Perfecting Holiness

If you’ve read very many of the articles on this website, then you will have noticed that I’ve ranted on about the difference between morality and spirituality in many of them.  And if that doesn’t ring a bell, let me revisit this issue for a few minutes.  God never called us to morality.  He doesn’t concern Himself with moral issues, nor does He make moral judgments.  He didn’t condemn Noah for his drunkenness; nowhere will you find Him passing judgment on Solomon for his immorality; He doesn’t speak out against slavery; and He has never campaigned for women’s rights.  God is concerned with spirituality, and His judgments are made on that basis.  God does not promote morality – religion does.  Remember, there’s a difference between God and religion.  One is not the same as the other.  And, there’s a difference between spirituality and morality.  Religion has blurred that distinction.

I’ll give you an example.  In the Amplified Bible (a translation I generally prefer) the word "moral" is inserted in several places that, at least from my perspective, are specifically talking about spiritual issues, not moral ones. For instance, in Ephesians 4:18 it says, "Their moral understanding is darkened and their reasoning is beclouded, [They are] alienated (estranged, self-banished) from the life of God [with no share in it; this is] because of the ignorance (the want of knowledge and perception, the willful blindness) that is deep-seated in them, due to their hardness of heart [to the insensitiveness of their moral nature]."  I believe the obvious context here is spirituality.  Their spiritual understanding is darkened and it’s due to the insensitiveness of their spiritual nature.  Then to further confuse the issue, the very next verse (19) correctly states, "In their spiritual apathy they have become callous and past feeling and reckless."  Verse 18 says it’s a moral issue; then verse 19 does an about-face and calls it a spiritual problem.  By using the words "moral" and "spiritual" interchangeably, they come to mean the same thing in the minds of many.  I have heard many comments over the years from religious types who sincerely believe their morality makes them spiritual.

However, morality is represented by inconsistent, ever-changing, man-made standards.  What may have been considered immoral several years ago might very well be accepted as moral today; and others accept things considered immoral by some as moral.  Opinions change over time and can vary from person to person and from group to group, though all claim to get their direction from the same timeless, unchanging God.  Some denominations have avoided establishing official policies on current moral issues (abortion, homosexuality, women clergy, etc), because there is so much disagreement within their denomination.  Yet some people remain supportive of their denomination, even though they disagree with the stand it has taken on certain moral issues.  When it comes to morality, confusion and disagreement abounds, with a liberal amount of tolerance mixed in.

And every religious institution that exists today (whether Christian or non-Christian) promotes some form of morality they claim comes from God. People who say they love the same God judge and condemn one another in the name of their God, because they adhere to different moral standards.  In the past Christians have waged war on "heathen" nations whose morality was unacceptable.  Today, Islamic fundamentalists wage war on Christian nations, determined to stop what they view as the immoral corruption of Christianity.  And though I condemn their actions in the strongest sense, I agree with their assessment of "Christianity"; the efforts of institutional Christianity in exporting its spiritual deception and materialistic and idolatrous theology to other parts of the world is disheartening.  On the other hand, what the Islamic extremists are doing is nothing more than what countless other religious groups, Christianity included, have done over the ages, which is nothing more than a violent attempt to impose their morality on others in the name of their god.

What most of the religious world doesn’t understand is that the Sovereign God has called us to spirituality.  The reason they don’t understand is because they’re caught up in this blurred, religious deception that teaches them morality and spirituality is the same thing.  Morality is the result of following what men say, what they think and what they want.  Spirituality is following what God says, what He thinks and what He wants.  And herein lies the dilemma.  How do you know the difference?  Every religious group puts God’s name on their buildings, claims God’s authority for everything they believe and His approval for everything they do and most everyone in the world thinks they have to go to one of these groups to find God.

I suppose there may be some who think my only reason for having this website and writing these articles is to give me an opportunity to make sarcastic remarks about religion and religious institutions.  And while I’ll admit taking pot shots at religion may be one of the benefits; it’s not my main objective.  The reason I write these articles is that I want people to understand how to have a relationship with God.  Having a real, personal, intimate relationship with God means you understand His will and purpose (to change you and conform you to the image of His Son).  It also means you understand that if you’re submitted to Him and determined to be obedient He’ll actively participate in your life to accomplish that will and purpose.

It means you’re focused on Him, you spend time with Him, that you’ve learned to talk to Him honestly, that you struggle to know what He wants, what He’s saying just to you, and that you’re determined to submit and be obedient when you do manage to understand Him.  It means that you’ve learned the source of this relationship and this understanding is God alone and it comes as a result of what you do, alone, with Him.  That’s true spirituality.  It’s not a group exercise.  It’s not what people do when they meet together on Sunday morning at 10 AM.  And it’s certainly not what the priest or pastor talks about and it’s not what he models in his life for others to see and follow – he’s probably too busy talking about and dealing with moral issues (or social issues, or the latest financial crisis threatening the perpetuation of the institution)!

