The Belgic Confession of Faith describes the church as a ‘holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed in his blood and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit’. This is based on the New Testament’s three-part description of the church’s holiness.
Principle and practice
1. The church is holy in principle. Each believer is a member of Christ through the substitutionary death and righteousness of Christ, the Son of the living God (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 12:10-11). His holiness is imputed to the invisible church so that from God’s perspective, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, it is as if she ‘never had had nor committed any sin’ (Q. 60). In Christ, therefore, all believers, individually and as members of the corporate church, are declared holy.
2. The church is holy in practice. The bond of union between Christ and the church is the Spirit, who dwells in both. The church is directed by the Spirit according to the Word, and her sanctification is dependent upon the Spirit’s indwelling.
By the Spirit, the church is ethically holy in Christ (2 Corinthians 6:14 – 7:1). No wonder, then, that the New Testament stresses inward rather than ritual holiness. Basic to this is the witness of Jesus himself, who as the Son of man lived a perfectly holy life, for he ‘did no sin; neither was guile found in his mouth’ (1 Peter 2:22).
Christ is the church’s rock in sanctity. In his incarnation, Christ sanctified himself for his church so that through him we might be sanctified before the Father. What the church is in Christ – holy – she must increasingly become in practice through the Holy Spirit. Her status is that of perfect holiness in Christ, but her daily condition must become increasingly holy by the Spirit of Christ. Sanctification is both a positional reality (1 Corinthians 6:11) and a lifelong process in which the believer is conformed to the character of God the Father, to the image of Christ, and to the mind of the Spirit.
3. The church’s holiness is in process. The New Testament envisages holiness as the progressive transformation of the entire person of believers. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 says: ‘The very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’.
The word ‘holy’ means ‘set apart’. As Israel of the Old Testament was set apart from peoples who did not worship God (Exodus 19:6), so the church of the New Testament is set apart from the world (Hebrews 12:22-25).
As members of Christ’s church, we are called to separate from all unbelief and to consecrate ourselves to God and to serve him in every sphere of life. Holiness must be cultivated in privacy with God, in the confidentiality of our homes, in the competitiveness of our occupation, in the pleasures of social friendship, in relation with our unevangelised neighbours and the world’s hungry and unemployed, as well as in Sunday worship.
Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 4:4-5 that everything is to be sanctified. The New Testament emphasises that the pursuit of comprehensive holiness is to be expected of all true followers of Christ. A common term for all believers is holy ones (hagioi), usually translated ‘saints’.
Hagioi describes ordinary believers who are pure and free from guilt or moral pollution through Christ. That does not mean that members of the church are sinless, however. Paul knew very well that the Corinthians, Ephesians and Philippians, whom he greeted as saints, were not perfect.
Neither was the apostle himself perfect. He confessed, ‘Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 3:12).
The church on earth is full of spots, wrinkles and defects. She is delivered from the dominion of sin but not from sin itself. She no longer clings to sin, but sin clings to her. Perfect holiness is beyond her reach in this life, but it nevertheless remains her goal.
She pursues and seeks to ‘perfect holiness in the fear of God’ (2 Corinthians 7:1). The church’s holiness is real and attainable because of Christ’s work in her midst by his Word and Spirit. But it is only inceptive and progressive in this life.
However, the church anticipates complete, eschatalogical holiness, when she will be translated into the presence of her holy Saviour. Then she will reign with Christ as the church triumphant. Do you, also, know this struggle to be holy, even as you anticipate perfect holiness in Christ for ever with all the redeemed?