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Holiness — A Fresh Look

Holiness is such a misunderstood subject in the church. For instance, I ran into a believer the other day who argued that wearing dress clothes to church gatherings is a matter of holiness. This is absolutely not true. It may be a matter of common sense if you want to function within a formal group and be accepted, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with holiness.

Holiness refers to absolute purity or wholeness and is an obvious trait of the  Holy Spirit, who is God. It’s also a trait of the human spirit in light of the fact that, when people believe the gospel, they are spiritually reborn by the Holy Spirit. Jesus put it in the clearest terms when he said, “The Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6). This is why Ephesians 4:24 instructs us to put on the new man since it was “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” My point? Holiness is a trait of your spirit, which is why the Bible says:

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. (22) But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation — (23) if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.                                                                                                                                         

Colossians 1:21-23

How is it that believers are holy in God’s sight, without a blemish and free from accusation? Because that’s who we already are in our spirit and God sees us according to our spirit and not our flesh. God only sees our sin when we miss it, but he forgives us and cleanses us as soon as we repent:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. (9) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.                                                                                                                               

1 John 1:8-9

God forgives us as soon as we humbly confess and purifies us from all unrighteousness. If God purifies us from all unrighteousness what’s that make us? Completely righteous in his sight. This is why it’s so important to keep your spiritual arteries free of the clogging of unconfessed sin. When we stubbornly refuse to confess our sins the LORD can’t help but see that sin because we’re not forgiven and cleansed of it. The offense will stand between us and God and prevent his grace from flowing in our lives to some degree. This is why the psalmist said, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). It’s nothing deep.

Think about it like this: say your spouse or close friend sins against you but stubbornly refuses to repent (I’m not talking about something petty). How will this affect your relationship? Warm feelings will cease and it’ll separate you to some degree. Only honest communication will restore the fellowship or, more specifically, repentance and forgiveness. When the offender humbly confesses this releases you to forgive and intimacy is restored. The repentance /forgiveness dynamic is awesome and keeps relationships alive. It keeps marriages, friendships and every other type of relationship functioning. Without the operation of these powerful principles — apologizing and forgiving — very few, if any, relationships would last.

Getting back to holiness, some define holiness as avoiding sin and keeping oneself undefiled by the world. While there’s some truth to this definition as far as human beings go, it doesn’t wash as a full definition. After all, God is repeatedly described as holy in the Scriptures and, in fact, is worshipped for it (Isaiah 6:3 & Revelation 4:8), but God was holy eons before sin ever existed and needed avoided.

I define holiness as “absolute purity” because it’s regularly cited in the Bible as the opposite of what is impure and indecent (see, for example, 1 Thessalonians 4:7, 2 Corinthians 7:1, Hebrews 7:26 & Deuteronomy 23:14).

“Wholeness” is another good definition. Wholeness is single-mindedness or integrity. It’s the opposite of double-mindedness and inner conflict. God is holy — whole — because he has no inner conflict; he doesn’t straddle the fence between good and evil.

Wholeness is the whole of God’s character and therefore refers to all the fruits of the Spirit since the fruits of the Spirit are the very traits of God. Charles Spurgeon put it like this: “Holiness is the harmony of all godly virtues.” With this understanding, consider this passage:

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. (15) But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; (16) for it is written, “Be holy, because I am holy.”                                                                                                            

 1 Peter 1:14-16

As you can see, holiness is described as being the opposite of conforming to the evil desires of the flesh. What is the opposite of conforming to the evil desires of the flesh? Conforming to the good desires of the spirit, which are the fruits of the spirit. All the fruits of the Spirit combined refer to God’s wholeness — the wholeness of his character — which is holiness. My point? Since holiness refers to all the fruits of the Spirit, the more believers put off the flesh and walk in the spirit the more holy they’ll be! When you participate in the divine nature you’ll produce the myriad fruits of the spirit. This is holiness, which is godliness or being like-God. It’s spirituality, which is the spirit-controlled life as opposed to the flesh-ruled life. It’s wholeness of being and purpose rather than double-mindedness. It’s completeness.

In short, walking in the spirit is the key to holiness.

Holiness is the answer to the extremes of legalism and libertinism. You could also call it godliness. The reason I describe it as spirituality is because it’s the most fitting word to describe people who live out of their higher nature and produce the fruits of that nature, the fruit of the spirit.

Common Errors of “Holiness” Teachings

Holiness has unfortunately gotten a bad name over the years due to the infection of legalism in the church and understandably so.

