The Long Pursuit of Holiness
You're not a bunch of holy freaks, are you? I'm not looking for a church that's full of holy freaks. I want to go to church with normal people, people kinda like me, people who know they gotta get right with God because they messed up last weekend, drank too much, you know... I wouldn't feel at home with holy freaks. (These are the words of Ken, a drop-in visitor to a church in Iowa.)
I recently reread R. C. Sproul's The Holiness of God (outstanding book, and one I highly recommend to each reader). Its treatment of the holy majesty of our God gripped me with the sense of awe and humility that gripped me the first time I read it. And, as before, by the time I reached the last chapter, I was eager once again to be challenged to "be holy, for I am holy," in the words of the Spirit through the Apostle Peter. But the world we live in doesn't understand holiness. I guess we shouldn't expect that it would; the words of Ken, quoted above, give ample testimony to the traditional worldly view of holiness: it's weird, unnatural, out-of-the-ordinary, and is the word used to describe people who are spiritually arrogant, who think they're better than the rest of us.
Some Background on Holiness
Yet God makes abundantly clear that He expects, even demands that His people be holy. In the Old Testament, holiness had several connotations: separation and purity. Purity is a concept most of us understand: there was to be no moral defilement, no corruption through sin. Sin was to be dealt with through cleansing sacrifice. But separation is a notion we tend to struggle with. Throughout the book of Leviticus, for example, you find strange (to our ears) commands like "Do not mate different kinds of animals" and "Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed" and "Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material" (Leviticus 19:19). In graphic and tangible ways, God was identifying His people as separate/holy, to be kept unmixed with the world. They were not to intermarry, to worship other gods, or otherwise to interweave their covenant lives with those practices, values, and people of the cities and regions in which they would live. And to press home the point, specific "separateness" commands were given that applied to plants, animals, and even cloth — dimensions of Israel's daily life that reflected the divine principle. Just as Israel would cease to be what God wanted her to be were she to interweave her life with pagans around her, so hybridization of animals could lead to the formation of animals that were unable to produce offspring. The "life principle" (as Noordtzij calls it in his commentary in the Bible Student's Commentary series) or the created uniqueness of each would be violated.
You may find such commands a bit trivial, but they're not that far different from what we have done in our own lives. I remember that, as a child, our "house rules" for Lord's Day observance (my parents' attempt to "Keep the Sabbath day holy") involved permission to watch a little TV. The only exception: Lassie. Trivial, hairsplitting? Perhaps, but a serious attempt to instill in four boys a set of values, a practice of "separation" from the world, which even then, was assaulting our eyes and ears through the TV.
Pursuing Holiness in the Church
All the above leads me to a most practical and pastoral point. Elders are men charged with the pursuit of holiness in the church, among the people of God! If you don't have the holiness of God's people centered in the crosshairs of your ministry aim, you will never fulfill your duties before the Lord.
Read a couple of passages with me before we proceed:
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for everyone — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
1 Timothy 2:1-2
Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness... Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See to it that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau...
Hebrews 12:10, 14-16
Note the first passage, from Paul's pastoral letter to Timothy. This little letter, along with the second that bears the name, comprise a masterful course for pastoral care, for shepherding, for the work of elders. And in the beginning of the first letter the Apostle makes clear to the young pastor that the focus of his life as a pastor is to be on praying and laboring to shape a people marked by godliness and holiness.
Those words are speaking to you, dear brother elder in Christ's church! You are to pastor people to grow in godliness and unto holiness. You are to pursue both purity and separation from the world among the people entrusted to your care. Because the church is God's, she is to be like Him. Because He is holy, she is to be holy (1 Peter 1:16)!
That's the point of the second passage. First of all, holiness is pursued through discipline. That is to say, holiness is to be actively pursued by elders correcting that which is worldly, by calling the people of God to separate from that which is impure. Secondly, holiness is not merely a nice character trait, but it is a necessity for those who would see God. The writer goes so far as to say that "without holiness no one will see the Lord"! Think about that for yourself. Think about that for your people. Holiness is a non-negotiable!
