© Dr. John Jackson. President, William Jessup University
Dr. Jackson is a teacher and author of books on leadership and transformation
“The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him” (Deuteronomy 28:9).
“To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7).
“For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight…” (Ephesians 1:4).
The Bible seems to make a big deal out of an uncommon word. The world “holy” is used over 400 times in the Old (or First) Testament, not counting the word “holiness.” In the New Testament, the word is used 180 times, and over 200 times if you count the word holiness. But other than fairly slang expressions (“holy smokes,” “holy cow” or something profane), the word and the concept of holy and holiness are out of vogue in modern culture. Not only has the word gone out of style in culture, it feels to me like it has lost its “zing” even in the church and among people of faith. A previous generation of church members and culture understood the word holy to invoke notions of reverence, awe, and perfection.
I have been thinking a lot lately about words like “holiness” and “sanctification.” Both words relate to the idea of being set apart, devoted, or perfect and complete. In fact, when I was studying theology in school, we used to understand that the holiness of God is His first attribute. If we know that God is holy or perfect, then we know that His holiness and perfection and completeness extend to every dimension of His being, His nature, and His behavior. The perfection or holiness of God always made sense to me when I thought about the behavior of God. God is perfect in all that He is and in all that He does. When God loves, He loves perfectly. When God shows mercy, He shows perfect mercy. When God gives justice, He gives perfect justice.
The holiness and perfection of God made sense to me from a Biblical and theological standpoint. What was always a lot more challenging was the notion that I was to be holy as a human being, in all my messes and imperfections. What do Deuteronomy and Ephesians mean when they say that we are called to be “holy people?” In what sense could that even be a reality with this flawed and failing vessel that I am (not to say anything about you, but if the shoe fits…smile, just checking to see if you were reading carefully). Literally hundreds of Bible verses talk about the fact that God is perfect and holy, and that we, His people, are to be set apart (sanctified) and be holy as He is holy. How is that possible? And, if we are called to be holy, how can we also be involved in the world and loving people and culture that is so unholy and morally compromised?
These are the things I have been pondering as of late. You see, I lead a Christ Centered University (William Jessup University in Sacramento, www.jessup.edu). I’m pretty consistently praying and pondering about what it means for our students, staff, and faculty to be making a difference in the world. Our very mission statement (We partner with the church to educate transformational leaders for the glory of God) suggests that we care about how culture is affected by how we live as a community. And while I do not have any final answers for my questions, I think that some of what I have discovered so far may be of help to all of us. Let me center our thinking around three things.
First, we need to have a better understanding of salvation and sanctification. Being holy is a calling, a journey, and a destination. We often think of salvation as an event, and therefore holiness and being holy must be one as well, a moment in time. But that clearly is not the teaching of Scripture. The Bible talks about salvation in three tenses. We are “saved, being saved, and will be saved.” One simple way I have learned it is the following three statements that apply if you are a follower of Jesus Christ:
We were saved in the past from the penalty of our sins. That is justification.
We are saved in the present from the power of our sins. That is sanctification.
We will be saved in the future from the presence of our sins. That is glorification.
This passage in 1 Thessalonians makes it clear that we are to be blameless and holy when we are in the presence of God:
“May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones” (1 Thessalonians 3:13).
There is a sense that being made holy is both a once and for all completed action (Hebrews 10:10, 1 Corinthians 1:30) and a progressive, daily experience of surrender (1 Peter 2:2, Hebrews 12:14, 2 Peter 3:18). Understanding that holiness and sanctification are not only a now reality but a then experience, helps me understand that I live in the “in between” time. That theme certainly reflects the story of Christ followers throughout history.
Second, we are called to bring the perfect holiness, love, and kindness of God to a society that is broken and off the rails and through people like us who are still in process and imperfect carriers of perfect love.
Clearly, we are incapable in our own strength of living lives of complete righteousness or perfection. Titus 3:5 tells us that our righteousness is as “filthy rags.” There is no capacity in our own human ability to be all that God has called us to be. And yet, the Bible gives us the glorious source of our empowerment in Romans 8.
“You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:9-11).
