Is Holiness A Doctrine?

by Rick Shrader

I was born in 1950.  The last half of the twentieth century and now into the first half of the twenty first has been an interesting time to be alive.  In addition to the fast and ever-changing world in which we live, I think the church life of the average American believer has been an interesting phenomenon.  Seeing the change in what was expected of a Sunday School boy in the 1950s to what the average boy in church may experience today is different to say the least.  I can vividly remember the turbulent 60s and the sudden change that came to my high school, my friends, and to the American culture in which I had grown up.  The church wasn’t the same either.  Going through Bible College, Seminary, Graduate School, church staff positions, teaching positions, and then pastoring since 1985 has painted a diverse picture of ministry during those years as well.  Many of my earlier peers and friends in ministry are now 180 degrees from where I am in philosophy of ministry.  Others that were very different then are very similar to me today.  I’m talking about our fundamental Baptist churches and schools.

I was reminded of these things a few days ago while having lunch with the son of an old college friend.  He and I obviously differed on philosophy of ministry, especially in the area of worship style, music, and other “contemporary” trends.  I liked the young man.  What’s not to like?  He was articulate, nice looking, polite, technologically astute, and interested in conversation.  As with most discussions around these topics, the question came down to music and worship style and why we all can’t have common ground in ministry causes.  His most specific point was that he didn’t see these things as fundamental doctrines.  He didn’t see chapter and verse, “black and white” reasons for making an issue over the differences.  Though we talked about a number of topics, my primary reason for disagreement was “the doctrine of holiness.”  His response was that he didn’t see holiness as a doctrine, at least not like the trinity, or the virgin birth, or the second coming of Christ.  These have black and white parameters.  Holiness is a word that needs to be defined.   We eventually ended our lunch on a good note and parted better friends than when we had begun.  But we were certainly no closer together on philosophy than before.

I have thought about my answer  for a while.  It didn’t seem very convincing to him but it was truly my very reason for not liking the contemporary approach to worship.  I had the same feeling last summer when my wife and I, with my sister and brother-in-law, attended Andy Stanley’s church while visiting in Atlanta.  To me there was a definite lack of reverence.  It felt more like attending a sporting event than a church.   Why is it that I (in this case, we) feel that way but, obviously, many others do not, especially younger people?

Is holiness a doctrine?  Is it something I can nail down and practice in my life or is it something nebulous that defines itself according to every person’s point of view?  We have created this wall between interpretation and application of biblical texts.  In this issue I’m reviewing a book on music by Scott Aniol.  He uses the term “encyclopedic” to describe the view that imperatives only come by specific wording of Scripture (“chapter and verse”), but applications made from the existing text (what he calls the “encompassing view”) cannot and should not become moral imperatives on any believer.  He says,

Some argue that if the Bible does not address a particular moral issue, believers have complete liberty to do as they please.  In other words, absence of biblical directive implies moral neutrality.  If God had an opinion on a particular issue, they argue, He would have given His people instructions.  Rather, morally neutral actions matter only with regard to the subjective motive or conscience of the individual.1

In other words, “if you can give me chapter and verse which says contemporary music is wrong for church use, I’ll agree.  Otherwise don’t appeal to mere holiness as a reason.  Holiness is just a word after all.  What one person thinks is holy another person thinks it is not.  Holiness is too subjective of a reason upon which to base moral decisions.”

Now, it is true that we have to be careful with our biblical application because history tells us surely that many wrong practices have been based on wrong application of Scripture.  This is why we take so much time with biblical interpretation.  If we interpret those applicational passages correctly, we build a proper foundation upon which to apply principles.  Keeping the passage in context means to follow grammatical, historical, and theological guidelines.  How else could we follow Paul’s admonition to avoid the works of the flesh which include, “envying, murders, drunkenness, reveling, and such like” (Gal. 5:21).  What is “such like?”  Can we really know, since that takes proper application of the text?  He did the same thing to the Ephesians when he described the church as “not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27).  What is a “such thing?”  That takes an application of the Scripture to supply the proper “such thing” in that blank spot (see also Rom. 1:32; Heb. 11:14).  If I put in there “anything that would be a moral spot or wrinkle in the church,” would that be correct?  How about anger?  How about cursing?  How about pride?  Don’t I have an obligation from this text to apply something that fits the context?  And when I read “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation (anastrophæ, conduct)” (1 Pet. 1:15), I have to put something in that spot called “all manner of conversation or conduct.”  I am saying that I think music that is designed by the world, and which we have borrowed for the church’s use, cannot fit the requirement presented by this verse for holy conduct.

This line of reasoning may sound subjective, and I believe it is.  But it is subjective in a necessary way.  My application of holiness will depend on how I have applied myself to the things of God; how I have read and understood His Word; how I have walked by the leading and conviction of the Holy Spirit; and whether I desire to please God or men.  To use an extreme example, I remember a Christian college student, away from home living in a secular college dormitory, telling me that his lustful thoughts were all right because God made him with those physical and emotional urges.  His problem was his walk with God, not his physical make-up.  Therefore he could not apply biblical principles to his everyday situation.

