Holiness

We live in an unholy society. Perhaps it has ever been so, but the West in recent decades has become spectacularly unholy and consequently some, such as Ortho blogger Bruce Charleton, have spoken of the need for personal holiness as a necessary prerequisite for the restoration of a properly-ordered society.

A properly-ordered society does not require that all achieve holiness. But it requires that holiness be respected, and be present to a certain extent.

Much could be said about holiness, but let us emphasize here one crucial element: We cannot attain it unless we have repented (turned toward God), and have faith in Jesus Christ.  True holiness requires that one have a righteous standing before God, and this requires repentance from sins and faith in Christ.

For example, in Acts 26:18, the Apostle Paul recounts the words of Jesus Christ to him:

…that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.

[“Sanctified” means “made holy.”]

And in Luke 24:46,47, the risen Christ, speaking to fellow travelers on the road to Emmaus, says

Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

“Repentance from sins” does not mean to stop all sinning, which is impossible in this life. Although no brief definition could do it justice, repentance means changing one’s inner orientation away from loving the vanity of the world and toward loving God. It is the love of sin, often officially institutionalized, that marks our society as unholy and that necessitates our repentance. And faith in Christ basically means trusting Him to be our Savior.

You may say that this emphasis on faith sounds Protestant, and indeed I am a confessional Protestant, that is, one who adheres to the Protestant (specifically, the Reformed) creeds and catechisms. But this need not be an instance of Protestant versus Catholic and Orthodox. Catholics and Orthodox would agree that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation and holiness. Protestants differ by saying that it is also sufficient, but we all agree it is necessary.

You also might say that since we of the Orthosphere are Christians it is understood that we have faith in Christ and so there is no great need to emphasize the necessity of faith. But the Christian is constantly prone to forget his Savior, so he must constantly be reminded of how Christ has forgiven his sins.

Indeed, it is the forgiveness of sins that makes Christianity what it is. Some other religious say that they honor Jesus; Islam for example. But even if they mention Jesus, other religions do not teach the forgiveness of sins through repentance toward God and faith that Jesus has taken away our sins.

What was the basic evangelistic appeal made by the Apostles?  “Repent, and believe the Gospel of forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ.” For example, in Acts 20:21, the apostle Paul tells the elders of the Church in Ephesus how he has been “solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” And in Acts 2:38, the Apostle Peter, in his Pentecost sermon that inaugurated the Church, when his hearers asked “What shall we do?” replied “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

This is the reason individuals need to come to Christ. This is why the church exists. This is the sine qua non of Christianity, that without which one does not have Christianity. At the most fundamental level, Christians are distinguished from non-Christians by the forgiveness of their sins through repentance and faith in Christ.

Saving faith in Christ is knowledge (who He is, what He did, and what He taught), assent to these truths, and most importantly, a trust that Christ has atoned for our sins on the Cross. Without this faith we are still in our sins and all the religious activity in the world won’t make us holy. This activity may give us the outward appearance or inner feeling of holiness, but true holiness based on a right standing before God will not be present. Indeed, a non-Christian holiness may infuse its possessor with a power that is satanic rather than godly.

One of the basic, pre-Christian understandings of holiness is of a power that flows from the possession of spiritual purity and wisdom. There is indeed a power in holiness. But although the New Testament depicts instances of spiritual power exercised by Christ and the Apostles, we cannot imitate Christ fully (because we are not God) and the Apostles never taught that their power was to be sought by other Christians. Signs and wonders were to confirm the Apostles’ teaching, not for the everyday life of the “ordinary” Christian. For “non-Apostolic” Christians, holiness is having a right standing before God that manifests itself in godly living through repentance and faith in Christ.

15 thoughts on “Holiness

  1. Taken within a strictly Christian understanding, there is little objectionable and much that is laudable in Mr. Roebuck’s post. Let me simply note two points:

    First, to suggest that those in religions apart from Christianity do not repent and seek forgiveness of sins would come as a great surprise to many – the most obvious counterexample is the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, dedicated to prayer and fasting in atonement and repentance to God, and the holiest and most solemn day of the Jewish year. Of course, as Mr. Roebuck would be quick to observe, non-Christians do not seek repentance and forgiveness through Christ. Indeed they do not, and this is certainly one measure in which Christian efforts toward holiness are to be distinguished from those of other faiths.

