Pastor Craig Carter
When my children were little, they were home schooled and lived a fairly sheltered existence. I served a small church in rural Alabama and their regular baby sitter was a young lady from our congregation who was like an adopted daughter to us.
She was their primary connection to the “outside world” and, being a teenager, exposed them to a pop culture. On one occasion, after leaving them with her for a while, when we arrived home they informed us, “We watched a movie with Gigi and they said a bad word!”
Holding our breath and imagining the possibilities, we asked what it was. They said, “Shut up!,” which was categorized as a bad word(s) in our house.
Needless to say, over time my kids were exposed to a wider variety of vulgar language. When I was growing up, they were called “four-letter words.” The mere mention of that phrase is fairly self-explanatory, isn’t it?
In fact, it gets an entry in most modern dictionaries.
Four-letter words: “refers to a set of English-language words written with four letters which are considered profane and regarded as coarse or offensive.”
I don’t think I need to name any names because they have become so prevalent, and even acceptable, in our culture.
A generation ago, comedian George Carlin rose to fame with a routine centered on “Seven words you can never say on television.” Now, most are commonplace even in mainstream, prime-time broadcasts.
Most of us know there are some four-letter words (or 5- or 6-letters words for that matter) that we shouldn’t say, but did you know there are some four-letter words that we should try to live by?
Jesus came to break cultural taboos and redeem that which has been desecrated. And that even includes four-letter words … or so is the premise of a recently published book co-written by Charles Lake and Matt Ayars.
My wife Lee and I met Dr. Ayars in Haiti a few years ago when he served as the president of a seminary there. The book is called, Holy Is a Four-Letter Word.
In it, the authors identify a number of four-letter words that enable us to live a holy life in an unholy world. I’d like to use their book as the jumping off point for a sermon series to kick off 2021. I’m calling it, “Sacred 4-Letter Words”
Sacred is the opposite of profane. There are a number of English words consisting of four letters that I would call sacred, as they are the key to living as God intends for us to live.
This morning we’re going to start off with the most important one of all – holy. All of the rest of the words we explore will be related to this critical aspect of the Christian life.
During Advent I preached a sermon on this subject in declaring a new year of holiness. In it, I made the case that, as God’s people, we are called and expected to be holy.
“You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2 NLT)
There are 830 occurrences of holy/holiness referenced in the Old Testament, including the one above. There are also many in the New Testament, including this one:
“You were created to be like God, and so you must please him and be truly holy.” (Ephesians 4:24b CEV)
Holy means “consecrated or dedicated to God,” therefore holy is a sacred four-letter word.
But humans have a bizarre tendency to take the sacred and make something perverse out of it. So, for many people, including some Christians, holy is a dirty four-letter word. We resist being called holy, lest we be thought of as “holier than thou.”
We consider it utterly unattainable and “pie in the sky” kind of thinking. Being holy is about as believable as the ads we see this time of the year claiming we can eat all we want and still lose 10 pounds in 30 days or get into incredible physical condition by exercising only 10 minutes a day.
In the same way, we view the notion of holiness with cynicism and skepticism.
But as I suggested in that recent sermon, God means exactly what He says about holiness. He truly expects us, as His people, to be holy. It’s a command, not a suggestion.
For that to happen, we have to realize that holy is a sacred word to live by.
So I want us to look at it today by answering three questions: What? Why? How?
What is holiness?
Our English words – holy, holiness, saints, and sanctify – come from Hebrew and Greek root words meaning division, separation, or set apart.
So to consider a person, place, or thing as being holy is to view that object or person as set apart from the secular, the common, and the profane.
But holiness not only means to be separated from something, it also means to be consecrated for something – namely for God and His purposes. So “holy ground” is a place where God chooses to reveal Himself.
The “Holy Bible” is a book in which God shows us who He is and how to relate to Him. “Holy ones” (i.e. saints) are persons God uses to accomplish His will.
To be holy means to be set apart from the world and set aside for God. As such, holiness is more than a set of do’s and don’ts. It is becoming distinct and sacred so that we can be used for God’s purposes.
If we’re no different from the rest of the world, why be a Christian?
And if we’re not set apart in any way, why would others want what we have?
To quote J.D. Walt, who authored our Advent devotional, “What if holiness is not immunity from the world, but the contagion in the world that we want everyone to catch?”
In human form, Jesus was the Holy One sent by God … and doesn’t everyone want what He had? We’re talking about power, grace, compassion, lovingkindness, wisdom and discernment here.
The event we celebrated last month, Christmas, is ultimately about holiness. Christ came to show us what God is like and how to live holy lives.
In the words of the early church father, Athanasius: “God became what we are, so that we might become what He is.” Jesus’ coming makes it possible to be holy as God is holy.
Why is holiness so important?
Why does God say, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” instead of “You shall be forgiving … kind … compassionate … just … slow to anger …?”
Because, more than any other attribute, holiness describes the character of God. Using the definition given earlier, the Lord is completely set apart from what is sinful, finite, and ordinary. It’s why the heavenly beings encircle His throne and never stop singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” (Revelation 4:8 NIV)
According to Scripture, the two overriding qualities of God are love and holiness. While His holiness is characterized by love, His love is also distinct and set apart.
