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Pursuing holiness

August 2015 | by Roger Fellows

Saint Catherines Monastery on Mount SinaiWhat do you think of when you hear the word ‘holy’? A person in a monastery? Someone with a halo around their head? A prophet dressed in sackcloth?

Whatever our idea, we probably think of ‘holiness’ as something out of the ordinary. That corresponds, at least a little, with the biblical idea of holiness, which means to be different from the ordinary by being set apart for God.

Early use of the word in the Bible was ceremonial. When the instructions for the tabernacle were given, certain areas, vessels or garments were holy. They were consecrated for special use in the worship of God. If Aaron’s wife was cooking dinner and needed another pot, she couldn’t ask her husband to go to the tabernacle and borrow a pot from there. Those vessels were holy, consecrated for use in the worship of God, and could not be used for ordinary purposes.

Later, the word took on a more ethical meaning, and that is the sense in which it is generally used in the New Testament. Holiness means separation from sin and consecration to God. It is an important quality. Indeed, it is vital for the Christian.

However, as with so many areas of the faith, there are some widely differing ideas about what holiness is.

Four views

The first view of holiness is the ‘religious’ view. All the religions of the world apart from true Christianity have this view. In this view holiness is necessary to achieve salvation. This, of course, amounts to salvation by works and is quite false (Ephesians 2:8-9).

The second view is that though we are saved by faith we must, after our conversion, maintain a holy life or we will lose the salvation we have been given. This view was held by Charles Finney and others. This is the Arminian view and unbiblical.

The third view is that while holiness is desirable, it is not essential. According to this view, as long as we have trusted in Christ we will go to heaven, no matter how little evidence there is in our lives of true holiness. This is called Antinomianism and is wrong.

The fourth and correct view is that, though we are saved by faith alone, the reality of that faith is demonstrated by genuine holiness of life. This view, we believe, is the biblical view.

Not optional

Of course, we shall never be perfectly holy in this life, but holiness is certainly to be our goal, and holiness is not optional. When you buy a car, you expect it to have a body, a motor, wheels, brakes and a few other things, but some things are optional, such as air conditioning, power windows, a sun roof or GPS navigation. Some wrongly treat Christianity in the same way, thinking that we must believe in Jesus, accept the Bible as God’s Word, but holiness is optional. But Scripture says that ‘without holiness no one will see the Lord’ (Hebrews 12:14 — see also James 2:14-26).

Why would some argue that holiness is not essential for salvation?

There are a few who would use grace as a licence for sin. They might say, ‘Once you are saved it doesn’t matter how you behave’. It’s hard to see true believers holding this view.

Others might point at those who have turned away completely from the Christian faith and say that, because they trusted in Christ, their lack of holiness cannot keep them out of heaven. They seemed to be genuinely converted; they progressed well for a while and then fell away and showed no further interest in spiritual things. Those holding this view would argue that these people must be true believers because they trusted in Jesus, so lack of holiness cannot keep them out of heaven. But perhaps it would be better to consider the possibility that they were never truly saved?

Still others would argue that if you insist on holiness then you are adding works to faith. This was the basis of the so-called ‘Lordship’ controversy of a few years ago. To that we would respond that holiness is necessary, not as the basis of salvation but as the evidence of it — we might say that it is the chief evidence of salvation.

Whatever our profession of faith, only godly lives will show that our faith is genuine. Indeed, that will be the test of the reality of our Christianity at the last judgement. That is brought out clearly in Jesus’ words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:21-23): some will call Jesus ‘Lord’; they will plead their spiritual gifts, even their miraculous powers, but will be rejected and eternally lost because they were ‘workers of lawlessness’.

Holiness is a team pursuit

We need to see that, if we are true Christians, then the Lord has given us in Christ all we need to be holy, and he will make sure that we do become holy. As Peter says, the Lord has given us ‘all things that pertain to life and godliness’ (2 Peter 1:3). At the same time, we are also exhorted to ‘pursue’ holiness (1 Timothy 6:11; Hebrews 12:14).

The idea here is of chasing something that is hard to catch. Holiness is a serious business, never to be taken lightly.

Four helps

God has provided wonderful helps for our pursuit of holiness.


Jesus prayed for his disciples that they be sanctified (made holy) by the truth (John 17:17). He makes it clear what the truth is: ‘your Word is truth’. How important it is that we give time to God’s Word! We must read it, meditate on it and hear it preached. It is not surprising that we are not holy if we neglect God’s Word. It is our spiritual food; without it we shall starve. 

Is God’s Word precious to you? Do you count it more important that physical food?


Jesus’ prayer life is a wonderful study. We might think that, as he was God, he wouldn’t need to pray, but he did. He prayed much, sometimes all night. This was an aspect of his humiliation. He took the place of a servant and made himself totally dependent on his heavenly Father. We must do the same.

As our prayer life develops, so we will know closer fellowship with the Lord and our lives will become more pleasing to him. How much time do you spend in prayer?

The Holy Spirit

As believers we are indwelt by the Spirit. He will help us to be holy. He will help us to understand the Bible. He will help us in prayer and grant the power to obey God. We should be praying that we might be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), not primarily to demonstrate miraculous power, but to be holy. He is the Spirit of holiness (Romans 1:4).

Jesus’ example

We are often exhorted to be imitators of Jesus (Ephesians 5:1-2; Philippians 2:5; 1 Peter 2:21). Jesus was perfectly holy, totally obedient to his Father’s commands (John 15:10). His holiness is not just to be explained in terms of his deity (though of course he was God), but rather in terms of his dependence on God.

We are in the same position and relationship to our Father. That should be a great encouragement to us. If Jesus depended on his Father for his teaching, miracles and holy life, so can we — and so must we.

Are you holy? As holy as you should be? By God’s grace, we can be more holy and that should be our goal. May the Lord give us grace to seek him with all our being so that we might be like Jesus and bring glory to him by living holy lives.

The author ministers in Baptist and Orthodox Presbyterian churches in Ontario, Canada

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