Incarnation, Atonement and Holiness

The term "holiness" has certainly made a resurgence within Army circles of late. It may just be me, but I've noticed that there has been a conscious move on the part of Army leaders, writers and commentators to use this term more frequently in the last few years. Certainly when I was growing up in The Salvation Army the only time I heard the term was in relation to the "Holiness Meeting" at 11am on Sunday morning. Of course, that could have been that I wasn't listening as well!!!
It's my belief that, whilst there are some that use it with the best of intentions, I'm not convinced that collectively we understand what we mean by this term. Sometimes I get the impression that it's used politically; that is, in order for someone to be seen to use today's "buzz" term and so give the impression that they're in with the "holy crowd". Other times, those who use this term give the impression that it's just about moralism or legalism - living a good life, because that's what God wants of us. Of course, that's good, but is that what holiness really is?
For me, as I read more and more about this very important term, and wrestle with coming to terms with what it means to be holy in the real world, I'm convinced that at times the term is used in such a way that it is disconnected from God himself. This is a huge problem since God himself is holy, and thus the source of all holiness. A disconnected holiness, however, is not holiness at all. Here's why.
You see early in the Scriptural narrative we read of God's holiness which results in him unapproachable by a sinful people (e.g. Exodus 19). At the same time, though this unapproachable God is forming a people for himself, so that he may dwell in their midst. This is represented by the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, and later the Temple in the Hebrew Scriptures. God is both the "Holy One of Israel" and the "Holy One of Israel" (e.g. Isaiah 1:4). That is, he is holy (unapproachable) yet in relationship with a people (dwelling amongst them). By virtue of that relationship, though, the people themselves become a "royal priesthood and a holy nation". Their holiness stems only from their relationship with the holy God. They are not holy because of their following the regulations set down in the law. Rather they are God's holy people and thus follow the regulations in response to his holy character and call.
When we come to the New Testament, however, we see that the dwelling place of God is no longer represented by the Temple, but by a person - Jesus Christ. God himself, who "tabernacles" amongst us (John 1:14). The God-man - perfectly divine and perfectly human uniting the two natures, once separated by sin, now have become inseparably holy. This is the miracle of the "incarnation" and it is this that makes the work that Christ achieved, his "atonement", effective. That which we believe by faith about who Christ is as the God-man enables us to believe by faith what Christ has done as the God-man - his conception, birth, life, suffering and death, resurrection, ascension and glorification. The entire "Christ event", Incarnation and Atonement together, are vital for Christian life and faith.
The same is true for Christian holiness.
We need a solid and broad understanding of what has actually happened as a result of God himself taking on human nature in Jesus Christ. By this very action of God toward humanity he sanctified it enabling humanity to respond. At one and the same time, however, the vicarious action of man toward God through the representative human, Jesus, is that perfect and sinless response to God. On behalf of humanity, Jesus Christ accepts the guilty verdict, confesses sin, repents, suffers and dies and thus sanctifies humanity by this action.
So what do we have to do?
Well our response is to adopt Christ's response. That is, Jesus responded on our behalf, and his perfect response was effective, once and for all. We are invited, by grace through faith, to respond to that perfect response. We are enabled to do this through the Holy Spirit and by virtue of the belief that human nature has been sanctified by God's presence within it through Christ when he took that human nature on.
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This is where it gets exciting, though (well... at least for me it does). Christ's response on our behalf, which we subsequently respond to, is much more than just an intellectual assent to a message about God. It's more than just saying "Yes, I believe" and then praying some preformulated "sinner's prayer". Christ's response enables union with God. This is what Jesus himself promised (John 15). This is what Paul talks about with his language of being "in Christ" (e.g. Romans 8:1). So too, the author of 2 Peter uses a unique phrase, but one which conveys the same idea: "participants in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).
Think on this... the Father makes a move toward us in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. This move sanctifies humanity. Then, by that same Spirit, Christ, the God-man, responds effectively on our behalf to the Father. This response, then, is a holy and human response. As we then respond to Christ's response we a drawn into the Godhead itself. Here's how it's expressed in Colossians 3:3 "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God"
So to get back to my original point (there was one wasn't there???), to talk of holiness apart from a relationship with God is anathema. It doesn't make sense and is actually not holiness at all. At best it's humanistic moralism.
God is holy and when he says "be holy as I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16) it is both a gift and a command. It is God (the holy one) giving his holiness to his people (in relationship) and calling them to live within that holiness.
Therefore the Scriptural call to holiness in the 21st Century is a call to participate in God's holiness, made available through the Incarnate God-man and atoning sacrifice Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And, so...
"Be holy, as I am holy"


  1. Adam,

    This is a helpful and thought-provoking post and one that I will come back to. I wonder if your post had been entitled, "Incarnation, Atonement, Holiness and Mission" how you would connect the mission of the Church? Just as holiness is meaningless without a relationship with the One who is the source of all holiness, then mission must be an outworking of that relationship. Incarnation and Atonement reconcile humanity and creator and that reconciliation is the fulfilment of the missio dei. The Leviticus call to be holy is about a corporate response more than an individual response. I think we have lost sight of corporate responsibility in a branch of the Church that, rightly, emphasises personal relationship with Christ and personal holiness. If we accept that the Church is the visible and tangible presence of Christ in His world then there are implications for corporate holiness and corporate mission.

