The Pursuit of the Holy: A Divine Invitationby Simon Ponsonby
“Be holy as I am holy,” says the Lord.
It’s the most extravagant—and audacious—invitation ever sent: Or in the words of Jesus: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But can that really happen? Is holiness an achievable goal for sinful human beings? That’s the ultimate focus of this thoughtful,
“Be holy as I am holy,” says the Lord.
It’s the most extravagant—and audacious—invitation ever sent: Or in the words of Jesus: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But can that really happen? Is holiness an achievable goal for sinful human beings? That’s the ultimate focus of this thoughtful, thorough, and engaging study of what it means to be holy. Drawing on the Bible and Christian thinkers through the ages, Simon Ponsonby affirms that because of God’s gracious love and desire for communion with us, he has done what is possible for us not only to pursue holiness, but to achieve it. While we can never count on attaining moral perfection in this life, we need not settle for less than increasing victory over sin. And as more and more Christians choose to partner with God in the ongoing process of sanctification, we set the stage for revival.
- Cook, David C
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THE PURSUIT OF THE HOLY
A DIVINE INVITATION
By Simon Ponsonby
David C. CookCopyright © 2010 Simon Ponsonby
All rights reserved.
The Longing to Be Holy
May the God of peace make you holy all the way through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:23)
We are about to take a journey. This will be no abstract theological study, nor a simple push for personal pietism, for that would be to set our sights too low. No, my longing is to see the church transformed so that we might transform society. I have written this book to offer pointers to the way and the what of that transformation.
In the late nineteenth century, there was a groundswell of longing for a deeper and more effective Christian life in the churches. In 1874, the Oxford Conference was organized by Canon Christopher, the famous rector of St Aldates, around the theme of "The Promotion of Scriptural Holiness," with an emphasis on the Spirit-filled life. Fifteen hundred Christian leaders and theologians attended. The following year, another conference, the Keswick Convention, was held to teach further on the themes of the Spirit-filled life and sanctification. This became the great boiler house for evangelicalism in the twentieth century—influencing the Welsh Revival and Pentecostal beginnings in America as well as revivals in East Africa. Sparks that were fanned into a blaze began with a commitment to holiness. J. C. Ryle was caught up in this movement and produced his famous book Holiness in 1877.
Now, as we look to the future, we will also need to look into the past. Just as Isaac redug the wells of Abraham, which the Philistines had blocked up (Gen. 26:18), so we must explore wells of holiness that have been dug and then filled throughout the church's history. Here in the twenty-first century, it is time to open up those deep, old wells of holiness.
THE DARKNESS IS DEEPENING
"The darkness is deepening." So said Gandalf in Tolkien's classic The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And so it is for us. Faced with an unconvincing church, society is looking to alternatives.
Secularism has sold us a society without God, where material things are worshipped. We are also seeing the advance of fundamentalist atheism bent on the exorcism of theism. How can this be? Because the church has often lived as if God were dead. Yet concurrent with this, we are witnessing the rapid rise of a radical Islam that appeals to many who long for religious certainties and conviction, especially after finding in the church little more than a divided house or pious platitudes.
After years of greed on greed, the money markets have destabilized and banks themselves are bankrupt, while fat-cat bankers have retired early and buried their heads in their fat pay pensions. We have experienced an acute loss of confidence in the democratic political office, where spin has replaced conviction and pragmatism has eviscerated idealism. And we are seeing a moral meltdown, with prisons at breaking point, crime uncontrollable, families fatherless, morality a myth, and many of our streets filled with terror at feral gangs ready to knife to death innocents who do no more than look at them the wrong way.
And yet, while sinners are certainly responsible for their own sin, I don't entirely blame the world. They merely do what is in line with their natures: They sin. You cannot be surprised when sinners act sinfully—they have no power to purify themselves. Can a godless society be expected to be godly without seeing what godliness is? While the church may speak prophetically to the world about justice and righteousness, I don't think we can entirely blame the world for its unrighteousness. The church has all too often blended in with the world rather than revealed Christ and his ways to the world. We have failed to be that shining light, that salting influence. And so, as we fail to conform to Christ and the gospel we profess, the church has at times hindered, rather than helped, the world in coming to Christ. In fact, in some areas, the world appears to be ahead of the church, provoking her to action, especially in issues relating to social justice and the poor.
A HOLY PEOPLE CAN BE EXPECTED TO BE HOLY
So if the world is a mess, the church must shoulder some blame. Darkness cannot dispel itself. The demonic won't exorcise itself—Jesus said Satan cannot cast out Satan (Matt. 12:26). The darkness flees when a light is lit. But the church has often hidden the light by failing to preach the gospel or pietistically pursuing holiness by withdrawing from society. Sometimes she has even failed to have a light to lift by not truly believing the gospel. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten our vocation—to be "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (1 Peter 2:9). Jesus said it is part of the church's role, through conforming to him and conveying him to the world, to be a sanctifying, salting influence in society (Matt. 5:13–16).
