Life under the old covenant was so much simpler than the free and confusing world of grace.
Back then if you wanted to stay on the straight and narrow, you just had to keep all the rules. But in the kingdom of grace, there are no rules (1 Cor 6:12). A good marriage doesn’t need them. For those unacquainted with the security of his love, the absence of rules can be terrifying. “Help! Somebody tell me what to do! I need rules!”
Enter the holiness preachers.
[Insert scary music here.]
Much of what passes for holiness preaching today is old covenant theology dressed up in new covenant ribbons. See if you can spot the difference:
Then: God promised we would be his holy people if we kept the rules. The law is a how-to manual for holiness.
Now: Am I saved by the law? Oh, heavens no. That’s so old covenant. I don’t keep the law to earn salvation. No, the law shows me how to live pleasing to the Lord. The law is a how-to manual for holiness.
See the difference? Strip away the mumbo-jumbo and there is no difference!
Read some of the comments I get whenever I write about the commands of Jesus and you will find 101 different ways of saying the same thing: The Rules are a manual for holy living. The only difference between then and now is that some of the rules have changed. The Israelites lived by the ceremonial rules of Moses; today, many Christians make up their own rules. “I just keep the red letters of Jesus.” “I try to do everything in the Bible.” “I just do whatever my pastor says.”
Practical holiness is a term to beware as it often comes with a fishhook. Much of it is toxic mixture, as the following soundbites illustrate:
- “Following Christ is a lifestyle.” (True.) “We’ve got to keep his commands to be his disciples.” (Nope – that’s backwards. That’s putting the fruit before the tree.)
- “Find out what pleases the Lord.” (Okay!) “Keeping his instructions pleases him.” (No it does not – that’s faithless, law-based living that nullifies grace and inflames sin – read Romans 7. Jesus pleases the Lord. Trust him.)
- “If you sow to the flesh you will reap destruction.” (Yep). “So we have to be earnest in getting people to change their behavior.” (But that’s sowing to the flesh! You’re setting them up for failure.)
Holiness preaching that emphasizes what you must do is carnal Christianity. Make no mistake, it comes straight out of the old covenant. Heed this sort of teaching and you will exalt the flesh at the expense of grace. And it won’t make you holy.
There are at least four ways to determine whether the holiness message you’re listening to reflects the condemning covenant of the law or the new and liberating covenant of grace:
- Old covenant holiness is based on who you are (a bit of a reprobate) and is sold as a list of things you must do; new covenant holiness is based on who Christ is (our holiness – 1 Cor 1:30) and what he has done (sanctified you – Heb 2:11, Rom 11:16).
- Old covenant holiness emphasizes sacrifices you are expected to make; new covenant holiness emphasizes the perfectly perfect sacrifice of the Lamb, by which you were “perfected forever” (Heb 10:14).
- Old covenant holiness is sold as a process of increasing sanctification – something “we grow into” as we become more like Christ; new covenant holiness is presented as a done deal (Heb 10:10).
- Old covenant holiness comes with a big stick – “the Lord will condemn you if you don’t deliver”; new covenant holiness has exhortations but no sticks because there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1).
Because of these differences in message, we can also recognize differences in the messenger. An old covenant holiness preacher will come across as serious and threatening. He will remind you of Moses warning the Israelites at the foot of Mt Sinai. But a new covenant preacher of holiness will come across as life-giving and inspirational. He will remind you of Jesus speaking the words of eternal life (John 6:68).
An old covenant preacher of holiness will speak the faithless language of longing and lack. But a new covenant preacher of holiness will bracket any exhortations with affirmations like these:
Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. (1 Th 4:1).
Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. (1 Th 4:9-10)
How to preach holiness
One day I plan to write on how to preach holiness the same way the apostles did it. For those who can’t wait, here’s the short version: To be holy is to partake of his wholeness; it is to stop acting broken (because in him we are not broken) and to allow him to express his whole and beautiful life through us.
The challenge is that being holy is a new experience for us. As unbelievers, holiness was totally alien to us. That old lifestyle was characterized by brokenness and hurt. Now that we are in him we have to learn to walk in our new and God-given identity.
The wrong way to approach this is to think of yourself as a flawed sinner trying to become holy. That’s not who you are and that’s not how it works. Instead, see yourself as a toddler learning to walk. Just as you wouldn’t spank an infant if they stumbled and fell, neither will your heavenly Father spank you. He doesn’t condemn you when you fall; he lovingly encourages you to get up and walk.
He has given you everything you need for life and godliness. In Christ you lack nothing. You just need to work out who you already are and what he has already given you.
This is the adventure of holy living.
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