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Holiness - Life, not Law

by Trevor Lloyd

discussion paper

Defining the Terms

Holiness finds its definition in the character and nature of God, pointing to his absolute separateness and distinction from anything else, and his consequent purity, the absence of anything that spoils or defiles.

In relation to ourselves, holiness refers to:

1. Our status as those separated unto (set apart for) God (Heb.10:10)

2. Our state of conduct and character befitting that separation (2 Cor.7:1)

The importance of practical righteousness and perfected holiness according to the NT:

· Repeated refrain in Scripture – Be Holy because I am Holy!

· Chosen in Christ before creation to be holy (Eph.1:4)

· Christ died to make us holy (Heb.13:12)

· Our new self is created to be like God in righteousness and holiness (Eph.4:24)

· God the Father disciplines us so that we might share in his holiness (Heb.12:10)

· Without holiness no-one will see the Lord (Heb.12:14)

Clarifying the Issues

It is in relation to seemingly increasing ‘moral failings’ of conduct and character in the church (often with high profile leaders) and then the subsequent defence and acceptance of their conduct that raises questions we need to consider.

One main question to consider relates to whether we have allowed our emphasis on grace and our liberty as sons of God (Rom.8:21) to become, among God’s people, an excuse for license (Jude 1:4). Equally we know the absolute foundational importance of grace and that legalism is a killer! But again, license and sin are deadly.

The question of liberty, legalism and license is at the centre of this issue of holiness and the current concerns, and this will be the focus of our discussion.

Backdrop to Main Discussion

Reviewing Our Concept of Worldliness


Note that the ‘Way of Holiness’ is a highway - not a tightrope between legalism and license!

A key to restoring holiness is recovering the pilgrim spirit, the spirit that knows it is ‘passing through’ and looking for a better country, a heavenly one (Heb.11:16).

Examples in the NT:

· Hebrews speak of those who saw themselves as ‘aliens and strangers’ on earth (11:16)

· Peter takes up the same theme to encourage his readers to live holy lives (1 Pet.2:11)

· It was the upward or heavenward call that motivated Paul (Phil.3:12-14)

· A classic passage about practical holiness begins with the exhortation to set our minds on things above and not on earthly things (Col.3)

Many have been set free in the past from religious concepts of being ‘otherworldly’ (no cinemas, dancing, jewellery etc.!) but have we in the process lost something of the truth of being ‘not of this world’?

Amongst evangelicals over the last few decades, there has been a big emphasis on connecting with the world, being culturally relevant and accessible, but have we at the same time conformed to the pattern of this world? How are we any different?

· In building bridges, have we gone a bridge too far?

· Is the church really meant to be ‘without walls?’ (see Zech.2:4-5)

How do we stay culturally relevant yet morally distinctive?

Rescuing Our Concept of Holiness (from the religious!)


Dressing in white = holiness and purity (see Rev.3:4-5, 18); combined with the anointing (oil).

God wants a uniting of purity and power, righteousness and the anointing.

· Not charisma without character.

· Neither a form of godliness denying its power (2 Tim.3:5)

But v.7 shows that such holiness is totally compatible with our enjoyment of this life!

We must resist any religious concepts of holiness as the emaciated saint, the hollow cheeked, melancholic monk! It’s not a choice between being holy and miserable, or full of life but morally slack!

· Jesus was anointed with the oil of joy because he loved righteousness and hated wickedness (Heb.1:9)

It is not only about holiness being compatible with happiness, that you can be godly without being miserable, that you don’t have to be uptight to be upright! But holiness is itself a thing of beauty and majesty. Holiness – frequently pictured as light or fire in Scripture - is the radiance of God’s glory.

· It is what the angels sing about! Heaven’s theme tune! (Rev.4:8)

· The path of righteousness is like the first gleam of dawn … (Prov.4:18)

· This is the exact quality that will cause the church to be attractive and that will draw the nations (Is.62:1-2)

Holiness is not a prissy, life-shrivelling, suffocating thing but is passionate, powerful, glorious, radiant. It is the life and power of God within blazing out as we are transformed from glory to glory (2 Cor.3:18)

quote "..let your life be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness" (The Message)

In our worship, preaching and teaching, discipling and example, this is how we must help people to see holiness.

At one and the same time, holiness requires that we look beyond this world to our heavenly calling but that we are also free to enjoy many things in this life. Godliness holds promise both for this present life and the one to come! (1 Tim.4:8)

This life can actually be enjoyed most when it is lived in the light of the age to come! Wherever we go as pilgrims in this life, we make it a place of springs, and not dry everything up with religiosity!

Let us turn now to the main issue of discussion:

Liberty, Legalism and License

In our reaction to moral decline in society and lack of moral distinctiveness in the church, it is possible to want to rush back into the arms of the law for security – a clear-cut moral code has a safety and a certainty to it!

