Last month we looked at some of the hindrances in pursuing holiness. As the Puritan John Owen put it: ‘To labour to be acquainted with the ways, wiles, methods, advantages, and occasions of the success of sin, is the beginning to this warfare’.
We must see sin as loathsome to a Holy God and recognise the need to repent and forsake it. The world often regards holy living as a joke – an unnatural restraint to dampen our enjoyment. But even Christians may have the sneaking attitude of Augustine, who reputedly said, ‘Lord, make me holy, but not yet’!
Such are the wiles of the evil one and the power of indwelling sin, that believers may see little appeal in the virtues and values of a holy life as they face peer pressure and a broadside of visual images, discouraging them from the pursuit of holiness.
What God desires
When we approach the practice of holiness it must always be within the context of what God desires of people. He desires of us what was true of Christ – who was ‘holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners’ (Hebrews 7:26).
We are to see life in the light of what it means to follow Christ – and in the light of truth and divine judgement (heaven and hell). As Jesus put it: ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24).
Note two different aspects. Negatively, the pursuit of holiness will involve dealing with sin, putting it to death (Colossians 3:5). The old divines (and the AV) used the term ‘mortification’. Positively, there is to be a likeness to Christ in righteous behaviour and moral purity. This will involve acts of piety and obedience to the divine Word and will.
Practical holiness is a spiritual work
Where does practical holiness start? Answer: in regeneration: ‘Ye must be born again’ (John 3:7). This is basic. Free grace; a new creation; ‘the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3:5) – these inward spiritual realities are inevitably reflected in outward behaviour and lifestyle.
As far as man’s responsibility goes, God requires repentance towards himself and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Otherwise, rather than getting into the Kingdom, we shall be cast away. Paul describes this in terms of ‘putting off’ the ‘old man’, with his sinful passions and desires, and ‘putting on’ the ‘new man’, which is created according to God in righteousness and true holiness (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:9-10; Romans 6:6).
This is where the pursuit of the holy life begins – when we come to faith in Christ. There is also, at every point, a dependence upon the Holy Spirit, for this is a spiritual work for which the Spirit’s help must be sought, earnestly, pleadingly and constantly.
Practical holiness is progressive
Notwithstanding the radical change wrought in the sinner by the Spirit, there is still an ongoing struggle with indwelling sin. The world, the flesh and the devil are to be defeated, and this is a lifelong battle.
In God’s sight, the Christian is already perfected by the death of Christ (Hebrews 10:14) but in terms of experience we are to ‘grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18).
Sometimes this growth seems faltering. Consider an ill man who receives a new treatment. This delivers him from the power of the disease but there is a long way to go before he is completely well.
Just so in the Christian life, progress must be made in dealing with sin and imitating the Saviour. Though the dominion of sin is broken from the moment of regeneration, sin and its effects linger on (Romans 6:14; 7:17-23). Satan and his perverted charms have not gone away.
And so we are to subdue sin and live godly in this present world. This process is not complete in this life, but at death believing souls are made perfect in holiness.
Practical holiness fights sin
If we are to be morally blameless we must deal with sin in our lives. Sin is not to reign in our mortal body ‘that [we] should obey it in the lusts thereof’ (Romans 6:12). This aspect of the pursuit of holiness – mortification of sin – is referred to in Romans 8:13 and Colossians 3:5-9 – ‘put to death your members [sinful inclinations] which are on the earth’.
Paul refers to fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desires, covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language, lying and more – things with which we are all too familiar. Put such things to death! But how? This is not easy work and sinful habits are difficult to break.
Romans 8:13 tells us how. ‘If by the [Holy] Spirit you put to death the [sinful] deeds of the body, you will live’. This is not a matter of will-power but of reliance on the Helper, the Spirit of the Christ whose holiness we seek to emulate.
Let us be clear. The standard of right and wrong is neither society nor the Church. It is God and his law. All sin is to be killed off. That is 100% our responsibility, but is also a work we can only do in the strength of the Lord and in dependence upon him. As the puritan Thomas Manton put it, ‘mortified Christians are the glory of Christ’.
So what directions can we follow to mortify sin?
Practical holiness mortifies sin
First, realise that you are responsible for your own sins. The more time you spend in the presence of God; the more you have recourse to the study of the Word and prayer; the more fellowship you engage in with like-minded souls – the more awareness you will have of sin and be ready to repent it and forsake it.
Second, be watchful to maintain the disciplines of the Christian life. Be faithful in Bible reading and prayer; be careful about where you go, what you watch, what you read, and what company you keep. These things help to counter our sinful tendencies.
Third, make careful use of God’s Word. Follow David’s example: ‘Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee’ (Psalm 119:11). Be conscientious about reading, hearing and obeying God’s Word.
The Word alerts us to sin and its antidote. It stores our minds with good things. The Word is ‘profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Fourth, beware of ‘all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’ (1 John 2:16). We live in a sensuous, sex-obsessed world and need to guard our eyes and hearts. But we should also avoid the many obsessions of the world – in fashions, foods, computer games, the internet, salacious literature, and so on.
The Christian has a fixed standard: ‘Neither yield your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God’ (Romans 6:13).
Practical holiness pursues purity
If mortifying sin is the negative side of holiness, the pursuit of moral purity is the positive side. The pursuit of holiness will mean increasing likeness to Christ; the disciple will both emulate his life and obey his Word (in all the Scriptures). And for this to occur we must fix our gaze upon Christ, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
We see how he handled the devil and temptation (Matthew 4; Luke 6). We watch him drawing near to his Father. As disciples, we recognise the duty, privilege and necessity of reflecting Christ’s character in word and action.
The second coming of the Lord is a special motive for holiness, as Peter makes plain in 2 Peter 3:10-14. Jonathan Edwards used to make resolutions of which this was one: ‘Resolved, never to do anything which I would be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life’.
All this involves both faith and discipline – and often what Thomas Boston called a ‘holy violence’ (i.e. against sin!). It will mean getting into good habits of prayer and meditation. There may be many setbacks, but we will rise up from them (Proverbs 24:11).
Jonathan Edwards made another resolution: ‘Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken, my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be’.
Paul tells Timothy, ‘train yourself to be godly’ and ‘flee youthful lusts’ (1 Timothy 4:7; 2 Timothy 2:22). And so we shall, by God’s grace, our own application, and the ‘supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:19).