13 June 2023

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. One in particular, which I read five years ago: The author went on and on and on about sin, how it taints humanity, and how Christians ought not do it. (And, well, duh.) But the more he wrote on the subject, the more obvious it became he was addressing his own particular hangups. Certain sins he found really nasty, so he spent 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 wasn’t actually writing about sanctification. He was writing 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 any 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. That definition of sanctify I started this article with?—it’s definition #1, and only definition #1. The other definitions are the product of Christian popular culture. Christians are perfectly happy to settle for mere goodness.

But God tells us 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 would be different from everything else. And when the LORD said “be holy” in the scriptures, he wasn’t talking about goodness! Check out the context:

Leviticus 11.41-47 NASB
41 “Now every swarming thing that swarms on the earth is detestable, not to be eaten. 42 Whatever crawls on its belly, and whatever walks on all fours, whatever has many feet, in regard to every swarming thing that swarms on the earth, you shall not eat them, because they are detestable. 43 Do not make yourselves detestable through any of the swarming things that swarm; and you shall not make yourselves unclean with them so that you become unclean. 44 For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, because I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. 45 For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; so you shall be holy, because I am holy.”
46 This is the law regarding the animal and the bird, and every living thing that moves in the waters and everything that swarms on the earth, 47 to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the edible creature and the creature which is not to be eaten.

Yeah: God was talking about the kosher rules; about ritual cleanliness. Not goodness, not sins: Animals the Hebrews can eat, versus animals they can’t—because people of other nations eat any animals they please, with no thought to anything but their taste buds, and God didn’t want these particular Hebrews 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. When we’re not, we’re clearly not following him. I’m certainly not saying God’s okay with evil. But goodness is only a product 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.

Sin offends God too, but God’s mighty enough to handle sin, eliminate its evil effects, forgive it, and be patient with sinners so he can get us to repent and be saved. 2Pe 3.9 He’s willing to put off judgment so he can save as many as he can. Whereas we humans—especially certain Christians who write popular books about “sanctification”—wouldn’t mind at all 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 we behave themselves, these 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 actually getting holy, it gets into stuff like this.

Numbers 6.1-8 NASB
1 Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
2 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When a man or woman makes a special vow, namely, the vow of a Nazirite, to live as a Nazirite for the LORD, 3 he shall abstain from wine and strong drink; he shall consume no vinegar, whether made> from wine or strong drink, nor shall he drink any grape juice nor eat fresh or dried grapes. 4 All the days of his consecration he shall not eat anything that is produced from the grape vine, from the seeds even to the skin.
5 “All the days of his vow of consecration ano razor shall pass over his head. He shall be holy until the days are fulfilled which he lives as a Nazirite for the LORD; he shall let the locks of hair on his head grow long.
6 “All the days of his life as a Nazirite for the LORD he shall not come up to a dead person. 7 He shall not make himself unclean for his father or for his mother, for his brother or for his sister, when they die, because his consecration to God is on his head. 8 All the days of his consecration he is holy to the LORD.”

The word for “consecration” 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 Nazírite.

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 Nazírites. Like Samson, Samuel, and John the baptist: They never cut their hair. Never shaved, never touched grapes nor alcohol nor dead bodies. (Samson broke a few of these, but he was a lousy example of a Nazírite.) Again, none of these practices are, ordinarily, sin. But when 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 Nazírite, and therefore holy, wasn’t merely being good. Of course Nazírites were expected to be good… but everybody was expected to be good. But y’see, being specially dedicated to God involves more than goodness. It meant being unique. Nazírites were different from anyone else. Couldn’t drink what everyone else did. Couldn’t eat what everyone else did; you had to make sure it wasn’t made with vinegar or grapes! Couldn’t deal with death, even though everybody must deal with death at some point. Couldn’t trim their hair; they could groom themselves only up to a point. Nazírites 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 Nazírite of course; that’s still an option. But the scriptures don’t offer Nazírism as our only option. God ordered various people to make themselves holy to him in various ways. Basically he customized each holy individual’s relationship with him. He still does this, so when you talk with God on a regular basis (as all of us ought), 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.