No one will listen to our gospel if we aren't living it. We cannot influence or infect society with something that has not yet infected us. A saltless salt cannot savor and flavor. The church cannot light a fire if she is not on fire. And so, faced with a society in crisis, in wickedness, it is time for judgment, repentance, holiness to begin in the family of God (1 Peter 4:17). We need a reformation, a revival—and holiness will be at the heart of it. The church must again find and follow Jesus—not as a doctrine to be believed but as a Lord to be served and a life to be lived. Only then can we speak with integrity and expect to be heard.
A holy church can influence an unholy world. Where Christ is seen, he is attractive, wooing and winning people to himself. I am not saying that everyone would turn to Christ if the church attained a great level of holiness, for the demonic and self-willed will always resist God. In fact, a holy church is more likely to be a persecuted church. But as the church lives for God, she will undoubtedly attract others to him. That is why C. S. Lewis could say,
How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing ... it is irresistible.
And as Paul said, "Through us [God] spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him" (2 Cor. 2:14).
HATING THE PSEUDO
Many years ago, when I arrived in the city of Oxford as a chaplain, I asked a graduate how I should best conduct myself. He replied, "Oxford hates the pseudo," implying that the university can spot a fake quickly. Well, my experience has since challenged that graduate's belief ... but one thing is for sure: The church cannot afford to be pseudo. There must be no pretense at piety because people can quite quickly distinguish the authentic from the imitation. They know a holy Christian when they see one, and they know a hollow one too. Old Testament theologian John Oswalt offered this stinging observation:
The world looks on hateful, self-serving, undisciplined, greedy, impure people who nevertheless claim to be the people of God and says, "You lie."
It is not as if we are addressing a marginal issue here—it is central. In the latest celebrated "revival" in the West, a feted evangelist suddenly walked off the stage and walked out on his wife. Claims of numerous extraordinary miracles could not be substantiated—not even one. I attended churches and watched ministers manipulate money out of church members for the promise of miracles. Pretense, fabrication, and nonsense were rife. Nothing new here, of course, but I groaned along with many others in the church: Where was the bride of Christ, making herself ready for Christ (Rev. 21:2)?
IS THAT SOMETHING IN YOUR EYE?
Recently I had my porch rebuilt and repainted. It was about a decade overdue, so I apologized to the painters and carpenters for the state it was in—including the mature cobwebs large enough to function as a windbreak. One of the builders replied, "No worries—I clean other people's gutters, but you should see the mess in my own house."
He is not the only one to neglect his own house, of course. The prophet Isaiah found himself in a similar position, metaphorically. Isaiah spoke more about holiness than any other prophet. It was part of his ministry to call the nations to holiness. Assuming the chapters of his book are in chronological order, it would appear that, although he was already established in his ministry of exposing wickedness and preaching warning and rebuke to God's people (chapters 1—5), he subsequently had a vision of God in the temple (chapter 6) that left him completely undone. In his vision, he saw angels crying, "Holy, holy, holy." As he stood before God, he knew it was not the nation of Judah that he must first target but himself, Isaiah the prophet: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips" (Isa. 6:5 ESV). The prophet had preached the nations' guilt only to see his own.
When we see God, we see the superlative of holy. When we see the Holy One, we see ourselves as we are—sinful. We ought not preach against the sinfulness of society if we aren't also preaching against the sinfulness of the church. And lest we be hypocrites, we ought not do that before we have applied the message to the sinfulness of our own hearts (Matt. 7:1–5).
And so in this book, I want to broadcast an encouragement to gain a vision of God in his holiness and to see ourselves truly as we are. But of course we won't stop there. We must go on to know, as Isaiah knew, a deep cleansing from God's fire and a commissioning for his service. I do not believe that Isaiah had been a hypocrite—he had said what he saw in the world and what he heard from God; but lest he fall, thinking he stood tall, God also showed him himself. Now his message could be tempered by self-awareness, a much-needed humility in the face of burning-coal grace for the sinner.
I have often found that the most difficult aspect of being a minister is feeling a hypocrite. Many of us are ordained and given the title Reverend—we are to be revered as those set apart by God to minister on his behalf, to teach and lead people to him, and in prayer to represent him to the people and the people before him. What a privilege! What a burden! The fact is that we fail consistently to live up to the standard that we preach, teach, and exhort in others. Like Paul, sometimes "I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" (Rom. 7:15 ESV). This made Paul feel wretched, and I know that feeling—although sometimes, I confess, I resign myself to the presence of sin and weakness rather than feeling wretched or wrestling against it.
COMING TO TERMS WITH HOLINESS
It is instructive to think for a moment about the various terms in the English language surrounding holiness. Our word holy derives from the Old English halig, which itself came from the German heilig, referring to "health, happiness, wholeness." The English language also employs words from the Latin sanctus (holy) in words like saint, saintly, and sanctification.
