Holiness versus Engagement

by Peter Law

As God’s people, sent into the world, we’re commanded to strike an often difficult balance between holiness and engagement. God hates sin and commands us not to live in it, yet Jesus sends us in to the world to make disciples, something we are totally unable to do if we live in a hermetically sealed bubble surrounded by moral giants.

Jesus’ enemies, the Pharisees, got half of this formula right. Their guiding principle was one of the mantras from the Penteteuch: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2b NIV)

The Pharisees took God’s command to holiness very seriously: They detested those who broke the law of Moses. While there’s nothing wrong with being very careful not to do evil, all of this rule-keeping led them away from the very heart of the law. Jesus criticizes them, saying:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:23-24 NIV).

The Pharisees had excelled in keeping the rules, but in their fervour, they had missed the point: God is a missionary God who is holy, but who dwells with an unholy people and he calls us to follow his lead. He calls us to shun sin, but also to engage those who don’t with compassion not self-righteousness. The Pharisees’ understood God’s hatred of sin, but completely overlooked his love of people, even sinful people.

Jesus calls us to a different sort of holiness. In a prayer shortly before Jesus’ passion, the Lord for his disciples:

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. (John 17: 15-18 NIV)

Jesus is likening their calling to what he’s just done. He has given himself to serving the lost and the poor, fully entering into their situation, only faithfully obeying God while doing so. What he has done is to give us a living example of the balance between holiness and engagement to which God calls us. We are to be present, compassionate and generous without being detached, proud or judgmental.

So what do we take away from this? In my own experience I’ve seen it be too easy to fly off the rails in one direction or the other. Like the Pharisees we can be very moral people, behaving in all the “right” ways, while forgetting that our morality is designed to show people who God is, the one who is both holy and loving. On the other hand, we can emphasize God’s unconditional acceptance of people, forgetting that he calls to something: to live a life free from bondage to sin. God calls us away from sin, not to keep us from having a good time and not to show everyone how moral we are, but so that we, the people he loves, are no longer ravished by the effects of sin that is destroying us.

Holiness and love may seem like they’re in tension, but it’s with this tension that God desires us to live our lives. When Jesus says, “[people don’t] light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt 5:15-16 NIV), he’s calling us not just to live holy lives, but to do so in a way that is evident to all. We can only do this when we live lives of engagement with those outside the church, or else we’re putting our lamp under a bowl.

This is the life of mission. It doesn’t have to be to the far corners of the globe (though sometimes it is). It doesn’t require a degree in theology. It requires us to allow ourselves to be fully present in relationship with people who don’t already know Jesus and to show them how he’s changed our lives, not with an attitude of pride, or condescension, which points towards ourselves, but with the humility of people whose lives have been transformed by the unmerited favour of another person: God.

P.S. if you’re a Christian looking to practice this sort of mission and don’t have these sorts of relationships in your life, and if you live near one of our centres, nightlight can be a great place to put your faith in action. Click on the link to our volunteer submission form to get started.