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BE! A Forgotten Identity

Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, PhD

Director, Public Campus Ministries, Michigan Conference

- Part 1 -

We are accustomed to hearing the Biblical phrases “Go ye . . .” and “Do ye.” But are we equally familiar with the “Be ye” imperatives? God doesn’t just command us to “go” and “do,” but also bids us to “be!”

A quick search of the King James Version Bible will reveal many “Be ye” passages—including those which say, “Be ye . . . strong, very courageous, saved, clean, glad, perfect, wise, ready, transformed, holy, merciful, followers of God, steadfast, reconciled to God, kind one to another, thankful, patient, sober,” and others.

The fact that there are so many “Be ye” references could suggest that what we are sometimes is more important that what we do. And yet, we tend to focus more on the latter. We even define our identities in terms of “Go ye” and “Do ye” categories, instead of “Be ye” terms. 

Let me illustrate my point.

Suppose at a church meeting or a GYC gathering1 you’re asked to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know, what would you say? When I posed this question to different groups of young people, almost each of them mentioned four major things about themselves, namely, their . . .
  1. Name—Smith, Jane, Kofi, etc.
  2. Place of Origin/Residence—California, Thailand, Sweden,Zimbabwe, etc.
  3. Occupation—student, doctor, homemaker, pastor, architect, teacher, etc.
  4. Hobbies or Likes—music, soccer, apples, reading, etc.

Chances are, we also would give similar answers to describe ourselves. Observe, however, from the responses, that apart from our names and hobbies, the most we are likely to say about who we are tends to be in terms of our nationalities (“I am Ghanaian, American, Mexican, Chinese, etc.), or in terms of our occupations (“I am a student, doctor, etc.).

In other words, our identity tends to be expressed in “Go ye” and “Do ye” terms—i.e., where we come from and what we do—instead of in “Be ye” categories, explaining what we actually are. Even when we use the “Be ye” terms to describe ourselves as Christians, often one important aspect of our identity is missing from the list.

Missing "Be"

Let's say that at the same church or GYC gathering where you were asked to introduce yourself, you are also asked to select one adjective to describe yourself. What word do you think would best describe who you are?

Here is a sampling of the wide variety of words that my students gave me as fitting self-descriptions: kind, cheerful, happy, understanding, compassionate, reasonable, smart, crazy, lazy, easygoing, frank, bold, unique, free, pensive, profound, introvert, etc.

It is an interesting observation that the positive words in our selfdescriptive adjectives tend to include the ones in the Biblical “Be ye” imperatives, whereas the negative ones are the direct opposites.

More telling is the fact that when we describe ourselves by certain positive qualities, one description is often conspicuously absent; it is the word “holy.”

Think for a moment: When was the last time you heard someone describe himself or herself as “holy”? “Holy” is the adjective we apply to the “Bible,” “Lord’s Supper,” “Sabbath,” “the night Christ was born,” and even a tourism attraction to some Middle Eastern “land.” But few would feel comfortable applying the word to themselves.

Yet the Bible calls upon us: “Be ye holy” (1 Peter 1:15, 16).

Unknown "Be"

The Biblical teaching about holiness has received either no press or bad press today. We either do not talk about it, or if we do at all, our discussion of the subject is confusing, if not completely mistaken.2

Of the many self-help Christian books, “How To Be Holy” is conspicuously absent from the list of best sellers.

To the unconverted, the term holy conjures up images of monks or nuns languishing in some gloomy, killjoy monasteries. For others, the call to holiness evokes pictures of a vindictive celestial being who isharsh, arbitrary, and ready to punish his earthly subjects for the slightest infraction of his moral laws. Thus, today’s hedonistic and relativistic culture does not want anyone to talk about holiness.

Besides the unconverted, some Christians also detest the Biblical teaching of holiness, believing that this teaching nullifies their assurance of being saved or justified by grace. To such, holiness conjures up images of either weird or straitlaced people with outdated clothing and hairstyles, or even people with judgmental attitudes to all who don’t measure up to their standards. In this view, holiness is synonymous with formalism (a mere outward conformity to rules), or even with perfectionism or legalism (doing things to earn God’s favor).

Regrettably, even within our own ranks, there are some Seventh-day Adventists who also loathe the Biblical doctrine of holiness. In the minds of “liberal” Adventists (which is the new label for old-fashioned, backslidden Adventists), the Biblical teaching about holiness is reminiscent of “our Victorian heritage, which has been well preserved through the work of Ellen G. White.” To such, anyone who dares to talk about holiness is automatically tuned out or dismissed as a “fundamentalist,” a “legalist,” or even a “Pharisee.”

Misunderstood "Be"

As a result of misunderstandings on this important Biblical teaching of holiness, many well-meaning Adventists today are confused about the subject. This observation is always borne out in the results of the following series of questions I posed to several Adventist groups—adults and young people:

How many of you believe that holiness is possible in our sinful world? Can weak, sinful human beings, fraught with inherited and cultivated tendencies to sin, actually be holy in today’s world? 

