Holiness is not a popular word among Lutherans. We prefer words like “grace” and “gospel” and “forgiveness.” But holiness? That sounds like a good word for other Christians, not us Lutherans. In fact, to be perfectly honest, one of the reasons I became a Lutheran is because it offered me freedom from the impossible quest to be holy. I tried – when I was Catholic, I really tried – but it exhausted me. Becoming Lutheran for me was a way of responding to the invitation from Jesus to “come to me, all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” And I still love being Lutheran, and I love our Lutheran emphasis on grace.
But sometimes I wonder whether our emphasis on grace deprives us of an important dimension of our life in Christ. Because I do believe that we are called to grow in our faith, to learn from Jesus, and to become more and more like Jesus. We are called, you might say, to become holy. So, how might we approach this as Lutherans? That is what I am pondering, with the help of a quote of Martin Luther’s that is one of my favorites. Here it is:
This life is not a being holy but a becoming holy; it is not a being well but a getting well; it is not a being but a becoming; it not inactivity but practice. As yet we are not what we ought to be, but we are getting there; the task is not as yet accomplished and completed, but it is in progress and pursuit. The end has not been reached, but we are on the way that leads to it; as yet everything does not glow and sparkle, but everything is purifying itself.Martin Luther, “What Luther Says” P. 235
I have always loved this quote of Luther’s, which I find both profoundly moving and challenging, and also a little surprising. Here is Luther himself – our beloved prophet of grace – reminding us to become holy, telling us that this life is a becoming holy. Imagine that! But what does that even mean? How do we become holy? Is it even possible?
I think the answer to that is yes, and the reason is simple: because God commands it. And I don’t believe that God commands us to do something without providing us the help to do it. “It is written,” Peter writes in 1 Peter 1:16, “‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” And it is written, in the Old Testament. We are commanded to be holy, for God is holy. So God will surely help us to do this.
But that doesn’t answer the question of how – how can we be holy? Or, to go back to Luther, how can we become holy? And, I might add, how can we even try to do this without despairing and giving up? We can all agree that we are not what we ought to be, as Luther puts it. But he also challenges us to pursue this goal, to make progress, to travel the way that leads to it. To strive toward becoming just a little holier tomorrow than we are today. But how?
Luther himself suggests how this can happen, in his teaching on the Apostles’ Creed in his Small and Large Catechisms. And the path to this holiness, he teaches us, lies in the third article of the Creed:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
So, let me offer four steps along the way to becoming holy, remembering that holiness is not a destination but a journey.
Step 1: “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the first step on the path to holiness is to recognize that it is the Holy Spirit who makes us holy, not us. Becoming holy starts us with us saying, “I can’t.” I can’t be holy. Not on my own. But I believe that God can make me holy. Or, as Luther famously puts it in his Small Catechism: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called my through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith.” How does the Holy Spirit do this? That brings us to the next step, the next part of the Creed:
Step 2: “The holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” The way that the Holy Spirit makes us holy is by placing us in a community called the church. We can’t really become holy on our own. We need each other. That is just the way that the Holy Spirit works, like it or not. The Holy Spirit, as Luther puts it, “calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.” The first thing Jesus did in his earthly ministry was to begin building this community by calling his first disciples. And the Holy Spirit continues to call us and gather us together to form a community where we learn together, worship together, serve together, and, yes, become holy together. But this brings us to the next part of the creed, to the next step:
Step 3: “The forgiveness of sins.” One thing you can be sure of when you live in any kind of community – including the church – is that forgiveness will be needed! Luther says that “Forgiveness is constantly needed, for although God’s grace has been acquired by Christ, and holiness has been wrought by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word in the unity of the Christian church, yet we are never without sin because we carry our flesh around our neck.” We all carry our flesh around our neck, don’t we? Which means that we all sin and need forgiveness, and this, too, is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Being made holy, to put it another way, doesn’t mean that we become perfect saints. As the Lutheran theologian, Adolf Koberle, put it:
For the Christian, progress means to remain standing beneath the Cross.Adolph Koberle
Progress never takes us away from the cross and from the need for forgiveness. It always means standing beneath the cross, and it always will, at least in this lifetime. And this brings us to the last step to holiness, and the last article of the Creed:
Step 4: “The resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” In this lifetime, Luther says, “because holiness has begun and is growing daily, we await the time when our flesh will be put to death, will be buried with all its uncleanness, and will come forth gloriously and arise to complete and perfect holiness in a new, eternal life.” Part of becoming holy, in other words, is developing both the hunger to become more holy in this lifetime and the recognition that perfect holiness will only come in the life to come.
Perfect holiness, alas, is only given to us in the life to come. But here, now, we can grow in holiness through the gift of the Holy Spirit, on the path taught us by Martin Luther. By recognizing that we can’t do this on our own, by being active in our church community, where we ask for and receive forgiveness frequently, and by accepting that perfection will only come in the life to come.
Holiness for Lutherans is a journey, not a destination – a journey fueled by grace and accompanied by grace, every step of the way.
And as we walk this path toward becoming holy, it is good to remember these beautiful words from First John: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” (1 John 3:2) We are God’s children now, and nothing that we do can or will take that away from us. But what will we be? That is still to be discovered! And we are on the way that leads to it. So let’s find out, shall we?