Pillar Journal

The Call to Cultivate Holiness

Holiness is both something you have before God in Christ and something you must cultivate in the strength of Christ.

Holiness is a noun that relates to the adjective holy and the verb sanctify, which means to ‘make holy.’4 In both biblical languages holy means separated and set apart for God. For the Christian, to be set apart means, negatively, to be separate from sin, and, positively, to be consecrated (i.e., dedicated) to God and conformed to Christ. There is no disparity between Old Testament and New Testament concepts of holiness, though the Old Testament stresses ritual and moral holiness; the New Testament stresses inward and transforming holiness (Lev. 10:10-11; 19:2; Heb. 10:10; 1 Thess. 5:23).1Cf. Lawrence O. Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), pp. 339-40.

Scripture presents the essence of holiness primarily in relation to God. The focus of the sacred realm in Scripture is God Himself. God’s holiness is the very essence of His being (Isa. 57:15);2See especially Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. J. W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1946). it is the backdrop of all else the Bible declares about God. His justice is holy justice; His wisdom is holy wisdom; His power is holy power; His grace is holy grace. No other attribute of God is celebrated before the throne of heaven as is His holiness: ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts’ (Isa. 6:3). ‘Holy’ is prefixed to God’s name more than any other attribute.3Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God (repr. Evansville, Ind.: Sovereign Grace, 1958), p. 449. Isaiah alone calls God the ‘Holy One’ twenty-six times. God’s holiness, John Howe wrote, ‘may be said to be a transcendental attribute that, as it were, runs through the rest, and casts lustre upon them. It is an attribute of attributes, … and so it is the very lustre and glory of His other perfections.’4The Works of the Rev. John Howe (1848; repr. Ligonier, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990), 2:59. God manifests His majestic holiness in His works (Ps. 145:17), in His law (Ps. 19:8-9), and especially at the cross of Christ (Matt. 27:46). Holiness is His permanent crown, His glory, His beauty. It is ‘more than a mere attribute of God,’ says Jonathan Edwards, ‘It is the sum of all His attributes, the outshining of all that God is.’5The Works of Jonathan Edwards (1834; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 1:101; cf. R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1985).

God’s holiness denotes two critical truths about Him: first, it conveys the ‘separateness’ of God from all His creation and His ‘apartness’ from all that is unclean or evil. God’s holiness testifies of His purity, His absolute moral perfection or excellence, His separateness from all outside of Him, His complete absence of sin (Job 34:10; Isa. 5:16; 40:18; Hab. 1:13).6R. A. Finlayson, The Holiness of God (Glasgow: Pickering and Inglis, 1955), p. 4.

Second, since God is holy and set apart from all sin, He is unapproachable by sinners apart from holy sacrifice (Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22). He cannot be the Holy One and remain indifferent to sin (Jer. 44:4); He must punish sin (Exod. 34:6-7). Since all mankind are sinners through both our tragic fall in Adam and our daily transgressions, God can never be appeased by our self-efforts. We creatures, once made after the image of our holy Creator, voluntarily chose in our covenant-head Adam to become unholy and unacceptable in the sight of our Creator. Atoning blood must be shed if remission of sin is to be granted (Heb. 9:22). Only the perfect, atoning obedience of a sufficient Mediator, the God-man Christ Jesus, can fulfill the demands of God’s holiness on behalf of sinners (1 Tim. 2:5). And blessed be God, Christ agreed to accomplish that atonement by the initiation of His Father, and did accomplish it with His full approbation (Ps. 40:7-8; Mark 15:37-39). ‘For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Cor. 5:21). As the Dutch Reformed Lord’s Supper Form states, ‘The wrath of God against sin is so great, that (rather than it should go unpunished) He hath punished the same in His beloved Son Jesus Christ with the bitter and shameful death of the cross.’7The Psalter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 136.

By free grace, God regenerates sinners and causes them to believe in Christ alone as their righteousness and salvation. As Christ’s disciples, we are made partakers of Christ’s holiness by means of divine discipline (Heb. 12:10) and called by God to be more holy than we shall ever become by ourselves during this life (1 John 1:10).8Stephen C. Neill, Christian Holiness (Guildford, England: Lutterworth, 1960), p. 35. He calls us to separate from sin and to consecrate and assimilate ourselves to Himself out of gratitude for His great salvation. These concepts—separation from sin, consecration to God, and conformity to Christ—make holiness comprehensive. Everything, Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 4:4-5, is to be sanctified, that is, to be made holy.