Legalists have enforced their pet rules under the guise of holiness when, actually, the rule in question often has nothing to do with holiness. For instance, playing card games isn’t in and of itself sinful, but it can lead to sin due to the law of association and other factors. In other words, playing card games isn’t wrong, it’s the atmosphere you play the card games in that might corrupt you. It would be for this reason that the Holy Spirit might move a believer to stop playing cards rather than because card games themselves are wrong. Please notice that I said it’s the Holy Spirit who’s supposed to move a person to stop doing something and not the enforcement of a rule by legalists. This means that the person has to have a relationship with God to some degree because otherwise he or she won’t be able to discern the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Focusing on relationship rather than rules is always the best protection against legalism.

The list of absurd “holiness” rules goes on and on — men can’t have long hair, women can’t have short hair, mandatory skirt length, sleeve length, such and such style of music is evil, viewing movies is worldly, etc.

Let’s consider that last one. Legalists will typically denounce all R-rated films, as well as many PG and PG-13 ones, all in the name of holiness. They’ll argue that there are too many sexually explicit (or implied) scenes, violence and cussing, etc. Yet, consider the 1992 version of Last of the Mohicans. It’s R-rated, but it’s one of the most beautiful and moving films you’ll likely ever watch. Yet staunch legalists will automatically denounce it because, after all, it’s R-rated. It must therefore be evil or corrupting. While their motivations for doing this may be sincere, the issue isn’t as black and white as they say. It never occurs to them, for instance, that the Bible is full of hard R-rated stories that are chock-full of incredible violence, sordidness and horror. When confronted with this fact they’re either stunned to silence or will argue that the Bible stories contain important themes or examples. If this is so, can’t filmmakers do the same thing? Take Star Trek: Nemesis, for example. On the surface it’s a serious space adventure, but the subtext explores the conflict of flesh and spirit and the story provides a sacrificial Christ-figure, an android no less!

So the message of the film in question must be considered. If the message is corrupt then I agree, avoid it like the plague. However, if the message is good and corresponds to the truths of human nature and the Bible, it may be worth checking out. Again, there are numerous R-rated stories in the Bible and they’re worth one’s time because they drive home an important lesson while, at the same time, entertain to some degree (and by “entertain” I simply mean capture your attention). King David’s lust over the bathing Bathsheba and his subsequent adultery and murder of her husband is an excellent example. Anyone who’s been a believer for a number of years has read this story many times and visualized it in their minds each time. Many of us have even viewed film versions, like King David with Richard Gere. Is this sinful? No, it’s the Word of God!

Furthermore, did you ever notice that God doesn’t spell-out the messages in a lot of these stories? There’s often an amount of ambiguity that requires reflection and further pursuit for answers. Those who have “ears to hear” will put in the effort while others won’t. Take the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar from Genesis 38. Judah unjustly blamed the death of his two sons on Tamar and essentially condemned her to childless widowhood. Tamar understood her father-in-law’s fleshly weaknesses and used it to her advantage in a story so sordid it’d be right at home next to any hard R-rated melodrama. Interestingly, God doesn’t spell out the lessons in the story. Judah’s hypocrisy is revealed but, at the same time, he should be commended for his honest repentance when confronted with the truth. Tamar’s tactics to escape being a childless widow reveal shrewdness — it guaranteed her security for the future — but does this justify her insidious actions? The Bible doesn’t spell-out the answers. Or take Samson from Judges 13-16. Samson is honored in the New Testament’s “Hall of Faith” chapter for his great faith (that is, Hebrews 11), but if you read his story it’s clear that he’s not an example of godliness or wisdom. Again, God refuses to spell everything out for the reader. These stories are fascinating, but they make you scratch your head. They provoke you to mine them for gems of insight.

The best stories do this and so do the best films. One Flew Over a Cockoo’s Nest is an excellent example. It’s a subtle but ingenious denouncement of legalism and praise of the spirit of freedom.*

*NOTE: The protagonist of the movie is McMurphy (Nicholson), despite his obvious flaws. Although he’s impulsive and has a weakness for the female gender (like Samson and King David), which got him into prison in the first place, he definitely has a spirit of freedom & life and inspires great love in the men of his ward. If there’s any doubt, note how Chief (Will Sampson) dearly hugs him at the end. McMurphy’s problem is that he needs to learn wisdom; then he can walk in his freedom without causing unnecessary harm to himself and others.

Yet some Christians may find the pull-no-punches realities of a mental ward too unpleasant to watch, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s not a pleasant film, but please don’t take the legalistic attitude that it’s an immoral film. Even though immorality is depicted, nothing could be further from the truth.

I said above that a movie may be worth checking out if the message is good. This shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that a story has to have a happy ending in order to be worthwhile. The stories of Judas Iscariot and King Saul and the prophecy of the white throne judgment in Revelation don’t have happy endings, but they each drive home a powerful truth — the wages of sin is death.