So, what are you to do about pursuing holiness, specifically? In general, of course, all discipleship, all correction, every rebuke, every admonition, is directly related to the pursuit of holiness. But in the Hebrews passage cited above, there are some specific issues raised that I want to hold before you. You must wrestle, as elders, with whether your eyes are open to them as you oversee the flock. If not, look more closely from now on!
Holiness and the bitter root (v.15). Look closely at this verse. The author sets over against each other the grace of God on the one hand, and the bitter root on the other. Using a picture from agriculture, where a weed's root can spread far and wide and disrupt the good harvest, he portrays the spirit of bitterness as an evil that contradicts God's gracious work and undermines holiness. God's people must be separated from such a spirit; they must be pure in their attitudes toward God and one another.
Look over the flock, brother elders. Do you have people who are bitter about their station in life, their finances, God's provision for them? Do you have folks who are jealous of the blessings of others? Angry and bitter against the Lord because the pastors of the church have had to rebuke them (instead of letting sin "slide")? As elders, entrusted with the pursuit of holiness, you cannot let such bitterness be! You must expose bitterness for what it is: the antithesis of grace. You must expose bitterness as a root that will grow to "cause trouble and defile many" You must not wait for such folks to "settle down"; you must pro-actively confront such a spirit of wickedness. If you do not, you will have a much greater harvest of weeds to deal with later on.
Holiness and sexual immorality (v.16). You might almost get the impression from reading the New Testament that it was directed specifically at our generation! In the New Testament, there are passages about sexual sin in virtually every book; in our society, there are sexual overtones everywhere you look! TV is sexualized in its content, and aggressively and increasingly so. (As I write this, the O.J. Simpson trial is opening. Brutal and vicious sex serves as the backdrop for the violent crime of which he is charged.) Advertising uses sex to sell: clothing drapes bodies suggestively; even restaurants use sex these days (ever hear of the Hooters chain?). And, with this as a societal given, it's no wonder that people who know nothing of the holiness of God, will try to "help" by challenging our age to practice "safe sex."
In such a world, the people of God will face increasing temptations and incredible pressures to sin sexually. You probably have noticed the pastoral reality of that fact in your church and area. More and more those who serve the Lord as pastors will face the horrible reality and painful consequences of sexual sin. The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear: God's people must be marked by a separation from involvement with such sexual sin; they must be pure. Where it has occurred, it must be repented of and stopped! You must pursue that holiness, both with your youth, whom you must call to abstinence before marriage, and with those who are older, whom you must call to fidelity and purity within marriage.
Holiness and heart-priorities (v. 16b). The mention of Esau, who "for a single meal sold his birthright," is not accidental. The writer wants to identify yet another holiness issue, that being the heart-priorities of the people of God. As Esau revealed his heart by revealing what meant most to him, so God's people reveal their heart by showing what matters most to them! As Jesus said: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21).
Serving as elders, the temptation is great to micromanage the details of ethical obedience. We could easily slip into a "moral policeman" mode, challenging people we hear that drink a beer now and again, or chasing down rumors about so and so who was reputedly seen with such and such. There may be some need of that in the pursuit of holiness. But I think it better that you spend your time and focus your energy in a different direction. In short, you must never neglect the heart issues! When you visit in the homes of your people, inquire about their heart priorities. Ask about their goals. Observe from what is visible, and infer from what is implied, just where the individual or family puts the emphasis of their living. Look around you at what they have. Ask about their use of time. Talk about the TV and how it functions in their home and lives. Challenge them if it looks like they have misplaced priorities. Fight for God's people! Don't let people "sell out" like Esau did; don't let them grab for the here and now and lose sight of the eternal. Remember: holiness is at stake, and without it, no one will see the Lord!
I close with one other passage, one that reminds all of us of the big picture. We are to be holy. That means, we are to be different from the world. Ken was right, in one sense: God's holy people are a bit weird. They are nonconformists. They are supposed to be!
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is — his good, pleasing, and perfect will.