV) says “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”  Also, the first two verses of Romans 12 nearly cover the entire spectrum.  “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.  And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Romans 12:1-2 (KJV).  The words holiness and holy draw strict parameters around the implication of these Scriptures.  However we define them, their substance may not be summarily dismissed.  They mean something.  And, the meaning we assign to them must conform to the remainder of Scriptures if we are to avoid private interpretation

Indexing holiness to cultural norms or customs alone, as some teach, without any tempering from the Scriptures, leads to unfeasible outcomes for serious believers.  For example, cultural norms of today would put us at complete odds with Paul’s teaching on hair in 1 Corinthians 11:1-15.  Swimwear at almost any beach in the world in our era guts scriptural references to modesty or chastity.  Norms of sexual behavior, body decoration and mutilation, intake of alcoholic beverages and other defilements of the human body are mired in incongruence with the Scriptures.  To use an Old Testament analogy, the response of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego provide believers with the proper response to cultural customs; otherwise, their experiences have little or no value to us in our generation.

It’s demonstrably true that the evolving state of contemporary Christianity closely follows the trends of secular society.  As goes the world, so goes the modern church.  What is the driving force behind this?  Just this:  people today do what is easiest, most convenient or personally preferable.  Biblical holiness, however, never has been nor is it now predicated on ease, convenience or personal preference.  The ancient Hebrews, the early Christians and even the believers of the Ante Nicene age were notorious for conspicuous differences in dress and behavior; even though they suffered and were ridiculed for their stand.  As to the church age, Peter wrote “For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you.” 1 Peter 4:3-4 (KJV) Much later, Tertullian wrote: “You must know that in the eye of perfect, that is Christian modesty, carnal desire of one’s self on the part of others, is not only not to be desired or even expected of you: first, because the study of personal grace as a means of pleasing does not spring from a sound conscience. Why therefore excite towards yourself that evil passion? Why invite that to which you profess yourself a stranger? Second, because we ought not to open a way to temptation, which by their instancy sometimes achieves wickedness which God expels from those who are His. We ought indeed to walk so holily, and with so entire substantiality of faith to be confident and secure in regard to our conscience.”  (Tertullian, Book Two, Chapter Two). 

Attempting to practice Christianity absent the teaching of holiness leads to a false representation of the very nature of God.  His holy nature is juxtaposed against the lewdness, the sexual promiscuity and the carnality of paganism in every venue of Scripture.  To disregard this teaching is to compromise and corrupt our knowledge of God.  Yes, it is true that His holiness is imparted to us, not to relieve us of any obligation to live in holiness, but to incentivize us to do so!  How can we represent a Holy God by living in an unholy fashion?  As absurd as this sounds, that is exactly what some were trying to foist onto the early church.  Paul responded to this error with this passage:  “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”  Romans 6:1-4 (KJV)

Holiness teaching serves two primary purposes.  First, as I explained above, we live holy because holiness is the nature of God.  Second, it functions as a guard rail on a road that borders a steep cliff.  Living in a holy manner shields us from the slippery slope of human nature.  If the leadership of the church fails to teach holy living, the sinful, human nature will continue in or revert back to behaviors that contradict the Bible teachings.  Both the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter were concerned with this possibility.  “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”  Galatians 5:1 (KJV).  Peter expands on this in a much more graphic manner.  For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.” 2 Peter 2:20-22 (KJV).

For the reasons given here, and many more, it is incumbent upon called and anointed Bible teachers to teach the holiness practices that conform to the Scriptures.  We can and should draw lines.  We can and should define gray areas as much as possible.  We can and should confront evil and compromise every place we find it.  The courage to preach holiness must not wither in the face of ridicule, adversity or argument.  I have observed that the same reasons used to justify abandoning the holiness lifestyle is usually employed to depart from sound biblical doctrine as well.  If the whole house may collapse by unraveling holiness teaching, then we must never let it even begin.

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