The response to the above question was overwhelmingly affirmative. Almost all in the audience indicated that they believed holiness is possible. But then, when I sharpened the question by way of application, the responses were disappointing. I asked:

Are you holy?

Notice that the question is not, “Do you believe in holiness?” Neither is it, “Do you hope to be holy one day?” The issue is of far greater import than what a person thinks or feels about holiness, or even whether the Bible speaks about holy men and women of old. The question is: Are you yourself holy, or are you not? Are you holy this very moment? If you think you are holy right now, raise your hand.

Typically, I see only very few hands. When I probe further into why the hesitancy of my audiences in responding affirmatively to the specific questions, three types of groups soon emerge. I refer to them as: (1)”Boasting Be”—those who make presumptuous claims about their holiness; (2) “Skeptical Be”—those who essentially deny that God expects His people to be holy today; and (3) “Uncertain Be”—those who are not sure how to answer.

The first two views are mistaken, and the last is unfortunate. In the remainder of this article, I’ll briefly respond to these three “Be’s” about holiness.

Boasting "Be"

The first major mistake we make about holiness is to boast about having attained it. Contrary to this mistaken view, the Bible teaches that true Christians will never make boastful claims of their own holiness, perfection, or sinlessness. When we fully understand the spiritual nature of God’s moral law, we shall discover our true sinful condition—how far we fall short of God’s expectation—and how much we must daily repent and ask God for help.

The apostle John therefore wrote: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. . . . If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him [God] a liar, and His Word is not in us” (1 John 1:8, 10).

Ellen White also warned that it is never safe for us to boastfully claim holiness: “Let those who feel inclined to make a high profession of holiness, look into the mirror of God’s law, which discovers to us the defects of our character. Those who see the far-reaching claims of the law of God, those who realize that it is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart, will not presume to make the boast of sinlessness, and venture to declare, ‘I am perfect, I am holy.’ ‘If we,’ John says, not separating himself from his brethren, ‘say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ ‘If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us.’ ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’”3 Again she wrote: “No one who has an appreciation of the verity of the law of God will claim an exalted character for himself. Our true position, and the only one in which there is any safety, is that of repentance and confession of sins before God. . . . When the conflict of life is ended, when the armor is laid off at the feet of Jesus, when the saints of God are glorified, then and then only will it be safe to claim that we are saved and sinless. True sanctification will not lead any human being to pronounce himself holy, sinless, and perfect. Let the Lord proclaim the truth of your character.”4

These statements are not to question our assurance of salvation— which is grounded in the merits of Christ alone. Rather, they are warnings against the complacent notion of “once saved, always saved.” The closer you get to know the Lord, the more you see your sinfulness. When the prophet Isaiah saw the glory of God, he exclaimed: “Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).

A true Christian always recognizes that “we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). This is why Ellen White explains that, “the closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes; for your vision will be clearer, and your imperfections will be seen in broad and distinct contrast to His perfect nature. This is evidence that Satan’s delusions have lost their power.”
5

Thus, there is no roam at any time for a Christian to boast of his perfection or sinlessness. If there was anyone who could make the boastful claim of holiness or perfection, it should have been the apostle Paul. After all, in 2 Corinthians 12, we are told how he was given the unique privilege of being caught up to see and hear things in the third Heaven. He himself wrote about living a holy, unblamable, and perfect life (1 Thessalonians 2:10). And yet, in Philippians 3:12 this exalted apostle confessed that he had not attained perfection: “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)

Writes Ellen G. White: “The attitude of Paul is the attitude to be taken by every one of the followers of Christ; for we are ever to be urging our way, striving lawfully for the crown of immortality. Not one may claim to be perfect. Let the recording angels write the history of the holy struggles and conflicts of the people of God, let them record their prayers and tears; but let not God be dishonored by the proclamation from human lips, declaring, ‘I am sinless. I am holy.’ Sanctified lips will never give utterance to such presumptuous words. Paul had been caught up to the third Heaven, and had seen and heard things that could not be uttered, and yet his modest statement is, ‘Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect; but I follow after.’ Let the angels of Heaven write of Paul’s victories in fighting the good fight of faith. Let Heaven rejoice in his steadfast tread heavenward, keeping the prize in view for which he counts every other consideration as dross. Let the angels of Heaven rejoice to tell his triumphs, but let Paul utter no vain praise of himself in making a  boast of his attainments.”6

In fact, the clearest evidence that a person is not holy or perfect is when he/she boastfully makes such a claim. Writes Job: “If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me; if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse. Though I were perfect, yet would I not know my soul: I would despise my life” (Job 9:20, 21).

