The Church: A Holy People in the Presence of a Holy God

“Holy,” applied to things, or to us, means set apart to God. But what does it mean that God is holy? Holiness is the sum of all that he is. He is God, and you and I are not. Hebrews 12:14 calls you, individually and together as the church, to strive after holiness.

Your God is a holy God. Be holy, because God is holy. God entered into covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, calling them to be his holy people. The latter part of Hebrews 12 looks back to that event. Moses summoned the whole nation of Israel to reflect God’s holiness, Leviticus 19:2. The details of doing justice, including loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18) flow out of that. 1 Peter 1:15; 2:9 reflects that principle in the New Testament.

See your thrice holy God. Isaiah’s call to be a prophet (Isaiah 6) centered on his vision of the glory of the Lord filling the temple. The seraphs, fiery angelic beings, cried “Holy, Holy, Holy!” That vision of the utter majesty of God needs to control your life. You ought not to be able to read Isaiah 6 and be casual about coming into God’s presence. “To praise His name in­volves more than the mere repetition of the word qa­dosh [holy-jwm]. It includes deep meditation upon God and His attributes and the living of a life of humility in accordance with the pre­cepts laid down in His Word. It is, in other words, the life of faith in Jesus Christ, lived for the glory of God.” (Ed­ward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Vol. 1, p. 243).

Experience his cleansing fire. Isaiah realized, as must you and I, that sinners cannot abide God’s presence. Isaiah became undone, or ruined. There is no way for him or for you to remedy that situation. You cannot be good enough. You cannot do positive things to make up for failures. You are helpless and hopeless, the object of the wrath of a holy God—until he graciously acts. Only as Isaiah’s lips are purified by a burning coal from the altar can he be of any use to God. Unless you know the cleansing, forgiving, work of Christ, you stand as God’s enemy. But if he touches your lips, if he renews your heart, you can live as his people.

Make every effort to be holy. Strive for holiness. Were I to suggest that essential for seeing the Lord is holiness, the reaction might be, “that sounds like basing salvation on works.” We very properly recoil from the suggestion that our works have any meritorious role in our salvation – that was something learned afresh at the time of the Protestant Reformation. And yet Heb. 12:14 tells you: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Sanctification is sometimes reduced to simply being fruit and evidence of justification. Scripture treats sanctification as something distinct from, something in addition to, and thus decidedly more than just fruit and evidence of justification. Parallel to repentance, sanctification is never the ground or basis for your justification, but it is something that is an essential part of belonging to Christ. The author of Hebrews is no less clear than Paul that our salvation rests on nothing that we do or are, but only on Christ himself: “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” Heb. 7:27.

Pursue peace. The harvest of righteousness and peace flows from the Lord’s discipline. None of us enjoy discipline. Your discipline is evidence that you belong to the Lord’s family. Notice how Hebrews guards his language. You are responsible for making every effort to live at peace–you do not necessarily control the result. Some people resist peace. This is not peace at any price. Your first commitment is to the Lord. Thus you need to pursue holiness as you pursue peace.

Be a holy people. Notice how the theme of being God’s people runs through the whole book of Hebrews. Like Israel, you are a pilgrim people, looking forward to your eternal rest in the new heavens and earth. The pursuit of holiness is both an individual and a corporate responsibility. You need to focus on your own means of grace. But don’t forget that Christ has called you to be his body, his temple, his people. We need one another to make progress in the Christian life. And the more we grow in sanctification, the holier the church becomes. “Sanctification has es­pecial regard to God. Even though the whole world blazes with war, we must not let go of sanctification because it is the chain which binds us in union with God. . . . No one can see God without sancti­fication since we shall only see God with eyes that have been re­newed according to his image.” (John Calvin, Com­mentary on Hebrews, at 12:14).

See the Lord! The Lord is working in you. Certainly your sanctification, your holiness, is motivated by gratitude. Hebrews has just pointed you to the perfect Redeemer, Hebrews 12:2. But if you see justification as God’s work and sanctification simply as your inadequate response, you have missed the point that Hebrews is making. Yes, you are active in sanctification, you pursue holiness. But you do so because God is working in you. Christ renews us by his Spirit. Because holiness is essential to seeing the Lord, the Holy Spirit works in the Christian, shaping him to his glory. Neither works nor even faith are the basis of salvation – the basis is always the perfect obedience of Christ, imputed to the believer. Because holiness is essential to seeing the Lord, Hebrews summons you to strive for it, admonishing you to seek something that God is working in you. And thus both the Scriptures and the Confession can rejoice in the Spirit-wrought good works which are the fruit of sanctification. Perhaps we fail to delight as readily as we should when we see in the lives of God’s people the growth in holiness which flows out of union with Christ. We have a Scriptural imperative to stir one another (and ourselves) up to good works (Heb. 10:24).

Worship in the splendor of his holiness. As you see God’s holiness, as you strive for holiness, what do you end up doing? Worshiping God! Hebrews 12 contrasts your situation with that of Israel at Sinai. God’s revelation of himself on that mountain was awe inspiring. But you have something far better, far more majestic. Notice that Hebrews does not hold out heavenly worship as a future, distant reality. It is something in which you participate now as you gather in God’s presence! Understanding that changes the whole worship experience. Why did you come to church this morning? For fellowship with God’s people? To grow in understanding his Word? Both are good reasons, but they fall far short of the most important one. You are here to worship God. You are here to join the angelic beings and the saints who have gone before you in calling God holy! You are a holy people in the presence of a holy God! “Those who are called to be partakers of God’s holi­ness must be holy them­selves; this is the recurring theme of the Pentateuchal law of holiness, echoed again in the New Testa­ment: ‘Ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy’ (Lev. 11:45, etc.; cf. 1 Pet. 1: 15.). To see the Lord is the highest and most glori­ous blessing that morals can enjoy, but the beatific vision is reserved for those who are holy in heart and life.” (F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT, pp. 364-365).

See Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant. In the glorious scene of the assembly in the Jerusalem above, central is Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant. Hebrews has focused on Jesus throughout his book. Now he calls you to be united with him by faith. Where that faith is found, God not only justifies, he also sanctifies his people. All of your salvation is his work. To him be the glory. Where that kind of changed life takes place, people notice. When automatic anger is replace with self-control, not only is Christ honored, but your neighbors see something of his peace-making work in your life. When you stop being the kind of husband or wife who assumes the world revolves around your expectations and instead focuses on serving your spouse and your children, you are seeing the Savior molding you into being part of the cleansed, perfected bride that his church is becoming. Your sanctification, your holiness, is his work in your life.

The believer’s future, perfect sanctification flows out of the Spirit-wrought process of growing in holiness during this life. Already in your daily life you are connected with what will be true in eternity, or to put it more exactly, what is already true of you in Christ. Holiness characterizes the Christian both now (in a true and wonderful way) and in eternity (perfectly) – because Jesus is the crucified and risen Savior. To him be the glory forever!