The Holy and the Common
“You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10, NIV)
“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat…Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord…If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.” (First Corinthians 11:20, 27, 34, NIV)
One of the most important biblical distinctions is the distinction between the common and the holy. Another way of expressing this distinction is to speak of a distinction between the secular and the sacred. But it is just here that many Christians object. Largely due to militant secularists who want to ban all expressions of religious faith (especially Christian faith) from the public square, and who thus basically want to confine all expressions of religious faith within the four walls of the church building (and even there some of them would like certain controls placed upon what can be preached), many Christians are nervous about the term “secular” and about any kind of distinction between the “secular” and the “sacred.” That nervousness is certainly understandable. While we as believers must rightly reject the perversion and distortion of the concept of the “secular” by militant secularists and by secular humanists, at the same time many believers over-react to militant secularism by completely rejecting any recognition of the secular/sacred distinction and thus end up trying to “sacralize” (i.e., make holy) every endeavor of life. “All of life is holy” we might hear such believers say. This attempt to “sacralize” every area of life is evidenced by the call of many within the Christian community to “take back our culture for Christ” (as if our culture in America was ever consistently “Christian”) and for the church (as a church) to engage in endeavors of cultural and political transformation. But, ironically, when Christians attempt to “sacralize” that which is secular, what ends up happening is the sacred ends up getting secularized. If everything in life is holy, then ultimately nothing is holy. When believers blur the biblical distinction between the common and the holy by attempting to make holy that which God in His Word has declared to be common, the holy ends up getting cheapened, the church ends up getting secularized, and the Lord’s holy Name ends up getting taken in vain (Exodus 20:7).
The term “secular” simply refers to that which pertains to this present age, that which is temporal in distinction from that which is eternal; that which is “mundane” (in the sense of that which pertains to common, everyday life) rather than that which is spiritual and heavenly; that which is within the realm of “common grace” rather than that which pertains to the realm of redemption and saving grace. On the other hand, the “holy” refers to that which is set apart by Divine ordination for sacred use; that which pertains to man’s spiritual communion with God; that which operates within the realm of Christ’s redemptive kingdom. Many examples could be offered. Take, for example, the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a covenantal fellowship meal. As such it is a “holy” meal (the elements being set apart by consecration from a common/secular to a holy/sacred use). In fact, under the new covenant the Lord’s Supper is the only holy meal that Christians can enjoy. In distinction, consider a Christian family sitting down to enjoy a wonderful dinner together at home. The wife has prepared a sumptuous feast. The head of the family (the father) calls upon his family to bow their heads and to give thanks to God for the wonderful meal they are about to enjoy and for the hands that have prepared it (as he should give thanks – see First Timothy 4:3-5). This family enjoys a blessed time together as they enjoy their food and as they converse about things of the Lord around the table. They all leave the table full, both in their bellies and in their souls. Is such a special family dinner a “holy” meal? No. Not from a biblical perspective. While holy conversation took place around the meal table, the meal itself was not “holy,” for only God in His Word can declare something to be holy (in the sense of setting something apart for His redemptive purposes). And while all things – including our common everyday eating and drinking – should be done to the glory of God (First Corinthians 10:31); and while there is a certain sense that we can say that even our daily bread received with thankful hearts is, in some sense, “consecrated” by the Word of God and prayer (First Timothy 4:4-5); at the same time dinner in a home (even a Christian home) is not a holy meal – at least not in the same sense as is the Lord’s Supper. Jesus Christ Himself appointed the Lord’s Supper as a holy ordinance for His church, and the Apostle Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthian Christians for their abuses of the Lord’s Supper (as recorded in First Corinthians chapter 11) shows that the Lord’s Supper has been uniquely “set apart” (made holy) by Christ Himself as a holy meal. The purpose of the Lord’s Supper is the holy purpose of feeding the believing soul with the benefits of Christ’s broken body and shed blood, not the common grace purpose of satisfying physical hunger. Paul assumes this distinction between the holy character of the Lord’s Supper in contrast to the common character of ordinary meals when he writes in First Corinthians 11:34: “If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home…” (NIV). But if we Christians decided to view all of our common, everyday meals as “holy” meals – meals just as holy as the Lord’s Supper – then the Lord’s Supper would lose its uniquely sacred character and would be cheapened in its significance.
