Two Shades of Holy

ἡγιασμένοις ἐν Χριστῷ ᾿Ιησοῦ, κλητοῖς ἁγίοις (1 Corinthians 1:2)

Paul begins his letter to the Corinthian assembly by announcing that its members have been made holy (i.e. sanctified) in Christ Jesus, and yet in the next breath he also tells them that they are called to be holy (i.e. saints). How can you tell someone to become what they already are?

But isn’t this the pattern that we have seen at work in God’s people from the days of Moses? God spoke to Moses, saying:

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Exodus 19:4-6)

Through his mighty deeds, God set Israel apart for his sacred purpose – that’s the meaning of “holy” – and yet he had to call the his holy ones time and again to live like set apart people.

Paul, too, will have to call the Christians of Corinth to live up to the promise that God placed within them, to become the people that in one sense they already are. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is, for the most part, a sharp rebuke of the Corinthians’ failure to follow the promise and call of holiness.

And what about my story, and yours? In baptism, the Lord united us to Christ (and his holiness) and gave us his Holy Spirit. We have been sanctified. And yet, because of our sin, God has to teach us and empower us and oftentimes correct us so that we can live most fully as the new creations we have become in Christ.

My Lutheran friends often use the phrase Simul Iustus et Peccator to describe the Christian condition. We are at once both just (because of who we are in Christ and what he has done for us) and sinners. I think that is true enough as a starting point. We have been made holy in Christ. We have been united to Christ and his righteousness. In him, we have also been united to his holy people. Notice the passive voice. All of this is God’s work.

And yet Paul is not content to stop with this fact. You are holy; you are called to be holy. The same God who sanctified us in Christ Jesus also calls us by his Holy Spirit to become who we truly are.

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