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All the material on this site, which ranges from serious theology to the slightly humorous, aims to reflect a view of life and Christianity which acknowledges Jesus as Lord and Christ. We will try to be practical, helpful and easy to understand. Because we are still writing several more books and need the time to do that, we will not be taking comments and replying to them at this stage. However, if you do want to contact us please use the form provided. All material on this site that has been written by Joe Story, can be copied or quoted for any honourable, not for profit purpose with an appropriate acknowledgement. All books can be read free on line, purchased from your local (UK) Christian bookshop, or ordered online from this site. Contact us for bulk or overseas enquiries.
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I don’t know about you, but I have never found the concept of holiness easy to grasp. Most of us don’t seem to have too much of a problem believing that God is holy: indeed, the very fact that God is holy is sometimes the stumbling block that makes us draw back from even thinking that we might be holy as well.
I remember a bible study many years ago when I was a very new and immature Christian: we were looking at the first letter of Peter and came to verse 16 of chapter 1, where Peter, quoting from Leviticus says, “Be holy for I am holy”. In my naivety I took the statement at face value and said something to the effect that I thought it meant that, somehow – I didn’t know how – but somehow we were to be holy. I was shot down by a young man who scoffed at the idea that it was possible to be holy, and in the main, I think the group were with him rather than me.
That was almost certainly when I received at least one of the seeds of doubt about Christian holiness. In the years since, God has helped me pull up the weed of unbelief that grew out of that incident, and has brought me round to a place where, once again I can take Peter’s exhortation at face value. However, that still does not mean that I find the concept easy, especially when I look at myself as in a mirror and see my spiritual reflection, warts and all.
So how have I come to hold together the fact that, as far as God is concerned, not only am I called to be holy, but in reality – no kidding or pretending – I actually am holy? It is certainly not on the basis that I am sinless, and a brief conversation with my wife will eliminate that factor from the equation straightaway. Three things have helped me to this place. The first is coming to a better understanding of what the word holiness actually means. The second is a growing understanding of just how effective the work of Christ was and is in accomplishing the will of God. The third is more experiential: I am discovering how effectively the Spirit can work in my life to renew my mind and heart in both thought and practice.
Taking those three in turn, I want to try to unpack why I am now convinced by what Peter wrote in the previous verse to the one quoted above – “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in everything you do”.
At home, we have a particular saucepan that is old, battered, encrusted with lime-scale on the inside and, in terms of looks, deserves its place at the very back of one of our cupboards. And yet it is a holy saucepan, for the simple reason that it is dedicated to one purpose and one purpose only – we use it for boiling eggs and for nothing else. The root meaning of holiness is being set apart or reserved for exclusive use for a person or purpose. Whatever our condition, God has chosen us and set us apart for himself. Our call then is to be what we are – his children, his people, his servants – and not get sidetracked into serving anything or anyone else.
The second thing centres around the fact that I am persuaded that Jesus achieved everything the Father intended through the incarnation and the cross, his resurrection, ascension and glorification. God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him (Eph. Ch. 1 v 4). One thing is very clear, God did not intend or expect this to happen by giving each of us a report card with ‘must try better’ scrawled across it in red felt tip. Holiness is impossible to achieve by trying harder. It is achieved by Christ for the Father, and gifted to us to be received by faith. Jesus became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and holiness and redemption (1 Cor. Ch. 1 v 30).
Thirdly, it works in practice. During the summer, I spent an afternoon in a swimming pool with my son Ben, my daughter in law Anna and their family. Some of us jumped off the diving board at the deep end and before long, Jethro – our two-year old grandson – began to edge along it as well. Having fitted him with armbands, Anna positioned herself in the water a yard or so away and encouraged Jethro to jump. After some hesitation, he did so, and Anna caught him. By the end of the afternoon, Anna was worn out with catching Jethro, who by now was launching himself as far out into the pool as he could. The consistent faithfulness of his mum catching him changed his attitude from hesitation to reckless abandonment.
It can take an awful lot of encouragement to get us to jump out from the limits of our own ability. But if we do so when the Spirit prompts us, we will find that the Father faithfully catches us every time. True, we will still struggle if we do it presumptuously, or for sin or self-interest, but God will pull us out, dry us down and set us back on track again.