This brings me to the reason for writing this paper.  There are those who have heard me talk about the difference between morality and spirituality and, as a consequence, have rejected morality and the religion that promotes it.  Now it’s time for some caution.  Those of us who have been under the constraints of religious morality have to be careful with our newfound freedom.  We can easily allow ourselves to begin to indulge our fleshly nature - a sort of delayed reaction, pseudo-spiritual rebellion against the religious bondage we’ve come out of.  We tend to want to think that since we’ve rejected religious morality, now we’re free to do most anything we choose.  The justification is easy: the only reason we didn’t do certain things in the past is simply because we had been victimized by a repressive, manipulative religion – we were simply too religious.

Of course, if you haven’t recognized it yet, this is exactly what Paul was talking about in Galatians 5:13 when he said, "For you, brethren, were called to freedom, but do not use this freedom as an opportunity to indulge your flesh or as an excuse for selfishness.  Instead, serve one another in love." The word in this verse translated "freedom" (or "liberty" in the KJV) is eleutheria and in this context means, "freedom from religious interference or constraints"; literally, the freedom to pursue God and serve Him without other people looking over your shoulder, telling you what rules you have to follow in the process.  The problem illustrated in this verse and the passage preceding it is a common one.  When we throw away the coercive restrictions of man’s religion and the morality that goes with it, there’s a void that exists and must be filled.  And our flesh is only too happy to jump in and fill this void with all kinds of fleshly pursuits and selfish, "me first" thoughts.  And where there used to be certain moral restraints in place, now we find a tendency to do things we might not have otherwise done.

OK.  So far, so good.  I’ve developed the problem, now for the solution.  We need to go back to the beginning of the paper and remember I was trying to explain the difference between morality and spirituality.  And if you’re serious about your pursuit of God, please look closely at what I’m about to say and give it honest consideration.  It’s not enough to simply reject religion and its morality.  No one can possibly know God in an intimate relationship, serve Him in submission and obedience and walk with Him in dependence and trust with no restraint in his life.  Our flesh just won’t allow it.  If we follow our flesh, it will try to lead us into lawlessness.  We have to embrace spirituality, which brings us to the subject of this paper.

What’s missing is holiness.  It’s holiness that must fill the void.  The full comparison of morality and spirituality goes something like this: just as religion leads to morality, true spirituality leads to holiness.  In spirituality, God Himself will give us the restraints He knows are necessary for our benefit, allowing Him to accomplish His purpose in our lives.  With spirituality, the restraints in our lives do not come in the form of men’s religious standards and rules, they come as a result of the character (Who He is) and nature (what He does) of God becoming a reality in us through the experiences we have with Him.  As we will see, over time, those qualities taken together, become our holiness.

God never intended for us to navigate our way through this life using a religious moral compass.  Instead, His intent is for us to know Him, serve Him and walk with Him, and in the process of doing so, learn to imitate Him and share in His character and nature.  That’s holiness.  And holiness is a true spiritual compass, because it has its source in God.

But before we go any further, let me tell you what holiness is not.  It’s not this stuffy, judgmental, holier-than-thou, "I’m more spiritual than you", never relax or have fun, always somber and serious concept that some have.  And it’s not WWJD.  Holiness is not religious situation ethics, where you find yourself in certain circumstances, and stop, and think about what Jesus might do in the same circumstance.  Those who wear a bracelet or necklace with WWJD on it, if they do stop and think, more than likely all they’re really doing is trying to remember what their religion has taught them about its particular brand of morality.   So, in the final analysis, their actions are not guided by what they’ve been personally taught by God (John 6:45) through their experiences with Him (spirituality-holiness), but by the morality they learned in religion.

Let’s look at some Scripture passages that talk about holiness.  This is Romans 6:19-22.

"I’m saying this in words you can understand because of the weakness of your human nature: just as you once yielded yourselves as servants to impurity and ever-increasing lawlessness, you must now yield yourselves completely as servants to righteousness and holiness.  You know that when you were slaves to sin, righteousness held no restraint over you.  And what possible good came then from the things you’re ashamed of now?  None at all, for the result of those things is death.  And since you’ve been set free from (the penalty of) sin and have made yourselves the slaves of God, you enjoy your present reward in holiness, and the eventual result of that is eternal life."

I’ve italicized "holiness" above where the word hagiasmos appears in the original text.  Depending on the context or the whim of the translator, hagiasmos is translated either "holiness" or "sanctification".  Either way, it should be understood that this word is used to identify the particular way of living of the believer who has separated himself to God and from any evil that may have characterized his life before he committed it to God.  It is this separation (or sanctification) that is God’s will for every believer (I Thessalonians 4:3); is learned by hearing God speak His Truth (John 17:17, 19); and is a result of submitting to and following the leadership of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16).

