When is holiness a bad thing?

I have found the blog posts that generate the biggest negative mail bag are the ones with the most provocative titles. You might see this post and think: how can Marcus possibly even write something with that title? Surely even the suggestion that holiness can ever be bad is close to licentiousness. Maybe even heresy.

Well, feel free to comment, but there is a type of pursuit of holiness that is actively negative in the Bible and that we should actively avoid.We find an example of it in Romans 9:30-10:3:

What then shall we say? That the gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith, but as if it were by works...

...I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. SInce they did not know the righteousness that comes from God, and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness.

There it is. You can be zealous for God, you can receive lots from God (the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the worship, etc Rom 9:4), you can desparately desire to have righteousness in your life, you can have a form of behaviour that looks so good, and STILL miss it. The form of behaviour itself is not holiness. It isn't righteousness. In fact, Paul is saying it can be the opposite of righteousness, if it isn't by faith. Righteousness without faith is not based on knowledge, not based on Christ and therefore pointless, fruitless and actively bad - because our own attempts disguise the fact that we aren't relying exclusively on Christ. My own holiness is no good. It's not neutral, it's not a laudable attempt, it's not something that God applauds because of my sincerity, it is idolatry.

Establishing our own righteousness is a very subtle trap. Take the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18. Everyone knows that the tax collector goes home justified. But most of us don't get the sting. The Pharisee prays completely openly, thanking God for righteousness in his life. He isn't an evil man, in fact he is doing his best to be a God-pleaser. The tax collector is the evil one. If I am like anyone in Jesus' story, I am most naturally like the Pharisee. Why doesn't he get justified, for all his holy acts and lifestyle? Because he offers it to God as his righteousness. At the end of the parable in v14 Jesus says that all that apparently outwardly good stuff is "exalting himself."

When I exalt myself I am no longer utterly dependent on Christ. And that is rebellion. The shock of Luke 18 is that even our attempts at holy lifestyle are unimpressive to God. There are attempts at holiness that need to be repented of! There are moral lifestyle choices that actively cause us to not trust Christ, because we think they are what constitute our righteousness. That's not an argument for immorality, but it is for not trusting in your morality, still less your sincerity. Non-Christians too readily say "God will accept me because I am sincere." Christians too readily say "God will accept me because I am morally pure." Wrong on both counts.

When we believe that our holiness is what attracts God's justifying approval, then we are building without knowledge, pursuing righteousness by works and not submitting to God's. Holiness is a bad thing when it becomes my substitute for the sacrificial death of Christ, as my only hope.