The illustration of the Lord’s Supper is just one of many illustrations that could be offered to show the importance of distinguishing properly between the common/secular and the holy/sacred. Baptism is another example. Baptism involves a washing with water. (I’m not concerned here to discuss whether this washing should be performed by sprinkling, pouring or immersion; that’s another issue for another post.) Like most people (at least in our cultural setting), my ordinary practice is to take a shower every day (and usually a pretty long one at that, as our water bill can attest). Now, since I am to do all that I do for the glory of God (First Corinthians 10:31), as a believer I should take my daily shower in a manner and for purposes of glorifying God. (Such purposes could include, not putting a stumbling block in the way of my gospel witness by my body odor, proper hygiene and care for my body, etc.) But my daily shower (which involves the “mundane” process of cleansing my physical body), while important and singificant, is not a “holy” or “sacred” event. It is a “common” or “secular” event. On the other hand, baptism, which is a sign and seal of cleansing from sin through the blood and Spirit of Christ (among other things), is a “holy” washing with water in the sacred Name of the Triune God (Matthew 28:19). If I “sacralize” my daily shower by attaching some kind of holy or redemptive significance to it, I will end up secularizing the significance of my baptism, thereby cheapening and denigrating the holiness of that baptism. And many other illustrations could be offered.
Jesus Christ is King and Lord over all creation and over all realms of life. What has come to be called the secular/sacred distinction is not, in itself, a denial of Christ’s Lordship over all, including the “secular” realm. Jesus Christ is, in fact, Lord of the secular realm, just as He is Lord over the sacred, redemptive realm. Jesus rules the “common” just as He rules the “holy.” All biblical Christians will affirm this. But the manner in which Christ rules the sacred/holy realm is different from the manner in which He rules the common/secular realm. The “secular” realm is under Christ’s providential, cosmic Lordship (His Lordship as Creator, Providential Governor and Mediatorial King) and involves the application of God’s “common grace” covenant with Noah (Genesis 8:21-22; 9:6-7) during this present age. In this present, pre-consummation age both believers and unbelievers benefit from Christ’s providential Lordship over the common realm (Matthew 6:45; Acts 14:17; 17:15-16; etc.). This common realm includes man’s cultural endeavors (business, art, music, agriculture, government, medicine, technology, etc.), which both believers and unbelievers may cooperate together in pursuing (so long as religious fellowship and unequal yoking between believers and unbelievers are avoided – Second Corinthians 6:14-18). In this realm the wheat and the tares are permitted by God to grow together until the consummation (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). But the “holy” realm is under Christ’s redemptive Lordship. It is the realm of salvation, where Christ’s spiritual reign of saving grace (in distinction from His providential reign of common grace) is displayed. In this present age this holy realm, this spiritual redemptive kingdom, is found in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is made present and displayed in the objective means of grace (the holy ordinances of Word and Sacraments) and in the church’s holy worship of the holy, Triune God. Christ’s redemptive kingdom is His reign of grace and salvation in the hearts and lives of His elect; and it comes to visible, communal expression in this present age, not in a national theocratic state (as it did under the old covenant), but in the visible church, which is international (“catholic”) under the new covenant. Let us not desecrate the sacredness of Christ’s spiritual, redemptive kingdom by confusing that kingdom with the common grace cultural realm through well-meaning but naive agendas of “cultural transformation” or religio-political activism. While Christ is Lord over the common/secular realm; and while believers are called in their earthly vocations to be active in the common/secular realm as “salt” and “light” in this world; and while we should be thankful for the good things of this present world and may enjoy them with thankful hearts; at the same time let us remember that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20, NIV). Like the saints of old, let us remember that we are “aliens and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13, NIV), and like them, let us be “longing for a better country – a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16, NIV). Let us not confuse the common and the holy, the sacred and the secular. Instead, let us properly distinguish them without unduly separating them (for in God’s providence the secular and the sacred, while distinct, are to work cooperatively in this present age, all for the glory of God).