God Says, “Be Holy!”

By: Antipas Harris
Monday, August 6th, 2012


Centuries of social, political, cultural, and religious diversity weigh heavily on expressions of Christianity. Party politics, greed, personality driven ministries, ministry as business, and denominational and non-denominational church struggles over members seem to be the order of the day.  These influences have moved Christians further and further away from divine principles to which Christians are called to live out before a world that is far from God. The Church is called to be holy; so Christians must pursue holiness amidst an unholy world. The world does not know God so the world cannot lead in holiness. The best way to win the world to faith in Christ is by bearing witness to Christ through the Christian’s lifestyle of holiness – a life that is indifferent of the world—and expressed love towards those who are not living that life.  Miller argues that a careful revisit of historical developments that have altered Christianity from its biblical form of indifference might be a meaningful way for the Church to regain its fervor in representing Christ in the world—a world that God expects for Christians to be in but not of.

Duke University School of Divinity Professors Hauerwas and Willimon correctly note that biblical Christianity is not meant to be a nationalized religion. Christ’s followers are “called-out” to live peculiar in the world. Hauerwas and Willimon point out that “the Church,” as those called out by God embodies an important alternative to the world that the world cannot know on its own terms.[1] The most authentically biblical Church is the one that stands in contrast to society rather than one that seeks to diffuse Herself into the status quo of society.

Scripture requires that the Church be the continued presence of Christ in the world. A close study of the biblical Jesus reveals that the Church must be holy, full of love, and full of grace. In a society filled with a wide-range of perversion, hate and envy, it is critical that Christians earnestly contend for faith as revealed in Christ. This means that there are times when cultural adaptation is appropriate and there are times when Christianity must opt for cultural indifference. When society pursues systems of beliefs that are antithetical to biblical teachings, God requires the Church to stand against society.

The Church is connected to the world as it serves as healing balm, a way out, the divine arm of salvation for people in the world. She bears “Good news” in the face of bad news. The church, moreover, must remain distinct from the world in order to carry out its Christological purpose in the world. The Church must remain connected to the world through the Holy Spirit that empowers the church to continue to bear witness of Christ in the world.

As churches (communities of call out believers) return to holiness, we will regain distinction amidst a work of religious plurality. There was a time when people knew who the Christians were. They acted differently than others; they interacted with others with grace and love; their attitude was with optimism of Christ. The very name “Christian” was a term of mockery in Antioch of first century. The followers of Christ exemplified a distinct strive towards being like Christ. So they gloried in the term of mockery and wore it proudly. Today, among those who call ourselves Christians, the salient question is do we strive to be holy like Christ or are we accommodating to society’s ways of living?

Preachers do not preach on holiness much these days. Many Christians forfeit the beauty of holiness when we shun the very conversation of holiness. As soon as the preacher says the word “holiness,” some of us turn a deaf ear and blame her or him of the “l” word—legalism. As a result, many preachers offer polemics against “being religious.” They say something like, “God doesn’t want us to be ‘religious;’ we need ‘relationship.” Christian television has made the language of “Kingdom living” popular. Still there are others who use the following language: “We need to live ‘godly,’” “Let’s get crunk for Christ” or, “We need to be on fire for Christ,” avoiding the language of “holiness.” The assumption is that the language of “religion,” or “holiness” is loaded; thus, using the language in sermons is more off-putting than inviting in the ears of the congregation, particularly any people who are not Christians yet. There is often a desire in contemporary preaching to mingle contemporary jargon and ideology with preaching.

Perhaps, the purpose for alternative, popular language serves as mechanism to make the gospel seem “cool.” On the one hand, I do agree that cultural translation is important to effectively communicate the message of Jesus Christ. Language is key to translating the message of Christ. On the other hand, the message and life of Christ requires that preaching maintain commitment to a message that emphasizes the absolute difference between holiness and unholiness. So then, making the gospel practical and relevant to people of all walks of life, multiple vernaculars, and in changing times is essential for translating the gospel message with relevance.

There is a thin line, however, between drawing from cultural signs, symbols, patterns and languages to communicate a more profound message from a biblical worldview and drawing from the worldview of society and applying those worldviews onto biblical concepts. When found guilty of the latter, one risks improper ideological syncretism. It is important, moreover, to note that biblical holiness has internal norms by which it transforms people from living out worldviews and systems of beliefs, which are contrary to those internal norms. So, while we use relevant vernacular, contemporary signs, symbols, patters, and other tools to communicate God’ Word, we must remain in tune with the enduring nature of God’s character — holiness to which all believers are called.

