“Strive . . . for the holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.”Hebrews 12:14, ESV
There are not too many topics in Scripture that demand our attention like holiness. Growing up in the Bible-belt, I remember hearing the standard mantra for holiness: “don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with girls who do.” Holiness as a limited series of expectations for individual morality was the standard perception then, and remains popular in many circles today. Aside from the obvious problems with the above cliché, this limited and individualistic emphasis misrepresents the earliest testimony of holiness in Leviticus. In Leviticus, God’s covenant people were to have a specific interpretation of reality—namely, that the one God of all creation is their God. By extension, they were to have a consistent vision of their society, where the community reflected the character of the redeeming creator God. Thus, holiness is a thick community category, deeply relational and holistically expressed. Here, I want to address what is in my mind the most important aspect of holiness: At its heart, holiness is relational.
Holiness: The Relational Ethic
Relational attachment is a powerful and life-altering thing. The reason (by God’s grace) that I have never cheated on my wife has far less to do with the possibility that I might get caught and far more to do with my attachment to my wife, my children, and my congregation. In other words, these relationships powerfully shape my identity and ethics. I live my life as a man married to Angela. Her unique presence in my life directs my decisions with money, time, resources, as well as governs my relationships with other women. There isn’t a way I could live outside of that attachment without implicitly or explicitly denying her value.
Likewise, holiness is the ethic that emerges out of the life-changing relationship with the God of Israel—relationship built on His redemption, provision, and guidance. Holiness is the community ethic of those God redeemed from “the house of slavery.” In Exodus 19:4-6, when God refers to Israel as a “holy nation,” He refers to the fact that He has chosen, redeemed, and led them to Himself at Sinai. Holiness is not something imposed upon a group of people who don’t know God as redeemer, sustainer, and guide. Any idea of holiness that skips over the passionate and life-changing notion of redemption is empty moralism that either leads from, or to, a self-righteous and self-preserving life. Rather, the vibrant reality of God as redeemer, sustainer, and friend, which continually engineers trust and “land conquering” ambition also creates holiness.
The relational aspect of holiness appears clearly in Leviticus 18-20, which is at the heart of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26). Due to His self-initiated attachment to Israel, God’s holiness shapes his people’s ethical life (“I am holy” – Lev 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:26: 21:8). Leviticus 18:2-4 distinguishes between the life and ethics of Israel and the surrounding cultures, embodied in Egypt (the place from which God liberated them) and Canaan (the place to which God would deliver them).
The text further emphasizes the reason they are to avoid common cultural ethics; God is their God and that changes them. Israel must remain noticeably different from the nations at specific points or they display God to be a common ancient deity. Moses explicitly states this relational motivation in Lev 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (ESV) Israel’s ethical shape is the direct result of their attachment to God. God then sets forth a list of commandments punctuating each with the phrase, “I am the Lord,” or an approximate modification of the phrase. Thus, God commands his people to be holy in light of his unique identity and attachment to them (Lev 19:37).
New Testament writers also followed this logic when discussing holiness. A few verses from the apostles should suffice to demonstrate this pattern:
“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)
Paul has just reiterated the promise of God’s presence among believers. These promises for Christians from their God engineer “bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” Paul’s reference to the “fear of God” further emphasizes the relational nature of this attempt at holiness. Only Christians have this sense about them. It is the most normal human response to not fear God (Romans 3:18).
“For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.”Heb. 12:10, ESV
The author of Hebrews just explained the beauty of fathers who discipline not random children but their own sons (and presumably daughters). God, our Father, the one who loves us more than any earthly parent, disciplines His children so they can share in His holiness.
The writer continues,
“Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”(Heb. 12:12-14, ESV)
In other words – “therefore,” because of the love of the Father, strengthen yourselves, embrace wisdom and clarity as to how to live, strive for peace and for holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. It would be almost intuitive to see this as a command for a particular moral package that earns salvation. However, if holiness is the fruit of a relationship with the triune God, as both the Old Testament and New Testament teach, then this admonition calls for clear and thorough adjudication of one’s life for relational fruit rather than personal moral certainty.
Holiness doesn’t ask, “What is the world doing and being?” and then conclude that we must do or be the opposite. Genuine holiness doesn’t operate off of a contrived list of behaviors that may only partially be representative of Biblical wisdom. These approaches to holiness are brutally thin and provide no impetus for God-glorifying, self-denying living. Furthermore, anybody can do that. Grace-created redemption, sustenance, and shelter, along with God’s continual presence in our midst births a natural sense of actual holiness in God’s redeemed people. To live in any other way would deny the value of the ever-present God who redeemed you.