Can I Be Holy?
by Paul G Watts
'Follow . . . holiness without which no man shall see the Lord.' Hebrews 12:14.
To be holy sounds, and is, an impossibility to human nature. Joseph Hart in a little-known hymn writes:
'That we're unholy needs no proof;
We sorely feel the fall;
But Christ has holiness enough
To sanctify us all.' (Gadsby's 181)
It is a miracle of God's grace, therefore, to 'take an unholy man out of an unholy world, and make that man holy and put him back into that unholy world, and keep him holy in it.'
1. God is holy: Our starting point must be that God is infinitely holy, and that He requires holiness from us. He commands it. He said to Israel, 'I am the Lord that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy' (Lev. 11.45). Moses said to Aaron, 'This is it that the LORD spake saying; I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified' (Lev. 10.3). God is a God of awesome majesty and perfect moral purity. In Him is light and no darkness at all. Holiness is not only one of His attributes. It is the perfection of all His attributes. He demands of us more than just to acknowledge His holiness. He rightfully demands a practical holiness from us. Writing to Christians Peter says, 'But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy' (1 Pet 1. 15,16). Similarly in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, 'Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect' (Matt 5.48).
2. God hates sin: Hate is a strong word. We tell our children off when they say they hate someone or something. A strong word is needed for God's attitude to sin. We often say, 'God hates the sin but loves the sinner.' It's true: but do we rush over the first part? God really hates sin. Whenever you lose your temper, or cover up the truth, or have an unclean thought, or are greedy about food, or behave selfishly or proudly, God hates it. He doesn't excuse it or indulge it. God never stops hating the sin. A vital key to you and I being holy is to begin to see our sin as God sees it, to hate it like He hates it. We can be guilty of too selfish an approach even to the conviction of our sin. We can be self-centred about it rather than God-centred. The most grievous thing about our sin is not the impact sin has on us, or that we are failing, but that God is grieved. Our sin is against God. David recognised it in his penitential Psalm: 'Against thee, thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight. . .' (Ps. 51.4).
3. We must pursue holiness: In Hebrews 12.14 believers are exhorted to follow, to pursue, both peace and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. From this exhortation we know (we know it instinctively too) that the pursuit of holiness will involve effort on our part. It is not something we can do on our own, but it is something we must do. A farmer is utterly dependent on forces outside himself if he is to grow his crops, and yet he also has to pursue his responsibilities diligently - to plough, and sow, and fertilise. In that sense farming is a joint venture between God and the farmer. The farmer cannot do what God must do, and God will not do what the farmer should do. That is not to say that God and the farmer have equal roles. The farmer is always totally dependent on God's work. So it is with pursuing holiness. No one can attain any degree of holiness without the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, but equally no one will attain it without effort. The exhortation to pursue holiness implies diligence and effort: and a long haul, like a marathon. It's a lifelong task.
4. We need to get our thinking right: In particular we need to distinguish between justification and sanctification. Luther stated it simply: 'We in Christ equals justification: Christ in us equals sanctification.' Hugh Latimer put it like this: 'We must be first made good before we can do good: we must first he made just before our works can please God for when we are justified by faith in Christ, then come good works.' And Richard Sibbes writes, 'In the court of justification merits are nothing worth, insufficient, but in the court of sanctification they are jewels and ornaments.'
Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology draws some helpful comparisons between justification and sanctification. Justification takes place outside us - it is a legal standing: sanctification takes place within us - it is an internal condition. Justification is a perfect work, once for all time: sanctification is continuous throughout life. Justification is entirely God's work: in sanctification we do work with God. Justification is a perfect work in this life: sanctification is not. Justification is the same in all Christians: sanctification is greater in some than in others.
We can also observe that the righteousness we have by justification is imputed to us: the righteousness we have by sanctification is wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. Justification saves us from sin's guilt, sanctification from sin's power: justification cannot grow or increase: a person is as much justified when he first comes to Christ by faith as he ever will be: but sanctification is a progressive work. You can be more sanctified in one period of your life than another. Jesus never prayed 'justify them' but He did pray 'sanctify them'. There is such a thing as growing in grace. This does not mean that we get any better in the sense that we have less of a struggle with our sinful nature: but in the work of sanctification we do grow in our dependence on God, in our spiritual desires, and in our experience of God's grace and strength. It is right for believers to desire and strive to become more and more like Jesus.
Of course there are also similarities between justification and sanctification. Both proceed from the grace of God and are His gift. Both are part of the great work of salvation that Christ has accomplished. Pardon and holiness both flow from Christ. Both are found in the same people. You won't find a Christian who is justified only and not sanctified. Even the dying thief experienced sanctification. It was what he said that indicated sanctification. The moment a person begins to realise his justification he begins to be sanctified. Iain Murray has written, 'According to Scripture it is quite impossible to be justified by faith and not to experience the commencement of true sanctification, because the spiritual life communicated by the Spirit in the act of regeneration (which introduces the new power to believe) is morally akin to the character of God and contains within it the germ of all holiness.'
