In this article, Director of Family Ministries Mike Bond explores the topic of holiness and how the struggle leads to a life of joy.
God’s Holiness and the Holy Spirit in Me
When I was asked to write this article about holiness, my first reaction was to think, “Did they send this email to wrong person?” However, I soon remembered that all of us who are in Christ are called to a life of holiness, and that it’s a struggle for all of us.
In describing the pursuit of godliness in our lives, the New Testament use terms like strive, fight, contend, and press on. Rather than being surprised by it, we should have an expectation of struggle and effort when it comes to holiness.
Paul said of himself, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:21-25). If you struggle to live a holy, godly life, you are in good company! This is the normal life of a Christian, which lead us to this question: how do we understand and pursue holiness in this lifelong struggle with it?
Understanding God’s Holiness
Any definition of holiness begins and ends with God. God’s holiness is referred to more than 900 times in Scripture, and is spoken about more than any other attribute. God’s holiness is, in short, his separateness, and it is the foundation of his character, as each nuance of his character is holy.
John Piper expands on holiness well and helps us understand why we can call it God’s “separateness” from us. “God’s holiness is his infinite value as the absolutely unique, morally perfect, permanent person that he is and who by grace made himself accessible.” God is not more holy than any other, he is the only one who is holy, separate from all else (1 Samuel 2:2).
This trait of holiness, described above and found in none other, merits our unending praise. The prophet Isaiah and John the Apostle were both given glimpses into the throne room of God, and in both instances, they report choruses of one attribute: the holiness of God. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8).
Whenever people encounter even a glimpse of God’s holiness in the Bible, the proper response is always the same: falling flat on the ground in fear and worship. Because of our sin, we are completely unholy. Being in the blinding light of God’s holiness magnifies the depravity of our sin. Holiness is the primary thing that distinguishes the Creator from us his creation; it creates the great chasm that stands between God and us.
And yet, this holy, holy, holy God has made it the purpose of his people to be holy. 1 Peter 1:15-16 says, “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
How can this be? If God alone is holy, how can we ever hope to be? God himself—Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection, made it possible for us to have union with him through faith. Through this union, we are not only saved from sin and death, but we can become holy. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” 2 Corinthians 5:21.
The Holy Spirit’s Work
This is where the Holy Spirit comes in. It is not incidental that his name is not the Loving Spirit or the Gracious Spirit, but the Holy Spirit. One of the primary functions of the Holy Spirit in our lives is to sanctify us – to conform us to the image of Christ – to make us holy as he is holy. When we confess Jesus as Lord and put our trust in him, he (the Holy Spirit) indwells us, giving us the righteousness of Christ by grace alone. This means, that for those in Christ, we now have the Spirit-enabled ability to choose to be holy. This is not in our strength or will power, but solely by the power of the Holy Spirit in us!
I have heard people say that they wished they knew what God’s will was for their life. God’s will for every believer, because we belong to him, is that we be holy (Ephesians 1:4); so much so, he has given us the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work in us and for us. The Holy Spirit is transforming us from the inside out, to be more and more like Jesus, degree by degree.
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit,”
(2 Corinthians 3:18).
Why is it Still so Hard?
If all this is true (and it is), then why must living a holy life in this world be such a struggle? Even though we have been given the Spirit and the righteousness of Christ, Christians still have indwelling sin. As we saw earlier, Paul described his old self as at war with his new self. We have the full power of the Holy Spirit in us to enable us to live in obedience to God, yet we still choose to sin.
Why we choose sin is complicated, but it boils down to one thing: we fail in that moment to believe that Jesus is better than our sin. We believe instead that it can satisfy better than he, so we impede the Holy Spirit’s work of transformation in us. As we strive for holiness as the Word of God exhorts us to, we must know that we are primarily striving to be more and more in unison with the Holy Spirit in us, believing what he says to be true. How do we do that?
Striving for Holiness
Set your heart on holiness.
If God’s purpose is for you to be holy (1 Peter 1:15-16), then start by living with purpose toward that. He hasn’t given us an aimless life to wade through, but rather a distinct calling of growing in holiness.
Don’t resist the Holy Spirit.
We resist or quench the Spirit when we sin (Ephesians 4:30), by not repenting when he reveals sin to us, when we do not spend time in the Word to allow him the opportunity to reveal truth to us, and when we resist his urging to serve or share the gospel with others. (1 Thessalonians 5:19)
Pursue Jesus, not moralism.
If we grow in holiness, we will become more moral. But morality is not the goal of holiness. Jesus is the goal. Our growth in godliness precipitates a deeper knowledge of and intimacy with Jesus. Jesus should be our example, our standard, our strength, and our desire. (Philippians 1:21; 3:7-10)
Commit yourself to obedience.
Without obedience there will be no holiness. Obedience is the path to holiness, but we can only be obedient by the power of the Holy Spirit in us. (1 Peter 1:2, 14-16; 1 John 2:3)
Seek the assistance of fellow believers.
We were not intended to strive for holiness in isolation. In the New Testament, there is no such thing as a Christian who is not deeply committed to a family of fellow believers discipling, serving, and encouraging one another. Our holiness is dependent on the church body. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Consider the impact of your holiness on the world around you.
Our holiness and our sharing of the gospel are deeply intertwined. True godliness produces an overflow of love for those around us who don’t yet know him and an urgency to share the good news of Jesus. Attempts at evangelism without holiness ring hollow and empty.
Expect improvement, not perfection.
Many of us have given up on holiness because we consider it an unattainable goal. In Ephesians 5:18, Paul said, “be [continually] filled with the Spirit.” We are meant to humbly rely on the Holy Spirit’s power, not on our own perfection, to change us.
The Life of Joy
Pursuing holiness is not a joyless or gloomy existence. The pursuit of holiness is the pursuit of Jesus, and Jesus is better than anything else you might choose to pursue. As Charles Spurgeon put it, “Holiness is the royal road to happiness. The death of sin is the life of joy.”
Let’s pursue holiness together, by the power of the Holy Spirt in us, so that the world can see Jesus and so that our joy may be full in Christ Jesus.
Suggested further reading on holiness:
Holiness, by J.C. Ryle
The Pursuit of Holiness, by Jerry Bridges
The Hole in Our Holiness, by Kevin DeYoung
Rediscovering Holiness, by J.I. Packer