What is Christian holiness? For many, holiness is a kind of goodness they can never reach. For others, it is a religious doctrine once taught and now forgotten. For most, it is perhaps an intimidating or even irrelevant notion.
Holiness is living in relationship with God, not using minor rules against others. However, holiness is not living without regard for God’s law or intended way of life for us.
Most often holiness is associated with the curious language of Christian “perfection.” This is not invented jargon. The Bible speaks of becoming perfect, perhaps most notably in Matthew 5:48. Yet again, what does this mean? The discipline of theology has traditionally made a distinction between two great works of God in the life of believers. The first is linked to the forgiveness Christ offers. This is called justification. We are considered to be just as a gift from God in Christ, even though we do not merit such treatment. The second is linked to the growth in grace that takes place following justification. This is called sanctification. We are invited to become that which God has considered us to be. Holiness or Christian perfection is closely connected to sanctification. Holiness is the reality of becoming/being that which God desires for us. However, even this description of holiness does not tell the entire story. If we conceive of holiness or Christian perfection or sanctification as a “process,” we open ourselves to further questions. Can anyone ever reach it? Does it ever come all at once? How would we know if someone actually became all that God intended for that person? Perhaps we can understand why past dialogue regarding holiness has tended to move rather quickly from definitions to consideration of its possibility.
Many have expressed a conviction that holiness is a life-long journey. According to this perspective, we should not worry about identifying it so precisely. Others caution that such a process-oriented view amounts to neglecting the importance of holiness or explaining away its possibility in this life. Likewise, many understand holiness as a separation from the world, a cleansing from sin, and the refraining from certain behaviors. Others have understood it as engagement with the world for justice. The varied approaches can be perplexing, and they sometimes represent competing thoughts.
However, most would affirm that holiness is nothing without love. Therefore a careful consideration of love confronts every seeker after holiness, and this consideration must be grounded in the biblical witness and informed by principled theological reflection.
What have you been taught about holiness? How has your understanding changed?