This glorious promise of Scripture tells us that all who belong to Jesus have the Spirit of God living in them and empowering our daily experience. That which would be impossible in the “natural” becomes supernaturally possible. Faith in the midst of uncertainty, hope in the midst of despair, love in the midst of anger and pain, and all of these become supernaturally possible in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are followers of Jesus who have been called to live in such a way that the presence of God manifests itself in a redemptive fashion here on planet Earth.
Obviously, we are imperfect in our everyday experience of living in the power of the Spirit. In fact, we are often not holy; we are profoundly failing and insufficient. But the glorious reality of our human experience is that we live out what the Scriptures proclaim in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”The earthen vessels of our lives (“cracked pots” in some translations) are the vehicle the Lord uses to “leak out” His love and grace to a world full of pain and brokenness. The holy grace and love of Jesus is to flow through our earthly walking around so that heaven comes to earth. The treasure of the holiness of God is entrusted to followers of Jesus; as such we have opportunity to be carriers of His redemptive and holy love to those in our sphere of influence.
Third, while we have been set apart for the glorious and holy purposes of God, we are called to love the world with a deep and abiding love as His people here on planet Earth.
When Jesus looked at the City of Jerusalem, He wept for the condition of their hearts (Luke 19). When asked which of the Commandments was the greatest, Jesus’ all time summary answer was that we should love God and love our neighbor (Matthew 22). But, when I have the privilege of teaching in American church settings, I will periodically remind my church-going audiences that the general population in current American culture often thinks of religious people as “mean, angry, condemning and judgmental.” Often, I will let those words sit and sting in our collective experience. Personally, I do not believe the vast majority of Christ followers are any of those 4 words, but those words can, sadly, be used to describe the experience that some have had with people of faith in our culture. For that, the church can and must be profoundly repentant, and also recognize that media and the cultural elite are often doing their best to marginalize faith out of the public square.
My experience as a pastor and a university president suggests that redemptive, bold, and positive engagement in the public square is necessary for people of faith and in every sphere of our culture. Further, the demonstration of love for our world begins in our neighborhoods, our jobs, our supermarkets, our recreational settings, and any atmosphere where we are present as people of faith. When Jesus teaches His disciples how to pray in Matthew 6:9-13, He petitions the Father that it would be “on earth as it is in heaven.” If you are like me, you have many times read that phrase as a “Hallmark card” type of sentimentality, but without any real time and place application. I’ve spent substantial seasons reflecting in the last decade recognizing that though I revered Scripture, this was one (of many) verses that I really did not expect Jesus to fulfill in my life, let alone my lifetime.
I believe that the mandate of heaven is for followers of Jesus to bring heaven to earth. One very clear pathway to that mandate is to bring the holiness and love of Jesus into the lives of broken and wounded people in the atmospheres into which we walk. Later in the Matthew 6 passage (verse 33), Jesus actually tells us that if we seek His kingdom and His righteousness, “all these things” will be added to us. I believe that an outbreak of radical, kingdom of God love and holiness will be radically transformative for our culture. The people of God, living in a holy and sanctified fashion, will be a witness and loving embrace to a world that has gone off the rails in this present hour and is desperately in need of hope and transformation.
Set Apart and Loving Deeply
Followers of Jesus, people of deep and abiding faith, are called to live in the midst of our imperfections and challenges for the glory of God. We have been “set apart” not in a monastic or geographic sense, but in a purposeful and declarative sense. Who you are as a follower of Jesus is a “holy vessel.” You have been set apart by the King of Kings to be His representative here on this planet. Our condition as a “set apart one” has nothing to do with our inherent goodness, and everything to do with His matchless and wonderful grace and kindness. Because we have been so deeply loved, we then have an incalculable opportunity to give Him praise and respond to His love by loving others in His name (1 John 4:19).
I am believing for a church that recovers great clarity about the holy nature of God. I believe that knowing that He is holy brings us to a place of reverential awe and worship, a “fear of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 7:1) that comes from a place of deep encounter, and a love for women and men (that God has placed in our lives) that they too might come to know Him. I think this call to be set apart and to love deeply is the clarion call of bringing heaven to earth, bringing that which is holy and redemptive to that which is broken and without hope. This is the call of our hour and the opportunity of our lifetimes. Rise up Church and let us respond to the Holy One who’s name we bear and who’s love and grace we carry. Maranatha!