This is the second part in my Christianity Is… series. If you missed the intro, you can find it here.
The idea of purity and morality seems to me to be one of the most obvious aspects of Christianity, yet also one of the trickiest to get right. Because of that, I think it’s one of the most important to address of all the aspects that I’ll be looking at.
Why do I say that it’s obvious? Well the theme of holiness (which incorporates the concept of moral perfection and purity) is everywhere in the Bible, throughout both Testaments. God himself is repeatedly said to be holy (see 1 Samuel 2:2 for a random example), and we, his followers, are commanded to emulate him in this (again there are several references, one is 1 Peter 1:15).
That all seems straightforward enough, so what’s tricky? Well, Christianity claims to be a religion of freedom, and religion isn’t exactly associated with freedom. It doesn’t help that several of the commands to be holy like God are in the middle of the law books, which contain lots of rules, and rules aren’t really thought of as freeing.
How does this square with Jesus’ assertion in John 8:36 that ‘if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’? The key is actually found a couple of verses ever (as always, context is essential in Bible reading). In John 8:34, Jesus says ‘everyone who sins is a slave to sin’. Pretty hardcore. But fine, you might think, I’m not a sinner. Enter Paul, who says, rather definitively, that ‘all have sinned’ (Romans 3:23).
The long and short of this, is that in order to be free, you must be pure. To be pure, you have to keep all the Bible’s rules. So to be free…you have to follow rules? There’s more to it. John 8:36 gives the key. The Son is ultimately responsible for setting us free. In fact, the idea of God making us holy is even found in amongst all those Old Testament rules (see Leviticus 20:8).
Paul is clear that we are incapable of purity, but the reason that I can say that Christianity is pure is because of the sacrifice of Jesus. ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness [purity, perfection] of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). That amazing truth of the cross is that all of our sin is taken on Jesus, and all his purity is given to us. We are pure, and free, not because we’re able to follow all the rules, but because Jesus was able to take the punishment for us failing to keep them.
At the heart of this is love – ‘for God so loved the world’. This love was not an aimless emotional love as we might construct it, but a profoundly practical love. It could be written, in admittedly less emotional terms, as, ‘for God saw the need of the world, and met it’. You see, God did not create us to be slaves. The rules of the Bible are there to show us what sin is (Romans 7:7). The rules are designed to keep us from the things that will capture us like slaves.
I’ll use money as an example. Jesus said that you can’t serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24); Paul says that ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Timothy 6:10). The love of money is a good example of sin because it is easy to see how money enslaves. Not many people will disagree with me when I say that those who have money, in general, tend to want more money, and become locked in a cycle of work in order to gain it…even though they’re too tired to enjoy it!
Sin, in general, is like this. It is addictive, often seeming attractive. In fact, a lot of things that become sinful start off as innocent. There is nothing wrong with loving your partner (obviously) but when that becomes a total obsession, and your emotional wellbeing is completely tied to them, it becomes slavery.
God wants us to have real life – life to the full – and he knows that in order to have, we have to be pure. That’s why he gives us rules, and that’s why Jesus brings the purity that we can’t reach on our own.
Before I finish, one thing I want to do in this series is show how all the aspects are linked. So how does purity link to the rest?
Physical – a massive part of God’s ideal of purity is concern for people’s physical needs. James writes that true religion, accepted by God as pure, is ‘to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ (James 1:27). Christian purity is not self-contained; it is concerned with giving everyone life to the full, in the future and the present.
Emotional – this is the hardest connection, but I think that it’s important nonetheless. As we look more like God in our purity, I think our emotional responses will become more in line with his own, and in this we will be able to understand more of his character. An example of this is Jesus’ anger in the temple at the sellers there (Matthew 21:12-13). This event shows how a pure character, that is in line with God’s, leads to outworkings of emotion in different situations, and could also apply to weeping over injustice, or grinning in joy as a friend comes to know Jesus for the first time.
Purposeful – our purity is not aimless; God gives it meaning. Purity now looks forward to a state in the future when those who love God will know perfection eternally. Our present lives look forward to this, reflecting that eternal glory, and in doing so draw others in so that they can share in this hope.
Intelligent – without an understanding of the Bible we can’t know what God’s standards are. The law and the words of Jesus and the apostles were written down for a reason – to preserve them for future generations. Yes, I believe that all Christians have the Holy Spirit within them, who prompts them, like a conscience, as to what is right and wrong, the Bible is ultimately the definitive yardstick for us, and the more we understand what is written there the more we’ll understand what God wants from us, as Paul talks about in Romans 7.