Maybe it’s just my background talking, but when I think of holiness the first thing that I think of isn’t God; I immediately think of moral purity, and the importance of being holy as our God is holy so that we can show that we are “set apart” for him. AKA, don’t swear, smoke cigarettes, or hang out at dance halls or pool halls – and most importantly, don’t ever, EVER, even think about sex! Because the value of my witness – nay, the very evidence of my salvation! – rests upon how well I exemplify the “regenerate life”, or “holiness”. I’ve always struggled with this, because it’s exceedingly obvious that the lives of Christians do not instantly become spotless and morally pure the moment they are saved, or even when they start speaking in tongues. I find it interesting that we can put such emphasis on the total depravity of man on one side and then still emphasize complete holiness (in the sense of personal morality) on the other side, all the while repeating that salvation is by grace through faith (and therefore paying little attention to social justice, which falls under “works”).
To repeat: On one hand, we recognize that we’re totally sinful, and that no works we can do will make up for our inherent, unavoidable sinfulness. Because of this, we rejoice that our salvation is based on faith alone. We’re so partial to faith alone as the means of our salvation that we dare not exhort people to good works, because they might become legalistic and think that feeding the poor has earned them their salvation (though as we noted last week, when Jesus talked about “works” he meant the Torah – i.e. empty religious observance). But when it comes to personal morality, we like to expound on the necessity of holiness, with holiness defined as “not sinning”. It’s a reverse-works system: we’re discouraged from doing good works because we don’t want to think that we can earn salvation by them, but at the same time highly discouraged from doing evil works, which could cost us our free salvation! All in all, we’re discouraged from actually DOING anything at all, which is generally quite…discouraging.
So let’s look at holiness. Holiness people love to talk about how being holy means to be “set aside for God”, or “separated”, and it’s true that there’s an element of that in there. In Hebrew there are three terms that we translate as either “separated”, “holy”, or “devoted”. The first term, badal, roughly corresponds to our term “separate”: it refers to things that are physically separated (e.g. in creation God ‘separated’ the light from the darkness, the waters above from the waters below), relating to space between things, and there is a more theoretical sense in which things can be separated, like when you make a distinction between two types of things (e.g. oil and water in the same jar will ‘separate’; a divorced couple is separated even if they eat dinner together at the same table, etc).
The second term, kadosh, also can mean to separate. However, it never refers to physical or spatial separation. It is used to talk about something separated in a non-physical way (like the second example above – e.g. to make something stand out, heterogeny, distinction), but also with a sacred sense – something that is set aside, or separated from the common, for God. God is holy, in that he is separated (not spatially or physically, because God is not physical) from his creation – he is other, uncreated, uncommon. In a similar way (and this is the one that holiness people love to talk about), Israel (and now the Church) is separated or set apart from the rest of the nations, for God. Holiness people will point to all of the regulations in Leviticus and Numbers as physical, outward signs that make Israelites stand out from Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, etc. – like circumcision, and not cutting your hair above the sideburns, and all of these things. Today, they say, a Christian is to stand out, or be noticeably different from the rest of the world, because of the righteous lives we live (as if non-Christians are never righteous?).
The third term, herem, describes things that are irrevocably given over to God, or ‘separated’ to God. Something that is made holy, or has been devoted to God in the sense of kadosh above can also be made common again; if you dedicate your house to the Temple, it is kadosh, but if you buy it back it goes back to common. When something is dedicated irrevocably to God, it can’t become common again; this means that the things that are dedicated this way are completely destroyed, often burned – given irrevocably to God. This is what happened to Jericho and all of its spoils (usually translated as “ban”), and what happens to those who are put to death for capital offences. So in a sense, the ‘unholy’ actions of someone who commits murder or adultery were the grounds for their complete and utter dedication to God (their death), in which they are made ‘holy’ (herem). But holiness preachers never preach that kind of holiness, so we’re left with option #2: kadosh.
The thing that I want to emphasize about kadosh is that Israel was not just separated for God, but they were separated from the surrounding nations by God. In Exodus 19:3-6, God makes a covenant with Israel, and this is what he tells Moses to say to them: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” At first glance (and if you only read this passage and ignored the rest of the book) it looks like it is the people’s obedience to God that makes them a holy nation, or holy. But keep in mind the context: God has initiated covenants with Israel that he does not go back on, regardless of whether Israel follows the covenant or not; remember that the ultimate covenant curse is not the end of the covenant. The covenant is a relationship that is witnessed to by the values of the covenant, as expressed in the 10 Words of Exodus 20. It is this relationship with God that defines the nation of Israel, that sets it apart from the other nations, whether or not they represent that relationship through their personal morality. This relationship with God is initiated by God and upheld by God, not by Israel’s actions. Purification and consecration rituals serve to call the people back to their covenant relationship with God; there is no magic holy water that actually washes sins away, but such rituals rededicate someone to their covenant relationship with the God who forgives and redeems.
All of that to say that it is God who made Israel holy, and it is God who makes Christians holy, entirely by our relationship to him. What we do does bear witness to that holiness, even in a way serving as evidence of our relationship with God, but it doesn’t have anything to do with our salvation, which rests entirely on the grace of God in Jesus Christ. You see, when Israelites sinned, hurting their covenant relationship with God, they had purification rituals that could renew that relationship (or else were subjected to complete relationship with God through herem), but eventually those purification rituals lost the effect of calling people back to true relationship with God, and holiness was lost (because relationship was lost). In the New Covenant, Jesus made sure that that relationship could never be lost. Jesus, acting in our place, was put to death, fully devoted to God (herem). Now by virtue of his devotion to God, you are fully and irrevocably devoted to God, only without the physical death that accompanies it. We are no longer just kadosh, we are also herem, and no amount of sin on our part can revoke that status.
So Christians: stop trying to be holy. Instead, recognize that you ARE holy, irrevocably and by no fault of your own – and then live like it. A subtle distinction perhaps, but a beautiful one. Holiness, like salvation, is a gift of grace in Jesus Christ, so stop trying to earn it. Instead, as it’s been said, “love God, and do what you want.”