For many American evangelicals, "holiness" conjures up musty images of revival meetings, gospel trios, and old-time religion—along with stern prohibitions against drinking, dancing, and playing cards. And many are happy to leave these notions of holiness in the past. Yet even in our era of techno-savvy megachurches and postmodern emerging churches, holiness (when it is discussed at all) is often associated with moral behavior such as sexual purity, financial honesty, and commitment to private prayer.
While we've cast off old, legalistic notions of holiness, we've merely replaced them with private, moralistic notions. We act as if holiness were either outdated or something that characterizes only a small (if important) part of our lives.
This is partly due to our quest for cultural relevance, which is defended in the name of winning others to Christ. If we talk about holiness with unbelievers, won't that present just another hurdle for them to overcome on their way to Christ? For this and other reasons, we are rapidly forsaking our historic commitment to holiness. Recent polls show that many self-described evangelicals march in moral lockstep with mainstream American culture in practices of divorce, spousal abuse, extramarital sex, pornography consumption, materialism, and racism, just to name a few. While we tip our cap to the importance of holiness, many in our culture don't view us as morally different in any meaningful way—except to see us as hypocrites.
I believe one crucial ingredient to healing our moral confusion is the recovery of the biblical idea of holiness, which includes private morality but so much more—the very life of God in us. Holiness is not just for advanced Christians but stands at the beginning and center of God's call on all of our lives: "Be holy, because I am holy" (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16).
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