In the Old Testament, words based on qds, the Hebrew word for holy, appear over 850 times. Holiness, then, is one of the most central concepts in biblical theology. The semantic origins of holiness relate to the word cut and have to do with distinction—standing out or being apart. It is preeminently the nature of God's own being and is then a derived characteristic of people and things as they exist in right relation to God. In the Old Testament, the word is applied to priests and their clothing, Israelites, Nazirites, Levites, firstborn human beings, prophets, offerings, the sanctuary and its furniture, inherited land and property, dedicated money and precious objects, the avoidance of certain mixtures (there were to be no garments made of both linen and wool, no crossbreeding of animals, no plowing with both an ox and an ass), the law, oil for anointing, incense in the sanctuary, water flowing from the temple or in a laver, places where God revealed himself, the land of Israel, Jerusalem, heaven, the Sabbath and feasts, Jubilee, covenant, and even, on occasion, war.
In the New Testament, hagios, which is Greek for "holy" or "saint," occurs over 150 times together with its associated words. Hagios means to be separate, dedicated, or consecrated to God. Originally, it was a religious concept of "the quality possessed by things and persons that could approach a divinity," that which was reserved for God and his service. It contained the sense of "perfect, pure and worthy of God." The New Testament follows the Old in applying the word first to God and secondly to things and people. The first sense is located in terms of God; his Spirit; and his Son, Jesus, the Holy One of God. The second describes the people of God, the "saints" who are "holy ones."
God is holy. Holiness is his nature and character. It is not an attribute; it is who he is. He is the one who exists in holiness—perfection, beauty, purity, otherness. People and things are said to be holy by their relation to God, as they are offered by him or to him or before him. Days of rest, days of feasting, prophets and priests, gifts to God or from him, covenants and scriptures, angels and servants, temples and land, covenants and commandments, hands lifted in worship, lips offered in kisses to the brethren, the marriage bed, and mountains of revelation—all these can be holy by association with him. Holiness is infused into things or people that come close to God or exist for him.
One useful way to approach the meaning of holiness is to see how other words are placed in relation to it, often interpreting or applying it. In Scripture, the idea of holiness is found alongside cleanliness (Isa. 35:8); purity (1 Thess. 4:7); blamelessness (1 Thess. 3:13); glory (Ezek. 28:22); righteousness (Eph. 4:24); godliness (2 Peter 3:11); honor (1 Thess. 4:4); goodness (Ps. 65:4); truthfulness (Ps. 89:35); trustworthiness (Ps. 93:5); and awe (Ps. 111:9). All of these help us understand what holy is and looks like. Holiness is a way of behaving that is determined by the being of God. David Peterson calls it a life "possessed by God"—a life that becomes like the God who possesses holiness.
WHAT DO OTHERS MAKE OF THE HOLY?
The famous anthropologist Émile Durkheim made the startling claim that you don't need to have a notion of "god" to have a notion of holiness. He suggested holiness is more about social cohesion than religious devotion. From his observations of pagan tribes, he maintained that religion is not about a deity but the distinction between the "profane" and the "sacred"—a distinction expressed in a system of beliefs and practices that make certain objects and acts sacred, while others become mundane or profane. In a similar vein, Nobel Prize–winning Swedish archbishop Nathan Söderblom asserted that "holiness is the great word in religion—it is even more essential than the notion of God," and like Durkheim, he believed religion was all about this distinction between the sacred and the profane.
What might this non-divine notion of holiness look like? Think about a game of soccer. There is no mention of a God, but it clearly exhibits all the signs of liturgy and sacrament for those who attend a holy event. The people gather together at their cathedral (the stadium) and, wearing their Sunday best (team colors, scarves and shirts), already feel involved in something bigger than the sum of its parts. They sit together and sing their worship (soccer chants). Then comes the moment of awe as the religious drama begins: The priests (players) gather on the Holy of Holies (field), and the liturgy of sacrifice begins at the referee's whistle. The offering (ball) is maneuvered to the altar (net) with the anticipation of a sacrifice (goal), at which the religious ecstasy of the crowd explodes in cheers. And the opposing team and their fans would presumably be the profane. Clearly, for many who attend, the match follows a very religious structure between sacred and profane, and for those involved, it has the sense of being a holy time without any sense of the divine!
What are believers to make of this? Rather than agree that a soccer game is a sense of the holy without a need for the divine, I would suggest we are looking here at a search for the divine and the holy that has gone astray and been misplaced in the secular. While a view of a soccer game as a spiritual event may be a helpful insight into how societies structure themselves in what may be seen as religious acts, this view really doesn't get to the heart of biblical holiness. Holiness is more likely to generate unease or even fear in people, as Rudolf Otto famously explored in his 1923 book, The Idea of the Holy.
Excerpted from THE PURSUIT OF THE HOLY by Simon Ponsonby. Copyright © 2010 Simon Ponsonby. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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