The importance of holiness
Christians are called ‘saints’ in the New Testament because they are expected to be ‘sanctified ones’, men and women set apart to God. In other words, they are to be holy people.
Let me remind you of the ground we covered in the two previous articles on holiness (ET October and November 2008). Biblical personal holiness involves two things: (a) putting sin to death in one’s life; and (b) becoming increasingly conformed to the character of Christ, who was ‘holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners’ (Hebrews 7:26).
We are not to think of holiness in a legalistic way, as if good works or a holy life can save us or atone for sin. The brightest of saints see themselves as ‘unprofitable servants’ whose own ‘righteousnesses’ are like filthy rags in comparison to the burning holiness of God himself.
Yet, it ought to be our consistent aim not to sin. 1 John 3:9 and 1 John 1:9-10 show that the believer has indwelling sin and yet battles against it. So our practical holiness – as distinct from the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by grace – must be real, even though it is never perfect in this life.
We rely on the work of Christ alone for acceptance. We are justified by grace and not by works of righteousness (Titus 3:5). And yet Hebrews 12:14 says quite clearly that without holiness no man shall see the Lord. Without question, then, personal sanctity or holiness is important, and that in several ways.
Firstly, holiness is agreeable with the purpose of God. This is clear in 1 Peter 1:15-16 where Peter quotes various verses from Leviticus. Likewise, Paul writes, ‘This is the will of God, even your sanctification … for God has not called us to uncleanness but to holiness’ (1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7). Christ reflects this in his Sermon on the Mount: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as you Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48).
So, we are to be holy because this is the will of God for his people. Paul writes in Ephesians 1:4: ‘he hath chosen us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him’. Surely no one will argue that God’s purpose was to make us holy positionally but leave us unholy practically?
Secondly, holiness is consistent with Christ’s work. ‘Christ … loved the church and gave himself for it that he might sanctify and cleanse it [and] present to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish’ (Ephesians 5:25-27).
Again, Paul reminds Titus that Christ ‘gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify unto himself a peculiar people zealous for good works’ (2:14). It stands to reason – believers are not saved from the guilt of sin only to be left to experience its dominion!
As J. C. Ryle put it: ‘Christ is a complete Saviour. He doesn’t merely take away the guilt of a believer’s sin, he breaks its power’.
The Spirit’s ministry
Thirdly, holiness is consistent with the Spirit’s ministry. The Spirit of God is called the Holy Spirit and the ‘Spirit of holiness’ (Romans 1:4). It is by the Spirit that we have new birth and the same Spirit who comes to dwell in the believer. Thus the Spirit who quickens us also sanctifies us (1 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2).
It is by the Spirit that the believer overcomes temptation and sin and becomes ‘a new creation in Christ Jesus’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is unquestionably the Spirit’s purpose to work holiness in the believer, enabling him to die to sin and live to God (Ephesians 5:9).
Faith and love
Fourthly, holiness bears fruit – the evidence of genuine faith and love. What is ‘fruit’ if it is not good and holy works for the Lord in the experiential and practical aspects of our lives?
Works cannot save, but (says James) they do give evidence of spiritual life within. ‘Faith without works is dead’ but true faith will show itself by fruitful works (James 2:17-26). Notice that the believer has a responsibility to practise holy living. Says Ryle, ‘The only safe evidence that we are one with Christ, and Christ in us, is holy life’.
Holiness also demonstrates our love to Christ. ‘If ye love me’, said Jesus, ‘keep my commandments… he that hath my commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me’ (John 14:15, 21, 23). Is this not motive enough for a holy life?
Fifthly, holiness is a powerful witness in the world. Of course, I am not suggesting a show of holiness. After all, holiness will embrace humility and the hypocrite will soon be exposed!
Yet if you are not holy – if your speech is not seasoned with grace and your actions are not Christlike – what encouragement to believe on Christ will those around receive? Many spurn the gospel because they see little authentic godliness in the professing church.
This is a great challenge in our day when desperately low standards and worldliness prevail within the church. ‘I believe’, says Ryle, ‘that far more is done for Christ’s kingdom by the holy living of believers than we are all aware of. It makes religion beautiful, and draws men to consider it, like a lighthouse seen afar off’.
Didn’t Jesus say his disciples are to be ‘lights in the world’? (see Matthew 5:14-16). This is not a substitute for witness by words, but our words will only avail if they are accompanied by lives devoted to God and truth.
Sixthly, holiness is a powerful source of comfort. When believers lose their peace and assurance, or backslide, it is usually through a want of holiness, consecration, sanctification and obedience to Christ.
Paul expostulates: ‘Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin live any longer therein?’ (Romans 6:1-2). Little wonder that an unholy soul is ineffective, cold and dull in the things of the Lord. Continuing in sin will lead to troubles and distress, doubts and fears.
John also points to this aspect of personal comfort when he writes, ‘Hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments’ (1 John 2:3). And again: ‘Hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts’ (that is, when we love not in word or tongue [only] but in deed and in truth; 1 John. 3:19).
Here, then is another motive to holiness – it encourages assurance and peace in our hearts before the Lord.
Seventhly, and finally, holiness effectively prepares a soul for heaven. I often wonder how the person with no love for the Lord’s Day can have an appetite for heaven. Will not those who find sabbath rest irksome find unbearable the eternal sabbath that awaits God’s people?
If here we find heavenly pursuits unappealing, how will we enjoy heaven itself? Now, I use the sabbath to illustration a general principle. Holiness evidences a taste for heaven in respect of any command of Christ, any ordinance of the gospel, all fellowship of the saints, and so on.
To be prepared for heaven, therefore, we need holiness, for without it no man shall see the Lord. In the final judgement we shall be judged ‘each according to his works’ and the New Jerusalem, the eternal heavenly kingdom of glory, will exclude ‘anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie’ ((Revelation 20:13; 21:27).
Surely there can be no greater motive to holiness, nor clearer indication of the importance of holiness, than such considerations.
Let us conclude with some general applications:
1. We must recognise the supreme importance of personal holiness. For our own good in this life; for our preparation for heaven; for our witness in the world, and for the glory of the Saviour.
2. We must be diligent in the Word – diligent students of the Word, submissive hearers, and conscientious doers. Remember, we are sanctified through the truth (John 17:17). We will not make progress in holiness unless we apply the Word to our lives.
3. We must work out our faith – for it is God who works in us to will and to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13). As 2 Peter 1:5-11 exhorts, add to your faith, using every right means to stimulate faith and good works. Keep the flames fanned, the lamp trimmed.
4. We must engage in active fellowship. To live a sanctified life we need fellowship with fellow believers – we need strengthening by the ‘communion of saints’ (cf. Malachi 3:16-17; Acts 2:42-47).
5. We must battle for our souls. We live in a spiritual cauldron, facing the world, the flesh and the devil. We shall need all the armour of God to stand in the evil day, to grow in grace and have that faith, peace and holiness that qualifies a soul to see God (Ephesians 6:10-20).
John W. Keddie