    Second, to suggest that holiness is only possible through Christ – or worse, that “a non-Christian holiness may infuse its possessor with a power that is satanic rather than godly” (!) – tallies poorly with the evidence on the ground. Here, one might consult with benefit the recent three-volume reference, “Holy People of the World: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia”. This embarrassment of extra-Christian holiness is perfectly salvageable in a strictly Christian understanding by understanding holiness outside of Christian faith and society as through Christ as Logos, in which understanding, just as one can speak of “anonymous Christians”, so one might also speak of “anonymous Christian saints”.

    Having made these points, let me reiterate how necessary and correct Mr. Roebuck’s essential appeal is. To quote from Peter Kreeft in his essay “How to Win the Culture War” (www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/how-to-win.htm), quoting in turn from William Law, “If you will look into your own heart in complete honesty, you must admit that there is one and only one reason why you are not a saint: you do not wholly want to be.”

  2. I endorse Alan R’s words – and such clear and correct understanding is all but absent from our culture, such that many people are rejecting a profoundly misunderstood version of Christianity.

    For example, AR’s explanation: “Repentance from sins” does not mean to stop all sinning, which is impossible in this life. … repentance means changing one’s inner orientation away from loving the vanity of the world and toward loving God.” is not well understood even among Christians; in the general culture there is no comprehension at all about this – people instead assume that devout Christians are supposed to stop sinning altogether, and call them hypocrites when they do not.

    *

    I feel that it is often counter-productive to focus on the exceptions, extremes and gray areas of Christianity; or transitional states between Christianity and other religions, and similarities with other religions. I think these matters ought to be left until *after* one has become clear about the central tendency of Christianity (‘Mere Christianity’, in CS Lewis’s phrase) – and even then they are strictly optional for most Christians; indeed hazardous.

    As was said of Saruman: It is perilous to study the arts of the enemy, for good or ill. There is a good deal too much studying the arts of the enemy nowadays, without recognition of the peril. Too many people never get any further than studying the arts of the enemy!

    *

    (The Jews need not confuse us, nor the obvious and understandable similarities between Christianity and Judaism (in which the influence flows both ways) – since they are a separate case and (in their central tendency, historically) a separate people; with (from a Christian perspective) their own distinctive role and destiny. In the prophetic writings of the Bible it seems that the Jews will remain until near the end.)

  3. “A properly-ordered society…requires that holiness be respected, and be present to a certain extent…

    “…We cannot [attain holiness] unless we…have faith in Jesus Christ.”

    It would seem to follow that a “properly-ordered” society was simply unavailable to, e.g., Periclean Athens, or early Republican Rome, or (as Peter S. points out above) present-day Israel.

    This strikes me as a very difficult position to defend – the more so, the more one knows of history. Was the Roman World better ordered under Constantine I or Justinian & Theodora than it was under Cincinnatus? Was Christendom under Alexander VI better ordered than Israel under Ariel Sharon?

    It might help if you could suggest a specific historical example of “a properly-ordered society” that merits your approval.

  4. @bgc:

    “I feel that it is often counter-productive to focus on the exceptions, extremes and gray areas of Christianity; or transitional states between Christianity and other religions, and similarities with other religions. I think these matters ought to be left until *after* one has become clear about the central tendency of Christianity…”

    “…The Jews…are a separate case and (in their central tendency, historically) a separate people…”

    Well, precisely so. But I’m left wondering just exactly what *you*, bgc, see as the difference between the “central tendency” of Christianity and that of Judaism?

  5. @sb – “Was the Roman World better ordered under Constantine I or Justinian & Theodora than it was under Cincinnatus?”

    From a Christian perspective the answer is of course Yes – (i.e. that Rome/ Constantinople was better order under Christian Emperors).

    My guess is that you are implicitly talking about whether society s better ordered from a perspective of peace and prosperity – but these are not (or should not be) primary goals for a Christian.

    The question is which society is most conducive to salvation, and to the highest levels of Christian Holiness. (Christian Holiness has a specific meaning, and there is no such thing as generic Holiness – mysticism yes, Holiness no).

    And in these terms the Roman Byzantine Empire was probably unmatched – life for them was permeated by Christian prayer, ikons, ritual, music, architecture, pictures, theology; and their Emperor was a living Apostle and representative of Christ… That is being well-ordered from a Christian perspective.

  6. In response to both Peter S. and Steve Burton:

    Holiness has both earthly and heavenly components. Earthly holiness, the kind we can see in others and in ourselves, has to do with obeying the moral law, loving God and our neighbor, successfully cultivating virtue, and so on. With a few caveats, we can say that earthly holiness is attainable by non-Christians

    One caveat would be that non-Christians do not have a fully accurate understanding of God and therefore cannot love Him properly [this is a Christian site, after all]. Another would be that there are malevolent spiritual forces, and so those who seek holiness outside of faith in Christ may encounter these demonic forces, generally masquerading as angels of light. This is what I meant when I said “a non-Christian holiness may infuse its possessor with a power that is satanic rather than godly.”

