Caesarius of Arles, a 6th century bishop in Gaul, wrote “Pious souls of the Lord, what the Lord admonishes us is not to be considered merely in passing, for he says, “Be holy because I am holy.” This is a staggering statement, this is a call to action. “For agios is the Greek for “holy,” … (SERMON 1.19.25)” while qadosh is the Hebrew. But both have the understanding of devotion, dedication and setting aside for worship. If we are not to merely consider this in passing, but are to take it actively into our minds, “What is holiness? How are we going to be holy? Can we make ourselves holy?” No, but, we can pray for God to make us holy!
In answer to the first question, “What is holiness?” we need to look to God’s Word. The very first thing in Scripture to be declared holy is the Sabbath in Gen 2:3 where “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy…” In fact it is this idea, which has to be taken very seriously, God determines what is holy and what is not. Throughout Scripture, it is God who marks things out as holy, who marks people out as holy, who sets aside those created things and people for devotion and acts of worship. “Regard them [priests] as holy, because they offer up the food of your God. Consider them holy, because I the Lord am holy — I who make you holy” (Leviticus 21:8). Holiness is not an inherent quality some things possess and others don’t, it is something God determines and instills, it is something he bestows on parts of his creation.
And holy people, specifically, are to act holy; there is a way of life that God expects in response to his designation of the holy person. For instance, the women of the priesthood were only to marry other priests; they were to perform certain functions for society, to abstain from certain kinds of behavior and to model a life of dependence on God. “Do not profane my holy name. I must be acknowledged as holy by the Israelites. I am the Lord, who makes you holy” (Leviticus 22:32). God very clearly articulates this to Moses when punishing him for striking the rock instead of calling forth water. Listen to these words of the Lord, “But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them” (Numbers 20:12).
Trust, obedience, right actions are the required actions of the holy people. In short, holiness for the created order means being set apart by God for acts of worship; it doesn’t matter whether it is the silver bowl, the bronze stake, the wooden post or the sea cow hide of the tabernacle, the ox, lamb or goat of the sacrifice, the incense for the smoke, the clothes of the priest, the priest himself or the people, each thing, each person, each article is set apart for worshipping the Lord. Each is holy.
Paul, repeatedly declared the Christian believer as one who is holy – “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7). The very word saints, literally is holy ones. But Paul also declares that believers are to be holy:
- 1Cor. 1:2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ — their Lord and ours:
- Eph. 1:4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love
- Heb. 12:14 Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
You are holy. I am holy. We are holy because God has declared us holy. He has imputed to his people by nature of his electing grace the inherent quality of holiness. From this, he then calls them, us, to exercise, or work out this holiness in the world through appropriate actions of worship. So to answer the 2nd question, How are we going to be holy? We are going to pray for a holy life. We are going to pray for a life consistent with his declaration. But what does this mean as far as a prayer goes?
That is where our prayer from Paul sheds the first insight for us today. Paul is praying that the Corinthians “will not do anything wrong.” To pray for holiness in our lives or the lives of others, is first and foremost to pray that we will not do what is wrong, or sinful. To pray for holiness is first to pray that we will abstain from what is evil. But secondly, to pray for holiness would be to go beyond merely praying that we avoid evil behavior, and would begin asking God that we adopt good behavior, behavior consistent with the life of Christ. Actions of godliness. holiness, after being declared by God, must usher forth in a lifestyle commensurate with worship, both avoiding the negative and engaging the positive, in order to not bringing profanity upon the name of the Lord, but instead to glorify God. Remember that 3rd commandment not to misuse the name of the Lord, literally not to “hold it up to nothingness,” not to say one thing and do another. To pray for holiness is to pray for the 3rd commandment to be made real in someone’s life.
Now why is Paul praying this prayer? Why is he praying for the Corinthians in this way? From a strictly external perspective, it just makes good sense that God’s people would pray for God’ people to be holy and right in their actions in the world. So I offer up that motive. But the text presents another motive: Paul is praying this so that they may do what is right. So that they may be acceptable and blameless sacrifices (1 Pt 2:1-5) as they are created to be in Christ.
Paul desires their perfection according to verse 9. But perfection must be understood here not as ultimate salvation, total glorification, that would have been a different word. What Paul is praying for here is more akin to restoration. In math, the Greeks used the term, perfection, to describe what it straight, right or even, as in balanced while in medicine it is the term used of setting a broken bone, restoring it to right health. Thus Paul is praying for their brokenness to be restored to health, for their broken relationship with God due to unrepentant sin – for it to be healed; for their broken relationship with him due to a failure to accept his authority, for it to be healed; for their broken relationship with one another to be healed as well. He is praying for that which is hindering their maturity to be removed.
Restore them God; build them up into your body. Equip them again, for as he wrote to the Ephesians, “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11-12). Paul’s desire is for a house of Christ to exist, for the body of Christ to exist.
How many of our prayers are so poignant to the point of even telling people that we are praying for their obedience in the faith, for their holiness? Our appeal is to God for their restoration, for their unity, for their peaceful coexistence, for the Love of God and devotion to him to permeate the church, and their lives, so that holiness is the norm and not the exception.
Do you know why we can pray such a prayer? We can pray it because it is the same kind of prayer that Jesus himself prayed and is praying when he says, Sanctify them by the truth…May they be in us (John 17:17, 21). Jesus is praying for our holiness, he is praying for our complete restoration to the Father and he desires that our lives match the atoning work he performed on the cross for you and I. So we pray for holiness because he prays for our holiness.
In conclusion, holiness is the declaration of God that as his people, we are set apart for a life of worshipful adoration of the King Almighty. And since we are unable to make ourselves holy and conform our lives to His holy decrees, we pray that he will both strengthen us to avoid evil behaviors but will also empower us to perform those actions and think those thoughts consistent with our restored relationship with the Father. And finally we can pray this because our Lord Jesus Christ himself is praying for our sanctification (holiness) and union with the Father as well. So let me close by saying, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14), for this God is the key to living a holy life.