An incarnational view of holiness

The book Incarnational Ministry, the presence of Christ in Church, Society and Family contains an essay titled, Holy God, Holy Churchin which Donald McCullough examines from a Trinitarian, incarnational perspective what the Bible says about holiness.

Holiness in the Old Testament
McCullough begins where the OT starts, with holiness as a religious concept, having to do with that which is separate:
As applied to the cult [OT religious system], the holy things of God are perceived as set apart for his service; and second, as applied to the name and person of God, God himself is understood as set apart. Thus [in the OT] holiness is first a religious, not an ethical, term (p17).
Then the OT develops an ethical conception of holiness: "Because God has set apart not only objects for his use but a people as well, there emerges the idea of a holy people who live according to a unique standard of conduct" (p17). This comes to the fore in Lev 19:2: "You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy", and is developed further in the OT prophets:
The prophets blast with abhorrence empty cultic ritualism and call the holy people of God to live justly by correcting oppression, defending the fatherless, and pleading for the widow (Isa 1:11-17). This emphasis on the conduct of the holy people is perhaps due to a new appreciation of the moral distinctives of their holy God. Hosea, especially, recasts the idea of the Holy in a new form. Breaking completely with the cultic element of Israel's faith, Hosea presents Yahweh in moral antithesis to humanity: "I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst" (11:9). Because God's holiness opposes the uncleanness of Israel (6:10, 9:4), it has a death-dealing aspect that causes the final "stumbling" of Israel (14:1); yet his holiness also has the creative element that makes him a tree of life (14:8). In a way that is astonishing in the context of Israel's religious traditions, Hosea links the notions of holiness and life (11:1-4)... The holiness of Yahweh, as the sum of his being, is precisely the creative love that heals as it tears and brings life through its slaying (6:1)... The antithesis between God and man consists in the very love which overcomes it (pp 17-18).
In a similar way, Isaiah connects God's holiness with his life-giving salvation: "Yahweh reveals his holy 'otherness' precisely in his power to save, to be the Holy One of Israel" (p18). McCullough then sums up his review of the OT's view of holiness:
The Holy is utterly distinct: the "wholly other" is the God of Israel; his set-apartness consists in the fact that he is Redeemer, the God of love. The holiness of God, therefore, refers to the fact that God is antithetical to humanity precisely in his overcoming the antithesis. As holy, he is the consuming fire of love (p19).
Holiness in the New Testament
McCullough finds in the NT the bringing together of the religious and ethical conceptions of holiness in the person and work of Jesus, the one in whom "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Col. 1:19).
In Christ, God reveals his holiness, his utter separateness precisely in his will not to be separate. But theology has not always kept this Christological focus, and the result has been continuing bifurcation in the church's understanding of both the holiness of God and its own holiness (p19).
McCullough argues forcefully that in the biblical revelation, which points to Jesus...
The Holy is not an empty, independent category; it knows only the Holy One of Israel revealed in the Holy One of Nazareth... The 'otherness' of God is precisely his redemptive love (p21).... We must look for an understanding of holiness that is grounded in Jesus Christ. Since both the religious and the ethical dimensions of holiness find their unity in him, we cannot be satisfied with approaches that abstract one or the other apart from him.... In the unity of his act of grace and judgment [in Jesus], God's 'otherness' asserts itself without compromise - an 'otherness' which is nothing other than love (p23).
The holiness of the church
McCullough then notes that the holiness of the NT church must not be reduced to either a "religious notion" or an "ethical concept." Rather, the church's holiness is a participation in the holiness of God as it is revealed in the person and work of Jesus, who is...
...the Holy One of God...the "wholly other," [who is] absolutely free and distinct from this world, the personal embodiment of transcendent grace. And yet, inasmuch as the "wholly other" is revealed in grace, he is shown to be "wholly for." What sets the Holy One [Jesus] off from the world is precisely his being for the world (p26).
McCullough notes that this understanding of holiness has two important implications for the church:
  1. Holiness in its original sense is God's act of grace in Jesus - thus it must never be abstracted from that grace, and must always be understood as God's gift of grace to the church. 
  2. "Inasmuch as the holiness of the church is participation in God's gift of holiness, the distinctiveness of its being is the very distinctiveness of God himself" (pp26-27).
Understanding that the church's holiness is entirely of grace, in the person of Jesus the Savior, we are reminded that the church, in itself, is sinful, and thus always in need of that grace. This also reminds us that the church is a "pilgrim people" - a people "on journey with Jesus," clothed in his righteousness, and moving away from the sin of its past toward the "eternally victorious love of God" (p28).

The bottom line for McCullough is this: all attempts to define the church's holiness in purely ethical or religious terms are inadequate and misguided. The holiness of the church exists in Jesus, who calls the church to participate in his unique "otherness." That otherness is Jesus himself, drawing near, in love, to forgive and to bless sinners. This very grace, in accordance with the nature of its giver, judges all sin as sinful, and overcomes it all through holy, divine love; not through wrath, condemnation or being aloof. By this grace, the church is holy as it shares in this holy love of Jesus, which is his redeeming love for all people.

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