But to do so is to risk embracing legalism. We mustn’t fall away from grace. (Gal.5:4)

Grace does not need to be qualified or diluted in any way! All salvation is by grace. Grace not only forgives us our sins but enables us to overcome sin (Rom.6:14). Grace also teaches us to live godly lives (Titus 2:11-12). Grace teaches us, not law.

Paul was so committed to grace, not because he undervalued righteousness and holiness, but because he understood that in the gospel a new righteousness had been revealed:

· not of the law (Phil.3:9)

· by faith (Rom.1:17)

· by the Spirit (Rom.8:3)

In relation to these questions about liberty and license, there are two things we need to get clear on:

· The question of identity - knowing who we are in Christ

· The question of definition - how we judge what counts as sin

Question of Identity – What Matters is a New Creation

Paul: Life, not Law

When Paul was faced with the question about people using grace as an excuse to carry on sinning, he was horrified; but he argued against it not on the basis that one had to qualify grace with a little bit of law; but rather on the basis that we had died to our old nature and had been raised to live a new life (Rom.6:1-4).

In Galatians (the key book of the Bible on this subject), when addressing the issue of the law, Paul makes clear that what mattered was not following a law but being a new creation – not firstly what you do but who you are!

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. (Gal.6:15)

The key then for us to live in righteousness and holiness is for us to know that we are new creations in Christ!

Holiness is not about conformity to an external law, but is the character and lifestyle that comes from the working of the life of God within; in other words, it is the fruit of the Spirit – against such things there is no law (Gal.5:22-3). It is life within, and not law without, that produces holiness. What we are determines what we do.

John: Truth, not Law

What if people are claiming to be (a new creation) but don’t (live accordingly)?

The Apostle John takes the same approach as Paul. He, as with all the NT writers, puts a high value on character and conduct (1 John 2:5-6; 3:5-6) but again sees it as the outworking of the new nature (1 John 2:29;3:9-10).

quote "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God (1 John 3:9)

The failure to live in holiness then was addressed by John, not by the laying down of a law but by the confronting of a lie (see 1 John 1:6,10; 2:4).

quote The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1 John 2:4)

Left with three options in such a case:

· Are they truly born again? (this has to be faced up to!)

· Is it lack of revelation and understanding? (some people are taught and believe that they can’t help it; they are sinners)

· Is it rebellion and refusal to live in the light of who they are (this calls for godly confrontation!)

Some Implications

Implications of this truth about the new creation:

1. The New Birth and Going on to Maturity

· We must look carefully at our evangelism and early discipleship; how people are coming into Christ; and what expectations there should be

· We must make sure that there are proper foundations laid, the elementary teachings of Christ, for going on to maturity

· Sanctification should not be seen as living by law, but by growing in grace, until Christ is formed in us (Gal.4:19). Its not conforming to a law but being conformed to the image of Christ.

· The picture of a child, or babe, born with divine DNA - everything they need for life and godliness (2 Pet.1:3-4) - growing to maturity is more helpful than that of someone living under rules and trying to attain to a standard

· It still leaves room for boundaries – for dos and don’ts, but maturity, or holiness is not measured by the sum total of rules obeyed

· Also leaves room for discipline as the Father disciplines the child he loves in order that he might share in his holiness (Heb.12:10)

2. The Importance of Faith

· The righteous live by faith (Rom.1:17). Not only imputing righteousness to us, but imparting it. And it is by faith that it might be by grace (Rom.4:16)

· It is possible to think that God puts more value on faith than holiness. But faith is not an alternative to holiness; it is the means to holiness

· We should not focus on telling people what they ought to do, but telling people what they can do – being who they are (Eph.5:8; 1 Cor.5:7)

· It does not reduce the demand for holiness, but both empowers and liberates us to live holy lives - and leaves us without excuse. We sin because we choose to, not because we have to

3. Faith and Discipline

· We are not saved by works (our own accumulation of credit points with God, to earn our salvation) but faith will result in works (James 2:17-26)

· Some ‘faith’ teaching can produce the illusion that sanctification is instant, requiring little on our part – this is an illusion. It is faith that works

· Paul in recognising the grace of God says he nevertheless worked harder than all men (1 Cor.15:10)

· We are told to make every effort to be holy (Heb.12:14)

· Some times the reason for some people’s lack of growth is nothing more profound than just plain laziness!

· Faith and discipline go together. They are not mutually exclusive. But it is the effort, discipline and work of one that knows they have it within to win

· It is the work, effort and discipline of a top athlete who goes into strict training knowing he has it within him to get the prize

There are still dos and don’ts, but not those imposed on us from without, or the lowest possible standard so we can feel that we are living good Christian lives, but from within as we seek to do whatever is necessary to reach the goal and win the prize (1 Cor.9:24-7),/p>

Such a way of thinking helps us to pursue holiness whilst staying in grace and truth and not being subject to law and legalism.

Question of Definition – Make a Right Judgement

As part of the lack of moral distinctiveness in the church, we have lost some definitions of sin. What actually counts as sin? From swearing and smoking, to the extreme of homosexuality (which some evangelical Christians are considering may be permitted on cultural grounds!!).

