The Church: A Holy People

As a college student in the 70’s, I remember hearing retired Southern Baptist missionary to China, Miss Bertha Smith, speak in a number of settings. Miss Bertha, who was in her nineties at the time, took no prisoners when she spoke! Having gone through both the Shantung Revival and the invasion of the Japanese at the outbreak of World War II, she understood passion for glorying in Christ and suffering for the cause of the gospel. That’s why she never showed timidity in rebuking lazy, unconcerned church members for their spiritual sloth.

One statement that I heard her make several times is etched in my mind. It had to do with holiness. Miss Bertha stated, “Most Christians don’t want to be called saints because they don’t want to live like it.” Of course, she was dead on target with that comment since “saints” literally means, “holy ones.”

Far too often we have laid aside the sainthood of the average Christian member of a local church due to buying into the Roman Catholic view of sainthood. Instead of thinking of each believer as a “holy one,” a saint, we seem relegate that status to a select few. ‘Why, if ever there was a true saint, it was Ms. So-and-so,’ we hear someone say, instead of recognizing that a congregation of genuine followers of Christ are all saints, holy people (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2).

Holiness marked the purposes of God with Israel. When the Lord delivered Israel from bondage to the Egyptians, He declared that the relationship that they had with Him would now be that of a people who belonged uniquely to Him. That unique relationship set them apart from other people. “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself.” In other words, you did not do the delivering but the Lord did; and the deliverance did not just free you from bondage but it brought you into the unique relationship of belonging to the Lord God. Consequently, the Lord declared, “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine.” While everything belongs to the Lord, because of His redemptive act toward you, you belong to Him in a unique way—as His own possession. “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4–6).

The Ten Commandments that followed (Exodus 20:1–17) flowed naturally out of this relationship as the unique possession of the Lord. Because “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” therefore live as God’s unique people by not having any other gods before Him, or making an idol or likeness of a god to worship, or taking the Lord’s name in vain, or dishonoring the Sabbath day, or dishonoring parents, or killing, or committing adultery, or stealing, or bearing false witness, or coveting. In other words, Israel’s uniqueness as a holy people began with God’s redeeming work and followed with the practical outworking of that uniqueness as His holy people by their vertical and horizontal behavior.

So holiness is chiefly relational. Peter made that point so clearly. “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance,” so prior to the application of Christ’s saving work in your lives you lived one way—but now, in Christ, you are to live distinctly as His people. “But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior.” Having been called by the gospel and the effectual work of the Spirit, now your behavior should imitate Him who called you, “Because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14–16). Since you are in union with Christ, the work of the gospel having become effectively planted in your life, live like it. You have what is necessary to do so: relationship to the Lord God; redemption through the blood of Christ; the imperishable seed of the living word of God; purified souls; and new love for the brethren (1 Peter 1:17–25).

So, how do we teach our congregations about living holy lives? One huge mistake in our generation has been that of attempting to legislate holiness. By dictates from the pulpit, pressure from the church staff, ongoing guilt-trips, and an atmosphere of living by stiff regulations congregations have attempted to “be holy,” when in fact, they have become legalists. Such an atmosphere stifles body life, robs the church of joy, and creates a bunch of modern day Pharisees who find their greatest pleasure in looking down their noses at those who do not conform to the regulations as they do. May the Lord deliver us from that kind of behavior!

Here are some recommendations to avoid legalism and aim toward a gospel-centered holiness.

First, regularly teach on obedience and holy living from the foundation of relationship to Christ. It is because we are in Christ that we can live holy lives—and no other way is possible. That’s why Paul reminded the churches at Rome and Corinth that their saintliness had its roots in the calling of God on their lives.

Second, we continue in the Christian life the same way that we begin it—by the grace of God (Colossians 2:6–7). Keep reminding those you disciple that the ability to live holy lives comes only by the grace of God, so there is never room for boasting, or looking down at others, or adopting a Pharisaic attitude.

Third, remind the church that there is no contradiction between our calling as saints and our disciplined practice of holy living. We do not earn anything by holy living—and we don’t need to since we have all that we need in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:21–23). Here is where we must never divorce justification and sanctification as though they work in opposite ways (Romans 6:1–23). Andy Davis’ book An Infinite Journey: Growing toward Christlikeness will be helpful in thinking through on teaching from this biblical point of view. Holy is who we are through Christ and holiness is how we live by His ongoing work in our lives.

Finally, remind the body of how we are to help one another to live holy lives. We stimulate one another to love and good deeds; we encourage one another by faithfulness in the assembling of the church (Hebrews 10:24–25). We contribute our part to the rest of the body’s growth and development (Ephesians 4:14–16). We show compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing burdens, and forgiveness toward one another (Colossians 3:12–17). By the grace of God, let’s be saints who live like it.

Phil planted South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1987 and continues to serve as senior pastor of that congregation. He previously pastored churches in Mississippi and Alabama. He received his education at the University of Mobile (B.A.), New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Fuller Theological Seminary (D.Min.), and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). Phil and his wife Karen married in 1975, and have five children and seven grandchildren.
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