It is axiomatic with God that He never commands men to do anything at all which is outside the capability of human achievement. He may, at times, put before mankind a goal, as He did in the Law, setting out a standard of righteousness which would be acceptable to Him if attained, knowing very well that no man would ever succeed in this, even though Israel announced their willingness (and by inference their ability) to keep the Law. Paul in Romans explains clearly the impossibility of satisfactory Law-keeping, and although men speak loosely of "the ten commandments" these are, in fact, "the ten words" or principles demanded by God in any man who sought to attain to a righteous standard before Him. All men, apart from Christ, always failed in the attainment.
But, apart from Law, God has given a command to all who believe Him, and it is framed in such a manner, and has sufficient supporting evidence, to indicate that it is entirely capable of being obeyed by all who receive it. And this command is—to be holy.
So long as we think that the term HOLY has the same meaning as the word RIGHTEOUS we are bound to consider such a state as being outside the realm of possibility for most of us, and this is where we must consider the actual meaning of the phrase as it is used by God, instead of attributing to it a meaning which it has acquired by purely human usage. If the word holiness when used by religious speakers and writers always meant exactly what it means when used in the Scriptures, a great advance in general Christian understanding would result, for the thought of sanctification inherent in the term is something which every believer has a deep desire for—to be truly sanctified to God.
We take up this theme because, since according to the Apostle Paul, the gospel is God's power for salvation unto all who believe, then any misunderstanding of it must entail a loss of one kind or another, and would account for some of the strange doctrines which exist under the term "holiness teaching."
If we wish to truly understand the Scriptures we must do our utmost to assign to all of the words used by God the same meaning, as far as possible, as that in which He uses them. This does not always imply that we may find His meaning of a word by reference to a modern dictionary, for any dictionary will explain a theological term in the sense in which it is used by theologians, and if this use is incorrect, the compilers of a dictionary are in no position to correct it. Unfortunately, as we well know, it is quite possible for theologians to assume a meaning for a Scriptural phrase which is quite inaccurate ... and then make expositions based on their erroneous assumptions. And when we come to consider holiness we find that the theologians have given various and differing meanings to the word. The compilers of our dictionaries have to choose from these differing meanings in order to provide us with a definition. For instance, one of my own dictionaries reads "holiness, n. the state or quality of being holy; freedom from sin; moral and spiritual purity; sacredness; a title of the Pope." Now none of these definitions give us any true conception of what God means by holiness, and we shall find, if we compare Scripture usages, that there is a definition (among the many) which expresses exactly the meaning which God assigns to this word. It is this: The state of anything hallowed or consecrated to God or to His worship.
Unfortunately, the incorrect definition "moral and spiritual purity", which I have quoted from my dictionary, is the most universally accepted meaning which people attach to the word, and since it is evident that at present we do not possess moral and spiritual purity in perfection, this has led to the prevalent idea that no believer can be a saint until, in the final phase of salvation, he or she becomes glorified. From this misconception springs the Roman Catholic "system" which designates persons as saints only after they have died, and have been "beatified"and if it can be shown that miracles have been performed by their intercession—all typical rubbish.
Christians generally are very reluctant to believe the inspired writers of the Scriptures by whom all believers are called saints. How many times do you hear a fellow Christian observe "I'm no saint;" a laudable modesty perhaps, because they mean that they cannot lay claim to moral and spiritual purity, but God says they ARE saints, meaning that they are His. He claims every one of us as His own, and we are sanctified in Christ Jesus. This makes us holy and we should be dedicated to Him, as He, in His abounding grace is Holy and has committed Himself without reserve to us. Which is a stupendous thought!
And it must be noted that the changeless name of every believer before God is saint .... the name is given to all, regardless of the degree of our faith, the extent of our knowledge, or the worthiness or otherwise of our character. We are saints because of our calling, "called saints" as Paul writes in Romans 1:6. And if we heed the command "Be ye holy as I am holy" then our walk should become worthy of our calling. We may then become manifestations of the beauty of holiness!
It should clarify our understanding to realise that our holiness is in our relationship to God, not in our moral and spiritual qualities. God has called us, and we should be set apart for His use—this makes us holy. Like all coins, this one has a reverse side, since it is usual for whatever is "set apart" for some particular use to be thereby separated from other uses. Since our sainthood gives us this special relationship to God, making us His, it must also result in our separation from the things that are contrary to Him; thus to separation from sin so far as we are able, and this is probably why the word in common usage has come to signify moral qualities. In short, the effect has been mistaken for the cause. In Scripture "to hallow" means to devote someone or something to God, and the person or thing thus devoted becomes holy—no change of moral quality is implied at all. Indeed, Scripture often ascribes holiness to things which can have no moral qualities at all—even sometimes to the unbelieving and immoral. Let us then be clear that to sanctify is not to cleanse from sin, but to dedicate to God, be it some ONE or some THING. If we can clearly appreciate this Scriptural fact we shall avoid the misleading theological expositions concerning sanctification.
It may be that someone will object here that since God "Be ye holy as I am holy" the statements made in this paper cannot very well apply to Him; in fact, there could be some uncertainty as to what is meant by the holiness of God, even if we are clear as to what constitutes the holiness of His people. Scripture does not define God's holiness, although there are numerous human descriptions of it. There are no such difficulties about defining God's righteousness or love; there can be no differences between these attributes in Him and in humanity. Therefore there can be no radically different meaning attaching to the term holiness when applied to God from the term when applied to man. Since in man it does not mean his moral and spiritual purity, when applied to God it cannot be referring to His own complete moral excellence. When God says, "ye shall be holy, because I am holy," He must mean that holiness in His saints has some correspondence with something similar in Himself. As we have seen, if He intended to say "You shall have moral and spiritual purity because I have it," then the word saint would not be a true description of any one of us. Taking God's Son as the infallible exponent of His Father, we realise that His holiness did not lie in His undoubted moral perfection, but in His complete and utter devotion to His Father—always, and at all times. So this complete and all-inclusive devotion, the holiness which God has always required of those who are His, corresponds with the complete devotion which God shows to His people. He is the Unfailing God.
