When the young monk and professor at Wittenberg University, Martin Luther, began to speak out against such time-honored traditions as the cult of saints and holy relics, he was striking at the very heart of what the Church taught about what it meant for a Christian to be holy. What Luther objected to most was the emphasis on personal holiness. Almost the whole of the church’s teaching on holiness centered on what the individual Christian was doing to “do what was in him,” and get with God’s program of salvation.

Luther never abandoned entirely the Christian’s active participation in God’s holiness—but Luther was careful to put the emphasis on the new man’s bearing crosses in his earthly vocation—he shifted the weight of holiness onto God. In relation to God’s holiness, Luther taught, a Christian is passive, a receiver of God’s holiness, Holiness is not quid-pro-quo, but received through faith in Christ Jesus. God alone is holy, as the Bible teaches from cover to cover. And He gifts His holiness to Christians through the forgiveness of sin. When a Christian is declared forgiven for Christ’s sake, it is the same as if God said, “You were unholy and dead in sin, but on account of Jesus’ suffering and bloody death, you’re now holy and alive in Him forever.”

Apart from bare, naked faith in Jesus’ atoning work for us, no sinner is, or ever can be, holy. In fact, as Luther wrote, ““True holiness, the holier it is, the nearer it draws to sinners.” And this is the tip of the spear Luther plunged into the late medieval understanding of holiness. God does not find people who are pleasing to Him, and declare them holy. On the contrary, God finds those who are most displeasing to Him and declares them holy for Christ’s sake. This, Luther noted, is the scandal of the Cross. God is holy precisely because He declares those who appear to be the furthest from holiness, holy.

God’s Word makes holy people when He declares their sin covered one time for all time in the precious blood of the Lamb. Anyone, Luther argued, who tried to make or declare themselves holy apart from God’s saving word about Christ Jesus was a “painted saint.” A fake saint painted up to look like what human beings imagine God’s holiness looks must like when it’s hung on them. But this is just our attempts to be God in God’s place. We want to be our own gods. We want to be holy in ourselves, without any Word from God telling us otherwise. And we want the power to choose who, what, where, and when our holiness goes into action.

But that wasn’t the most upsetting part of what Luther taught about holiness for his opponents (and even some colleagues and students). At the center of his attack on the medieval papal system of holiness and holy things, was his rejection that holiness was synonymous with moral renewal. A holy person wasn’t a more moral person. One cannot recognize a saint by the way he acts. True holiness comes from the forgiveness of sin declared and the “Amen” of the sinner who suddenly finds himself (still sinful in fact, but) set apart by God in the assembly of believers and declared a “new man” in Christ. A Christian is a saint in Christ through faith even at the same time that he’s a sinner in fact, in his flesh.

All Christians then are holy, are saints, are a holy priestly people, because we’ve been bound up with Jesus, our Lord and Savior, through His coming to us in simple, earthly words, water, bread and wine. In the same way, God makes His Church holy with “the Word and true faith,” as Luther wrote.

Holiness isn’t something chased after or achieved through years of dedication and commitment to living a better life.

Likewise, God’s holiness can’t be tapped into or exploited by possessing certain objects, like an artifact or something we imbue with special meaning. Instead, as Luther continues to teach us today, God’s holiness is a gift given through His Word of forgiveness in the Gospel, in baptism, and at the Lord’s Table. It is a holiness that is enjoyed by the Christian in worship and even in his daily vocation as he goes along in Christ today and always, because, as Luther wrote, “he who is a Christian enters with the Lord Christ into a sharing of all his goods.”