Holiness versus legalism

1 Peter 1:15

But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.

Holiness. It is one of the most misunderstood words in Christianity. If I were to ask what popped into your head when you read that word many of you would probably say, ‘self-righteous.’ Holiness has been closely associated with legalism in the minds of believers for decades. Unfortunately, we (The Church) are partly responsible for the mistaken identity.

In order to clarify the difference, let’s begin by defining the two.

Holy – set apart

Legalism – literal or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code (Webster)

I am not married, but from what I understand successful relationships are built on serving. We serve because we love. We give because we love. We change some of our quirks because we love. It is a sacrificial denial of self in order to display love. Right? You don’t typically see a man clean the dishes because it was stated in some marriage agreement. He knows that it will bless and honor his wife to do so. Is it in his nature to want to clean dishes? Most likely not. But he does it because he loves.

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think (Rom. 12:2).

First things first. Holiness and Legalism are not the same. The church has evolved over the years through several different movements. One of those movements is called the Holiness Movement. There are others as well. During these movements Christianity developed in methods. Different movements had different characteristics. One of the things the church retained from the Holiness Movement was the idea of abstinence. We don’t drink. We don’t gamble. It was part of a sanctification process. Choices that we make following salvation.

Today, holiness is seen as a list of things we can’t do. That, in fact, is legalism. Legalism was a Chinese philosophy that required strict adherence to the law. So what am I saying? Let’s revisit the example above.

The man doesn’t wash the dishes because he has to (legalism). He doesn’t wash the dishes because he is afraid of his wife (obedience out of fear). He washes the dishes because he loves his wife(holiness). Holiness is to be set apart from the world. It is not just to be set apart from the world. It is to be set apart for God. Holiness is a response. We respond to God’s grace by living a life that is pleasing to him.

Imagine the wife cooking dinner every day, giving the husband back rubs, and serving tirelessly. Then the husband has the nerve to leave a dirty plate on the table, watch TV all day, leave laundry everywhere and disrespect his wife. Like I said, I’m not married but I assume that marriage would get tense pretty quick.

The way we live reflects who we love.

John Wesley equated holiness with love. He came up with the idea that in order to live holy we must love rightly. On the flip-side, we cannot love rightly unless we live holy.

Jesus replied, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is equally important. Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments (Matt. 22:37-40).’

A holy life comes from an understanding of love. It is birthed from a relationship with God. It is not a list of what to do and what not to do. It is living a life worthy of the One who gave his life for us. It is serving in humility. It is living a life of integrity. It is being honest in business dealings. It is helping the poor. It is speaking well of others.

Not because we have to. Because we love him.

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against these things (Gal. 5:22, 23).

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