David Peterson has written Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness for the IVP NSBT series. Peterson’s analysis of holiness and sanctification was thorough, biblical and useful. In the book, he seeks to correct certain aspect of evangelical theology respecting sanctification and holiness: not by abandoning the desire for holy conduct, but by placing holiness pursued in its proper context. To do this, he undertakes a comprehensive analysis of the NT instruction on the topic – which analysis he anchors in an OT survey. I found the book useful, and thus I want to make sure that I digest it thoroughly.
He begins his analysis with the proposition that holiness is not a characteristic which human beings acquire by means of their behavior, rather it derives from God:
It is a status or condition which God imparts to those whom he chooses to bring into a special relationship with himself through covenant and redemption. But it is a status that carries with it particular responsibilities (23).
He therefore concludes:
With regard to God’s people, holiness means being set apart for a relationship the Holy One, to display his character in every aspect of life( 24).
How does this proposition hold up? An early use of “holy” (qadosh) in the Bible comes at Exodus 19:6. The children of Israel have escaped Egypt and have come to Mt. Sinai. There, at the mountain, God gives the following message to Moses:
3 while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4 You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 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; 6 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.” 7 So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. Exodus 19:3–7 (ESV)
It must be noted that holiness here does derive from a status conferred by God. Holiness is a status:
you shall be my treasured possession
and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests
and a holy nation
Holiness as a nation stands in parallel to being a treasured possession & a kingdom of priests. Thus, holiness does seem to entail a valuation by God & an interaction with God. However, that status does entail a behavioral condition:
if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant
Therefore, we cannot divorce holiness from conduct. Yet, there is no basis here for finding holiness as something the human being can entail aside from God’s provision: Holiness derives from the covenant.
In addition, the basis of the covenant rests earlier in the unilateral work of God in rescuing the people:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore,
This verse summarizes the preamble and prologue components of the Sinai covenant. It identifies the parties to the covenant (“I” and “you”) as Yahweh and Israel and briefly reminds the recipients of how they came to be united with their God. The words “you yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt” encapsulate the entire story of the humiliation of Pharaoh and Egypt and the Egyptians through the plagues. “I carried you on eagles’ wings” encapsulates the exodus itself, metaphorically describing the flight from Egypt as a soaring flight carried by an eagle. The words “and brought you to myself” express not merely the arrival at Sinai but the entering into covenant relationship (which is ultimately a family relationship) with the only true God.
Douglas K. Stuart, vol. 2, Exodus, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 422. It is interesting that the first use of “holy” occurs here, because this is the point of redemptive history where Israel would transcend a mere biological grouping to become something new, a community in unique relationship to God:
An affirmative response to Yahweh’s “if” on the part of the people of Israel will mean the birth of “Israel” as Yahweh’s people. Without that affirmative response, indeed, there would have been only “sons of Israel,” the descendants of Jacob. With the affirmative response, “Israel,” a community of faith transcending biological descendancy, could come into being. That community, an entity new to the narrative of Exodus in its sequential development to this point, but the entity all the same because of whom and in a sense from whom Exodus originated, is described here by three separate but interrelated images. Israel’s affirmative response will first of all mean the genesis of a people who will be Yahweh’s own סגלה “special treasure.” Greenberg (JAOS 71  172–74) has linked this word to an Akkadian term, sikiltu, which refers to a personal collection or hoard. The image presented is that of the unique and exclusive possession, and that image is expanded by what appears to be an addition (“for to me belongs the whole earth”) to suggest the “crown jewel” of a large collection, the masterwork, the one-of-a-kind piece.
John I. Durham, vol. 3, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 262.