The Bible clearly and unequivocally commands and forbids certain things. These must be understood in terms of the whole revelation of God, but they can’t be just ignored, or ducked out of, by an ‘elastic’ interpretation of the Bible.

But equally they don’t cover every ethical eventuality. And again there is a danger here too that we think too much in terms of law – everything clearly defined and codified.

Let’s relate what we have already said about the new nature to this:

The New Nature and the Law

In terms of expressing God’s holy will and reflecting his holy character, the Mosaic Law is a vague outline, in comparison to the fine detailed masterpiece of grace that is worked in us by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor.3).

The Word has to become flesh – that is why Christ, not the Law, is the glory of the one and only (John 1:14)! And God’s purpose is that we be conformed to the image of his Son. The holy will and character of God has to be expressed through person, not just precept.

Under the new covenant the law is written on our hearts (Heb.10:16). That is why we are not under law (as an external code) but there is a law written on our hearts by the Spirit.

This is most clearly summed up in 1 Cor.9:

quote "To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law" (1 Cor.9:20-21)

We are not under law but we have the law of Christ! A spiritual, internal living principle (but that could not be reduced to a written code) that directs, motivates and enables us to live God’s way and to grow in his likeness.

The whole of law is summed up as love God and your neighbour (Gal.5:14) for love is the essence of this inner law, this living principle. And as you read 1 John, you see that the principle by which our new nature lives and is expressed, is love (1 John 4:7).

Making Spiritual Judgements

When it comes to dealing with others, in issues of sin and holiness, we must be equally careful not to operate on the basis of the law.

Note this inner law is written on the heart. The heart is the key issue here. Out of it come the issues of life (Prov.4:23) and Jesus says that it is what comes from the heart that makes a man unclean (Matt.15:18-20). The problem is that you cannot legislate for the heart. No list of rules fully get to the heart of the issue, or accurately address the issues of the heart.

I believe in many things, and especially when dealing with people caught in sin or who have fallen, that what is needed is not the application of a rigid rule, but the making of a spiritual judgement:

· We are told that the Word of God judges the heart (Heb.4:12).

· By constant use of the Word of God we learn to judge good from evil (Heb.5:14)

· The spiritual man judges all things (1 Cor.2:15)

· One of the main roles of elders in God’s house is to judge wisely (1 Cor.5:3)

It is not then the application of legal rules and reference to past test cases, but it is the making of a spiritual judgement in each and every case.

This opens me up to the accusation of subjectivity (each decides for themselves what is right) - a main cause of moral decline in the church. In defence I would say that recognising that the Word of God shapes and forms our judgements, that the Spirit of God is within us to guide us and that a man’s heart will be shown by his works (and words!) will help to protect us from this. It is not being subjective; it is being spiritual - in the true sense of the word.

Equally, it is not being ‘soft’. God’s judgement of the hearts of Ananias and Saphira can hardly be called soft. At times, judgements will reflect the severity of God, so encouraging the fear of God amongst God’s people – a key to keeping us from sinning (Ex.20:20). At other times the kindness of God will lead to repentance (Rom.2:4).

There are dangers of subjectivity and relativism. But there are also dangers of reducing holiness to a list of rules. Such a view of holiness will never enable the church to come to maturity.

In Conclusion

I believe a re-emphasis on the pilgrim spirit, our heavenly calling, while at the same time seeing holiness as life-enhancing, and as expressive of the life and power of God within is a key to a recovery of true holiness in the church. Moreover, central to growth in holiness, is to avoid seeing it as following an external code, but as an expression of the life within as new creations, and coming to maturity as those who are born of God’s seed. This will require both faith and effort, and will result in discipline, not license, without at all losing our liberty as sons of God. Rather discipline affirms our sonship.

In helping others to live holy lives, we must not give way to the subjectivity of our age, but must be spiritual in our judgements. A fuller understanding of these principles will help us, I believe, to be a holy people and to go on to maturity, to the full stature of Christ.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. How do we recover a sense of being ‘not of this world’ without being culturally irrelevant?

2. How do we help people to avoid legalism on the one hand and license on the other, without them thinking that the Christian life is about walking a tightrope?

3. Have we overemphasised the importance of being culturally acceptable and accessible at the cost of being morally challenging?

4. How do we rescue the concepts of righteousness and holiness from the religious?

5. If the answer lies in life, not law, in a new creation not outward legislation, are there any ‘dos and don’ts’ left?

6. Why is the truth of the new creation so foundational to holy living? How do we help people to grasp this?

7. In pastoral practice, what will be the difference between ‘laying down a law’, and ‘confronting a lie’?

8. If holiness is rooted in the inner rather than the outer, the spiritual before the ethical, what place is there for ‘rules’ and accountability?

9. How do we teach holiness in a world with no concept of sin and a church unclear on its definitions of sin? Can we use different words without distorting the truth?

10. What is the difference between applying a rigid rule and making a spiritual judgement?

Trevor Lloyd

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