Also, I’m not saying that a film always has to have a deep moral to be watchable. What if you’re in the mood for something light or amusing in the name of rest and recreation? Sloth is of the flesh, of course, but R&R is necessary and healthy, as long as it doesn’t become an idol. Doesn’t the Bible say “There’s a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4)? What about Deuteronomy 14:26? Balance is the key.

These are just matters of common sense, but legalists will take the simplest of things and complicate them to no end.

Distinguishing Holiness and Worldliness

Religionists go awry with their “holiness” teachings because they lose sight of what the Bible itself calls worldly. Worldliness is any sin that springs from three things: the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life (1 John 2:15-17). With this understanding, a lot of activities or behaviors are only worldly depending upon the intent of the person’s heart. For example, two females might wear the exact same scanty apparel, but one does it merely because it’s the style she grew up with and the other does it to incite lust. I’m not saying that the former girl shouldn’t learn to dress more modestly, which is a matter of wisdom, but she’s not guilty of worldliness if her intentions are pure and she simply doesn’t know any better. The intent of the heart makes all the difference. Even something considered good can be worldly if the intent of the heart is fleshly. Giving a sermon is good, but what if the pastor uses the occasion to brag on himself and tear down others? Ministering at a revival is good, but what if the evangelist’s main interest is fleecing the flock and making a lot of moolah from the gig? Both the pastor and the evangelist are guilty of worldliness even though they’re doing something good.

Another thing that should be stressed is that holiness is different for each believer depending on what their weaknesses are. For instance, one man can watch a TV show like Survivor where there are numerous women in scanty apparel while another can’t because he has a lust problem and can’t risk stirring it up. One woman can enjoy a glass of wine but another can’t because she’s an alcoholic. One guy can listen to a certain style of music on occasion but another can’t because he has no sense of balance. One woman can enjoy the shopping channel but another can’t because she’s a shopaholic. One man can go boating or play golf, but another can’t because he idolizes the activity. Believers who decide not to do these activities do so because they know their weaknesses and are guarding their heart as the wellspring of life (Proverbs 4:23).

Holiness is also different for believers depending on where they’re at spiritually and what the Holy Spirit has instructed them. For instance, one brother may have been instructed by the Lord to give up watching football on Sunday afternoon to use the time to draw closer to Him, but another brother hasn’t been given any such instruction.

One of my sisters is a very godly woman but she enjoys a glass of wine now and then. She told me last year that the Lord told her not to drink wine for three weeks and she complied. The Lord may have instructed her to do this just to stay freed-up and focus on him. After all, anything can become an addiction, which is a habit you can’t live without. This is why it’s good to periodically fast from certain things, particularly if you discern bondage setting in, however slight. Nip it in the bud and fast from it. Carol & I have taken long fasts from TV for this very reason. You can do this with any activity – computer games, fishing, golf, watching sports, going to certain establishments, etc. Be sensitive to the leading of the Spirit and periodically fast from anything you have an affinity for so that it doesn’t become a bondage. Why? Because when something becomes a bondage you’re no longer walking in freedom. It’s being double-minded rather than single-minded or whole, which is holiness. As such, it’s being imbalanced because you’ve lost self-control in this one area. The spiritual man or woman, by contrast, is “temperate in all things” (1 Corinthians 9:25), which means they maintain self-control in every area of their lives.

Holiness is also a matter of spiritual growth. What may be acceptable for one may not be acceptable for someone who’s more mature. A brother recently encouraged me to view a certain movie about vigilantism that he claimed had a spiritual subtext. I tried to view it but couldn’t even finish it because it was so repugnant. I’m willing to watch a film that shows brutal reality if it drives home an important theme, like many stories in the Bible, but I didn’t discern any depth to this particular film and everything was just cartoony overkill – the style, the cussing, the violence. It just struck me as goofy, shallow and vile; a complete waste of my time. Yet this brother strongly recommended it; go figure.

Everything shared in this section will rock the boat of legalists because they only think in terms of black and white. If something’s wrong for brother Joe it must also be wrong for everyone else. If something’s okay for sister Suzy it must also be okay for everyone else. This is true when it comes to black and white matters. For instance, adultery, murder, envy, slander and homosexuality are always wrong. But it’s a different story when it comes to issues like the ones covered in this section. These things are right or wrong for the believer based on factors like the intent of the heart, the believer’s weaknesses and strengths, their level of spiritual maturity, the counsel of the Holy Spirit and keeping free of potential bondages.


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 This article was edited from Legalism Unmasked, which you can purchase here for just over $10 (292 pages); or get the Kindle eBook for only $2.99!

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