Jethro’s older siblings could not deny he had ‘been in at the deep end’ simply because his mum had consistently helped him. Any degree of practical holiness we do achieve is always and only because the Father has enabled us. Our failures are our own responsibility, but we do not avoid them by increased self-effort but by wholehearted abandonment to the faithfulness of our Father.
If most of us were to be perfectly honest, there are probably some people whom we would rather not forgive and be reconciled to.
Sadly, those towards whom we retain an irreconcilable attitude may have once been very close to us. Friends, family members: parents, children, siblings, husbands and wives – or ex husbands and wives. We probably should not be too surprised about this, as the first recorded murder in the bible was of one brother who murdered his other brother, and throughout history, family feuds have gone on for generations.
Of course, ongoing animosity also occurs between strangers; especially when one has committed a crime against another, or where two groups – gangs, tribes or nations – perpetuate hatred for no other reason than some perceived differences between them.
The problem for those of us who seek to be followers of Jesus, is that a refusal to forgive others – whoever they are or whatever they have done – is one of the few things that disqualifies us from receiving God’s forgiveness for ourselves. Probably the most commonly known and regularly prayed prayer, usually termed ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, is very explicit about the matter: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Just to make certain that his followers understood this to mean exactly what it appears to mean, Jesus went on to say very clearly, “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their sins, neither will your Father forgive your sins”.
I have come to the place of taking that very seriously. As far as I am aware I no longer hold anything against anyone, and this has proved to be a very positive experience. Not only has my assurance of God’s forgiveness toward me grown stronger, but I have found that God has been warming my heart a little towards those with whom I could take issue if I followed my own natural inclinations.
As I have considered the matter, it has struck me afresh how churches often seem to crop the gospel and leave out some of its vital elements. In recent years, I cannot recall hearing any gospel message that has included the need for reconciliation with others, the emphasis tending to be on the need that we have for forgiveness. We do need forgiveness, but as our forgiveness is dependent on our forgiving others, it seems to me that our need to forgive should take precedence over our need to be forgiven.
One of the things I have observed about the issue of forgiving others, is that unwillingness to do so is not necessarily connected to the magnitude of what needs to be forgiven. It is more understandable when someone struggles about reconciliation after infidelity in marriage, physical or sexual abuse or even murder, but sometimes long-term enmity can arise from no more than an imagined slight or a small disagreement. However, Jesus never differentiated between small sins and large ones. It is the fact of refusing to forgive another that disqualifies us from receiving God’s forgiveness, whether what needs to be forgiven is no more than a misunderstanding or the most horrific pre-meditated abuse.
That may seem to be unfair, until we grasp that God will forgive us regardless of the level of our sin, and the condition of forgiving others is simply on a similar basis to how he forgives us. It is always God’s will to forgive, and in our prayers we pray for his will to be done, so forgiving others essentially means that we align our will with his. Very few of us will achieve the ongoing ability to forgive others without first surrendering our will to God’s will, but when we do that unreservedly, we will find that he will enable us to do what we previously considered neither possible nor desirable.
When Paul was on trial before Festus and King Agrippa, his arguments were becoming so persuasive that Agrippa responded to Paul, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian”.
Agrippa was an interesting person. He was around ten years old when Jesus was born, and King Herod, who ordered the murder of the baby boys in Bethlehem at that time, was his grandfather. Although his family were Edomites, through alliances with the political powers of the day, especially
the Romans, they became the royal family in Israel. Astute politicians who often resorted to violence, they were always aware of the fragility of their position and so they worked hard at relationships with the Jews, especially the Sadducees. Agrippa was considered to be very well informed in Jewish
matters and he appears to have had a genuine respect for the Jewish scriptures. Paul goes so far as to say to him “King Agrippa, Do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” It was to this statement that Agrippa responded that he was almost persuaded to become a Christian.
At that time in the Roman Empire, most people would have been religious to some degree or other, though the focus of their beliefs would have ranged widely from rank idolatry or paganism through to true worship of the living God. Amongst this hotch potch of beliefs, it was not uncommon for people such as Agrippa who were racial outsiders to Judaism, nonetheless to have some measure of belief in the God of the Jews. Some Romans, Greeks and other nationalities even made regular visits to the Temple in Jerusalem where they congregated in the court of the Gentiles. Most appeared sincere, but they stopped short of actually converting to Judaism, which would have allowed them to join in the Jewish temple worship and be recognised as God’s people.