    I am just kicking ideas around in this response - none are fully formed - but you have got me thinking, for which I am grateful.

  2. Hey missionlatte...

    There's a whole other blog in what you have written, in fact it's actually the thesis of a book I've had in mind and starting working on!!! So, I wholeheartedly agree with what you have said in response. I have suggested that the "character" of God is in fact holiness and so our holiness comes from relationship with the holy God. However, God's holiness (who he is) is revealed by God's holy action (what he has done). Therefore, holiness and mission are not two distinct things, but rather two sides of the one coin. Holiness without mission is not holiness. So too, mission without holiness is not mission.

    Definitely a thought worth pursuing. I can only encourage you to continue seeking this out.

    God bless.

  3. Hey Stephen (aka missionlatte)

    Just went to your blog and realised that was you hiding behind that funky name. Makes me think of Blues Brothers - "we're on a mission with coffee!"

    Catch ya soon

  4. Hey Adam,

    There is something that I think is always missed in the Army's rhetoric around holiness, and that is that God is 'Other' - the ultimate other. Holiness likewise, is other - the other which stems from God's 'Other-ness'. Holiness then is in a sense foreign to our experience, foreign (in some way) to our existence, though I understand that statement creates as many problems as it solves. This is a high view of holiness, perhaps even some would argue, an unattainable view.

    Conversely, my impression is that the Army takes a low view of holiness, by which I mean that holiness seems to be reduced to human activity. It is almost like there is a new holiness code, the living out of which is the evidence that one is holy. This view is of course, absurd. Holiness is reflected through the human life - it must be, if it is of any value. It is a common maxim that there is no holiness aside from social holiness - it is trite but it is correct. Nonetheless, this is in no way the sum of holiness, which I feel it is sometimes(most often?) represented as. The whole point is that we aren't holy that way! So it makes us, in some sense, both holy (perhaps) and unholy (certainly), all at once.

    The other issue is the exaltation of the individual's holiness and the now almost invisible concept of the church's holiness, which is in my mind far more important, though that is another issue all together!

    A final point; on atonement. Does the violence of the atonement metaphor serve us any favours these days? In a time when religious violence is anathema, does this symbolism help us. Also, why is there an undue attention on Christ's death? He didn't die to become our Lord, he had always been our Lord. It is as much in his life as in his death, perhaps even more so, that he teaches us God's nature; about what holiness is - the classic statement in my view being the Christological hymn of Philippians 2. (I understand this talks about his death(!) - I am referring more specifically to the issue of kenosis).

    Anyway, this is now too long and is taking me in directions in which I am by no means an expert! (which is of course, any direction)

  5. Just want to respond to the "violence of the atonement". I'm not sure we really have much choice. It's hard to discuss the atonement without at some stage discussing the brutality of a Roman crucifixion. If we believe that Christ could have come at any moment in history, why then? Why the time when the most brutal form of capitol punishment was in use? Why not now when more "humane" (a contradiction in terms, I know) forms are used throughout the world?

    If we want an understanding of the atonement that is "non-violent" I'm not sure this issue can be overcome.

    Did you have something specific in mind Anthony? I'd be really interested in your response to this.


  6. Adam, we may be on the same page. Holiness/Mission intersection is the direction in which I'm taking my MA dissertation. I hope to see a copy of your book before then ;)

  7. Do we have to talk about the crucifixon in atonement language? Couldn't we talk about atonement in incarnational language? It seems possible from your blog - God makes a move towards us - that is incarnational language. Isn't it 'god with us' that makes us one with God?

    The idea of the crucifixion as atonement is interpretive. Admittedly this interpretation is biblical, but that does not cancel out the interpretive act of the biblical writers, nor does it necessarily make it authentically Lukan, Johannine or Pauline (I haven't checked this out - it would be very interesting) - Canonization both implies and demands interpretation - hence, the history of biblical studies!

    Like I said previously, I am no expert - on the NT or theology. But I do feel like there is something in this. I am sure I have seen or read something about non-violent atonement theory. Give me some time to see what I can find.

  8. This is an extract from a review of Weaver's book - non-violent atonement. Weaver is a respected Mennonite scholar, which is to say, a pacifist. I wonder if Hauerwas has done anything around this, following Yoder, who was also a Mennonite. They would be impossible to ignore in any such discussion, particularly Hauerwas.

    The saving work of Jesus is his struggle against and victory over the structural evil powers of this world. Weaver adds “narrative” to the phrase Christus Victor because some might focus this battle entirely on Jesus’ death. Weaver’s point is that the saving work is one continuous story, in which the cross is just one moment.


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