The founder of the Methodist churches, John Wesley, once said, “True religion consists in the living relationship of God.”  As I have suggested in other posts, preaching should not seek to bifurcate “religion and relationship.”  Rather, preaching must propagate what Wesley calls “true religion,” which includes binding one’s self to biblical teachings, consisting of a vibrant relationship with God. Let the Church cry, “Holy!”

[1]. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 17, 18.


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Antipas Harris
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13 Responses to “God Says, “Be Holy!””

  1. Gary says:

    Hello Antipas,

    I am not ashamed of the gospel, nor am I afraid to live as a resident alien. I want to be identified with Jesus. However, the concept of holiness is not clear. What does ‘holy’ mean? What standard do you use to determine holiness achieved? Many believers turn New Testament ethics into Torah thereby nullifying the work of grace achieved at the cross and the power demonstrated in the resurrection. A call to holiness must, at the very least, include some definition of what holiness is.

    Better than a call to holiness would be the call to host the presence of Spirit. Our faith in the King works by love. A loving believer that seeks the presence of Spirit allows the King Himself to call out to others. Participation in a community that seeks the presence of Spirit allows for the mutual encouragement and equiping that must take place in order to grow in Christ. The process can be a bit messy, but then love becomes the guiding ethic, and love covers a multitude of sin. In fact, love can bury sin making it a non-issue for those who are quick to turn a heart to Jesus by the Spirit.


    • Antipas Harris Harris says:


      Thank you for your comment and insights. You are correct. Holiness needs definition. This blog is part of a larger discussion in my forthcoming book called “Let the Church Cry Holy.” I think that holiness is a biblical term and needs biblical definition. The term is first used in the Hebrew Bible. So, we need the Hebrew Bible to help us with the conversation. Yet, the New Testament does refine the definition with an emphasis on love. All said, love does not replace the standard of holiness defined in the Hebrew Bible. Certainly the code of holiness seems to change or unearth a lot more. But what is clear is that God’s people are called to live by different standards than those defined by society.

      Thank you again for your conversation — very insightful!


      • Gary says:

        Hello again,

        Thanks for your reply. I agree that the New Testament does not refine the definition of holiness explicitly. However, briefly, considering Paul’s discussion of the Antioch incident with Peter (Gal 2), Paul talks about building up what had been torn down (v. 18) and that doing so would indeed make him a transgressor of the law. The idea here being that maintaining a division between Jew and Gentile (relationships or loving one another) negates the work of Christ.

        The law (where holiness is defined) is introduced in Exodus. The scripture uses the term holy before it is defined when Moses approaches the burning bush. Holiness is a concept that indicates the separation between Israel and the Gentile nations. The law functioned as a fence (separation) to maintain Israel’s identity so that the Messiah could accomplish the promise made to Abraham that all nations would be blessed by his seed (the reason Gal 3 contrasts the promise and the law). It seems that the law concentrated sin onto one nation and then onto that nation’s Messiah so that a representative could conquer sin and death for all people everywhere and in every time

        The coming of Christ is the fulfillment of the law (its purpose achieved). Therefore, the reason for separation in the meaning of holy (as associated with the law) is irrelevant. Holiness is now not necessarily a term of separation (as originally introduced). It is now a term that requires relational integration (love) at some level.

        Hopefully in my haste I have not truncated my ideas too much.


      • Gary says:

        part 2 of reply -

        oh and the importance of the the coming of the Holy Spirit (the presence) is the fulfillment of Abraham’s promise (no more separation) in Gal 3. The reason why seeking God’s presence becomes so important.

    • Antipas Harris Harris says:


      I agree that holiness in the OT was a line of demarcation between Israel and other nations– or separation as you put it. That same line is not present in the New Testament as the NT seeks to include rather than separate. Only, note that that inclusion is in Christ. So, while the OT separation between nations is no longer the mark of holiness, the separation between those who are in Christ and those who are not in Christ IS the NT mark of holiness.