    But holiness also has a heavenly component: a person’s standing before God. If we are Christians, we must believe what the Bible says about how men attain righteousness before God: repentance and faith are necessary.

    In response to the following challenge from Mr. Burton:

    Was the Roman World better ordered under Constantine I or Justinian & Theodora than it was under Cincinnatus? Was Christendom under Alexander VI better ordered than Israel under Ariel Sharon?

    It might help if you could suggest a specific historical example of “a properly-ordered society” that merits your approval.

    Actually, my standards are quite low at this point, because the West has sunk so low. Right now, I would be satisfied with a society that did not actively require us to approve of vices such as abortion and homosexuality. That did not actively seek to raise up foreigners and criminals at the expense of natives and law-abiders. That did not actively suppress individuals publicly expressing and acting on the belief that Christianity is actually true. That does not force male soldiers wear prosthetic female anatomy. I’m not looking for perfection. Just the removal of that which is obviously insane.

    But to be fair, we of the Orthosphere are aiming a bit higher. I’m planning a post on the question “How Christian is the society we want?”

  7. I’m not sure if I would agree that a non-Christian society cannot be properly-ordered, but perhaps we might like to go along with someone like Milbank and argue that there is always an agonistic element in pagan societies that can only be overcome by Christianity, so that true communal peace is only possible in a Christian society, though of course this is an ideal that will never be perfectly realized in time. After all, even the Church, which is the anticipation of the Kingdom of God on earth, is not completely free from strife.

  8. A non-Christian society is, to a Christian, by definition not properly ordered. It can be jury-rigged, but not properly ordered. Proper order means finding its place in God’s hierarchy. All authority under heaven and earth has been given to Christ, that means that a society that wishes to be properly ordered will be in subjection to Christ.

  9. It seems to me, as a Roman Catholic, that only the Trinity and the Pope can be classified as holy. Others can perform acts that are holy, that is, acts that the holy perform. I am not sure whether Catholic saints can be considered holy.

    Paul Henri

  10. I think past pre-modern societies could be considered properly ordered in a way. A sizeable proportion of them didn’t reject the transcendent as modern societies do. The problem of course is that what is transcendent, isn’t necessarily always good in a sense (e.g. demons and Satan), and a couple of pre-modern societies would seek the wrong source of transcendence. Some would argue though that seeking the wrong source of transcendence isn’t any different from rejecting transcendence.

  11. I suppose that fear of presumption explains why no follower of Jesus Christ claims, in public, to be holy. I am not aware that any of the Christian saints described himself (herself) as holy.

    Holiness is a moral and spiritual attribute credited by observers – who could be wrong. Souls already in paradise must, by definition, be ‘holy souls’. But we don’t know for certain that any human being has yet acquired that distinction.

  12. There is a certain definitional non-falsifiability that runs through the original post and many of the responses above. Thus, any presumptive example of holiness outside of Christian faith may be discounted as second rate and possessing merely an “early” but not “heavenly” component – quite apart from the extrinsic evidence on the ground – since not explicitly directed toward Christ. Any presumptive example of a well-ordered society outside of Christian society may be discounted as not truly well-ordered – quite apart from the extrinsic evidence on the ground – since not directed toward Christian holiness. Even the Devil is pressed into service in defense of Christian truth as a hidden, inverting agent for the undermining of claims of non-Christian holiness. For exclusionary Christians, all this is self-evident – and quite correctly so, given the premises of faith; for theists or the religious generally, not so much.

    But why focus on this question at all? The primary appeal of the original post is, to reiterate, wholly necessary and correct. Why not concentrate on the only question that matters: “Why aren’t we Christians yet saints and how may we best strive – with the help of God, Christ and the Blessed Virgin – to become so?”

    • “There is a certain definitional non-falsifiability that runs through the original post and many of the responses above. ”

      So what? Popperian science is not our first principle.

    • But Peter, this is not “definitional non-falsifiability.” It is believing Christ and the Apostles, which we Christians ought to do.

    • Alan, I agree with your point here: in the context of Christian faith, you are perfectly correct in your emphasis on the necessity of faith in and sanctification through Christ. I am merely expressing how this tends to appear outside of a strictly Christian perspective. Of course, Christians need pay no attention to this – having Christ and the witness of the Apostles and saints – nor have they done so historically. And this is in the nature of things.

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