Lately I have been considering holiness. What is it? What might it look like in 2014? How do we teach our children the importance of a holy, godly life without introducing legalism? Whilst the children are still in their formative years, whilst they do not yet have a transforming relationship with the risen Lord, how can our homes best model not only the love, joy, peace and hope of Christ, but also appropriate reverence and honour?
‘Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober and rest your hope fully on the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’. 1 Peter 1:13-16
‘Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord’ Hebrews 12:14
What does this word even mean? I often find words become somewhat corrupt with time, and the word ‘holy’ might bring certain unhealthy stereotypes to your mind. Perhaps the person who is described as ‘holier than thou’ who is basically judgemental, or maybe people who remain in a ‘holy huddle’ and do not engage with the world and its challenges and difficulties. But what does it really mean.
Quoting RC Sproul (link contains a more detailed discussion of this point), To be holy is to be separate, in a class by oneself. It is derived from an ancient word meaning ‘to cut’ or ‘to separate’. When the Bible calls God holy, it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost foreign to us. To be holy is to be ‘other’, to be different in a special way.
To be holy is to be morally pure. But it is more than just purity. ‘Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifeted up his soul to an idol, and has not sworn deceitfully’. Psalm 23:3-4
The first ever Bible study I did was on holiness. I was seventeen years old, in my first year at university and had been a Christian for about three months. I had acquired an exhaustive concordance, and basically looked up ‘holy’, ‘holiness’ etc and worked through, verse after verse. Many of the references were found in the Old Testament books of the law, particularly Leviticus. It became clear to me that the punishment for anything that fell short of God’s perfect holiness was death. Often this could be appeased for through the complex sacrifices which were offered day after day, month after month, year after year. But it was only through Christ’s death, His atoning sacrifice once and for all, that we have the liberty to ‘approach the throne of grace with confidence and boldness’. (Hebrews 4:16). I think Christians can become blasé to what Christ has saved us from. (I would recommend you read Leviticus and then read Hebrews immediately afterwards to really appreciate this amazing salvation).
Lately I have been shocked (and I do not think that too strong a word to use) by a few things. One example was our Bible study being cancelled for an ‘evangelistic’ event of watching the football and drinking beer (or at least the beer drinking was not compulsory, but it was clearly on offer). I really struggle with this type of thing; yes, we are called to be ‘in the world but not of the world’ (John 17), and yes, we need to build some level of relationship with those around us to be in a position whereby they ask us ‘to give the reason for the hope that you have’ 1 Peter 3:15, but are we not at risk of becoming so like the world that there is no distinction? This is not to mention my concerns about serving alcohol at church events (described extremely frankly by a friend of mine. I do not think Christians need be fully abstinent, but I do think we need to be very wise, and if there is any doubt then to abstain).
I think to fully cover how we can be in the world, actively proclaiming the gospel, drawing alongside those that do not know God from all walks of life and all nations, and yet remain pure, distinct and holy would require at least half a dozen books. (I’d love to know your recommendations if you have any!). The Apostle Paul is often quoted for saying ‘Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some’ 1 Corinthians 9:19-22. What I think the enormous challenge is, is how we do that, without compromising our own holiness. Of course a point of great importance is that holiness has a lot to do with our heart attitude towards the Lord, to do with our own reverence, and that this is something which is only seen by God. One could do all the ‘right’ things, yet simply be exercising legalism and so not bringing God glory. Conversely, I am sure you can think of examples where somebody has been criticised by the established Christian organisations (churches or mission organisations) for being too worldly, yet has achieved much for the Kingdom of God. Hudson Taylor was spurned by some of the other missionaries because he chose to live and dress like a Chinese man, growing his hair long and dying it dark; in that respect he paved the way for much of what is now taught about cross-cultural work. It might not be appropriate for somebody engaged in a ministry to the homeless and street workers to wear a smart suit and a shirt and tie. These are examples of external things. One could argue that it is not possible to reach those who enjoy going out for a drink without going to the places where these drinks are served.
Sometimes the key is whether something is done with what could be termed ‘gospel intentionality’. Is a person really going to a certain place, dressing a certain way, consuming a certain type of food and drink, exposing themselves to particular music and entertainment in order to reach others with the good news of Jesus Christ? Really? If so, then they should also have prayer partners who are aware of this, who are praying for their witness and who will hold that person accountable to remain pure and holy in that situation, and to stand firm in the face of temptation. I knew many students who were active in the Christian Union who would go to nightclubs to ‘witness to their friends’, but often what I would see was the much stronger pull of the world on my Christian friend who would then fall into sin and compromise, and achieve the exact opposite of what their spoken intention was. And on honest reflection, I was guilty of the same error in certain situations; my initial intention might have been good, but did I really achieve anything of eternal value?
With my children, the types of questions that arise when I consider personal holiness include:
1) What entertainment they are exposed to (we do not have a television, something I have discussed here before)
2) What books they read (so many childrens’ books seem to glorify disobedience and dishonouring of parents, and the stories for slightly older children often have a sinister, slightly occult theme running through)
3) What clothes they wear, trying to teach the importance of being appropriate for the circumstance (and I am often relieved I have boys, because some of the clothes that are sold for young girls do not encourage purity and modesty, and possibly leave those girls vulnerable)
4) What we talk about and how we talk to each other and about other people
5) Standards of discipline when out and about in a group
6) And so often we quote Philippians 1:27 ‘whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of Christ’
The second, related issue which has bothered me relates to the Sabbath. When Moses received the ten commandments, these included ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord created the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it’. Exodus 20:8-11. I have never heard a professing evangelical Christian claim that any of the other nine commandments are no longer relevant, but honouring the Sabbath is often seen as a little quaint and old-fashioned, or frankly legalistic. Why should this be? And it seems so ‘controversial’ that pastors are afraid to preach about it plainly and it is often glossed over as a matter of individual conscience at Bible studies. But the word of the Lord is there, and I believe it to be of great importance.
This link is to a helpful discussion of why the Sabbath is still important. Thinking more specifically about our children, what do I want them to learn?
1) That we have a special day to really focus on the worship of God which is the most important thing of all
2) That God has given us this special day not for mundane tasks that can be done at other times, but for worship, for fellowship, for taking time to enjoy the gifts He has given. This is a delight, not a burden.
3) That one can prioritise and do everything that is truly necessary in six days; the only times when one should work on a Sunday would be when there is an unforeseen situation (Jesus talks about the man whose sheep falls into a ditch on the Sabbath and points out that it would be daft not to pull it out because that might be considered ‘work’) or when we are scheduled to work (this might apply to nurses, policemen, doctors, etc)
4) That we can trust God. He promises ‘those that honour Me, I will honour’; even when we feel pressures of exams or preparation, we should trust God by working hard six days and then resting on the Sabbath.
What I find challenging is when well-meaning Christians undermine this, almost laughing at the idea of holiness in our current generation. I don’t think we always get things right by any means – there may be times when we are inconsistent, or where we set a rule or a standard that is not required. But the principle of keeping the day separate, special, holy must remain.
A challenge with children is that when they have not developed that relationship with the Lord, they will not fully understand our motivation. We want them to see that Christianity is not about rules and regulations, about things they cannot do, but about God’s grace, provision, protection and about His love towards us as His children. As I have written before, it is so important that as parents we model this to them, and that they see our passionate love for Christ and our delight at living within the boundaries that He gives us.
I’d love to know how other Christian parents approach some of these issues, and whether you have helpful resources you can recommend!