Living Into Our Call


The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof,

the world and those who dwell therein, 

for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers. 

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?

And who shall stand in his holy place? 

He who has clean hands and a pure heart,

who does not lift up his soul 

to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. 

(Ps 24:1-4)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Sometimes decreasing tension with a holy God means increasing our tension with the world. In David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons’ recent book, UnChristian, the six most common points of tension between Christians and non-Christians were:

1. Hypocritical. We say one thing and do another.

2. Christians are: “too focused on getting converts.”

3. Homophobic. “Christians are bigoted and show distain for gays and lesbians.”

4. Sheltered. Christians are: “old-fashioned, boring, and out of touch with reality”.

5. Too political. Christians: “promote and represent politically conservative interests and issues.”

6. Judgmental. People doubt that “we really love people as we say we do.” (Kinnaman 2007, 29–30).

Non-Christian doubts about Christian holiness lie behind each of these criticisms. For example, Christians who act like everyone else—especially in matters of sexuality—are rightly seen as hypocritical, not holy. By contrast, Christians who pursue holiness may make some others feel uncomfortably judged, eliciting unfair criticism and well-earned tension.

When holiness issues are raised within the church, discussion is often cut off with a question—where is the grace in your worldview? In view here is the presumed tension between grace and law in the Gospel of John: “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:16–17) Grace and law appear to oppose one another, but this interpretation is misleading for two reasons.

The first reason is that grace and truth are divine attributes revealed to Moses immediately after the giving of the law (Exod 34:6). If the law and grace appeared together from the beginning, how could they be in conflict? It is more helpful to interpret law and grace as complementary because the giving of the law was itself act of divine grace in that the law revealed God’s will for daily living. Consequently, Christ’s atoning sacrifice was not God’s first an act of grace.

The second reason is that grace and truth (law is a kind of prescriptive truth) go together in personal transformation. According to Calvin, because the law is concrete, it is useful for educating in righteousness, for law enforcement, and for outlining how to be holy every day (Haas 2006, 100). Everyone loves to receive grace, but not everyone likes to hear the truth because it often requires corrective action.

The commentary nature of law and grace is never more obvious than in the words of Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17) Attempts to abrogate the Law of Moses in favor of grace often arise because the law divides into two parts: the holiness code and ceremonial law. This distinction arose historically because the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 making it impossible to perform the ceremonial laws. However, the destruction of the temple had no such effect on the holiness code, whose prohibitions against sexual immorality were never abolished or abrogated, as confirmed in the Council of Jerusalem in AD 50 (Acts 15:19-20).

The holiness code is not obsolete. Consider the cleanup in New York City that occurred in the 1980s. Two criminologists, James O. Wilson and George Kelling, started the clean-up with what they called the broken windows theory. They argued: 

Crime is inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and a sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street it faces, sending the signal that anything goes. The idea is that crime is contagious. 

So New York City waged a war on broken windows and graffiti in the neighborhoods and subway. Minor infractions of law were not tolerated. And crime throughout the city began to fall precipitously to everyone’s surprise (White, 2004, 158). 

The broken windows theory is to cities what the holiness code is to individuals. King Solomon famously wrote of the little sins: “Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.” (Song 2:15) The point is that little things matter—they form and reflect your attitude.

Our conduct matters. Our conduct matters to our families, for whom we model Christ and express our deepest commitments. It matters to our neighbors, for whom we witness and work for peace. It matters to God, who gave Moses the law, in whom we put our faith, and on whom we depend for our salvation. Our conduct matters.


Haas, Guenther H. 2004. “Calvin’s Ethics.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, 93–105. Edited by Donald K. McKim. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kinnaman, David with Gabe Lyons. 2007. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Wallace, Daniel B. 1996. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

White, James Emery. 2004. Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Living Into Our Call

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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