Biblical Separation

A Fundamental Doctrine Mandated by the Nature of God and the Nature of Gospel

Stephen J. Hankins

The first great truth that should compel all believers in fellowship, worship, and service is the gospel of God—Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection for the redemption of sinful man. What honest, believing reader of the New Testament does not bow before the Sovereign Savior in abject spiritual poverty, knowing that apart from His grace made available through the gospel we would have nothing of God, know nothing of God, enjoy nothing of God, and would be forever lost? We are blessed beyond measure in Christ alone. Our position is secure and it is glorious by Him alone. We long to see His face, to be with Him, and to serve Him unhindered forever.

All true followers of Christ embrace these truths with joy and proclaim them boldly. They are radically “God centered” and “gospel centered” but in a way far more profound than using these popular descriptive phrases simply as code for adherence to a Reformed theology, coupled with cutting-edge cultural accommodation for the sake of evangelism. True disciples of the Master believe that the nature of God and the nature of the gospel set them apart to a life of dedicated uniqueness for His glory, a life of holiness achieved only by a biblically mandated separatism.

A Fundamental Doctrine Centered in the Nature of God

God Is Holy. God is in His very essence holy, set apart as perfect in every way from the mundane and evil and unto the eternal and the good. Both the Old Testament and New Testament terms translated “holy” in the English Bible mean “set apart, dedicated, pure and complete” (Hebrew, qad¯osh; Greek, hagios). This is the clear truth of Scripture; there is no dissent among interpreters of the Word on this point. As Isaiah recorded, “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isa. 57:15). Fortunately, God’s holiness moves Him toward us in love, not rejection.

Holiness Requires Separatism. The thirst for holiness drives us to a decisive separation for His glory in four ways. (1) Since He who commands believers is holy, our love for Him should compel our obedience to Him, causing us to separate from all sin, as taught in 1 John 3:4 and 5:3. (2) Since He who speaks the truth is holy, our love for Him should compel us to embrace that truth, causing us to separate from all falsehood, as taught in 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1. (3) Since He who is eternal is holy, our love for Him should compel us to reject the temporal world, causing us to separate from its wrong values and behaviors, as taught in 1 John 2:15–17. (4) Since He who is the Head of the Church is holy, our love for Him as His body should compel us to corporate purity, causing us to separate from all that threatens the spiritual health of the church, as taught in Ephesians 5:25–27, 1 Corinthians 5:1–11, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15. This fourfold biblical separation is implicit in a God centered life; you cannot have the one without the other. The doctrine of biblical separation is inherently God centered and without question a fundamental of the faith. For the serious disciple, it can never be viewed as peripheral to faithfulness to Christ.

A Fundamental Doctrine Centered in the Gospel

Holiness Is a Central Purpose of Christ’s Redemptive Work. As believers we have been saved to be holy like Christ; we are “called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7, i.e., “holy ones”).

In addition to deliverance from eternal condemnation, this was the great purpose of Christ’s redemptive work through the gospel, bringing ultimate glory to God. This is central to all personal spiritual life and godliness. It is part of the gospel message and gospel living.

For the Church as a Whole. Paul saw the gospel as directly impacting the separateness of the people of God from the world. He wrote of Christ to the church in Galatia in Galatians 1:4–5, “Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world [age], according to the will of God and our Father: To whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

While writing of the love of husbands for their wives, Paul used the analogy of Christ’s redemptive work for the church. What is striking about it is how frequently he presents the purity and holiness of the church, her separateness from evil, as the purpose of His redemptive work for it as a whole. The italics that follow are mine to show the emphasis Paul is giving to this idea in Ephesians 5:25–27: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” Three times in this short statement, Paul stresses the purpose of His redemptive work—separateness from evil and sin, for holiness, and for God’s glory.

For the Individual Believer. Nowhere in the New Testament does any author focus more clearly on holiness as a great goal of Christ’s redemptive work in the believer’s life than Peter does in 1 Peter 1:13–16. Remember, implicit in the holiness achieved through redemption is the idea of biblical separation. Peter unfolds an array of details concerning holiness with remarkable compactness and crescendos his remarks with a pivotal Old Testament quotation from Leviticus 19:2 about holiness in verse 16 (also found in 11:44), saying, “Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.”

Essentials for Attaining Holiness

Leading up to this command, Peter presents the essentials for attaining holiness and urges us as believers: (1) to prepare our minds for action (“Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind,” v. 13a); (2) to discipline ourselves (“be sober,” v. 13a); (3) to hope for grace to be given us by Christ through the Word to help us (“and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ,” v. 13c); (4) to obey God as Ηis children (“As obedient children,” v. 14a); and (5) to not conform ourselves to our former fleshly desires, as we did in our past spiritual darkness (“not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance,” v. 14b).

Reasons for Pursuing Holiness

Peter then presents compelling reasons for pursuing holiness for the glory of God. First, the One who called us to salvation is holy and is our model for life (“But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation,” v. 15). Second, holiness has been God’s will for His people in every era; it was written as a command to Israel, and it is repeated as a command to us in the church, the Body of Christ (“Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy,” v. 16). The holiness of God and the holiness of His people are not archaic Old Testament ideas fit only for ancient Israel. They are for all believers, always.

Extremes Required in Holiness

The holiness we are commanded to attain is daunting, even extreme. It is to be demonstrated in all of our behavior, in every circumstance. It is extensive (‘‘in all manner of conversation [life],” v. 15). That means the believer must apply this standard to everything in his life, not just those things spoken to clearly and directly in Scripture. This is not an annoying “pickiness” or obsessive concern that subtle evil may rest behind what seems completely benign. In this command is the warrant for a careful scrutiny, a wise diligence in the application of truth to every dimension of life—thoughts, words, actions, and relationships, both personal and ecclesial. It requires a rigorous assessment of every element of the culture in which the believer lives to determine if conformity to it will, in any way, compromise the believer’s light and reflection of the glory of God.

This is so central to the life of the disciple that it is described as the very essence of spiritual maturity as explained by the writer to the Hebrews when he says, “For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (5:13–14).

The holiness we are to seek is also to be intensive—we are to have holiness like God’s holiness (“Be ye holy; for I am holy,” v. 16). So we must ask, just how holy is God? God’s holiness carries with it the idea of completeness—a perfectly balanced personality, absolute purity from evil, and total devotion to what is right and good. We cannot duplicate God’s holiness as men, but we are to strive to within the limits of our humanity by grace. In the words of Christ, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

A Fundamental Doctrine for the Glory of God

This is the holiness to which we all are called for Christ’s glory, no matter how challenging we may find making the right and true applications of it in our personal lives and in church life in a hostile world. The holiness of God manifested through the believer is central to the right exercise of the faith, and that holiness is inextricably bound up with a truly biblical separatism. This is the truth that drives the true biblical separatist—separated from evil and separated unto God, dedicated wholly to Him, to love Him with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Dr. Steve Hankins is the associate dean of the Seminary and Graduate School of Religion at Bob Jones University. He has been training men for the ministry at the University and Seminary for the last four decades. During that time he has also served as an in interim pastor, associate pastor, and senior pastor in Baptist churches in North and South Carolina. Steve holds a BA, an MA, and a PhD in New Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January/February 2015. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)