How Essential is Holiness for the Church?

The Church is called to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3 NRSV). Eph 4:14, however, should make it clear that this unity cannot be achieved through doctrinal indifference. Biblically unity is inconceivable apart from holiness and truth. If there are factions in the Church with contradictory and competing visions of holiness and truth, there will be division, not unity. Holiness means to be set apart from the world for the sake of the world. The content of holiness is righteousness; the measure of righteousness is truth; the experience and expression of righteousness is love. A reasonably shared vision of holiness, righteousness, and truth are essential to biblical unity and love.

Yet some continue to insist that having a common vision of holiness and moral righteousness is not necessary for unity. But biblically holiness and righteousness clearly are of much higher priority than that view suggests.

In response to those who seek to drive a wedge of radical discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament, there are two major points of continuity between the two testaments. One is that the New Covenant was a promise of the Old Covenant (Deut 30:1-10; Jer 31:31-34; Ezk 36:24-27). Secondly, a related and actually even more foundational promise, was the promise that God made to Abraham. God promised to bless Abram (later renamed Abraham) and his descendants to be a blessing to the rest of the nations of the Earth, the whole world.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” ~ Gen 12:1-3 ESV  (here and hereafter)

The promise was not just for Abraham, it was also for his descendants who would be in covenant relationship with the Lord. From the beginning of this covenant, faith would be the necessary foundation of their relationship with God and the gift of righteousness that God, by grace, would grant them.

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. ~ Gen 15:1-6

Right from the beginning, their holiness and righteousness would be essential for the promised blessing to flow to them and through them to the rest of the nations. Prosperity was not the central aspect of the blessing, although it was a byproduct of it. Prosperity apart from what was the central aspect of the blessing would prove to be a snare that brought cursing rather than blessing (Deut 8:11-20). The key component of the blessing that God would grant the children of Abraham through the line of his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob (later given the name Israel) was the holiness that comes with righteousness. This righteousness would require trust of God and obedience to the just requirements of God’s commandments. Righteousness would be the key to the blessing flowing through the nation of Israel to the nations of the rest of the world.

“…seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” Gen 18:18-19

Trinity 3 visitorsThe promised blessing for Abraham and Israel, which was always meant to bring blessing to all the nations of the world, was contingent upon the righteousness of God’s people. Righteousness was a gift of God activated by faith (see Rom 4:12-12). The very purpose of God’s election of Israel was for them to be holy via righteousness in order to bring the promised blessing to the nations of the world. Long before the moral law was codified on tablets of stone, it was passed on from generation to generation. Moreover, the stories about the judgment of God on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18-19; Jude 7) and the righteous restraint of Joseph in the face of temptation (Gen 39) reveal and foreshadow how sexual holiness would be a central part of the moral life that God expects of his people (hence the emphasis in Lev 18; also note that the expectations become more, not less, stringent in the teachings of Jesus).

Election, however, is not first about who gets to go to heaven when they die; it’s about God’s blessing being enjoyed by all nations on Earth. The blessing of the nations (i.e. Gentiles) would depend on whether they would accept the righteous rule of Israel. Hence, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse” (Gen 12:3). Acceptance or rejection of the righteous reign of Israel would determine blessing or cursing (Psalm 2:1-12). This is the foundation to the doctrine of the final judgment, the difference between heaven and hell (Matt 25:31-46), the new heaven and earth and the second death (Rev 21:1-8). Israel’s own blessing would also depend on the acceptance of their own calling. But the judgment of blessing and cursing for those who would or would not accept the righteous reign of Israel was a secondary component of Israel’s election. The primary emphasis of election was the righteousness of God’s chosen people through whom blessing would come to all the nations of Earth.

Israel and its leaders repeatedly proved to be unable to maintain faith in the Lord and, consequently, to fulfil their call. One of Abraham’s descendants, however, who summed up in himself all that Israel was supposed to be, did fulfill that call. Jesus proved to be the righteous and holy one, who fulfilled those two central promises and many more made to Abraham and Israel.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. ~ Rom 5:18-21

The righteousness and obedience of Jesus, the true king of Israel, brings the promised blessing of righteousness to all who believe in him and submit to his righteous reign as the Israel’s king and the world’s true Lord.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ~ Phil 2:9-11

The blessing and cursing of all the nations, including the ethnic nation of Israel, still depends on their acceptance of the righteous reign of Israel through her king, Jesus.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, ~ Rom 1:1-5

Those who trust in Jesus receive the promised blessing of righteousness that comes through forgiveness by his blood and the new heart and spirit that comes from receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. This blessing is for Jews and Gentiles. By faith Gentiles enter into the family of Abraham and are grafted into the family tree of Israel. Faith in Jesus is also essential for Jews to fulfill God’s call and election.

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. ~ Gal 3:7-9 (see also Rom 11:11-24 and Eph 2:11-22)

For the Church (i.e. the called out elect of God) made up of Jews and Gentiles, the call to holiness through righteousness is still central and essential to the blessing flowing to and through God’s people. The primary purpose of election under the New Covenant is still the holiness of God’s people for the purpose of bringing blessing to all the nations of the earth. This is the foundation of the great commission to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:18-20).

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. Eph 1:3-6

Compare to:

“For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” ~ Gen 18:19 ESV

Holiness via the gift of righteousness is central and essential to the call of the Church as part of the family of Abraham. I don’t know how it could get more basic and foundational than this! The idea that any serious form of unity could be achieved apart from a shared vision of holiness is fatally flawed. We are often reminded that we are blessed to be a blessing. Central and essential to the fulfillment of this promise is holiness and righteousness. Any doctrine that would marginalize holiness for a thin veneer of unity must be rejected for what it is, a false doctrine.

Like justification, holiness is not a state to be achieved; it’s a gift to be received. It’s also a gift to be shared. And it is a gift that comes with personal responsibility. It is the blessing by which we are blessed to be a blessing. It is nothing less than renewal after the image of God, the God who calls us to be holy as he is holy (Lev 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16). It is “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:23-24). When Paul says we should strive to maintain unity (Eph 4:3), we should not be fooled into thinking we can achieve that through doctrinal indifference or moral compromise. To make every effort to maintain unity is to make every effort to be holy; and to make every effort to be holy is to love the Lord, our God with all our heart, soul and strength, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Biblically these commands to love were not meant to dismiss the importance of the other commandments; they sum up the meaning and significance of all the other commandments. Unity and love should never be used as an excuse for moral compromise. To compromise moral righteousness is to compromise unity and love and the mission of the Church. While we should avoid both errors of adding to or subtracting from the content of the scriptural holiness to which we are called (Deut 4:2; 12:32; Prov 30:6; Rev 22:18), we should never minimize its significance for the mission of the Church.

For all the talk about tension in the texts—and there is some tension—there is a robust unity in the Bible. The storyline is in the family line, the family line of Abraham, and in the fulfillment of the promises made to the family of Abraham. Jesus is the ultimate descendent in whom those promises find their fulfillment. Through faith in Christ we are part of the family of Abraham. We need to remember how we have been blessed to be a blessing. It’s not negotiable; it’s essential.


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