I sometimes scratch my head when I hear Christians talking about holiness. I get this impression that they are talking about something that is out of reach for all believers yet something that all should aspire to obtain. There is no doubt that we need to recognize and ascent to the reality that God is a holy God. A holy God can not have fellowship with unrighteousness. No matter how much we understand grace we must, too, understand that God hates sin. That is why there needs to be the daily confession of sin and appropriation of God’s cleansing grace. There is no misunderstanding about that. But is holiness unobtainable in the believer’s experience? Are God’s grace and holiness at odds with each other? You would think that some think this when they are quick to remind those of us who teach grace that “we have to be careful with that grace stuff, for God is holy.” Usually that is followed by some pontificating that leaves me scratching my head as to what they think holiness is for the believer.
I have come to conclude that many arrive at the aforementioned view having spiritual cataracts. For these holiness seems like a prison. Holiness is obtained by a biting discipline that is more judicial and legislative than an outgrowth of one’s walk with God. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the Christian life should not have disciplines. I am saying that it appears to me that holiness becomes the goal rather than a deep love relationship with the Savior. When the latter is lost, holiness becomes that prison of living by the rules. (Btw, that is exactly what the Apostle was talking about in Romans 7)
The ancient writers taught that true holiness has at its root an overwhelming passion for the one true and holy God, not for rules, principles and standards. To the early church fathers holiness was relational, not judicial.
One of the ancients, Fenelon, wrote it this way, “It is not by fussiness that we become faithful and exact in the smallest things. It is by a feeling of love, which is free from the reflections and fears of the anxious and scrupulous. We are as though carried away by the love of God. We only want to do what we are doing, and we do not want to do anything at all which we are not doing. At the same time that God, jealous, urges the soul, presses it relentlessly in the least details, and seems to withdraw all liberty from it, it finds itself free, and it enjoys a profound peace in him.”
Teresa of Avila joined Fenelon in this understanding of a relational holiness: “[As the soul] has already experienced spiritual delight from God, it sees that world delights are like filth. It finds itself withdrawing from them little by little, and it is more master of itself for so doing. In sum, there is an improvement in all the virtues.”
It appears to me that holy holiness is drawing near to and having our appetites transformed by God. Isn’t that what the Apostle Paul meant in Romans 8:4 when he states….
…in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but the according to the Spirit.
My preoccupation is not to be with laws, rules, and standards but with a holy and gracious God who invites me into an unbelieving fellowship with him through the Holy Spirit that brings joy and abundant living while transforming my spiritual appetites.
Dr. Gary Thomas says it well. “Holy holiness focuses on drawing near to God. As the love of God fills our hearts, the desire for sin is cut off and dies like a withering plant that never gets watered.”
(All quotes are from Seeking the Face of God, by Gary Thomas)