      Thanks for the conversation. Antipas

  2. Walt Gessner says:

    The beginning of this discussion is intriguing. I agree with Harris on the need for God’s people to be a holy people; called out to God. I further agree that the need for holiness preaching, and, I would add, example. Wesley emphasized the pure religion grounded in the Word of God and realized in a holiness of the inner person. I also agree with Gary. This holiness is a pure (or, to some, being made pure) love as well in which a love for God and people is realized, lived out, and matured. For me the question is this: how then is holiness preached or declared?

    Did Jesus not say that the unbelieving world would know the followers of Jesus by the love they have one for another? And, would it not be this different kind of love that would identify those who would become the earliest martyrs?

    Harris is also correct in pointing out that seeking contemporary signs and symbols over a “more profound message from a biblical worldview” blurs the lines between the holy and profane. I admit, we may be preaching to a generation or two that were not formed within the community of faith. The language might be foreign to them, but does this mean we do not direct them to learn, grow and that for their being made holy?

    There seems to be a tension between Word and Spirit, but why cannot the two be coinherent and with the Father, especially in the restoration of the image of God within the community of faith? For it might be in this religion the people of God will come out and be holy.

    • Antipas Harris Harris says:


      Thank you for your insight, connecting love to holiness. Love is certainly central to holiness and must not be seen as separate from it or antithetical to it.

      Moreover, I do not see the tension between Word and Spirit. I would love to hear more of how you see the tension. The Spirit is called the “Holy Spirit.” In my view, the Word is sealed by the Spirit. The Holiness is the character of God. The Spirit is fully God. So, the Spirit that seals the Word in our hearts and minds is the holiness that the believer should live out in our daily lives.

      Help me see how you might see this differently.


  3. Sister Fabulous says:

    The article Is indeed filled with excitement because the author assessments regarding the plight of where we are as Christians today compare to the early church In my opinion is rather sad. Sad because the church and the world more often than not look and act the same. but there is still hope because Jesus is at the right hand of the Father always interceding for us and that’s good news. furthermore, as Jesus is holy, we are to look at his life as a perfect example to see what holy means. Also, we need to be swift to hear and slow to speak when hearing so many today saying I’m a Christian but the fruit they bear says otherwise. in the end, the only thing that will matter is what we do for the Father God.

  4. Lauretta Anderson says:

    This is a well-written and well thought out essay that I concur with entirely. I grew up in what others called the “sanctified or holiness” church. However, after my own born again experience, I have realized that holiness is not a denomination but a standard that God expects every blood washed believer to adhere to. I preached a sermon titled “There’s Nothing Wrong With Living Holy” because it seems as if too many people believe there is. Let’s get back to showing people that holy living can be lived through the power of the Holy Spirit and that we as Christians must live according to God’s standard. It is just too comfortable for us to conform to the world but Jesus died so that there would be a notable difference between the holy and the profane. Again, I enjoyed this essay and hope I can reference it as I continue to preach and teach holiness without which no man, woman, boy, or girl, can see God! (Had to give a nod to my Pentecostal roots!)

    • Antipas Harris Harris says:


      Thank you for your comment. I am happy that you resonate with the notion that holiness is not a denomination but a way of life. Keep telling the world about it!


  5. Yolanda says:

    Dr. Harris,
    I think this was a very well written piece and it needed to be said. Lately, it seems that churches and Christians have been putting more of an emphasis on reaching the lost, rather than presenting ourselves the way that God has commanded us to. Leviticus 20:7 states, “And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the Lord am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine.” I think it’s great that we are reaching so many people and now its “cool” to be in God’s kingdom. However, are we reaching people and presenting ourselves the way HE wants us to?

    In my opinion, many have gone away with the term “Holiness” because it has become synonymous with “self-righteousness” and those who are very judgmental have used to that term to scare off people that didn’t look, think or operate in the same fashion as they themselves. There has been so much hypocrisy that what God envisions of a Holy, Godly people, has gotten lost somewhere in Hebrew translation. True holiness resonates in one’s heart and it comes out through their lives. Holiness is supposed to be unto God, because man can only look on the outside, but God sees one’s true self.

    Ultimately, one truth remains. God is no respecter of persons, but we should strive to do what pleases HIM. In my humble opinion, true holiness is in the lives that each one of us lives, just as long as it’s pleasing unto the Lord.