A quick perusal through my systematic theology bookshelf quickly confirmed to me that theologians think holiness is a doctrine.  In fact, it is the first attribute of God listed in most of them and usually receives the most space.  Strong says, “Here we have an ultimate reason and ground for being and doing right, namely, that God is right, or, in other words, that holiness is his nature” (Systematic Theology, 302).  Berkhof (who calls this attribute of God “majestic holiness”) says, “The fundamental idea of the ethical holiness of God is also that of separation, but in this case it is a separation from moral evil or sin” (Systematic Theology, 73).  Ryrie insightfully says, “The holiness of God becomes the standard for the believer’s life and conduct (1 Jn. 1:7).  This should put to an end the often useless discussions over what is permitted and what is not in the Christian life.  Proper conduct can be tested by the simple question, Is it holy?  This is the believer’s standard.  While he does not always measure up to it, he must never compromise it” (Basic Theology, 39).

In 2003 R. Kent Hughes wrote a book titled, Set Apart: calling a worldly church to a Godly life. In the preface he wrote, “Among evangelicals, there is a great disconnect between (on the one hand) what Christians believe and assimilate from sermons and Christian sources and how (on the other hand) they actually live.  It is this very disconnect that is the subject of this book.”2 Holiness is a setting apart to God.  We have lost this as a doctrine because we only assimilate teaching that fits our agendas and no longer strive for teaching that stretches our spirituality.  We want to say we are doctrinally sound yet we do not want our doctrine to change our lives.  We want to appear sane to the world yet we don’t want to be set apart from the world.  To be set apart means to be separated.  Even the very sound of those words brings negative thoughts to believers today.  While I am familiar with (and have heard most applied to me) all of the pejorative descriptions that have been given to separation (“holy huddles,” “head in the sand,” “hide in your office”), the fact is they are wrong and the Scripture is right and I must live by the Scripture.

First of all, holiness is a witness to a lost world.  Jesus said that to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake should make us rejoice because men will see our good works and glorify our Father which is in heaven (Matt. 5:10-12).  Peter echoed the same sentiment.  When we are reproached for Christ we are happy “for the Spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified” (1 Pet. 5:14).    The idea of holiness as a means of witness to the world has completely turned around in my life time.  Today, believers are more apt to think that assimilation in the world is a better witness than separation from the world.  Have we forgotten that to be a friend with the world is to be the enemy of God (Jas. 4:4)?

Second, holiness ought to come from an urging within our souls.  God “hated” the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6, 15).  His holy nature could allow no other feeling.  But Paul had to tell the Thessalonians that they were called to holiness and that if anyone despised holiness he “despiseth not man but God, who hath also given unto us his Holy Spirit” (1 Thes. 4:8).  How can we say we love God and despise holiness?  I love my wife and keep myself pure for her because of a deep desire within me.  Could it be less with my love for God?

Third, holiness is a means to power with God.  The Corinthian believers had lost their power with God because of their worldly ways.  They were unequally yoked with all kinds of ungodly things.  Paul, therefore, urged them to come out from among those things and be separate.  Then they would know God as “the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:14-18).  Scripture is full of stories about God’s people who lost their power because they lost their close walk with God (e.g. Adam, Achan, Sampson, Hezekiah, et al).

Fourth, holiness is a natural reaction to this world.  That is, for the Christian, it is a natural reaction.  John can command us not to love this world (1 Jn. 2:15) because that is what the Christian ought not to love.  Peter can remind us that the time past in our lives was plenty of time to live in the flesh (1 Pet. 4:3) and that now it is time for holy living.  Paul reminded us that we had no fruit in those things for which we are now ashamed (Rom. 6:21).

Fifth, holiness is an anticipation of heaven.  Paul was jealous for the purity of the Corinthian church because he wanted to present them as a chaste virgin to Christ (2 Cor. 11:2).  The same was true of the Colossians (Col. 1:22) and all of his churches (2 Cor. 11:28).  He reminded the Philippians that their “conversation” ought to be in heaven, not on earth, “from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21).  If we have the hope of heaven in us, we purify ourselves as He is pure (1 Jn. 3:2).  When we study the throne room of God in Ezekiel’s prophecy, or the millennial reign of Christ in Isaiah, or the New Jerusalem in John’s Revelation, how can we not respond with a holy life in anxious anticipation for those future rewards?


And So . . .

Yes, I think holiness is a doctrine.  If the first of two great commandments is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and soul, and strength, and mind (Lk. 10:27), then surely we will present our bodies a living sacrifice which is holy and acceptable to God (Rom. 12:1).  Isn’t that our reasonable service?


Scott Aniol.  Worship in Song (Winona Lake:  BMH Books, 2009) 4.
R. Kent Hughes, Set Apart (Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2003)  10.