This fall I’ve been teaching on the topic of holiness in my ACG. I decided on this topic for two reasons. First, there was the desire to tackle something more practical than topics we’ve covered recently. Second, the connection between holiness and the church’s (and believer’s) witness is a strong one in both the Old and New Testaments. The holiness of God’s people is to be attractive and beautiful, an adornment to the proclamation of the gospel.
This second theme is one that is counter-intuitive to many of us because when we think of holiness it doesn’t seem all that at attractive or beautiful. In fact, when asked what images or thoughts come to mind when we think of holiness, the response was typically negative. That’s not true when I asked about we think about God’s being holy, but when asked to think of people who take holiness seriously, the images were stogie, prudish, unhappy, grumpy, etc.
This shouldn’t be the case. Holiness is beautiful. Just look at Psalm 29:
Ascribe to the LORD, you heavenly beings,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.
There’s an ambiguity in the last phrase above. It’s unclear if the holiness referred to is God’s holiness or if the psalmist is calling us to come and worship God clothed in holiness. Either way, the fact remains – holiness is deemed beautiful, splendid! The same words come again in Psalm 96
Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth.
Think also of the scenes of heavenly worship we’re given access to in Isaiah 6 or Revelation 4. The angelic beings sing ‘Holy, holy, holy’. Yes, these words are definitely filled with a reverent awe. But it’s more. It’s also an appreciation of that which is supremely beautiful.
Here’s an important bridge in my thought process. The holiness we as believers are called to ought to be beautiful since God’s is. Theologians divide God’s attributes into two categories: incommunicable attributes and communicable attributes. The incommunicable attributes are those which we, as creatures do not share, like eternality, like self-existence (aseity). God’s communicable attributes are those which he shares with his creation – like love, patience, and holiness. There is a difference in how we are holy when compared to God. God is holy. We are made holy by God, by sharing in his holiness. So, if we’re sharing in God’s beautiful holiness, our’s ought to be beautiful too.
Why don’t we see holiness as beautiful? I think there’s two key aspects of a full answer. First, those who speak much of holiness are often displaying a caricature of holiness – a version of holiness that is culturally conditioned and usually has a lot to do with lists of taboos (cards, drinking, dancing, movies, etc.). I once worked at a summer camp that was serious about holiness. I was handed a list of tshirts I had worn to work that were deemed inappropriate. It included a Petra shirt (yes, the classic Christian rock group) and a Levi’s “Button your Fly” shirt (remember those you children of the 80s/90s). If that’s what holiness is, it’s not beautiful.
But the second reason is even more to blame I think. We don’t see holiness as beautiful because our eyes are out of focus. They’re clouded by the remnants of our sinful natures. They don’t quite see as God sees; not yet.
So, I pray that God will put lenses on to teach me to see that holiness is indeed beautiful. To fight for holiness isn’t just to fight against sin, the world, and the devil…it’s to fight for BEAUTY!
I love these words from Edwards, “holiness is a most beautiful, lovely thing. Men are apt to drink in strange notions of holiness from their childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour, and unpleasant thing; but there is nothing in it but what is sweet and ravishingly lovely. Tis the highest beauty and amiableness, vastly above all other beauties; tis a divine beauty, makes the soul heavenly and far purer than anything here on earth…”