Christianity 201

August 12, 2019

On Sanctification, Holiness and Goodness

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
Tags: , , ,

Twice a year we visit the blog of K.W. Leslie and I always know I’m going to end up reading four or five articles and then having to make a hard choice as to which to include. In the end I chose the one below, but was equally torn between this one and this one. References to KWL are the author’s own translation.

Holiness… versus goodness

SANCTIFY ‘sæŋ(k).tə.faɪ verb. Set apart as holy.
2. Have blessed, made legitimate through a religious sanction, or made to seem legitimate through custom and tradition.
3. Purify from sin.
[Sanctification sæŋ(k).tə.fə’keɪ.ʃən noun, sanctifier ‘sæŋ(k).tə.faɪ(.ə)r noun.]

I bring up the popular definition of sanctify because I wanna point out what we English-speakers mean by sanctification, is not what the scriptures mean.

I’ve read loads of Christian books about sanctification. Been reading one in particular lately. The author goes on and on and on about sin, and how it taints humanity, and how Christians ought not do it. (And, well, duh.) But the more he writes on the subject, the more obvious it becomes he’s addressing his own particular hangups. Certain sins he finds really nasty, so he spends a lot of time really pounding away at those sins like a carpenter trying to put thin nails into thick wood: Stop doing those things! You’re making baby Jesus cry.

Thing is, he’s not actually talking about sanctification. He’s talking about goodness.

Christians mix the two ideas up all the time. Seriously, all the time. I challenge you to find a writing where the author recognizes there’s a difference between the two. And there is a difference. Holiness is about being set apart for God’s purposes. Holy means we’re not like anything else. It’s definition #1, and only definition #1. The other definitions are the product of Christian popular culture… which is perfectly happy to settle for mere goodness.

God tells his kids, “Be holy because I’m holy.” Lv 11.44-45, 1Pe 1.16 God’s different from everything else, and if we’re following him, the natural consequence is we should be different from everything else. But when the LORD said this in the scriptures, he wasn’t talking about goodness! Check out the context:

Leviticus 11.43-47 KWL
43 “Don’t pollute your lives with any swarming vermin.
Don’t be ritually unclean with them, or be made unclean by them.
44 For I’m your LORD God. So sanctify yourselves! Be holy because I’m holy.
Don’t make your lives ritually unclean with any vermin which swarms the earth.
45 For I’m the LORD who brought you out of Egypt’s land to be God to you:
Be holy because I’m holy.
46 This law is about animals and birds,
every living soul in the waters, every soul swarming the earth:
47 Separate between the ritually unclean and the clean,
between living things to eat, and living things you don’t eat.”

Yeah: He was talking about the kosher rules. About ritual cleanliness. Not goodness, not sins: Food animals versus vermin. Because people of other nations eat any animals they please, with no thought to anything but their taste buds. And God doesn’t want his people to be like any other nation. He wanted ’em unique. He still wants us unique. Holy.

Christians who teach on sanctification, zero in on being good. That’s not nothing. We oughta be good. God is good, so we should be good like he is, and when we’re not, we clearly aren’t following him. I’m certainly not saying God’s okay with evil! But goodness is only a fruit of sanctification. It’s not the same thing.

So if we’re gonna be holy, we have to be more than merely good. We gotta be different.


The reason Christians focus on goodness so much, is for much the same reason as this author I wrote about. Sin offends us. It offends God too, but God’s way more patient and forgiving than we are. God wants everybody to repent and be saved, 2Pe 3.9 and is willing to put off judgment so he can save as many as he can. Whereas we humans, especially those Christians who write popular books on sanctification, wouldn’t mind so much if God judged and smited away. Right now.

Hence their books on goodness. And in order to not sound like crazy legalists who threaten everybody with hell unless they behave themselves, Christians insist it’s not about legalism: It’s about holiness. We’re not threatening anyone with hell; we’re just reminding people God hates sin and expects better of his kids. So stop sinning, dammit!

