Partial Holiness and Acceptable Sins


As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy for I am holy.”
1 Peter 1:14-16


Peter called his readers to holiness. Paul gave a similar call, urging his readers to recognize that sin had no hold on them and that they were free to live for the Lord (Romans 6). John wrote to keep his readers from sin and to call them to walk as Jesus walked (1 John 2:1-6). The life of a Christ-follower is to be a life of holiness, a life of freedom, a life where sin is unwelcome.

This newness of life, brought about by Christ through identification with his life and death (Galatians 2:20), compelled Paul to firmly rebuke sin in the Corinthian church (see 1 Corinthians). Paul understood the dramatic transformation Christ brings to human souls, and he refused to lower the standard of holiness in light of such a change. For him, “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Sin is not simply a private concern but a corporate problem. A Christian is to pursue holiness, then, not just for his or her own sake but also for the sake of the body.

In some ways, we’re doing alright in this area. We’re learning to recognize and to respond biblically to sexual sin, racism, and bigotry within the church, each areas of concern for New Testament authors. We generally understand that sin is a problem of the heart, our actions simply revealing the corruption within (see Matthew 5:21-48). We repent when we realize our mistakes and we work to correct our bad habits.

But we have room to grow. We still find it difficult to deal with the logs in our own eyes before trying to remove the specks from those of our brothers and sisters (Matthew 7:1-5), often biting and devouring each other with no thought of the danger of consumption (Galatians 5:15). We still divide into groups within the body, bickering among parties rather than uniting under Christ (see the first few chapters of 1 Corinthians). We can tend to think of sin more as something other people do than as something we do.

We also tend to justify a certain level of sinfulness, practically seeing holiness not as all-encompassing but as only partially applicable to our lives. For instance, do we consider speeding a sin? How about posting quotations from copyrighted books on social media? Or sharing passwords for streaming services beyond what a license allows? Or texting while driving? Or not keeping a secret? Or telling a small lie to protect a secret? Or coveting someone’s possessions or experiences? Or not loving our enemies and neighbors? Or overeating? Or failing to rest in the Lord? In each of these cases, though some may debate it, an objective standard is broken. In each case, technically, a sin has been committed. But we don’t typically think of those things as sins.

What would change if we understood sin as not just the obvious breaches of faith, the blatant ways people disregard the image of God, but as any way we fall short of God’s standard? How would we live if we understood unrighteousness to include not only unpopular sins but popular sins as well? What might our witness be if we consistently looked to Christ as our example instead of weighing ourselves against our former mistakes or against the behavior of others? And what if we as the church held each other accountable for not just the “big” sins but for all manner of unrighteousness?

I’m not necessarily saying we need to become legalistic, picking ourselves and each other apart every time we fall short. The beauty of the gospel message is that Christ both died for sinners (Romans 5:8) and intercedes for saints (1 John 2:1). There is grace and mercy for weak souls. But I think taking a fresh look at how we live may prove beneficial.

I don’t think my understanding of holiness, or of sin, is as biblical as I like to believe. I don’t fear or love the Lord as I should, and I struggle to love people well. But though I fall short, I want to see these things more as God sees them. I want to stop making excuses for my failure to pursue holiness or for my failure to put to death sin in my life. I want to be holy as God is holy. And I pray that he would be glorified through it all.

Photo by Kathy Hillacre on Unsplash

Thanks to Jamie K. for suggesting today’s post.


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