5. What God has provided for us in the work of sanctification: The work of sanctification is God's work. The fundamental idea is separation - something or someone being set apart by God. In Old Testament worship certain objects were to be set apart. In New Testament worship it is people who are set apart. They are the hagioi or saints, the sanctified ones. They are sanctified by God: 'the very God of peace sanctify you wholly' (1 Thess. 5.23): 'But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth' (2 Thess. 2. 13). Sanctification is the will of God for believers: 'For this is the will of God, even your sanctification... (1 Thess. 4:3,4). Specifically Christians are sanctified by the work of Christ. For 'Christ also loved the Church and gave himself for it: that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word...' (Eph. 5.25,26).
The work of regeneration is God's work: and is a sanctifying work. It is the Holy Spirit who regenerates the believer. This sets us apart, gives us a new standing as saints. Paul talks about 'the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost' (Tit. 3.5). 1 Cor. 6.9-11 is also a seminal text - by conversion our values and desires are renewed and reorientated. As Christians we must now consider ourselves to be in a new position. We must reckon ourselves to be dead to sin and to be alive to God in Christ Jesus. God has brought about an entirely new situation. We have been 'set free from sin' (Rom. 6. 11,18). Being dead to sin, free from its dominating power, means that we do actually begin to overcome acts or patterns of sinful behaviour - in our life. Sin is no longer our master in the same way it was before our conversion.
God's gracious dealings with His children are designed to further the work of sanctification. That is why He chastens us and disciplines us because it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (see Heb. 12.11).
Sanctification has helpfully been defined as 'that gracious and continual operation of the Holy Spirit by which He delivers the justified sinner from the pollution of sin, renews his whole nature in the image of God, and enables him to perform good works.'
6. What God looks for us to do in the work of sanctification: Out of what God has done flows what we must do. Rom. 6 tells us that we must not let sin reign in our mortal bodies. 'Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye 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' (Rom. 6.12,13). Sanctification therefore is not so much about victory and defeat, but about obedience and disobedience in the Christian life. Jesus makes that clear in His Living Vine discourse in John 15 in which again and again He instructs His disciples to keep His commandments. We know we will never be able to say, 'I am completely free from sin,' but on the other hand we should never say, 'I give up. I'm defeated by that particular sin. I've been lashing out with my tongue for more than twenty years and I'm not going to change now.' On the contrary, Paul says, '... for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness (Rom. 6. 19). It is clear in this connection that throughout the Christian life we are to expect to change and to strive to change. Paul says, 'we all... are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord' (2 Cor. 3. 18). The aim of the Christian is to become more and more like Christ. It is in this context that we are given the balance of Phil. 2.12, 13: '... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.'
J. C. Ryle in Holiness gives twelve marks of a holy man. Those familiar with Ryle's writings will be able to imagine how he applies each one. A holy man will:
a. Endeavour to be of one mind with God as we find His mind described in Scripture.
b. Endeavour to shun every known sin and to keep every known commandment.
c. Strive to be like our Lord Jesus Christ.
d. Follow after meekness, longsuffering, gentleness, patience, kind tempers, government of his tongue. He will bear much, forbear much, overlook much.
e. Follow after temperance and self-denial.
f. Follow after charity and brotherly kindness.
g. Follow after a spirit of mercy and benevolence towards others.
h. Follow after purity of heart.
i. Follow after the fear of God.
j. Follow after humility.
k. Follow after faithfulness in all the duties and relations of life.
l. Follow after spiritual mindedness.
7. The mirage of perfection: The Bible teaches us, therefore, that we should grow in grace, press towards the mark, grow up into Christ, be a complete Christian, live a holy life. The goal of the Christian is holiness. It is perfection - 'having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God' (2 Cor. 7.1) But the fact that God gives us these commands does not mean we have the ability to obey them perfectly. The fact that we are unable to attain a standard does not mean that the standard can be lowered. The teaching that we can obtain sinless perfection in this life is a serious error. Solomon at the dedication of the temple said, 'There is no man who sinneth not' (1 Kings 8.46). Ecclesiastes tells us, 'For there is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not' (Eccles. 7.20). Jesus commands all His disciples to pray, 'Give us this day our daily bread.' And forgive us our sins (Luke 11.3,4). And John himself, so often quoted by the perfectionist teachers, says plainly, 'If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us' (1 Jn. 1.8).