Though remaining outside of Judaism, the more serious of these Gentiles who believed in the true God began to be known by the name of ‘God-fearers’. The bible terms Cornelius in this way, and the Greeks who came up to the feast at Jerusalem and who wanted to see Jesus were almost certainly the same as well. When Jesus threw out the money-changers from the temple, it was from the area set aside for these God-fearing Gentiles that he ejected them, and he did so because the area was to be called a house of prayer ‘for all nations’.
Jews, and subsequently Christians, have never found it easy to know how to relate to God-fearers. They are not part of God’s people, and though some remain outside, others clearly have the potential to be converted and come in. Sometimes we resist those who seem to be close to the kingdom, like some Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we embrace others who, like Agrippa, align themselves with a church because it suits them to do so, but who are only almost persuaded to become Christians and stop short of actually committing themselves.
The problem appears to be that we respond to an outward alignment to an organisation and not to the inward work of the Holy Spirit in hearts and minds. So, if someone is part of one of the respectable old denominations or an apparently flourishing new one, we give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them as Christians, though they may be very far from it. On the other hand, those who are perhaps exploring on their own or via a slightly odd group, or a sect such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are treated with a great deal of suspicion and actively shunned, even though God may be at work drawing them to himself.
It is not easy to get it right. These days I find myself becoming more convinced that many within the churches, including some clergy and those in positions of responsibility, are no more than almost Christians who are not actually part of the people of God. On the other hand, whilst recognising that they may not yet have entered the kingdom, I am warming to and praying for, those who have an active, serious, committed faith, which may as yet be incomplete.
My daughter told me that she recently preached on the subject of disagreeing well.
I suspect that for many today it is a lost art, or maybe an art that was never learned in the first place. Jewish rabbis at the time of Jesus would have been well instructed in the matter. That doesn’t mean that they would have always come to right conclusions nor that they would not have had some very heated arguments, but in the main, they would have taken time to investigate and understand positions that differed from their own. Rabbis held in high esteem tended to be able to argue against themselves from the positions of those who disagreed with them.
Unfortunately, it is quite rare today to find people who know how to listen to, hear and understand a position that is different from their own. Indeed it is increasingly common to counter any disagreement with an aggressive attack on the character of the one who voiced it, rather than presenting a well thought through case as to why it might be wrong. The descent into existentialism in the world encourages and facilitates such responses, but they should not be part of interactions between Christians.
Though sometimes avoiding the extreme of character assassination in response to a disagreement, Christians seem to have achieved tolerance by the simple method of declining to engage in any ordered discussion where disagreements might exist. Though having a different result to some of the conflicts in the world, this position has the same roots in the world’s embrace of existentialism. Whereas some come to the conclusion that everyone (else) is wrong, others have tried to insist that we can all be right and that it is therefore bad form to point out areas of disagreement.
One of the booklets I have written is “Why Evangelical Anglicans Should Not Baptise Babies” It has been written out of the conviction that the baptismal practice of Evangelical Anglicans is wrong, not out of any animosity toward those who engage in such a practice. I worked in a church in partnership with an evangelical Anglican minister for ten years and I have very warm memories of that, but I still believe, that on this point, he was in error. Regarding the booklet, my greatest disappointment has not been that a well read, well informed Anglican has refuted the points I raise, but that I have met a fairly solid refusal to engage in discussion about the matter. I recently had the opportunity of a brief conversation with a Church of England Bishop and I asked him if it would be possible for him, or someone recommended by him, to have a look at the booklet and give me some feedback. He declined to do so himself and suggested that others would be too busy to do so either.
I also had an email exchange with the editor of a series of small books primarily aimed at Church of England clergy. He remarked that he thought my book ‘Interesting’, but seemed reluctant to say anything further than that.
I am aware that I am as fallible as the next person and that it is possible that I may have misunderstood the Church of England position on the matter, but my work is a serious, conscientiously researched piece of writing which raises some genuine concerns. I would love to have someone disagree well with me. Agreement would of course be better, but good disagreement is healthy and would be nearly as welcome.
So if any one of you is a theologically informed Anglican, who can spare the time to respond to what I have written, I would really appreciate that. The booklet can be read online for free, or ordered from me in hard copy via the Books section of this website.