Skeptical "Be"

The second mistaken view of holiness is the denial of God’s demand for His people to be holy. Contrary to such teaching, the Bible clearly teaches that God expects His people to be holy and sanctified, or perfect. Let me share with you some pertinent Scriptural passages:

  1. Holiness is necessary for salvation. “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
  2. Holiness is God’s will for our lives. “This is the will of God, even your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 5:3).
  3. Holiness is a command from the Lord. “As He Which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, ‘Be ye holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15, 16); “Be ye perfect, even as your Father Which is in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
  4. Jesus died so that we can be holy. “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 7:1).
    “Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it” (Ephesians 5:25, 26); “He gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14).
  5. Holiness or sanctification simply means godliness, or revealing a Christlike character in a sinful world. Writes the apostle Paul: “For it is God Who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose. Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:13–15, NIV).
    Notice that to live a holy life in a sinful world is to be “blameless and pure,” and “without fault in a crooked and depraved generation.” It is shining like stars amidst the moral darkness around us.
  6. Holiness is the preparation we need for Christ’s Second Coming. “The grace of God that brings salvation . . . teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness
    and to purify for Himself a people that are His very Own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:11–14, NIV).
  7. Holiness will polarize people in the last days. The book of Revelation also indicates that before the Second Coming of Christ, there will be a crisis, a final test that will polarize or divide the world into
    two camps: the righteous and wicked, the godly and ungodly, the holy and unholy.
    At the end of that final or eschatological test, Jesus will declare: “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still” (Revelation 22:11).
The end-time polarization or division in the world and in the church will be over holiness. This polarization or shaking has already begun in the church. Seventh-day Adventists call it a shaking or sifting process. 
  • Whereas there is a revival of primitive faith and godliness in one group, in the other there is worldliness.
  • While there is heartfelt repentance and consecration in one, in the other there is entertainment and frivolity.
  • Whereas one group seeks to uphold the teachings of God’s Word for its faith and practice, the other patterns its beliefs and lifestyle after the world’s.
  • And while in one there is genuine godliness evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit, the other merely has “a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5).

This polarization between the two camps is becoming clearer and wider with each passing day. Whereas in the past things were fuzzy, today the gap between truth and error, between godliness and worldliness, between light and darkness, is becoming very clear for all to see. Each time you hear that there is polarization or division in the church, it simply evidences the fact that the shaking or sifting is going on. And each one of us will have to choose to belong to one group or the other. There is no neutrality.

Notice how Ellen White describes the two groups in The Great Controversy:

The power of godliness has well-nigh departed from many of the churches. Picnics, church theatricals, church fairs, fine houses, personal display, have banished thoughts of God. Lands and goods and worldly occupations engross the mind, and things of eternal interest receive hardly a passing notice.7

But observe the next few sentences:

Notwithstanding the widespread declension of faith and piety,
there are true followers of Christ in these [popular] churches.
Before the final visitation of God’s judgments upon the earth there
will be among the people of the Lord such a revival of primitive
godliness as has not been witnessed since apostolic times.8

It is therefore encouraging that amidst the widespread worldliness sweeping our churches today, there is also a quest for godliness. Many in our churches and many young people (such as those who gather yearly at GYC meetings) are seeking, by God’s grace, the revival of primitive godliness that will characterize God’s end-time people.

Uncertain "Be"

You may recall my observation that very few hands go up whenever I ask the pointed question: “Are you yourself holy, or are you not? Are you holy this very moment?” Besides the two mistaken reasons for the
hesitancy in responding to this question, the ultimate reason is that many are simply not sure how to answer this type of question.

But we don’t have to be uncertain about the Biblical teaching of holiness. We have assurance from the Word of God that, regardless of what our past may have been, God can take us sinful human beings—the dishonest, immoral, proud, fearful, violent, intemperate, and wild—and transform us so completely that we can actually reflect the character of a holy God! God can actually make and keep us clean or pure (Jude 24, 25; Philippians 2:13–15)! This is what holiness is all about.

The unique process by which sinners are transformed into saints is called sanctification; the result of this process is holiness; and the divine Agent responsible for this miraculous operation is called the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:3–5). He can do it because He Himself is holy! 

Christian holiness is therefore the Biblical teaching that, within the limitations of our humanity, God’s sanctifying grace is able to enable us to overcome both our hereditary and cultivated tendencies to sin, and thus to live victorious Christian lives through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. This is good news!

This brief background should make us want to study some more about Biblical holiness without being frightened about the term. In part 2 of this article, we shall provide Biblical answers to the “uncertain be,” by exploring important aspects of the “forgotten be.”

NOTES

1 GYC, Generation of Youth for Christ (formerly known as General Youth Conference), is a grassroots Adventist movement initiated and led by young people (see www.gycweb.org).
2 Besides Ellen G. White’s The Sanctified Life, I have found the following works on Biblical holiness very helpful: John Charles Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Greenwood, S.C.: The Attic Press, Inc., 1977; originally published in 1879); James I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1992); Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Holiness: The Heart God Purifies (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004).
3 The Signs of the Times, May 23, 1895; emphasis mine.
4 The Signs of the Times, May 16, 1895; emphasis mine.
5 Steps to Christ, p. 64.
6 The Signs of the Times, May 23, 1895; emphasis mine.
7 The Great Controversy, pp. 463, 464.
8 Ibid., p. 464.

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