Holiness is hard. When we talk about holiness, we know that God is the standard; God defines holiness. As we consider the ways in which God is holy – in purity, in truth, in power, in righteousness, in justice, in mercy, and more – we become acutely aware that we are not like God in any of those ways. So when we read a text like 1 Peter 1:15, 16 – “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’”(NIV 1984) – we struggle with feelings of doubt and inadequacy and fear. We know that we are not holy and we fear that we will never be holy as God wants us to be.
Having just finished a sermon series through Ezekiel, it’s hard not to second-guess your words, actions, and motives without considering how they might undermine the reputation of God’s holy name. Throughout the book of Ezekiel, God reminded Israel that their punishment – their exile, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the loss of God’s presence among them – was the result of defiling God’s name: “They defiled my holy name by their detestable practices. So I destroyed them in my anger” (Ezekiel 43:8, NIV 1984). With that perspective, it’s no wonder that we struggle with holiness, both God’s and our own.
Since we know God’s expectations are for us to be holy and since we know that we are not holy and that our unholy thoughts, words, and actions are an offense to God and defame his reputation, how can we be holy as God is holy? We need to be made holy. By ourselves, because we are sinners (Romans 3:23), we cannot simply “be” holy; we need to be transformed to be holy. The only way we can be holy is to be made holy by the one who is holy, and this is God’s will. Hebrews 10:10 tells us: “By that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (NIV 1984).
One important aspect of that statement is the grammar of the phrase “have been made holy”; it indicates that our condition of holiness began in the past and continues in the present. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, all believers were made holy and continue to be holy before God and continue to be made holy, as we read a few verses later in Hebrews 10:14, “Because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (NIV 1984). The one-time event of Jesus’ death on the cross was the moment when the debt of all sins was paid, and when each of us was joined with Jesus in faith was the exact moment when we were made holy before God, as Paul tells us in Colossians 1:22, “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (NIV 1984). These are precise moments in time that have ongoing effect; in those moments, we were made holy, and we continue to be made holy.
The theological words here are justification and sanctification. Justification is the condition of being declared innocent, righteous, and holy. Sanctification is the ongoing process of being made holy. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and because of our faith in his sacrifice, Jesus has made and continues to make us holy.
As we approach the season when we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection, knowing that it is by his sacrifice that we are made holy, we begin to understand how we can celebrate Good Friday. We know that Jesus died for our sins, and that leads us to repent. We know that Jesus rose to give us new life, and that leads us toward worship, service, and obedience. As God makes us holy through Christ, we are transformed so that we grow out of our doubt and fear and grow to be more like him, to be holy as he is holy. Holiness is hard, but praise God that he has done the hard work to make us holy through Jesus!