You shall be holy, for I am holy.
Recently Dr. Ed Welch, a man for whose ministry I have great respect and have benefited from immensely, wrote a blog post entitled, “Holiness is not our goal.” I wish to respectfully, and carefully, disagree. I wish to disagree, not so much with the sentiment of his article, to which I can say a hardy amen, but to the title and some of what I think are misunderstandings about holiness, which this article unfortunately propagates.
But first let me express my agreement with a core sentiment of his article. He invites his readers to consider holiness as “progressive nearness” to God. This is an excellent understanding of holiness. Holiness is rightly seen as a relational category and to the extent that Dr. Welch intends to clarify that truth, more power to him. Holiness is in large part a heart that turns to God and away from the world, the flesh and the devil. A mind that delights in the beauty of God. A soul that runs toward the Father’s love, not away from it.
Similarly, his caution against thinking of Christian faith as simply the to-do-lists of Scripture is abundantly correct and helpful. Christ did not call us to a mere external obedience to the Law. Indeed, the Law was never meant to be a list of external to-dos. Jesus made that clear when he declared in his summary that the Law was to be fulfilled by our love for God and neighbor, relational categories.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:37-39 ESV)
While agreeing with these declarations I want to challenge the title of the article and a statement made within it on three points. Dr. Welch writes: “Obedience, however—our growth in holiness—is not our goal. It is only a means to an end.”
1) First, I want to challenge this statement for the simple fact that it appears to contradict Scripture directly, which does, often, tell us to “be holy” and encourages us to pursue holiness as a central goal of the Christian life.
Scripture tells us that God’s goal for us is that we might be holy, that is sanctified.
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Pet. 1:14-16 ESV)
He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him (Eph. 1:4 ESV)
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5:25-27 ESV)
For this is the will of God, your sanctification. (1 Thess. 4:3 ESV)
He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. (Heb. 12:10 ESV)
Likewise, Scripture bids us to passionately pursue holiness as a goal of the Christian life.
Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you. (Lev 20:7-8 ESV)
Now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Rom. 6:19 ESV)
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (2 Cor. 7:1 ESV)
To put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24 ESV)
For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thess. 4:7-8 ESV)
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14 ESV)
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, (2 Pet. 3:11 ESV)
Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” (2Co 6:17-18 ESV)
Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. (2Ti 2:21 ESV)
Now, to be fair, and I do wish to be fair, Dr. Welch does not dismiss holiness, rather he defines it as a by-product of the Christian life, and a good one. I am confident he would readily assent to the emphasis of every verse here. However, I wish to assert, given the abundance of biblical evidence, one ought not to say, “holiness is not our goal.” God declares that he wants us to be holy, Christ died to make us holy, and all of Scripture bids us to become progressively more holy, by the power of Christ united to us, through faith, relying on the grace of Christ extended to us. Holiness, properly understood, is indeed a good summary goal of the Christian life.
2) Second, and perhaps more pointedly Dr. Welch appears to create, or rather propagate a false dichotomy between relational/holiness and obedience/holiness. He is right to say that holiness is a relational category but it is a relational category that also includes obedience and the Law, without contradiction, when they are understood rightly. To become holy is to become like Christ, that is, to restore the image of God in our fallen persons. But what is Christ like? How may we describe his character, his thoughts, and his attitudes? Properly understood the image of God in Christ, to which we are restored is expressed in the Law of God. That is to say, the Law describes in detail for us who Jesus is and we do want to become like Christ. Jesus made a similar point when the said that his life was a fulfillment of the Law of God.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17-19 ESV)
Indeed, Jesus went on to explain that obeying the Law, as God intended it, was never simply a matter of outward conformity to the Law, it always required a heart set free by God to run in the path of the commands. That is, obedience is a relational category too. We cannot obey God unless we obey with love, submission, joy and reverence. Obedience starts in the heart and moves outward into our actions.
