Ultimate Reality

From Christian Holiness, the Carnahan Lectures (1958)

Jesus is the holy one of God… He is the appointed one of God, the one who was come forth from the mysterious realm in which God dwells. In the intensely solemn prayer addressed to the Holy Father, he speaks of sanctifying himself: “for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth” (John 17:19). Here the primary emphasis is not ethical. The phrase does not mean, “I devote myself to living an ethically superior life, in order that they might do the same.” We encounter once again the exclusive and polemical idea of holiness: “I commit myself wholly to that inexorable, almost implacable, holiness of God, to total surrender and obedience to it;” and, under the conditions of a sinful world, that means in effect self-surrender unto death.

The sacrificial ring is present in the words; In the Old Testament “to sanctify” and “to sacrifice” are almost synonymous terms. But what Jesus does for himself he does also for his followers; He sets them apart for total dedication to the will of God, and for them to this must mean a willingness to be as corns of wheat that fall into the ground and die. They are to be sanctified in the truth; That means, in the idiom of the fourth gospel, in reality. The law could give only a ritual, external holiness; this is now to be replaced by ultimate reality, the total setting apart of the disciples to the will of a God who demands man’s all; at this point the doctrine of the gospel comes near to that of the Epistle to the Hebrews (see Heb.10:1ff.).

This is the godward side of the holiness of Jesus. But in the 17th chapter of John, from which we have also already quoted, the threefold relationships — the Father, the Son, the disciples — are intricately entwined with one another. There is also a manward aspect of this holiness. This too is related to the purpose of God, whose will it is to bring all things back to that state in which once again he can look on them and see that everything that he has made is very good. This climax is expressed in the concluding verse of the chapter — “that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them and I in them” (John 17:26).

The relationship between Jesus and the disciples is to be reflected in that which will subsist between them as his disciples; it is for that reason that he gives them the new commandment that they are to love one another. It is only in relationship to holiness that the nature of love in the biblical sense of the term can be understood — it is simply the translation of holiness into terms of personal relationships. Such a relationship can never adequately be expressed in terms of rules an ethical formula, though, as we shall later see, these may have their value even in a world which is to be under the sway of love. What is involved is a total self-commitment of one to the other, in relation to the fulfillment of a purpose of God.

Stephen Neill (1900-1984) was an Irish Anglican missionary and scholar, who served as Bishop of Tinnevelley in Southern India from 1939-1944, and helped to lay the foundation for the formation of the Church of South India. He later worked for the World Council of Churches and taught at Hamburg, Nairobi, and Oxford, and wrote several important works of church history, ecumenical theology, and missiology.

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