While holiness is widely accepted as a biblical standard, within the church in general there is a lot of debate as to what it means practically for the follower of Jesus Christ. As we seek to understand this truth, even within the holiness tradition, there are a lot of words used to modify holiness. All of which, attempt to teach us something about holiness. Six of these commonly used words are: personal, relational, social, positional, ethical, and ceremonial.

It is possible to correlate these words to the six questions of story analysis—who, what, when, where, why and how—that we all [should have] learned in school. The six “al” ending adjectives listed above, answer most of these six analytical questions. In the article in Wesleyan Life, fall 2013, titled “Personal Holiness” I found answers to five of these questions:

  • Who: you
  • When: various options discussed
  • What: entire sanctification
  • How: Holy Spirit
  • Where: inner life

What I did not see was a clear answer to the why question. I think this is frequently true. Why would God want his people to be holy? Perhaps we let the quick “because we need it!” suffice. A brief reading of the daily news certainly supports that idea. Hebrews 12:14 could also be used to answer this question: “without holiness no one will see God.”

While these answers are true, I believe there is a more complex answer that runs throughout the Bible.

What if I were to say, that in the grand scheme of God’s story, He needs us to be holy! What if to answer the “why” question we need to use another “al” ending word. To answer the “why” holiness question, I believe we need to emphasize “missional holiness.” What is missional holiness?

In contrast to the above listed modifiers of holiness, missional holiness moves us beyond an individualized concept to a more holistic understanding of holiness because it starts with God, not with ourselves. One only needs to recall that singular line from Leviticus 19:2, “Be holy, because I am holy.” So the why starts with God, but that answer in and of itself is not missional.

To begin to see why our call to holiness is missional we can start with familiar Psalm 23. In verse three David states about the Lord: “He guides me in paths of righteousness.” Because we normally read this Psalm for the personal comfort and long-term benefits of being God’s sheep we forget to ask why the shepherd does these things. Verse three continues and explains that God leads us in righteousness “for his name’s sake.” Yes, all that the Shepherd does is good for us, but it is also, and perhaps primarily, “for his name’s sake.” Our lives are “for his name’s sake” when our lives as individuals and the church share his story with others. This, in essence, is what missional holiness is all about.

The term missional is not just the theological word of the decade; it is an important biblical concept. It reminds us that the biblical narrative centers on God’s story, and what he does–not on us and what we do. So back to the question, why does God need us (us as in the church as well as individuals) to be holy? So that we will make Him known as he is. An unholy people do not show God to be holy. A quick walk through the Bible story makes missional holiness evident.

In Exodus 19:1-6, God tells Moses to remind Israel why he brought them out of Egypt–to make Israel his “treasured possession.” Not because Israel is special, but because God has a purpose for Israel as “a kingdom of priests.”

In Leviticus 19, where God tells Israel to “Be Holy, because I am holy,” there is another phrase that is drummed into their heads: “I am the Lord your God.” God tells Israel to be a distinctive people, a holy people because of him, not because of them.

The verses of Deuteronomy 4:5-8 show more clearly the “why” of holiness. Israel is to be a holy distinctive people so that the other nations will see what God is like—holy. The next verse gives a word of caution to Israel to not forget why they are to do these things. So what happens when they do forget?

Ezekiel in 36:16-23 has the undesirable task of telling Israel why they are in exile (which is what happened because Israel forgot to be God’s distinctive people). They forgot Deuteronomy 4:5-8. Instead of the other nations seeing that God is holy, they “profaned” his name. Therefore, in God’s words through the exile, “I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes.”

That is missional holiness. God wants us, his people, to be holy so that others may see that he is holy. But someone might declare that is the Old Testament. So let’s move on to the New Testament.

Paul, in Romans 15:15-16, refers back to the priestly duty of believers. He does this to show that we are to proclaim the gospel of God, “so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” As priests, we are missional so that others may also be made holy.

Likewise, in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, Paul goes repeatedly to Old Testament passages to build his argument that we are to be holy. The imagery focuses on God’s people as God’s dwelling place (temple), in that he is with us. Since this is true, we are called to holiness.

While Ephesians 1:3-13 presents a passage that is ripe with theological debate, Paul’s argument for missional holiness cannot be ignored. Paul emphatically states that God’s purpose for us is to be holy. This is the culmination of all the works of redemption that are “for the praise of his glory.” God needs us to be holy, so that he can be seen for who he is.

So that you don’t think this is just Paul, Peter gets on the bandwagon as well. In I Peter 1:13-15, Peter takes us back to the “be holy, because I am holy” language which is addressed to God’s people as a group. God’s story has not changed from the beginning of his work with his people both corporately and individually.

In I Peter 2: 9-12, Peter continues the imagery that Paul uses from the Old Testament call that we are to be a holy people or priests to those who are not God’s people. We are not priests for ourselves, or even for other priests. We are priests for those who are not priests, meaning those who are not God’s people. The “priesthood of all believers” is an important concept. Likewise, holiness is essential to the priesthood. The result of our holy lives is that others may glorify God.

Our reason for being holy is singular in the Bible. However much we might want to argue theologically about the other five story analysis questions, we cannot argue about the “why.” We are to be holy because God desires that he be made known to those who are not his people. He wants to use us to make him known as he is—holy, thus personal and corporate holiness are required. How we live as individuals and as a church matters. Are our personal and corporate holiness truly missional?

Dr. Marcus Dean, a former missionary with Global Partners, now serves as associate professor of intercultural studies and missions at Houghton College.