We are besieged in our culture with messages about situational ethics and moral relativism. “If it feels good, do it,” we have been told for decades. And where did that get us?
What if God has a different message for His children? Peter emphasizes that God’s plan for us is holiness. Quoting Leviticus, Peter reminds his readers, “But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15, 16). It is the same word he uses in 3:15: “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.”
But what does it mean to be holy, or sanctified? Some see this as a “better than thou” attitude, but holiness is not about a list of things not to do. It is about striving to do the right thing regardless of the circumstances. Some of us identify holiness with stained glass windows, but it is not the “walk on the water” perfection we think of. Rather, holiness is desiring God and growing in our relationship with Him.
In his Christian Bible Studies article “What Does It Mean When God Asks Us to Be Holy as He is Holy?” author Joel Scandrett says, “Holiness is not primarily about moral purity. It’s primarily about union with God in Christ and sharing in Christ’s holiness.” And in his book The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges notes, “But God has not called us to be like those around us. He has called us to be like Himself. Holiness is nothing less than conformity to the character of God.”
There are three reasons we must be holy, according to Scripture. Let’s look at them.
God’s nature is holy, and it could not be otherwise. He is incapable of being tempted by sin (James 1:13). The nature of God is so holy that twice in Scripture we are privileged to witness the scene in heaven where the angels who surround God shout, “Holy, holy, holy . . .” (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8). As the old hymn by Reginald Heber states,
Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,/Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;/Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,/Which wert, and art, and evermore shall be.
God calls us to be holy like Him, but He does not leave us on our own to desire to do what is holy. Rather, He is at work in us to make us want to do what pleases Him (Philippians 2:13). God transforms our desire to become holy like Him as we grow in our relationship with Him. While the war with sin continues in our bodies, there comes an ever-increasing desire for holiness (Romans 7:22). The result is that our growth in Christlikeness is a combination of divine sovereignty and human responsibility to make us holy. The evidence of God at work in our lives is a growing desire to be holy.
The original command to be holy was given to Israel as they came out of Egypt, and it was to mark their special relationship with God. They were taught how to be different than the Egyptians and the surrounding nations, because they were to worship the one and only true God. This command was not given to limit Israel’s freedom but to enhance it.
God looked upon Israel as His sons and desired that they experience the best He had to offer. Peter captures this idea in his quotation of Leviticus 19:2. We now, as God’s sons and daughters, have been called out of a world full of sin and sadness. We can rejoice in our salvation. Because He has chosen us to be His children, we delight in finding out and doing what is holy. This idea is at the core of Peter’s list of virtues in 2 Peter 1:5-7: “Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love.” God’s desire is to give us every good and perfect gift (James 1:17).
God wants us to be fruitful (John 15:5), and this fruit includes sharing the gospel with others. First Peter 3:15, 16 points out that as we seek to live holy (sanctified) lives, God will enable us to make a defense to those who ask us about our faith. After listing those qualities we are to grow in, Peter repeats the idea of fruitfulness in 2 Peter 1:8: “For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, God’s desire is for our holiness to make others want to know Him.
Holiness is not judging others based on my own convictions. When another person and I stand in the light of God’s holiness, we both fall short. Instead, it is letting God’s character shine on those around me so that they are attracted to Him. Sin will always oppose holiness in this life, and our culture is becoming more populated with people who hate God and deny His existence. But we can share His grace and holiness with others in order to show them that our God is real and our faith changes our lives.
Facing the challenge
Becoming increasingly holy mirrors God and His character. We are commanded to be holy people because we are set apart unto God. We must intentionally develop habits of holiness (such as Bible reading and prayer) in our lives in order to overcome sin. Obedience chooses to do what is right even when it is difficult.
Holiness does not mean that I work to earn my righteousness but that I have been set aside by God to do what is good and right.
Increasing in holiness is what is meant by becoming progressively sanctified. As I walk with God, I am to become conformed to His nature (Romans 12:2). Let’s encourage one another in this!