Holiness and Missions

Personal sanctification and mission are two things we hardly ever talk about in relationship to each other. If we do, it’s often in shallow, legalistic language. We’ve most likely heard pastors who warn that we had better be holy or else we will “ruin our witness.” We think of the guy who tries not to swear, puts on a smile, and doesn’t drink when he’s around his coworkers.

Because of this kind of legalism, we swing to the other extreme, and we romanticize and champion our brokenness for the purpose of evangelism. “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” we say. That becomes our banner for proclamation of Christ.

But the Bible champions holiness as a central means for evangelism.

1 Peter 1:9-12 is case in point among many passages of Scripture:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

Peter calls believers to live in their identity as “a holy nation,” a people who have been saved into the kingdom of life. This is precisely for the purpose of bringing those outside of Christ into a place that glorifies God. Holiness and evangelism must be inextricable realities for those in Christ.

So why do these concepts bring so much tension? Why does the idea of holy conduct for the purpose of evangelism strike us with such distaste?

I would suggest that it is because we have an inadequate view of holiness.

Jonathan Edwards says it well, “Holiness is a most beautiful and lovely thing. We drink in strange notions of holiness from our childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour and unpleasant thing; but there is nothing in it but what is sweet and ravishingly lovely. ‘Tis the highest beauty and amiableness, vastly above all other beauties.”

All of us have images of grumpy, stingy old church men who define in our minds the word “holiness.” Or maybe the nun from Blues Brothers.

But Scripture speaks of the “splendor” of holiness. This Hebrew word carries the idea of beauty, as in the beauty of a sunset (Hos 14:7; Hab 3:3). It is not a dark word.

Three examples from Scripture teach us well what holiness means:

  1. Adam and Eve

In Genesis 3 humanity sins. Here we see the response of a holy God. Contrary to the notion that a holy God cannot tolerate sin in his presence, this story describes God present in the garden searching for Adam and Eve, and calling for them (Gen 3:8-9). Later, the holy God removes their inadequate covering and clothes them, covering their shame and foreshadowing the cross.

  1. Isaiah

In Isaiah 6, Isaiah is in the presence of the “holy, holy, holy” God, and he describes himself as a “sinful man.” But instead of being disintegrated, the holy God comes close, and he atones for Isaiah’s sin.

  1. Jesus

And the third example among others is Jesus himself. He is the Son of God who was not sent into the world “to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). The cross was the holy God among us, ultimately dealing with sin so that we could be near him.

The great irony is that our notion of holiness comes from the bad guys in Scripture: the Pharisees. They are the ones who look down their noses and treat others with cold contempt. They are literary characters of Scriptures that help us understand the sin that is within all of us. And this is precisely the sin which God is set apart from. God is not cold, and distant. He is holy. He draws near and he atones.

As we think through global missions or local ministry, let us pursue sanctification. Mission and ministry that is destructive to a marriage is no mission or ministry at all, for it is the bright light of a holy marriage that dramatizes the person and work of Jesus. The very nature of mission is God’s light in a dark world, and is therefore mission involves the holy light that proceeds from Christ-honoring marriages, Christ-honoring fathers and mothers, Christ-honoring sons and daughters, Christ-honoring friends, Christ-honoring workers, and Christ-honoring citizens.

Let us pursue holy conduct together as the fountainhead of global and local mission.


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