The Tension Between Holiness and Grace in Both Testaments

We are studying Judges on Sunday morning. What a train wreck. The people are worshipping idols. They have turned from God…until life gets tough and then they repent…but only until life gets good and then they turn from God again. What makes matters even more tricky is that their deliverers are also often less than morally stellar. Samson does some crazy stuff as does Ehud and Jael and Jepthah…and pretty much all the rest of them. If these are the heroes of the story then maybe any of the rest of us have hero potential too! Here is how Wenham explained it in his book “Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament narrative ethically” p. 4

It is hard to figure out the path between God’s expectation of holiness and obedience to Torah and the behavior of the people God uses for his divine purposes. This reconstruction of the ethical world-view of some Old Testament writers provides the background for a rereading of some problematic stories of Genesis and Judges, such as the Rape of Dinah (Gen 34), and the Gideon cycle (Judg 6–9). It will become apparent that the biblical writers do not merely assess these characters against the requirements of the law codes but against the ideals we have sketched in the preceding chapter (Chapter 5).

Obviously the behaviour of the chief actors in many instances falls miserably short of the ideal, and they often suffer in some way for their mistakes. Yet it is clear too that they are not deserted by God despite their sinfulness. So there is a paradox in Old Testament narrative ethics: on the one hand God is terribly demanding, he looks for nothing less than godlike perfect behaviour, yet on the other, despite human failings, he does not forget his covenant loyalty to his people, and ultimately brings them through the suffering that their sin has brought about. Old Testament ethics are therefore as much about grace as about law: they declare that God, the all-holy, is also God, the all-merciful.

Thus in many ways the fundamental principles of Old Testament ethics are much closer to the New Testament than is often perceived. Both look for divine attributes to be replicated in humanity, but both realize that this rarely occurs and that the overwhelming need for the human race is divine mercy. In this way the incarnation fulfills the goals of the Old Testament system of ethics.

God is patient and gracious and is intimately concerned with and involved in humanity…so much so that he was willing to become one of us and place himself on the receiving end of violent, unmerciful people. God knows how to be merciful because he is God and he made us but also because he has walked a mile in our shoes and has the kind of knowledge that comes by experience.


People usually define holiness as being set apart. The more I study holiness I see the set apart piece as more the result of holiness than the definition of holiness. It is like equating a car with the road. Cars are meant to be on roads but cars aren’t the road. Holiness is sacred. It is pure. The result of that purity is that holy things find their own space where the impure and immoral things have to be kept at a distance. The result is holy things and holy people are set apart.

The Sacred and the Secular

In the Old Testament there was a view that things fell into one of two categories. Either it was sacred or it was secular, holy or profane. Those categories did not mean things were either good or evil but that they were either set apart for special purposes or that they were ordinary or common. This distinction has to do with how something is used or what its purpose is. For instance, the articles used for temple or tabernacle worship were holy. That means they were only to be used for sacred purposes as defined by God. They wouldn’t go into the temple and throw a big BBQ bash using the tongs, altar, etc…all seemingly great for a nice dinner gathering. But using it like that would be taking something holy and sacred and using it for common or ordinary purposes. It would be using those items and that location in a way inconsistent with what God prescribed in scripture.

In the Old Testament the holy or sacred could be broken down into three categories: people, things, and places.

People – In Leviticus 20:26 we see the Hebrews were to be set apart as a holy nation. This meant God’s people aren’t supposed to act like the other nations because they are holy, set apart, and on earth for a different purpose. We see that in the New Testament in verses like 1 Peter 2:9 – God’s people are still a holy nation. Though now that nation contains both Jews and Gentiles

Things – In Exodus 29:37 the altar is called holy. Lev 5:15-16 tells what offerings to make if someone violates God’s holy things. The point is, you don’t use the objects of worship in the tabernacle or temple however you want and for whatever purposes you want. In the New Testament there is not as much a connection with holy things as it was in the Old Testament.

Places – There were several holy places mentioned in the Old Testament, each of these represented at one time or another the presence of God on earth. Bethel (which means House of God) was considered holy by Jacob in Genesis 28 where he had a dream of angels ascending and descending from heaven – Jacob’s ladder. Sinai was holy (Exodus 19:23). Sinai was also called Horeb and this is where Moses first encountered the Lord and was told it was Holy ground (Exo 3:1-5). The tabernacle and temple were holy. Exodus 26:33-24 mentions the Holy Place and Most Holy Place. You don’t walk into the Holy Place when you want and do whatever you want. It is a holy place to be used for holy purposes.

In the New Testament we see a shift from places to people. Jesus said he was the replacement of the temple in John 2:19-22 when he cleared the temple and said he would destroy it and rebuild it in three days. Jesus also compared himself to Bethel, the house of God in John 1:51 when he said his disciples would see angels ascending and descending on him. Jesus was God in the flesh, the presence of God on earth. After Jesus went back to the Father, we are considered God’s holy place present in the earth (1 Cor 3:16). In that verse we are called a temple where the Holy Spirit dwells. In 1 Cor 6:18-20 we see what it means to be holy today. Because we are God’s holy temple we don’t do things to our bodies that are out of character of a holy place, specifically sexual immorality in this verse. Just like they weren’t to use the temple or tabernacle for common or profane uses, we aren’t to use our bodies for things that are not in line with God’s purposes for our lives.

Because we are God’s temple we are to be used for holy purposes. Just like how they couldn’t go in the tabernacle or temple and treat it however they wanted and disrespect God’s wishes, we are not to use ourselves, as God’s temple, in a way that would desecrate that temple. If forsaking the temple regulations was punishable by death (Exo 28:35, 43; 30:21) how much more serious are we to treat our own bodies that were made holy, not by washing with water, but by washing by the blood of Jesus Christ?

“Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy;
without holiness no one will see the Lord.” – Hebrews 12:14


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