The “grace” vs. “holiness” debate

The “grace” vs. “holiness” debate January 31, 2013

Christianity Today has set up a symposium discussing the following question:  Do American Christians Need the Message of Grace or a Call to Holiness?  As usual, no Lutherans were asked to participate, and the whole debate is maddening for a Lutheran to read, not just because of its false dichotomies but because of what is missing in the understanding of both terms.

For example, is it true that the Biblical definition of “holiness” means “being good”?  For convenience, here is a link to every use of the term “holy” in the Bible, and here is a link to the uses of the word “holiness”.  We learn that the Sabbath is holy, certain mountains and lands are holy; the Tabernacle (and later the Temple), its furnishings, the priests’ vestments and tools are holy.  None of these inanimate objects are capable of moral action, but God’s Word declares them holy.  There is a contrast with what is ritually unclean or profane, but this isn’t a matter of moral righteousness as such.  God, above all, is supremely holy.  So are His people.  Christians constitute a “holy priesthood.”  The holiness of Christians seems to be connected to the Holy Spirit.  To be sure, God’s holy people must avoid contact with what is “impure,” just as holy objects must not be touched by something “unclean.”

There are indeed passages in the Epistles that call for holy conduct, but there is more to the concept than that.  The word, of course, means “set apart” for God’s special use or for His spiritual presence.  The word “sacrament” comes from the word “sacred,” which, says the Online Etymological Dictionary, derives from the “obsolete verb sacren ‘to make holy’ (early 13c.).”  In Baptism, God sets us apart.  He makes us holy.  In Holy Communion, Christ makes us holy.  In the Holy Bible, God’s Word brings us His holiness through the Holy Spirit.

I’m not saying this exhausts the issue, but it is strange, in Lutheran eyes, to talk about “holiness” simply in behavioral terms.   It is also strange to talk about “grace” as an abstract quality without mentioning Christ, the Cross, or the tangible “means of grace,” which gets us back to “holiness.”

Good works? Of course!  But these grow out of both grace and holiness.  Both have to do with God’s gifts and what God bestows through Christ.  How can they be set against each other?



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