Who Are We? A Holy Church

Basic CMYKCan you sing the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy!” without being afraid? If God is holy, how does that carry over to his church? Is the church holy? Can she be holy?

Ascribe holiness to God. Holiness separates God from his creation. Grasp the magnificence, the glory of the Lord, as seen in Isaiah’s vision. God’s majesty is so great that his sinless creatures, the seraphs, cover their faces in his presence and cry, holy, holy, holy! The New Testament sounds the same note, Revelation 4:6-8. One of the reasons we struggle with personal holiness is that we don’t see as clearly as we should the transcendence of God. We treat him as the one who makes us feel good, and who gives us what we think we need. “The basic idea which the word ‘holy’ expresses is that of separation or separateness. When God is declared to be ‘holy’, the thought is of all that separates Him and sets Him apart and makes Him different from His creatures. . . . [M]an, because of his weakness as a creature and his defilement as a sinful creature, must learn to humble himself and be reverent before God.” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 183).

In Christ God makes sinners holy. You might expect God’s prophet, witnessing the cry of the seraphs, to join in the hymn, or at least to add a hearty “Amen!” But, instead he displays consternation and dismay, both with his own sinfulness and that of his people. Your problem is not just your creaturehood–even more it is your sinfulness. Isaiah is a prophet, set aside to the Lord’s work–but he is unfit for it until the Lord sends an angel who touches the prophet’s lips with a coal from the altar. God calls his church holy, see 1 Corinthians 1:2–but it is a church torn by divisions, tolerant, even boastful about immorality, abusive of the Lord’s Supper, prideful in the exercise of gifts, and doubtful of the resurrection. How can this church be holy? But look at us, the sins that we are aware of, the sins that we hide. How can the Corinthians, how can we, be a holy church? Just as the searing coal on Isaiah’s lips cleansed him and prepared him for serving the Lord, God has dealt with the problem of your sin. Christ, the sin-bearer, took your sins upon himself. Your guilt is placed on him, and his righteousness is counted to you. But God not only declares you just, he also brings about a definitive break with sin. The church is the body of people united with Christ in his death and resurrection. For you to continue to be under the power of sin is as contradictory as Christ continuing to be subject to suffering and death–now that he has been raised and exalted. Notice how Paul describes this church in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.

Respond to the presence of your holy God. You are the temple in which God dwells. In the promised holy land was the holy city, Jerusalem. And in that city was the holy temple, entered only by those who were ceremonially clean, those who were purified by the sacrifices they brought. Serving in that holy temple were the priests, set apart to the Lord from the tribe of Levi. What Ezekiel 37:27 pointed to has come about, now that the Messiah has come. He mysteriously spoke of destroying the temple and rebuilding it, John 2. The rebuilding is his resurrected body, including both the physical body that appeared to disciples, and ate fish and honey, and also the body that is his church. Jesus tells the Samaritan that the new place of worship is neither the temple in Jerusalem nor Mt. Gerazim. Rather, it is where God’s people meet in faith at the feet of the Messiah, worshiping God in Spirit and in truth. Because you are that temple, have nothing in common with idolatry. Look for the subtle selfishness that pushes God to a secondary place. Look out for the influence of the world that tells you that the day that God claims as his is really for your pleasure and use.

You are the people among whom God walks. Israel, preparing to enter the promised land, received detailed instructions about ceremonial cleanliness, Leviticus 11-16. Blood, certain animals, some insects, dead bodies, all made one unclean. In the midst of that is the command to be holy because God is holy, Leviticus 11:44. Many of your daily actions reminded you that you were different from surrounding people, you were set apart to God. Those ceremonial laws were not abolished, but they were fulfilled in Christ. Though the ceremonies no longer apply, the requirement to be holy as those who are in Christ intensifies. Don’t be yoked unevenly with unbelievers. The Corinthians had been engaging in those kids of unions. Any unequal union is prohibited—sexual or otherwise. To be joined to an unbeliever is to be joined in his refusal to trust. Paul is not commanding withdrawal from the world. He does not want you to leave the world! To be truly human is to be holy. That is how we were created, and that is what we, the church are becoming. “Under the scorn that dismisses saintliness lies a guilty avoidance of what it means to be human. As rebels, we prefer to think that a saint is abnormal – to be admired, perhaps, as a Mother Teresa, but not a real human being. But to be holy is to be genuinely human, for holiness is godliness, and life without God is life without meaning.” (Edmund P. Clowney, The Church, p. 83). Avoid union that accepts the assumptions of unbelief. The prohibition is sweeping. It applies to marriage, education, philosophy, business, etc. Avoid the early steps which lead to involvement in unequal situations. Examine that job offer before you make a commitment. Young people, remember that you don’t fall into love, you climb in.

Live as sons and daughters of God Almighty. God promised to be a father to David, 2 Samuel 7. Now, in Christ, that has broadened to include all those who come to the Father in Christ. You have become sons and daughters of the thrice holy God! What is common between: Belief and unbelief, 2 Corinthians 6:14a & 15b? Righteousness and wickedness Light and darkness? God’s light is the source of righteousness. What do Christ and Beliar (or Belial = Satan) have in common? God’s temple and idols? You have received God’s promises, 2 Corinthians 7:1. Appreciate the privilege of being a child of God, see 2 Samuel 7:14; Jeremiah 31:9; Isaiah 43:6. All of God’s might (and he is God Almighty) stands behind his promises. Your call to holiness, instead of being a burden, simply means living as one who is part of God’s family. Perhaps sanctification is not a team sport. But it is a family activity, an activity of the family of God! Encourage one another in your walk with the Lord.

Sing “Holy, holy, holy!” not with terror, but with the awesome respect and gratitude that comes from knowing that this God has become your Father. And, because you are now holy in Christ, look for those parts of your life that contradict that–and eradicate them.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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