There is a book of Scripture entirely devoted to holiness. Can you think which it is? No, it’s not 1 John or Romans but Leviticus – hear chapter 11, verse 4: ‘I am the Lord your God … You shall be holy for I am holy’.
I suppose the idea of holiness is odd to the present generation. Where there is no fear of God there will hardly be a concern for holiness. It tends to inspire caricatures of ‘holier-than-thou’ people, content with their own small corners and disapproving of all culture and pleasures.
But personal holiness is addressed frequently in Scripture. Without oversimplifying, the idea of holiness tends to arise in four areas:
First, it is applied to God himself in reference to his utter purity and perfections.
Second, it is applied in a ceremonial sense to things set aside for a sacred purpose (e.g. holy Scriptures; holy city).
Thirdly, it is applied to persons specially set apart for God (e.g. holy prophets, holy apostles, holy angels).
Fourthly, it is applied to those who partake of salvation (1 Peter 2:9). Christians are ‘saints’ – people who have been ‘sanctified’ or made holy through the atoning work of Christ, our great High Priest (Ephesians 5:25-27; Colossians 1:22; Hebrews 10:10, 14) and the inward work of the spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13). It is with this fourth category that we are specially concerned here, and we must therefore understand what it means to be ‘saints’.
Although the work of Christ is what makes us holy in the sight of God, the Bible insists that a practical holiness is to be expected in the life of believers. They should, for example, show moral purity and be ‘obedient children’, conforming themselves to the will of God as revealed in all the Scriptures.
This is vital. In fact most Bible references to holiness in the believer relate to actions. This is what will concern us in the remainder of the article.
Let us beware of misconceptions. We live in an antinomian age, and even among Christians there is sometimes little regard for God’s laws, even as a rule of life. ‘Antinomian’ means literally ‘against law’. ‘Live by love not law’, many will say, with apparent plausibility, stressing Christian liberty at the expense of keeping Christ’s commandments.
What they do not seem to grasp is that love is something God commands – whether towards himself, our neighbour or our fellow believers! Antinomianism and holiness do not sit well together.
Of course, we must not descend into Pharisaism, as if holiness is simply a matter of keeping so many rules and regulations. We must not equate holiness with a self-righteous spirit. But let us be clear on this – holiness has everything to do with behaviour and life-style, with moral purity and dealing with sin in the life. It is to be actively pursued (Hebrews 12:14-15) however much this jars with contemporary fashions and mores.
What does ‘holy’ or ‘holiness’ mean? In relation to the Christian believer, it is moral blamelessness. It involves the idea of being ‘separated’ to God and from sin. These things are related, of course; the person separated to God will seek to live a life consistent with such separation.
Now, this is a big issue in a day of rampant impurity. Truth and holiness have fallen in the street. You can never be too young to pursue a godly life. You can never be too consistent with the character of the Saviour. In this there must be vigilance.
Consider how Paul contrasts Christian life with immorality and impurity (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7). Consider how Peter uses the term ‘holy’ to contrast Christian life with former evil ways (1 Peter 1:14-16). Holiness involves practising moral purity, struggling against sin and reflecting the very nature of God.
But why is this so alien to us? Why is it easier to conform to the world than to the Lord? What are the hindrances to holiness and how may we overcome them?
Sinning against God
Firstly, we must see sin as committed against God. Think of David’s confession of his sin against Bathsheba (breaking the 7th commandment) and her husband (breaking the 6th commandment): ‘Against thee, thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight’ (Psalm 51:4).
Oh, certainly he had sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah. But in what sense was that sinful? Because in his behaviour towards them he had broken the commandments of God. We have to see all sin as committed against God and as an offence to his holiness.
W. S. Plumer writing on Psalm 51 says: ‘We never see sin aright until we see it as against God … All sin is against God in this sense: that it is his law that is broken, his authority that is despised, his government that is set at naught’.
Remember the cry of the tax collector? ‘I have sinned against heaven and before thee’. It is a hindrance to holiness if we think we are coping as well as we can with sin and are not as bad as others. This lax view of sin can be countered only by seeing sin in the light of what it is to God – for only then will we see it as it is and seek to ‘mortify’ it by the grace and power of the indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:13-14).
Working at it
Secondly, we must understand that holiness has to be worked at – that is, we cannot divorce faith from works. As James says, ‘faith without works is dead’ (2:20). ‘Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works’ (v.18).
The point is that pursuit of a holy life requires effort – J. C. Ryle calls for ‘personal exertion’ and asks: ‘Is it wise to proclaim in so bald, naked, and unqualified a way as many do, that the holiness of converted people is by faith only, and not at all by personal exertion?
‘Is it according to the proportion of God’s Word? I doubt it. That faith in Christ is the root of all holiness … no well-instructed Christian will ever think of denying. But surely the Scriptures teach us that in following holiness the true Christian needs personal exertion and work as well as faith’.
Faith must be exercised, of course, with prayer, study and watchfulness. But we have to take responsibility for a holy walk. It isn’t enough to say, ‘God must make me holy’. As someone has put it: ‘You can put away that habit that has mastered you if you truly desire to do so’.
That’s challenging. We must accept personal responsibility for sinful habits. We dare not blame a want of grace for our faults and sins.
Taking sin seriously
Thirdly, we must take all sin seriously, for a failure to do so will be a hindrance to holiness. We must ‘lay aside every weight and the sin that doth so easily beset us and … run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:1-2; emphasis added).
The truth is that we are prone to excuse some sins while condemning others. We rationalise and say that the ‘small’ sins aren’t quite so bad. We need to remember that ‘he who is faithful in the least, is faithful also in much’.
Of course, some sins are more serious than others. We have to be sensitive to sin in its weight as well as its extent. But who decides what is small enough not to cause concern? Do we appreciate sufficiently the power of ‘littles’ in this respect? Remember the ‘sluggard’ in Proverbs?
‘How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? When wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: so shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man’ (6:9-11).
The regress into mastery by sin is often little by little. George Smeaton speaks of the onset of backsliding in this way: ‘The sin that dwells in us comes on with noiseless step, disarming all suspicion. It may be under the guise of weariness, or suggesting delay in spiritual service, and it is little suspected, nay, spiritual slumber is accounted sweet’.
It is often ‘the little foxes that spoil the vines’ (Song 2:15).
To summarise, personal holiness is of the utmost importance. Let us understand that our standard is the Lord – we must be holy because he is holy. His holiness is of course perfect, as ours will never be this side of glory. But our aim is not to be lower. Let us learn to loathe sin as the Lord loathes it, and love the beauty of holiness as he loves it.
Whatever the world thinks, let us strive for moral and spiritual purity. Let us pursue this with a will. For without it no man shall see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
John W. Keddie