The Error of Manufacturing Holiness

by Todd Burus on December 15, 2008

Some of the most eye-opening indictments on our own failings as the Church come when we look back to the warnings that the Old Testament prophets delivered to Israel. One such warning that struck me acutely is found in the book of Haggai. In chapter 2, verse 12, Haggai asks the priests presiding over the Jews returning from exile a question about whether holiness can be transferred to an object by simply bringing it into contact with something God has made holy; a question to which the priests plainly answer “No.” This is so pertinent today because we find ourselves just as guilty as the Jews of trying to become holy just by contacting holy items, be they sacred spaces, hallowed music, devout prayers and behaviors, or any of a number of other “religious” activities. This is unhealthy and is, I believe, a major contributor to much of the legalism and liberalism that infests the Church today.

Haggai 2.12 says, “‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’ The priests answered and said, ‘No.’‘” This question being posed by Haggai to the priests of the temple in Jerusalem falls in the larger context of a point he is making about defilement occurring in the temple due to the uncleanness and sloth of the Jews. Though this is of no practical importance to us today (we neither offer sacrifices in the temple nor worry about ritual cleanness) I do believe there is a sense in which this passage is still talking to us.

Who among us is not familiar with complaining within the church over what styles of music are played during worship? It is so clichéd by now we can almost script how it goes (Why is that music so loud? Who plays the organ anymore? Where did the organ go? How many refrains does this song have?), but what is it really about? Are we arguing over what is more glorifying to God, or are we arguing over what makes us feel better? And if it’s what makes us feel better, why so? Because all we care about is enjoying the music, or because for some reason it is “holy” to us? Are we trying to make ourselves holy by coming into contact with holy music?

What about prayer? If someone says “beseech” or “nigh” when they are talking to God, what are they doing? Is this how we should pray? Is it respectful? Or is it just something that makes us feel holy because we are coming into contact with holy vocabulary?

Now, before I lose too many of you, please don’t take this for what it is not. I am not saying that any or all of these practices are wrong. I am not claiming that Dave Crowder should replace Charles Wesley or that we should talk to God like we talk to our uncle, but what I am asking is that we take a step back and seriously consider why we do some of the “religious” things that we do.

I know in my own life I have had to do this. There was a time when I felt that if the Lord’s Supper was not administered every week then the church was automatically walking in sin. But one day I started analyzing why it was that I thought this, and more importantly, what my attitude towards the Lord’s Supper was in the first place, and found that to me, taking the Lord’s Supper had become a holy thing to which I felt that, by taking it every Sunday, I was somehow being transferred it’s holiness.

The reason this is so important, why I think the admonition in Haggai is so relevant to the Church today, is because it is this very attitude of manufacturing holiness which feeds straight into the self-righteousness of legalism and the false piety of theological liberalism. When we think we are holy by our actions, when we esteem ourselves justified and forgiven because we wore a certain necklace, sang a certain song, or avoided a certain sin, we are robbing the cross of its power and God of his glory. If we can manufacture holiness for ourselves by the things we do under our own power, then the Scriptures lose their authority and the grace of God loses its necessity.

Finally, once all of this is done, we become gods unto ourselves; “exchang[ing] the glory of the immortal God for images” of our own wants and desires (Romans 1.23). We start to sanctify what we deem as holy, elevate what we feel is important, until one day it is clear that the message we carry no longer bears any resemblance to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

I am not advocating a total overhaul of the church. In fact, I believe that the unqualified removal of all traditions is what is fueling the theologically-loose emergent conversation right now, and therefore is a step in the wrong direction. However, as we are have been confronted with this theme, I think all of us, me included, could benefit from taking time to clean out our spiritual closets, removing the junk which exists to make us holy but does not glorify God, reaffirming the standards that have stood the test of time, and making room for the Spirit to bless us with fresh expressions of worship and devotion; so that we are no longer living off of holiness manufactured by human hands, but are basking in the unequivocal holiness of God’s marvelous light!

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