Updated: Nov 28, 2022
A holy God requires a holy people to reflect His character and nature to the world.
Christians used to stand for something, but today we fall for anything. How? you might ask. We have forgotten that we are supposed to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13-16). God never intended for us to blend in with the world but to be the example of kingdom living to the world.
Consequently, I have developed an understanding that the Bible not only instructs us how to have a spiritual relationship with God, but it also teaches us how to live human God’s way. I have come to frame it in this respect to not diminish the spiritual aspect of our relationship with God. At the same time, we must remember that we are human beings having a human experience. Thus, the Bible teaches us how to live as humans in alignment with the principles God intends for us to follow.
The challenge is that when Adam and Eve chose to live human their way, our spiritual connection with God was disrupted (Gen. 3:6-7), and we began to live in alignment with the principles of our fallen nature and sinful environment – i.e., the world. But the Son of God became human to show us how to live human God’s way under the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1). As Spirit-filled believers, we have been regenerated and empowered to no longer live according to the principles of the world but the principles of the Word (Eph. 2:1-3).
19th Century Holiness versus 21st Century Christianity
The Holiness Movement of the 19th century was a strict evolution of Wesleyan perfectionism. “Because of the movement’s emphasis on Christian perfection and a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit after salvation, those who follow these teachings focus on personal and outward holiness,” says Sophia Bricker. Its adherents believed that God had called His people to be different from the people of the world. They were to dress different, talk different, live different, and be different. But 21st century Christianity is a far cry from what Phoebe Palmer advocated.
Today, Christians have embraced a conformist’s approach to our faith. We don’t see ourselves as different anymore. We do everything the world does and think it is unequivocally acceptable. Those who dare to remind the church of its unique position in God’s program are vehemently demolished by the social media mob as “judgmental,” “traditional,” “holier than thou,” or “legalistic.” Anything and everything are acceptable, and no one seems to have an issue with it, except maybe God.
Cultural Conformists versus Culture Changers
Andy Crouch, in his provocative work Culture Making, argues that we can do one of five things: We can condemn the culture, critique the culture, copy the culture, consume the culture, or create the culture. To be fair, those in the Holiness camp tend to do the first two. And yes, it can be counterproductive to our mission of making disciples. But at least they understand that we are called to be different from the world, although they express that difference in somewhat unhealthy ways. However, the greater error rests with those who copy and consume the world’s culture and see nothing wrong with it. Those who subscribe to the Holiness way of life have the right theology despite having an ineffective praxeology. But the Libertine’s praxeology illustrates that they have an incorrect theology – and that is more dangerous. Therefore, it is important that we get our theology right.
So, what does the Bible say? 1 Peter 1:14-16 states, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
Peter’s exhortation is for those who have been chosen by God for salvation through Jesus Christ to be holy. There are three principles in these verses that are important for us to live in alignment with God’s prescription for human flourishing.
1. We are not to conform to the world’s way of thinking and living. Peter identifies his readers as “obedient children.” It speaks to a commitment to live according to the principles of Scripture and not those of the world. Today, we are being encouraged to live according to what we think and what we feel, but obedient children live according to what God commands. This mindset has been adopted from our broader culture with its postmodern worldview of self-governance. But Peter admonishes us to not be conformed to our old way of thinking, because the world’s way of thinking is ignorant of God’s truth as revealed in Scripture.
To conform is “to form according to a pattern or mold.” What Peter is advocating is for us to not allow the world to form us according to how they think and live, because they don’t know any better, but we do. That would be like those with sight allowing themselves to be led by the blind. Just because the world says sin is good and holiness is bad, does not make it so. They are living in ignorance, but we are living in revealed truth. So, the first thing we must do is be obedient to what God has said and not allow ourselves to be molded by the value system of the world to satisfy our ungodly desires.
2. We are to be like the One who called us in our thinking and living. Having told us what we should not be – conformed to the world’s pattern – Peter then tells us what we should be. This is important because one of the criticisms of the Holiness movement is that it only focuses on what we should not do as opposed to what we should do. But Peter anticipates this critique and offers an affirmative prescription for being obedient children. His exhortation is for us to behave like God.
God is holy; He is distinctly other. He is morally, ethically, and majestically impeccable. There is no sin, darkness, or imperfection in Him. This holy God expects for His children to behave themselves in a way that reflects His holy character and nature. He reveals those attributes to us in the Scriptures so that we are no longer ignorant about who He is and how He expects us to live. Thus, we have no choice but to live morally and ethically different from those who do not serve God or receive the Bible as His authoritative and prescriptive revelation for His creation. He called us to be holy, not the same as everyone else. If the world won’t understand or accept that we can’t think like them and behave like them, well, that’s their problem, not ours.
3. We have a mandate from Scripture to think and live different from the world. Peter wraps a wonderful bow around this section by reminding us that holiness is not a suggestion but a mandate from God. God tells us what we will be, holy, because it is what He is. Very simply, obedient children live holy, while disobedient children do not. God will not compromise His standards to accommodate creatures that prefer to be unholy, and neither should we.
I like that God says what we will be. It is a prophetic duality. On the one hand, it is a demand from God that our character aligns with His character. We are to think and live like our Father. This is what distinguishes us as His children as opposed to the children of disobedience. On the other hand, it is a declaration from God that those whom He has chosen to be His children will ultimately reflect His nature. It is the now but not yet reality of God’s completed work through Jesus Christ. We are holy positionally in the sight of God because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ. We are becoming holy progressively through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. We will be holy permanently when we receive our glorified bodies. Until then, we must align our hearts and minds with the morals and ethics of Scripture and be led by the Spirit so that we reflect the holiness of God in an unholy society (Rom. 8:14).
Holiness Is a Way of Life
Ultimately, holiness is not a movement or denomination; it is a way of life. Every Spirit-filled believer is to live holy. We must remember that we have the “Holy” Spirit living inside our human spirit. It doesn’t mean that we lift ourselves up as paragons of virtue, because we still fall short of God’s glory. But it does mean that we do our best to live obedient to God’s Word – from Genesis to Revelation – out of our love for Him because of the great salvation He made available to us though His Son Jesus Christ.
The Holiness movement erred on the side of caution. They meant well but, in some instances, did more harm than good. But this anti-holiness movement we see rising in the church today is even more dangerous because it is anti-biblical. For those of us who still hold to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, God remains holy and requires His children to be the same. So, in the words of one Holiness preacher I sometimes watch, “Holiness is still right.”
Rev. Isaac Hayes is the founder of Healing of the Soul Ministries and author of Men After God’s Heart: 10 Principles of Brotherly Love. He is also an Assistant Pastor at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, Illinois, and a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Follow Rev. Hayes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @RevIsaacHayes.
 Sophia Bricker, “What Is the Holiness Movement and Is it Biblical?,” Christianity.com, July 21, 2021, https://www.christianity.com/wiki/christian-terms/what-is-the-holiness-movement-and-is-it-biblical.html.  Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008).  BDAG, 979.