For many American evangelicals, "holiness" conjures up musty images of revival meetings, gospel trios, and old-time religion—along with stern prohibitions against drinking, dancing, and playing cards. And many are happy to leave these notions of holiness in the past. Yet even in our era of techno-savvy megachurches and postmodern emerging churches, holiness (when it is discussed at all) is often associated with moral behavior such as sexual purity, financial honesty, and commitment to private prayer.
While we've cast off old, legalistic notions of holiness, we've merely replaced them with private, moralistic notions. We act as if holiness were either outdated or something that characterizes only a small (if important) part of our lives.
This is partly due to our quest for cultural relevance, which is defended in the name of winning others to Christ. If we talk about holiness with unbelievers, won't that present just another hurdle for them to overcome on their way to Christ? For this and other reasons, we are rapidly forsaking our historic commitment to holiness. Recent polls show that many self-described evangelicals march in moral lockstep with mainstream American culture in practices of divorce, spousal abuse, extramarital sex, pornography consumption, materialism, and racism, just to name a few. While we tip our cap to the importance of holiness, many in our culture don't view us as morally different in any meaningful way—except to see us as hypocrites.
I believe one crucial ingredient to healing our moral confusion is the recovery of the biblical idea of holiness, which includes private morality but so much more—the very life of God in us. Holiness is not just for advanced Christians but stands at the beginning and center of God's call on all of our lives: "Be holy, because I am holy" (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16).
To be sure, biblical terms translated "holy" or "holiness" (qadosh, hagios) carry a strong secondary connotation of moral purity. But moral purity is not, first and foremost, what Scripture is talking about. Instead, the most basic meaning of the word is to be "set apart" or "dedicated" to God—to belong to God. "I will be your God, and you will be my people," says Yahweh (Lev. 26:12; Heb. 8:10). Thus, prior to any consideration of morality, biblical holiness describes a unique relationship that God has established and desires with his people. This relationship has moral ramifications, but it precedes moral behavior. Before we are ever called to be good, we are called to be holy. Unless we rightly understand and affirm the primacy of this relationship, we fall into the inevitable trap of reducing holiness to mere morality.
If we read the biblical understanding of holiness through the lens of our relationship to God, Jesus, as the unique revelation of God, becomes preeminent. Too often, our notions of holiness are lifted from the Old Testament without understanding them in light of God's self-revelation in Jesus.
Those who have responded in faith to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ have been united with Christ. To be a Christian means far more than merely to believe in God—as if the Christian faith were reducible to a system of beliefs. Rather, it means to be united with Jesus in and through the Holy Spirit.
"I have been crucified with Christ," says Paul, "and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). Elsewhere, Paul tells us that our lives are "hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3) and that we have been "seated with [God] in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:6). Passages like these convey the mysterious, yet utterly real fact that, by virtue of our union with Jesus, we participate in the life of God: He dwells in us, and we dwell in him. As such, we can say that in Christ, God's holiness is our holiness. In Christ, we are already holy. Any and all subsequent notions of what it means to be holy must be predicated on this truth.