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. (Matt. 5:21-22 ESV)
Although in our churches today there is often a tension in our understanding between obedience and love, Jesus did not see it that way—nor did the Apostle John—neither should we.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (Jn. 14:15 ESV)
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (Jn. 15:10 ESV)
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. (1 Jn. 5:3 ESV)
Compare these beautiful statements, which co-join law, obedience, and love, with the contrasts that Dr. Welch draws:
There is a legal structure in so much Christian thought—justification, covenants, guilt, law, obedience—and it can dominate the deeper structure of Scripture.
We would say that there is an unnecessary contrast suggested here between the legal structures of Scripture and its relational structures, when in fact, they are sides of the same coin. Dr. Welch does see this at some points, for he writes “God’s laws, at their best, are instructions about how to be in relationship with him.” Just so. Thus Jesus can join the two seamlessly: love me, keep my commandments, while feeling no need to contrast law and relationship. Holiness is a relational category, but so is obedience, rightly understood, as obedience from a heart of love and faith. As Calvin notes in his Sermons on the Ten Commandments, a series I commend to rightly understand how God’s law is a relational offer of love from God: “All who love God are solely concerned with being obedient to his law and with keeping his Commandments. For these things are inseparably united.”
Hence consider again how Jesus pictures holiness: Holiness is relational and holiness is obedience. They should not be contrasted but harmonized in the Christian mind and heart, truly keeping commandments is loving and true love for God is keeping the commands.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39 ESV)
3) Third, and here I am straining at particulars, but to continue the point made above, I think it will be helpful. Dr. Welch writes: “God’s laws, at their best, are instructions about how to be in relationship with him. What they don’t do is give us good reasons to want to be in relationship with him.”
This again propagates an unbiblical understanding of God’s good intention behind the Law. While it is true that the promises of Scripture and the freedom of the Gospel more clearly show us the love of God for us, which does motivate us to obey, when rightly understood, the Law shows forth God’s love as well and gives us reason to want to be in relationship with him. Rightly understood, we see that the Law of God was given by the loving Father to his children out of his grace and goodness to them. Calvin makes the point in his Sermons on the Ten Commandments, that the Law is a loving accommodation from our Father to us who stoops low in love to explain his will to us in words we can understand. “Thus, in this manner, he descends to us in order that we might have a simple declaration of his will.”
Also, in the very offering of the Law God graciously binds himself to us in Covenant, Calvin again from the Ten Commandment sermon series. “Moreover, when it pleases him by his infinite goodness to enter into a common treaty, and when he mutually binds himself to us without having to do so, when he enumerates that treaty article by article, when he chooses to be our Father and Savior, when he receives us as his flock and his inheritance, let us abide under his protection, filled with its eternal life for us.”
It is true that law may condemn the world, but for the children of God, set free from the Law’s eternal condemnation, the Law becomes a father’s loving guide for how to, as Dr. Welch says, “be in relationship with him.” Apart from God telling us how to relate to him we could not know, so his instructions are not a violation of our relationship with God but rather an invitation to enjoy him and live before him in holiness, enabled to do so by the grace offered in Christ. As Calvin notes in his Commentary on Psalm 119. “The Psalmist again repeats what he had previously stated in different words, that he was so powerfully attracted by the sweetness of the Divine Law, as to have no desire after any other delight.” If the sweetness of the divine law could be known to the Psalmist, how much more for us who know Christ!
In conclusion, it is precisely because we are in relationship with God that we ought to pursue holiness, the two go together well and are in no way opposed to each other. Holiness is relational wholeness with God, relational wholeness with God includes walking in the path of his commands. Calvin was keen on making holiness the passionate pursuit, the goal, of the Christian life. In his Commentary on 2 Cor. 6:18 he writes.
It is no common honor that we are reckoned among the sons of God: it belongs to us in our turn to take care, that we do not show ourselves to be degenerate children to him. For what injury we do to God, if while we call him father, we defile ourselves with abominations of idols! Hence, the thought of the high distinction to which he has elevated us, ought to whet our desire for holiness and purity.
Indeed, being the children of God out to whet our desire for holiness!