But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16).
We inwardly cringe at the word holiness. Cringe because it is a pure, clean, separating word; because in the world’s eyes, to be holy is to look down on others. We sigh when we read this elusive, vague-feeling command, “Be holy.” We would rather read something we can do, like “Be generous,” “Be hardworking,” or “Be kind.” Yet God’s people are called, firstly, to be holy.
Holiness means to be set apart or to be separate. It is one of God’s communicable attributes, like mercy or faithfulness. It is an attribute that Christians can also have, to a lesser and imperfect degree. God is the holy God. There is no one like Him. He is in a category all by Himself. He alone is uncreated, all-knowing, and all-powerful. Even the angels in heaven, who have never sinned, cover their faces when they see God, crying out “Holy, holy, holy!”
God describes many things as “holy unto Me” (Leviticus 20:26, Exodus 30:31, Exodus 22:31). The utensils in the temple were called holy because they were set apart, only to be used by the priests for ceremonial duties (Exodus 40:10-11). When Isaiah prophesied about the Messiah, He was called the Holy One of Israel, for He was set apart to rescue sinners. The nation of Israel was to be separate from other nations, not worshipping their gods or marrying foreigners. When God began the nation of Israel through Abraham and Sarah, the first thing He told Abram was to leave his home. He had to be separate; he had to be holy.
It is clear that God considers the command, “Be holy” seriously. Perhaps we would like to skip over it because holiness is not something we can do, only something we can be. It seems like a nice, intangible, abstract notion we tend to skim over in the Bible. Our God, who has loved us from before time, who sent His Son, who poured out His wrath on Christ so that we might be freed from sin, His children, His heirs — Our Father is the one who commands us to be holy. A command, not a suggestion.
How can we be holy? How do we sever ourselves from the world, from sin, and be separated unto God? The answer is not to lock ourselves in a prayer closet for the rest of our lives. Physical separation from the outside world does not equal holiness. Monasticism, with its isolation and rigorous lifestyle, does not make one holy — Jesus was not a monk. He ate, drank, taught, and walked alongside sinful people. Holiness is not having a serious, solemn demeanor. Holiness is not an outward matter. We don’t make ourselves holy by how we dress, changing the way we talk, or trying to stop… you name it. Holiness is not a spiritual straightjacket we put on ourselves. If we start by trying to clean ourselves up, we will either despair because we see more and more sin as we examine ourselves, or be mistakenly proud of any progress we make.
For the Christian to be holy, he or she must be devoted to God, just as the different items that were devoted to the tabernacle were holy. To devote something is to set it apart for a special reason, just as we devote time for family or devote a certain amount of money for savings. When we are devoted to something, we have our hearts and energy set on it. To be devoted to someone is to be completely his or hers. A husband with a devoted wife has her whole heart; she loves him completely. She does not wander off with other men or lust for someone other than her husband. She is his. And it is her delight to be his!
The heart of devotion is love. We are devoted to what and whom we love. The wife in the previous example did not become devoted to her husband by making sure she stayed in the house and said, “I am devoted to you,” every day. In the same way, we do not become devoted to God by changing our habits or ways. We become devoted — separated for a special reason, consecrated, holy — by love.
Holiness is devotion. It is being devoted to God, to be in love with Him. We know that love only comes by getting to know the person whom we love more deeply. We love our friends more as we spend more time with them. We love our parents more as we talk to them. In the same way, the Christian’s (for only a Christian can be holy) love for God grows the more he or she sees of Him in His Word, prays to Him, and hears about Him among His people.
Knowledge of God is the fuel for love. The more we see Him, the more dismal and empty the world will seem. The tinsel of this world stops shining in the light of the Holy One. If we love God, we will be devoted to or given over to Him. In other words, we will be separated unto Him, set apart for Him. As we see what He has done for us, the beauty of who He is, and the fact that there is no one like our God, the Christian can be holy, for He is holy.
If we want to obey the command in 1 Peter, we should not start by looking at our unholiness, at how much we are like the world. We first set our eyes on God so that we might, by His help, love Him more and more each day. Do not cringe or sigh at the command. “Be holy” is a command to be God’s. To be completely, exclusively His. Christian, is there a sweeter command than this? “Be holy, for I am holy.”