So, the first thing we need to understand about holiness is that it requires separation to God.  The key for every believer is clearly illustrated above in the phrase "and have made yourselves the slaves of God".  And as in everything else related to spiritual reality, sanctification is not merely an idea or intellectual concept.  There is always a vast difference between understanding a concept and possessing a reality.  You can either simply agree with the definition of sanctification, then essentially ignore it and go on living your life the way you want to, or you can commit yourself to it, talk to God about it and struggle to learn what He wants to teach you and how He wants to change you.

And if we want to understand better how that process works, a consideration of Ephesians 4:20-24 might help.  Leading up to this passage, in verses 17-19, Paul is talking about living like Godless heathen in the futility of worldly reason, being ignorant and estranged from God, and insensitive to any real spirituality.  This is what we see in verses 20-24"But this is not what you learn from following Christ!  If you have really heard Him and have been taught personally by Him, as all Truth is found in Him, you will get rid of your old way of life, your old self that was on its way to destruction because of deceitful lusts.  And then you will continually be renewed in your mind, with a fresh spiritual attitude, a new self, being recreated in God’s image, in righteousness and true holiness."

Here, "holiness" is not hagiasmos as before; now it’s hosiotes.  Properly translated "holiness" in most versions, hosiotes is used to define the reality of holiness in those who continually and actively maintain an intimate relationship with Him.  In the course of this relationship God is teaching them; what they learn from Him changes the way they think; as they begin to think like God, they also begin to act like Him; and this changes them.  And here I have to remind all those who have been indoctrinated with evangelical religion that this is just another of many passages in Scripture that describes salvation or deliverance as a process that takes place over time, not an instantaneous act that is completed by reciting a sinner’s prayer, professing certain Biblical facts or by getting wet.  Salvation is a life-long commitment to a real God Who participates in our lives to bring about real changes in us.

Also, you may have noticed in both the passages I’ve shown you that "righteousness" is mentioned with "holiness".  Righteousness is the essential companion to holiness.  It is translated from dikaiosune, the noun form of dikaios, which means, "that which is right or just".  This is, of course, not a subjective term.  "That which is right or just" can only refer to the character, nature, will and purpose of God.  Therefore, righteousness is the manifestation of the claims of God in the life of the believer and is sometimes described as "God’s way of doing things right".

Now, earlier in this article I quoted Galatians 5:13 where Paul warns us not to use our freedom as an opportunity to indulge our flesh or as an excuse for selfishness.  The last sentence in that verse says, "Instead, serve one another in love."  This is the practical part of what I need to say about holiness.  The exercise of love one for another is the means God uses to develop holiness in us.  Following the flesh and selfishness are the exact opposites of righteousness and holiness.  If you go back and check out the verses that follow the passage in Ephesians 4:20-24 above (specifically 25-32), you’ll find they deal with issues that hinder or destroy our ability to love one another.

Paul makes the connection between the exercise of love towards others and the reality of holiness in I Thessalonians 3:12-13.  "And may the Lord cause you to increase, even overflow, in love for one another, just as we do also for you, so He may establish your hearts faultless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His holy ones." Here, "holiness" is from yet a different word, hagiosune, and is used to indicate the manifestation of holiness in the personal conduct of the believer. Holiness is the result of our willingness to reject our own selfishness and serve others in love.  As in every other spiritual issue, reality is still the key. Holiness does not depend on what you think or what you accept as true. Holiness is the result of what you do when you consciously decide to reject the impulses of your flesh and your selfish desires and focus on the desire of God for your life, and that obviously includes the needs and interests of others.  Holiness is what you have been reduced to after your obedience; it’s what remains after you kill your flesh; it’s the true spiritual you after the religious morality is forgotten.

And just in case I have not yet made it perfectly clear, holiness is not the result of some religious formula and it’s not vicarious, that is, it cannot be transferred from one person to another or indiscriminately attributed or imputed to another.  Holiness is an individual possession, developed little by little, as the result of intimacy and obedience to God, following the example of Christ and yielding to the power of His Holy Spirit.  Holiness is only gained the old-fashioned way: it must be earned by diligence and faithfulness over time.

"Do not nurture relationships with those who would destroy your faith.  Is righteousness and lawlessness the same thing?  Can light have anything in common with darkness?  What agreement exists between Christ and the devil?  Are believers and unbelievers to be partakers of the same promises? What agreement is there between the temple of God and that of idols? Remember, we are the temple of God, as He has said, I will dwell in them and walk with them, and I will be their God, and they will be My people. So, do not join with them, says the Lord, and avoid anything that would defile your spirituality.  Then I will receive you with favor, and will be a Father to you, and you will be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.  Therefore beloved, since these promises are ours, let us purify ourselves from anything that would defile our body or spirit, perfecting holiness in the reverential fear of God."  (II Corinthians 6:14-7:1)

In the phrase "perfecting holiness in the reverential fear of God", the word "perfecting" is epiteleo, an intensive or strengthened form of teleo, meaning, "to accomplish".  Here, Paul is simply emphasizing the fact that we should be especially determined to allow God to do what He wants to do in our lives. "Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God". (Leviticus 20:7)