Once again, there’s nothing wrong with telling Christians to be good. Nothing wrong with telling everyone to be good. But when the scriptures describe people getting holy, it talks about stuff like this:

Numbers 6.1-8 KWL
1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to Israel’s sons.
Tell them when a man or woman makes an exceptional vow, a separation vow, to separate themselves for the LORD:
3 They separate from wine, liquor, wine vinegar, malt vinegar;
no drinking any grape juice, no eating fresh grapes or raisins.
4 All the days of their separation, they don’t eat anything made of grapevine—seeds to skin.
5 All the days of their separation vow, no blade comes to their head till the days of separation to the LORD are complete.
They’re holy: They let the hair on their head grow.
6 All the days of their separation to the LORD, they don’t approach a soul who dies.
7 Their father, their mother, their brother, their sister:
They don’t make themselves ritually unclean for them when they die,
for the separation to their God is on their head.
8 All the days of their separation, they’re holy to the LORD.”

The word for “separate” is נָזַר/nazár, which technically means “unprune,” like a grapevine grown wild… or like someone who doesn’t cut their hair, groom their mustache or beard, or keep their eyebrows from growing together. Unpruned, in ancient Hebrew, became a synonym for “unlike everybody else,” or separate. And a person who took this vow of separation was called a נָזיִר/nazír, or in English, a Nazirite. Notice the conditions of this vow, the way you made yourself particularly holy to God… was by swearing off four things which aren’t sins. In fact it’s really inconvenient when you do abstain from them:

  1. No alcohol.
  2. No grapes.
  3. No haircuts or shaving.
  4. No coming near dead bodies.

If you broke your vow ’cause somebody died (and the way the LORD phrases it, it likely wasn’t by accident), you had to wash yourself as part of your usual ritual purification from touching a dead person, but now you also had to shave your head, shave your head again a week later, perform a ritual offering, then start your vow all over again. Lv 6.9-12 All the time you abstained till then, didn’t count.

These vows were temporary. When the time was up, you went to temple, brought ritual offerings for sacrifice, shaved your head at the temple door, and burnt your hair in the sacrifice. Nu 6.13-20 That way, commentators figure, you can’t keep your hair as a souvenir, and show off how you were once really dedicated to God. The hair growing at this very moment out of your head was the only token you got.

Apparently Paul participated in this ritual too, Ac 21.23-26 to demonstrate he still followed the Law, rumors to the contrary aside.

And certain people in the scriptures appear to have been lifelong Nazirites. Like Samson, Samuel, and John the baptist: They never cut their hair, never shaved, never touched grapes or alcohol or dead bodies. (Samson broke a few of these, but he was a sucky Nazirite.) Again, none of these practices are, ordinarily, sin. But if you promise God not to do something, breaking your promise is sin, so these things become sin to you. Jm 4.17

Still, y’notice what made a person Nazirite, and holy, wasn’t simply being good. Nazirites were expected to be good, but everybody was expected to be good. Being specially dedicated to God involved more than goodness. It was being unique. Nazirites were different from anyone else. Couldn’t drink what everyone else did. Couldn’t deal with death, even though everybody must deal with death at some point. Couldn’t trim their hair; they had to look weird. Nazirites had to stand out.

And that’s what true sanctification entails: Standing out. Not just being good; of course we’re to be good. But if you wanna be holy, you have to stand out. Can’t be like everyone else. Can’t just be good.

How? Well, you could become a Nazirite of course. But the scriptures don’t offer Naziritism as our only option. God ordered various people to make themselves holy to him in various ways. Basically he customized each individual’s relationship with him. He still does. So if you’re talking with God on a regular basis (as all of us oughta be), it makes sense to ask him how he wants you to stand out. How should you be holy to the LORD? He’ll tell you.

Holiness can take all sorts of forms, and I’ll discuss a few of ’em in other articles. But mere goodness isn’t one of these forms. Goodness is the bare minimum of how we as humans oughta live, and if all our sights are set on is goodness, we’ve set them far too low.

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