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Holy Church: The Purpose and Purchase of Christ’s Death

Last week, the new issue of Credo Magazine released: Holiness. The following is an excerpt from Patrick Schreiner’s article, Holy Church: The Purpose and Purchase of Christ’s Death. Patrick Schreiner is Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary and an elder at Christ Church Sellwood in Portland, OR. He is the author of The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross and Matthew, the Discipled Scribe: Treasures New and Old (forthcoming, Baker Academic).

The typical definition of holy (hagios in Greek and qadosh in Hebrew) is sacred, unique: a place, person, or thing set apart by God’s presence. Others have pointed out it can also mean consecration, devotion, or belonging, which should not be opposed to separateness or otherness.[3] It is a cultic term in which synonyms include blameless, without stain, or blemish; while antonyms include unholy, unclean, and can be distinguished from what is common (Lev. 10:10).

The New Testament takes this cultic term and applies it to the church – the people of God gathered around and in Christ. They are now sacred, set apart, consecrated, and devoted to God. They are chosen, sanctified, the new temple and tabernacle where God dwells.

Roman Catholics have understood the holiness of the church in terms of institutional liturgical and ceremonial holiness. On this understanding, the church possesses the salvific use of the sacraments to convey divine grace. But the Reformers looked not to the supernatural character of the institution, but to the spiritual renewal of its members both individually and corporately. The latter receives the emphasis of the Scriptures, but the holiness of the church as an institution is meant to radiate into the world as they are salt and light.

In summary, to call the church holy is to declare that the body of believers, both individually and corporately, is totally devoted and set apart by and for God. However, this holiness is not sourced in themselves. To call the church holy is to declare that the body of believers, both individually and corporately, is totally devoted and set apart by and for God. Click To Tweet

The Source of Holiness

“The holiness of the church does not stem from its members and their moral and religious behavior,” the source of their holiness comes from the Triune God.[4] They are holy because they belong to the separate One who is defined as holy.[5] In Isaiah 6:3, the prophet sees the Lord high and lifted up where the seraphim declare he is, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” At the song at the sea, Israel sings, “Who among the gods is like you, Lord? Who is like you – majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders.” In Leviticus 19:2, Yahweh says to Israel, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

Jesus, the Son, is also called holy, but less frequently. During Jesus’s ministry, an impure spirit cries out to Jesus before he is cast out saying, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). The angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and “the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:34). The disciples confess in the Gospel of John that they have come to believe and know that Jesus is the “Holy One of God” (John 6:69). In one of Peter’s sermons in Acts, he declares that the religious leaders have disowned “the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14).

The third person of the Trinity is also regularly appended with the title holy, which occurs most frequently in Acts, but is found elsewhere. In Psalm 51:11, David asks the Lord to not take his Holy Spirit from him. Isaiah 63:10 speaks of the people grieving the Holy Spirit and in the next verse Isaiah says the Holy Spirit was with Israel in the days of Moses. Of all the gospel writers, Luke is most fond of this title.

The point of this survey is to demonstrate that holiness is sourced in the Triune God. Everything that is holy is holy because God is in her midst. In the Old Testament, God makes the seventh day holy (Gen. 2:3), he tells Moses the place he is standing is holy ground (Ex. 3:5), the sabbath and tabernacle are holy (Ex. 16:23; 20:8; 26:33), and the nation of Israel is holy (Ex. 19:6; 22:21). These are all holy because they are chosen, set apart, or totally devoted to God. The temple and tabernacle were holy because God’s presence was there.

The New Testament, therefore, picks up this label because the Triune God has marked out these people as his own – they are his new temple. The church is only holy because they are the body, connected to the head who is Christ. The church also has the Holy Spirit who is the soul of the church.

It is God who distinguishes the church, sets it apart, marks it out for his own and makes it holy…This is why we do not simply believe in the holy Church but believe in God who makes the Church holy.[1]

The Creeds rightly begin by confessing truths about the Triune God and then move to dogma concerning the church. The church is set apart by and for God – they have been brought into an exclusive and dedicated relationship with God. They are his, and he is theirs.

Read Patrick Schreiner’s entire article in the new issue of Credo Magazine.


[1] Hans Küng, The Church (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1967), 419.

Patrick Schreiner

Patrick Schreiner is Associate Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books, including The Body of Jesus: A Spatial Analysis of the Kingdom in Matthew (T&T Clark), The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross (Crossway), Matthew, Disciple and Scribe: The First Gospel and Its Portrait of Jesus (Baker),  and The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine (Lexham Press).

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