Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rethinking Discipleship, Part 4: Holiness

Paul & co. started a riot in this amphitheater.
Does holiness only happen in great moments? 

Holier than thou?

Thus far, the list of traits Paul names as being essential to discipleship have been challenging, but doable: 

Integrity? I can do that.

Trustworthiness? Got it. 

Devotion? That's just showing you care. Piece of cake. 

But what Paul says next throws a monkey wrench into the whole works: 

"You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers" (1 Thessalonians 2:10). 

Paul claims to have been holy. Holiness is that descriptor which applies solely to God.  The concept of holiness is bound up with being set apart, blemish-free, righteous in all respects. 

No one is holy, and anyone claiming to be holy immediately strikes us as being pretentious and hypocritical. The three-word phrase, "holier than thou" conveys nicely the distastefulness of people who consider themselves to be set apart and righteous in themselves. 

So Paul's statement creates tension with the truth that seems so apparent to us: that no one is holy, and anyone who would claim to be is just wrong.

Let us clarify the point. No one is holy, of course, except for God. God is holy. In fact, holiness is such a key characteristic of God's nature that "Holy!" is the refrain which the entourage of heavenly beings surrounding God's throne constantly sing out to praise him (cf. Revelation 4:8). The Spirit of God is called the Holy Spirit. D.A. Carson has said that holiness is an attribute so unique to God, that there is little way to define it other than saying that holiness means being like God

Surely Saint Paul, of all people, knew all this about holiness. He understood that only God is holy. Yet here he is telling the church that Thessaloniki that his conduct was "holy and righteous and blameless." How could Paul say this? It seems to smack of self-importance. Where is Paul's characteristic humility? Further, can our work ever be holy? Is it expected to be holy? Is it required to be holy?

Paul's holy agenda

Paul can say that his conduct among the Thessalonians was holy (and righteous, and blameless) because of his focus. Religious hypocrites want to be perceived as "holy" by other people; this is not how Paul operates. Paul has no regard for the way he is viewed--by "church folk" or anyone else. In fact, he has already established this (1 Thessalonians 2:6). He can say his conduct has been holy because he has been focused entirely on God's Gospel (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:4, 8). 

Paul has no other agenda than this: to deliver the Good News of Jesus Christ and exhort the Thessalonian church to follow it wholeheartedly. The holiness of how Paul discipled them is entirely dependent on the holiness of the Gospel, which is the holiness of Christ. Paul is not holy; Jesus is. Paul's conduct is holy insofar as he (1) emulates Christ Jesus by laying down his life for them and (2) brings them into fellowship with the God who sent Jesus into the world to save sinners. 

Everyday holiness

See, if Paul calls his conduct "holy" by virtue of him being some kind of super-Christian, then what hope do we have? After all, most of us have never (and never will) have the kind of Christian experience that Paul had. We were not introduced to Jesus by a thunderous epiphany on the road to Damascus. We might never taste of the venomous snake bites, shipwrecks or other exploits Paul did. We may never bring thousands to Jesus at once or incite riots by our powerful preaching. If that is what it takes to consider our work as holy, then, for us, it just is not going to happen. 

Thankfully, that is not how holiness works. Paul does not call his conduct among the Thessalonians holy because Paul is holy, but because he himself is a disciple of the Holy One: Jesus Christ the Lord. After all, the work Paul did among the church at Thessaloniki was relatively commonplace. He worked with them. He did business with them. He met, talked, and ate with them. Are you seeing it? 

These are all things that we do everyday, and this is what was holy. As we make disciples for Jesus in this everyday way, what makes our work holy is the God who works  through us.

The Great Commission from Jesus is to do holy work indeed. For evangelists, apologists and disciple makers, holiness happens as we direct our life's work toward the holy God. It is never about us; it is always about Christ. He alone is holy, and his Spirit sanctifies our conduct. May all our conduct be from him, through him and to him, and to him be glory forever.

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