Because God is love, He wants love to permeate His creation; and because He is holy, He makes a holy claim upon people, places, and things.
“Just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:15-16 NIV)
So while there is an outward aspect to holiness, it is really more about who we are inwardly. God is holy at His essence, and so too are we to be holy.
In fact, what we do is largely a reflection of who we are.
Jesus put it this way: “Your words show what is in your hearts.” (Matthew 12:34b CEV)
You can’t be holy in your heart and speak unholy words and do unholy deeds.
Ultimately, holiness is about God, first and foremost, and not about us. But since we were created in the Lord’s image, we are to share in His holiness.
“You were created to be like God, and so you must please Him and be truly holy.” (Ephesians 4:24b CEV)
I think most of us understand this truth. It’s why even unbelievers feel guilty for their misdeeds.
And believers understand that to please God we must be like Him and live holy lives.
That leads us to a final question to answer…
How do we become holy and fulfill our God-given destiny?
Our typical response, when we hear God’s call to be holy, is to run off and attempt to make it a reality by our own sheer willpower
How well does that work? The answer: Not too good! Left to our own devices, try as we may, we cannot become holy.
That’s why it’s good news that holiness is primarily about God. That means His command to be holy is more about what the Lord is capable of accomplishing rather than about human achievement.
Listen to what God said to the nation of Israel right after He commanded them to be holy:
“So set yourselves apart to be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep all my decrees by putting them into practice, for I am the Lord who makes you holy.” (Leviticus 20:7-8 NLT)
Notice that we do have a part to play: “Set yourselves apart to be holy … keep my decrees … [put] them into practice.”
In the coming weeks, we’re going to explore some four-letter words that will help us pursue a life of holiness and do what is necessary to be set apart.
But right now I want to focus on the role God has to play – “…for I am the Lord who makes you holy.”
Being holy always starts with God. It is the Holy One who makes us holy. That’s why Jesus came to Planet Earth, to do for us what we couldn’t do ourselves.
Consider a continuum with God and His holiness at the top and complete depravity at the bottom. Every one of us fits somewhere in between, but no one comes close to God’s level. We all have sinned and fall short of God’s glorious standard (see Romans 3:23).
To make matters worse, it’s a moving target. The closer you get, the further away it seems as you become more and more aware of God’s holiness.
So if God is serious about us being holy, we need a lot of help. That’s where Jesus comes to rescue; He fills in the gap.
“You were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11 NLT)
Notice all of the verbs are in the past tense. Using Southern vernacular: “You done been cleansed, you done been made holy, you done been made right with God … through the work of Jesus.”
This reality has caused someone to make this distinction between Christianity and the world’s great religions: All other religions are spelled “D-O.” Do this or that, and you’ll earn God’s approval. But Christianity is different in kind and is spelled “D-O-N-E.”
Through Jesus and His work on the cross, the difference between our own performance and God’s standard has already been made up for. Through our faith in Christ, God washes away our sins and makes us truly holy.
That’s the good news … and here’s some even better news. I said earlier that God’s call to holiness extends from the Old to the New Testament. That doesn’t change, but what does change is the availability of God’s Holy Spirit. With His indwelling presence, we now have access to the very holiness of God.
By relying on the Holy Spirit and His work in our lives, we are enabled not just to be holy, but to do holy things. Think of it this way: being holy is both a past event and a present process. The past event is Jesus’ saving work on our behalf. The present process is our cooperation with the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work.
Let me conclude with a final illustration by using marriage as an analogy. On their wedding day, the bride and groom make exclusive commitments to one another. Their vows to one another constitute an act of sanctification – being set apart from all others and being set aside for each other (i.e. holy matrimony).
From that day on, they must learn to live out that commitment in practical ways. They have to become actively involved in the marriage process to remain pure and faithful. The wedding is the place where it all begins but a marriage takes a lifetime to complete.
So it is with holiness. It begins by accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. He, in turn, takes away your sin, and pronounces you holy (pure, cleansed). If you’ve never taken that step, now is the time to do so.
But then there is a process to follow – daily cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit. If you want a few pointers, we’ll look at some sacred four-letter words in the coming weeks that will guide us to become who we are intended to be – holy.
As we start this journey together, let me ask you to consider two questions. The first one is based on one of my favorite verses in the Bible – John 11:26. Most Christians all know and love John 11:25: Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25 NIV)
But that truth is followed by an all-important question: “Do you believe this?” (John 11:26 NIV)
God has called you and I to live by a sacred 4-letter word and be HOLY as He is holy. Do you believe this?
You’ll never become what you don’t believe is possible. So will you trust that while it seems unattainable, being holy is your destiny?
Then a second question follows: Will you give yourself wholeheartedly to God and to the work of the Holy Spirit to do for you what you cannot do yourself?
When you believe that it is possible and remain willing to do whatever is necessary to cooperate with God’s Spirit, you can and will become holy in all you do and say.