In the third chapter of Acts our Lord is described as "the holy and just One," and in Revelation 6:10 "the holy and true," and Exodus 30 describes the incense as "pure and holy" while Paul tells the Ephesians that the saints are to be "holy and flawless." So what is holy may also be just and true and pure and flawless, and these are the usual accompaniments of holiness. But a holy place can be polluted, yet it is still holy; and God, the holy One of Israel, says "I am profaned among them." Profanity is the direct opposite of holiness even as the unclean is the direct opposite of the clean. A profane person or place is one that has not been sanctified to God. And the excuse, if any is needed, for a paper such as this is found in the Hebrew Scriptures in such words as "They shall teach My people the difference between the holy and the profane, and cause them to discern between the clean and the unclean" (Ezek. 44:23)—words which in substance are repeated at least six times in other passages. And WE should know the difference, because we are now God's people, and the effect of holiness is not our moral perfection or purity; it is the condition which results from our being God's people, in response to His claim. And if the effect is, as it should be, separation from sin, then the effect should not be mistaken for the cause. Holiness causes separation from sin, and sanctification leads us towards spiritual perfection, but these things are entirely due to the fact that God has called us to be saints, AND HAS THUS MADE US HOLY.
There is a popular hymn which commences with the words "Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord." Although the second part of the line is wholly admirable, as may be much of the remainder of the hymn, the opening phrase indicates the popular misconception regarding holiness. It is not something we accomplish by taking time, nor can any effort of ours accomplish it. We become holy immediately when God calls us and we respond, thus qualifying for His description, "my saints."
There must be many readers who value the opportunity of detailed Scripture study, and to them we recommend that with the aid of a good concordance they should study the various passages which speak of holiness. There are more than a thousand of them. The books of Moses, particularly those designated Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, which record the redemption and sanctification of the nation of Israel, the making of them into a "holy" nation (because they are His) will show us the true meaning of holiness and consequent sanctification. The claims God makes are clear and definite. "Sanctify to Me the firstborn," He says, "it is mine." We shall see that whatever God claims is designated "holy" and He claims us, as He claimed Israel, on the ground of our redemption. We read that Israel was separated from among all people to be "a holy nation," and we must not overlook the fact that even though Israel is now LO AMMI ("not my people"), there was a remnant of theirs in apostolic days which was called a holy nation (as there will be also a future remnant according to Joel 2:32), and when Peter wrote to the chosen expatriates of the dispersion in his day, he addressed them as just such a "holy nation":—
Our Lord taught the disciples to pray "Hallowed be Thy name," and the phrase is repeated daily without understanding by many of us. But far too often had the Jews profaned the name of God by their idolatries, against the clear instruction of God through Isaiah, an instruction which was also a promise that the house of Jacob "shall sanctify My name; yea, they shall sanctify the Holy One of Jacob." In the same way, when God's saints, His holy ones, are truly sanctified by Him, they in turn sanctify themselves to His name, thus meeting His claim upon them. Israel's idolatry was infidelity on their part, for they stood in a marriage relationship to Jehovah. This was a failure to hallow His name, for which He called them adulterers. Moses and Aaron, who were not allowed to enter the promised land, were denied this because by their unbelief they had failed to hallow or sanctify God before the people.
Israel was a holy nation because it was "the Israel of God" or God's possession, and God is holy because He is Israel's God. The same meaning applies to ourselves; we are holy BECAUSE WE BELONG TO GOD. Yet Paul, although he has much to say about the holiness of those who believe, never once speaks of God as the Holy One or as Jehovah. Although God has a church, He is still the Holy One of Israel alone—and despite all the attempts that are made to filch His promises to Israel, He still remains pledged exclusively to them as Jehovah, and He will unfailingly perform for them all that He has ever promised.
In view of this, some may ask themselves the question of how the church which is the body of Christ (in other words ourselves) stands in relation to God. And the answer is simple, for our relationship to Him and His to us is exactly as it is towards Christ as the Head of the church—as our God and Father. This makes Him even closer to us than He ever was to Israel and implies even more than the holiness and devotion that He showed to that nation. His relationship to them is limited and exclusive, while His ultimate and all-embracing name by which He will be known eventually to all is that of Father. He is our Father, and that is the greatest of all His names, for when all tongues confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, it is to the glory of God the Father. So the call comes to us, God's sons, "Be ye holy as I am holy," and our devotion to Him should be as the grounds of His devotion to us. Do we always sufficiently appreciate this unique relationship existing between God and ourselves, and ourselves and God, through Christ?
No other writer than Paul ever uses the expression "God our Father," yet Paul says it in every one of his epistles. Those in Christ Jesus are already God's sons, not only children but children who have "come of age." No relationship could be closer, nor any holiness more complete, even if, subjectively, we at present fail sufficiently to hallow ourselves and set ourselves apart for His use. Yet we are not our own, for we are bought with a price; nevertheless all is ours, for we are Christ's, and Christ is God's.
Cecil J. Blay (Treasures of Truth, Instalment Thirteen, May-June 1974)