Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lacking in Holiness?

Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14; Matthew 5:20)

This verse is deeply troubling! How holy must we be in order to “see the Lord?” How can I know that I am good enough to make-the-grade? Reading further, we find that not “seeing the Lord” is equated with falling “short of His grace!” (Heb. 12:15). Could it be that God rejects us because we fail to maintain a certain standard of holiness? This is what it seems to be saying.

To make matters even worse, we find that many verses echo this same requirement. For instance, David writes,

• “Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!”
(Psalm 32:11)

Although this verse looks innocent enough, David suggests that it is only the “righteous,” the “upright in heart,” who have a basis to hope and rejoice in God! Well, how about the rest of us who vainly struggle to be righteous, but perceive that we are unable to make the cutoff point?

I too had struggled to be righteous, but it was becoming increasingly obvious to me that I could not ever be good enough, no matter how hard I tried. Therefore, I secretly resented God. I wanted Him, but I had no confidence that He wanted me. At other times, I reassured myself that He would accept me, but only reluctantly. However, most of the time, I despaired of ever being worthy enough for God, and consequently I wanted to die.

Lacking this faith in myself, I turned desperately to the only other possible source of hope – the Scriptural assurances of a distant and demanding God – and found it. One theologian had written, “What often seems to be God’s ‘no,’ often turns out to be a ‘yes.’” Scripture affirms this!

Evidently, David considered himself among the “righteous,” among those who had a basis to “Rejoice in the LORD” (PSALM 32:11). However, at the beginning of Psalm 32, we see an entirely different picture:

• “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer”
(Psalm 32:3-4).

David had been anything but “righteous” and “upright in heart.” He had been harboring sin, which was bringing upon him the disciplinary hand of God. Tradition assigns this Psalm to the time when the prophet Nathan revealed to David his sins of adultery, murder and his refusal to confess these sins. What made the difference for David? How did he come to the assurance of his righteousness and uprightness before God in the midst of his duplicity?

“Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’-- and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).

Even though David’s deeds didn’t earn him the designation of “righteous,” he knew that, what he couldn’t achieve, God could achieve for him:

• “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit”
(Psalm 32:1-2).

Skeptic and iconoclast that I am by nature, it took years before I could grow in confidence of my “blessedness.” It was just too easy, too good to be true – that God’s forgiveness alone translated into “righteousness” and “blessedness,” beyond imagination. However, over time, other Scriptures began to fall in line for me. My Savior opened my eyes to see that my perception of my lack of “holiness,” about which I had been fretting, played an important role. Brokenness must precede wholeness; humbling must have its work before the healing. It was only through tear-filled eyes that I was enabled to see the rainbow. I slowly began to understand that the gift of forgiveness also included an imputation of His holiness.

Yes, without holiness we are lost (Hebrews 12:14). However, it isn’t primarily a matter of our attaining to a certain standard of holiness, but rather, my Savior sanctifying Himself to fulfill those standards for us (John 17:17-19).

The Book of Hebrews uses Esau as an example of this “holiness” to which we must attain. Esau was a “profane person” (Heb. 12:16). He had sold his birthright to Jacob for a mere bowl of soup. This was a profane act, because the birthright embodied the promise of God’s covenant, about which Esau seemingly couldn’t care less. This fact didn’t make him any less deserving than his brother Jacob, who had deceived his father in order to steal the birthright of the firstborn. However, Esau never confessed his sin of disregarding God:

“Afterward, as you know, when he [Esau] wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind [“repentance” NKJV], though he sought the blessing with tears” (Hebrews 12:17).

Although Esau wanted the blessing, he had little interest in the blessing-Giver, at least not enough to ever confess his sin and to resolve to change. Esau’s problem wasn’t sin or the inability to live up to a certain level of holiness. Instead, his problem was a refusal to admit his sinfulness and his need of forgiveness. For him, his brother Jacob was the real culprit, and he therefore planned to kill him.

“Without holiness no one will see the Lord”
(Heb. 12:14) is true, but it doesn’t represent a closed door. Nor is it the last word! Instead, it beckons us to knock a little harder, to cry louder until we see that it’s all about grace, the gift of His righteousness and His worthiness. Scripture is hard, but it’s not needlessly hard. It brings us to desperation, but it does it for mercy’s sake. It informs us of the brutal truth that we are under a curse if we fail to fulfill all the requirements of the law (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10), but then it shepherds the broken-hearted to an unfailing hope. It crushes us so under the weight of condemnation and our failures, so that it might heal us and bring us to a place of liberty (Gal. 3:22-24; Rom 3:19-20; 11:32)!

This doesn’t mean that the call to holiness is just about trusting in the gift of God. It must start there, but it then beckons us to walk, even to run. We are called upon to take what we have been given and, in utter gratefulness, and to pass it on.

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