Yet the fact that sinless perfection is an unattainable goal for us on this side of heaven does not mean that we should not strive for it, and that we should not seek to make progress in out- sanctification. Indeed we should expect our sanctification to be a progressive work, and should never use our sinfulness as an excuse not to strive to be holy. The fact remains that Christians remain in a hitter conflict with the old nature of sin right to the end of life: and the more holy we are the more aware we become of our sin. So though we may make progress we are hardly aware of it. Listen to some godly men:
Paul as a converted man in Rom. 7. 14-25. We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.
8. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
9. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.
10. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.
11. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
12. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.
13. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
14. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.
15. For in my inner being I delight in God's law;
16. but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.
17. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
18. Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
2. Jonathan Edwards: 'When I look into my heart and take a view of its wickedness, it looks like an abyss infinitely deeper than hell. And it appears to me that were it not for free grace, exalted and raised up to the infinite height of all fulness and glory of the great Jehovah I should appear sunk down in my sins below hell itself; far below the sight of everything but the eye of sovereign grace, that alone can pierce down to such a depth. And it is affecting to see how ignorant I was of the bottomless depths of wickedness, pride, hypocrisy and deceit left in my heart.'
3. Dr John Hooper, one of the martyrs, burnt at the stake in 1555. Before he died Hooper was given permission to pray. They listened very carefully to make sure he only prayed and did not preach. They heard him say, 'Lord, I am hell, but Thou art heaven; I am swill and a sink of sin, but Thou art a gracious God and a merciful Redeemer. Have mercy therefore upon me, most miserable and wretched offender, after Thy great mercy, and according to Thine inestimable goodness... well Thou knowest, Lord, wherefore I am come hither to suffer... not for my sins and transgressions committed against Thee, but because I will not allow the contaminating of Thy blood and the denial of the knowledge of Thy truth, wherewith it did please Thee by Thy Holy Spirit to instruct me; the which, with as much diligence as a poor wretch might, being thereto called, I have set forth Thy glory'.' This is hardly the prayer of a carnal or defeated Christian!
4. C. H. Spurgeon: 'There are some professing Christians who can speak of themselves in terms of admiration; but from my inmost heart I loathe such speeches more and more every day that I live. Those who talk in such a boastful fashion must be constituted very differently from me. While they all congratulating themselves I have to lie humbly at the foot of Christ's cross, and marvel that I am saved at all, for I know that I am saved. I have to wonder that I do not believe Christ more, and equally wonder that I am privileged to believe in Him at all - to wonder that I am not holier, and equally to wonder that I have any desire to be holy at all considering what a polluted, debased nature I still find within my soul, notwithstanding all that divine grace has done in me.'
5. Bishop William Beveridge: 'I cannot pray but I sin... My repentance needs to be repented of, and not only the worst of my sins but even the best of my duties, but even my most religious performances... I cannot hear or even preach a sermon but I sin. Nay, I cannot so much as confess my sins but my very confessions are still aggravations of them. My repentance needs to he repented of, my tears want washing, and the very washing of my tears needs still to be washed over again with the blood of my Redeemer. Thus not only the worst of my sins but even the best of my duties, speak me as a child of Adam.'
8. Some Conclusions
1. In spite of constant warfare between the two natures in the believer's life, holiness is an essential fruit, and sanctification is an essential work - Rom. 6.22; 14.17; 1 Jn. 3.3.
2. As you look back over the last few years in your Christian life you should be able to see some things that you used to delight in that no longer interest you, and some things that you had no interest in and now they hold great interest for you. Are you actively mortifying (putting to death) the old man, the body of sin? Are you seeking to tear down the old structures of sin? Are you doing good works?
3. Your sanctification does not consist in temporary religious feelings but it does depend greatly on a diligent use of Bible reading, prayer, regular attendance for public worship, regular hearing of God's word, fellowship with believers. Carelessness about such things will take you in the opposite direction.
4. Your sanctification does not consist in withdrawing from the world. True holiness does not make a Christian evade difficulties but face them. We are to be salt and light in the world. As Thomas Brooks put it, 'A man who is really holy will be holy among the holy and holy among the unholy.'
5. As you grow to greater maturity and holiness in the Christian life do you become more, not less, conscious of the weight of sin that remains in your heart? If not, why not? What difference does an increased awareness of sin make to your life?
6. What do you think of Christ? How much are you depending on Him? Holiness is not the way to Christ, but Christ is the way to holiness - and to happiness. Holiness leads to happiness. So the question 'Can I be holy?' is similar to 'Can I be happy?' And the answer to both is yes!
(This lecture was given at Hailsham for Sovereign Grace Union on 2nd September 2004 by Paul G. Watts of Lower Ford Street Baptist Church, Coventry.
Taken with permission from Gospel Tidings magazine March 2006