In the first place, personal holiness demands personal wholeness. God never calls us to give Him only a piece of our hearts. The call to holiness is a call for our entire heart: ‘My son, give me thine heart’ (Prov. 23:26).

Second, holiness of heart must be cultivated in every sphere of life: in privacy with God, in the confidentiality of our homes, in the competitiveness of our occupation, in the pleasures of social friendship, in relation with our unevangelized neighbors and the world’s hungry and unemployed, as well as in Sunday worship. Horatius Bonar writes:

Holiness … extends to every part of our persons, fills up our being, spreads over our life, influences everything we are, or do, or think, or speak, or plan, small or great, outward or inward, negative or positive, our loving, our hating, our sorrowing, our rejoicing, our recreations, our business, our friendships, our relationships, our silence, our speech, our reading, our writing, our going out and our coming in – our whole man in every movement of spirit, soul, and body.9Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Holiness (repr. Pensacola, Fla.: Mt. Zion Publications, 1994), p. 16.

The call to holiness is a daily task and encompasses a whole-life commitment to live ‘God-ward’ (2 Cor. 3:4), to be set apart to the lordship of Jesus Christ. As John Calvin put it, ‘The entire life of all Christians must be an exercise in piety.’10Quoted in Donald G. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 2:31.

Thus, holiness must be inward, filling our entire heart, and outward, covering all of life. ‘And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thess. 5:23). ‘Holiness,’ Thomas Boston maintained, ‘is a constellation of graces.’11Quoted in John Blanchard, Gathered Gold (Welwyn, England: Evangelical Press, 1984), p. 144. In gratitude to God, a believer cultivates the fruits of holiness, such as meekness, gentleness, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, mercy, contentment, gratitude, purity of heart, faithfulness, the fear of God, humility, spiritual-mindedness, self-control, and self-denial (Gal. 5:22-23).12Cf. George Bethune, The Fruit of the Spirit (1839; repr. Swengel, Penn.: Reiner, 1972); W. E. Sangster, The Pure in Heart: A Study of Christian Sanctity (London: Epworth Press, 1954); John W. Sanderson, The Fruit of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972); Jerry Bridges, The Practice of Holiness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1983); Roger Roberts, Holiness: Every Christian’s Calling (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985).

This call to holiness is not a call to merit acceptance with God. The New Testament declares that every believer is sanctified ‘through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ (Heb. 10:10). Christ is our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30); therefore, the church, as the bride of Christ, is sanctified (Eph. 5:25-26). The believer has a sanctified status before God, on account of Christ’s perfect obedience which has fully satisfied the justice of God for all sin.

The believer’s status, however, does not imply that he has arrived at a wholly sanctified condition (1 Cor. 1:2). The relationship between the believer’s status and his condition before God was famously summed up by Luther’s phrase, simul justus et peccator (‘at once righteous and a sinner’). That is to say, the believer is both righteous in God’s sight because of Christ and remains a sinner as measured by his own merits.13Cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1 (the believer’s status) and Question 114 (the believer’s condition). Though the believer’s status from his regeneration onward makes an impact on his condition, he is never in a perfectly sanctified condition in this life. Paul prays that the Thessalonians may be sanctified wholly, something that still had to be accomplished (1 Thess. 5:23). Sanctification received is sanctification well and truly begun, though it is not yet sanctification perfected.

Holiness must be cultivated and pursued. Growth in holiness must and will follow regeneration (Eph. 1:4; Phil. 3:12). New Testament language stresses a vital, progressive sanctification in which the believer must strive for holiness (Heb. 12:14).

Thus, true believer, holiness is both something you have before God in Christ and something you must cultivate in the strength of Christ. Your status in holiness is conferred; your condition in holiness is to be pursued. Through Christ you are made holy in your standing before God, and through Christ you are called to reflect that standing by being holy in daily life. Your context of holiness is justification through Christ; and your route of holiness is to be crucified and resurrected with Him, which involves the continual ‘mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man’ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 88). You are called to be in life what you already are in principle by grace.

Excerpt from
A Radical Comprehensive Call to Holiness
By Joel Beeke and Michael Barrett