Holiness is not Wholeness

Neil Richardson

God does not keep himself to himself – and that is really Good News. From the very beginning of the Bible onwards it becomes clear that God is an outgoing God: ‘Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness…’ (Gen 1:26). And so it continued: the covenant with Noah and ‘all living creatures’ (Gen 9:8-17), with Abraham (eg. Gen 15:18), with Israel (eg. Exodus 6.4). The God of the Bible is an outgoing God, who longs for partnership with the people he has made.

Yes, this is really good news. You couldn’t say the same about other ‘gods’ – not that they were gods at all, but people mistakenly called them ‘god’. True, the gods of ancient Greece and Rome didn’t keep themselves to themselves either – that was part of the problem. They could be touchy; they could be immoral. You couldn’t count on them. And there were so many of them – one for every department of life, not to mention every city and country.

With the God of Israel – the only God – it was, it is, so different. This God, in his outgoingness, is utterly consistent, utterly dependable, generous and unselfish (Exodus 34:6) and yet, at the same time, a God who does not compromise himself (v.7). Is this still good news? The news that God does not keep himself to himself could be, maybe is, alarming, even threatening, if this outgoing God does not compromise himself. But still there comes the invitation, the call, to partnership.

So, in the light of all this, what does the Bible mean when it calls God ‘holy’? Of all the great words of the Bible, the words ‘holy’ and ‘holiness’ are probably the ones we’re in greatest danger of losing touch with. After all, if we never encounter a holy person, or if our worship ceases to convey ‘the beauty of holiness’, how could we possibly know what it is?

Despite the frequently heard argument to the contrary, holiness is not wholeness. Holiness is infectious, wholeness is not. Holiness is a ‘God word’, wholeness is not. Some of the most holy people in Christian history have not been ‘whole’ (at least not as the world at large normally thinks of wholeness). St Paul may have come into this category, and that could have been a problem for the Christians at Corinth. (Have a look at 2 Corinthians 10:10 alongside 12:7-10). John Wesley probably became, as the years went by, a saint who was less than ‘whole’. The nineteenth century man of prayer, the Abbe Huvelin, certainly was. So it is important, if the fullness of the biblical revelation is to be maintained, that, contrary to the modern trend, we insist: holiness is not wholeness. (Being holy isn’t the same as being holistic either. As Gerard Hughes, the modern Catholic writer says, God didn’t say ‘Be holistic, as I am holistic’!)

So what is holiness? As I said, it is a God word. So we can’t define holiness, or even describe it, any more than we can define or describe God. But we know when we have encountered the Holy One. We know we are in the presence of something, Someone unique, indefinably mysterious, utterly uncontaminated by anyone or anything else, (remember, this God does not compromise himself), utterly distinct and different from everyone and everything else, and – ultimately life-changing.

This Holy God does not keep himself to himself. He is ‘the Holy One of Israel', passionately concerned for, and with, his human partner. This unique, pure, transcendent, God continued to call Israel into a life-changing relationship with himself.

This good news came to fullest expression in Jesus (and for ‘Israel’ we may now read ‘the whole human race’ - John 1:1-18). Jesus is the supreme example both of God not keeping himself to himself, and of God not compromising himself. So the cross of Jesus becomes the revelation of God’s love (Romans 5:8), God’s grace (Galatians 2:21), God’s glory (John 13:31-32) – and God’s holiness? Yes, although it is not so easy to cite a supporting text, it is surely true: the cross is also the revelation of the holiness of God.

But here we must be careful. It’s easy to think of God’s grace and God’s holiness pulling him, as it were, in different directions. The Holy God recoils from sin. The gracious God goes out to the sinner. There is more than an element of truth in this. But the distinction is too neat. I have found the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, very helpful here. Barth insists that when we speak about God’s holiness, we are still speaking about his grace: we haven’t changed the subject. And, writing of the outgoingness of God, Barth has this to say:


‘When we speak of grace, we think of the freedom in which God turns his….goodwill and favour towards another. When we speak of holiness, we think of the same freedom which God proves by the fact that, in this turning towards the other, he remains true to himself’ (Church Dogmatics II 1 p.360).

Think of the most holy person you have ever met. Recall what kind of a person they were. She (or he), I’m sure, was not remote or distant, not superhuman, still less inhuman, but deeply human – in a way that brought out the best in you. Holiness is infectious. But it can also be threatening – even alarming, especially to people who misuse power, or who subscribe to a distorted sort of religion. And then it isn’t long before holy people are criticized for being a nuisance, or a threat to society. It isn’t long before ‘the powers that be’ try to destroy their reputation, sideline them, or, if all else fails, do away with them. And not only the powers that be. Even the crowds initially attracted to the holy person are easily persuaded to join the lynch-mob, (eg. Luke 23:21).

But here is the wonderful thing – the gospel, in fact. The ‘holiness’ of people and places could normally be preserved only if they were kept separate and apart – like the High Priest, who must not be contaminated by human contact on the Day of Atonement (eg. Leviticus 16:17), like the Holy of Holies itself. With Jesus it was different. He did not need to ‘protect’ his holiness. On the contrary, his holiness was revealed and experienced precisely in his outgoingness. He expressed his holiness, not by keeping himself apart, but by becoming one with us (Hebrews 2:10-18). And through his sacrifice – the price he paid for his outgoingness - he ‘released’ the Holy Spirit (John 19:30), and created communities of ‘holy ones’ (‘saints’ - eg. 1 Corinthians 1:2) across the world.

Kenneth Leach, in his book The Sky is Red (DLT New Edition 2003), points out that holiness is much more central than morality to the New Testament. It is also inseparable in the Bible from ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ (eg. Isaiah 5:16). As John Wesley said, ‘There is no holiness but social holiness’. To quote Called to Love and Praise (a Methodist Conference Statement on the Church): ‘..holiness is not an otherworldly characteristic, it is a Christlike one…’

But that is not the note on which to end. Holiness is not simply what we aspire to as Christians. It is a gift. And, because of Jesus, it is a gift even before it is an aspiration.

The Revd Dr Neil Richardson is the President of the Methodist Conference, a former Principal;of Wesley College, Bristol and Superintendent of the Leeds North East Circuit.

Headline Autumn 2003 pp.7-8