Confusing Holiness With Legalism

One of God’s attributes that sets Him apart from his creation is His Holiness. This concept of holiness, and God’s expectation that His people also emanate holiness has been turning over in my mind the last several weeks. The ‘Got Questions’ site explains God’s Holiness this way:

Another way to say it is absolute perfection. God is unlike any other (see Hosea 11:9), and His holiness is the essence of that “otherness.” His very being is completely absent of even a trace of sin (James 1:13; Hebrews 6:18). He is high above any other, and no one can compare to Him (Psalm 40:5). God’s holiness pervades His entire being and shapes all His attributes. His love is a holy love, His mercy is holy mercy, and even His anger and wrath are holy anger and holy wrath.

There are myriad of verses in the bible regarding God’s Holiness.  In Revelation 4:8 we have this “And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY is THE LORD GOD, THE ALMIGHTY, WHO WAS AND WHO IS AND WHO IS TO COME.”  Christopher Powers, author and illustrator of ‘Full of Eyes’ ministries has a beautiful visual exegesis of this verse:

revelation_4_colorChristopher’s explanation of the art can be found here.

Back to the verse in Revelation.  Notice that the living creatures, whose express purpose is to minister to the Lamb on the throne, continually proclaim His Holiness.  They aren’t saying, “loving, loving, loving”  or “just, just, just” or “merciful, merciful, merciful”.  All of those are true of God, but it is interesting and worth noting that it is His Holiness that is continually proclaimed.

When God gave the Law to the nation of Israel, he had very specific instructions regarding the priesthood and their required ritual cleansing because they were to be ‘Holy unto the Lord’.  There were also very strident rules regarding entering the Holy of Holies, where the Shekinah Glory resided above the ark.  I’ve heard teachers say that a custom of the time was to tie a rope around the ankle of the high priest when he performed his annual duties in the Holy of Holies, because if he had not performed the cleansing rituals beforehand exactly as stated, or had unconfessed sin, or did one small thing out of line, he would be struck dead on the spot.  They had no other way to retrieve his body until the following year when the next high priest would enter that sacred space.  God takes His Holiness very, very seriously.  As should we.

In the New Testament, the concept of holiness of believers is laid out.  Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
Matthew 15:18 states:“But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.”  1 Thessalonians 4:3-8:

This is the will of God, your holiness: that you refrain from immorality, that each of you know how to acquire a wife for himself in holiness and honor,  not in lustful passion as do the Gentiles who do not know God;  not to take advantage of or exploit a brother in this matter, for the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you before and solemnly affirmed.  For God did not call us to impurity but to holiness. Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards not a human being but God, who [also] gives his holy Spirit to you.”

Even a casual reading of Scripture would render mute any argument against God requiring holiness.  Yet of late, people seem to be forgetting this, or confused about it, or feigning confusion because they do not want to submit to it.  Emphasis on that last one.  There is an attitude of antinomianism pervading the professing church right now.  Theopedia defines it this way:

Antinomianism comes from the Greek meaning lawless. In Christian theology it is a pejorative term for the teaching that Christians are under no obligation to obey the laws of ethics or morality.

Basically, it is taking justification by faith alone and exaggerating it to an unbiblical extreme.  I’ve noticed a fashionable way of expressing this, among these professing Christians, is to freely use curse words.  Somehow, they believe this makes them seem like they are rolling in the grace of Jesus.  What they are really doing is defiling the grace of Jesus.  But if anyone admonishes them, they cry legalism!  Lets be clear on what legalism actually is.  Legalism is when you add any requirement to the condition of salvation.  Theopedia defines it: “legalism is belief that obedience to the law or a set of rules is the pre-eminent principle of redemption and/or favor with God.”  Its interesting to me that the opposite ends of a spectrum seem to be going hand in hand here: the error of antinomianism, when held to biblical standards, responding with the claim of legalism.  Oh the irony.  Both antinomianism and legalism fall to either side of the perfect center of biblical truth.

What I am pleading for here, is for believers to base their definitions of holiness and legalism on what the Word clearly teaches.  As shown in the verses above, God is Holy, and believers are clearly instructed to be holy.  Will we do that perfectly, this side of eternity?  No.  But we are to be striving toward increasing holiness, enabled by the indwelling Holy Spirit.  Not to earn or keep our salvation, but in obedience to the One who saved us.  Those who are truly born of the new nature will have a God-given desire to obey the Lord and His Word.  I would caution any who have been swept up in this notion that our behavior be it language or any other sort, doesn’t matter, to examine themselves to be sure they are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5; 2 Peter 1:10-11).  And if you are, to repent!  Whatever is streaming from your mouth is a reflection of what is in your heart.  And if you truly love the Lord, do you not want to do what He says? “Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”(John 14:23)

You can not claim to be a child of God, but refuse to submit to God.  It’s absurd.  Let us strive toward increasing holiness, as an obedient act of worship of the One who shed His innocent and perfect blood to pay our ransom.

Soli Deo Gloria!


2 thoughts on “Confusing Holiness With Legalism

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