God’s Holy People

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.”

- Ephesians 1:1

Unpacking the nature of the church as it is revealed in Scripture and understood by the Protestant Reformers, we today consider the holiness of the church. The Apostles’ Creed states that the church is holy, and Protestants have maintained this confession. In some ways, the heirs of the Reformation have insisted on the holiness of Christians more consistently than anyone else has.

We say this because the Reformers insisted that the holiness of the church is a present reality. Christians are already holy by virtue of their being in Christ by faith; holiness is not something that we lack entirely and are somehow endeavoring to attain. Martin Luther got at this reality by describing us as simul justus et peccator, or “at the same time just and sinner.” This phrase is frequently used to describe the reality that the person who is justified in Christ possesses the righteousness of Christ and so is declared just by God even though at the same time he continues to possess a fallen nature and still sins. But it can also be rendered “at the same time saint and sinner.” Christians are sinful yet holy.

This phrase works because for Scripture, holiness is first of all a positional category. When God’s Word regards something as holy, it means primarily that the something in question has been set apart for special use by the Lord. For example, incense, the Sabbath day, the tithe, and several other impersonal things are described as “holy to the Lord” because He regards them as special or they are to be used to worship Him (Ex. 30:37; 31:15; Lev. 27:30). They have been separated from what is ordinary for a dedicated purpose. The idea of moral purity does come into play when we speak of holiness, but the fact that nonpersonal items can be holy shows that moral purity is in some ways a secondary concern or result. That is, the moral purity that is associated with holiness results from our having been set apart; we do not purify ourselves morally and then become holy. We are set apart as holy in opposition to the unholy world, and then by the Spirit we become purer and purer in practice. We become in action what we are in position—holy, set apart unto God.

The Apostle Paul reflects the present holiness of the church in today’s passage. He calls us “saints,” which can be translated more literally as “holy ones” (Eph. 1:1). We, the church, are already holy in the Lord’s sight, and by the Spirit, He is purifying us for His glory.

Coram Deo

As is true of the church’s unity, the church’s holiness is an already/not-yet reality. Already the church is holy in position, but we are not yet fully holy in practice. Thus, we are called to pursue personal holiness and to encourage our leaders to pursue corporate holiness. Let us encourage one another in our local churches to live holy lives because God has set us apart as holy.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 14:2
Isaiah 35:8–10
2 Corinthians 7:1
1 Thessalonians 4:7

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.