The Illusiveness of Holiness

With today’s post, we will be taking a detour from our normal approach of unpacking entire books of the Bible, verse-by-verse. Instead, this will be a topical study on a singular topic that will explore various passages of Scripture from both the Old and New Testaments.

The topic I have chosen to explore is sanctification. While the word may be unfamiliar to you, the topic won’t be, especially if you are a follower of Christ. All of us, regardless of whatever Christian denomination or church we grew up in or currently align ourselves with, will have a perspective on this critical topic. At its most basic, sanctification has to do with the spiritual growth or ongoing maturity of the believer. But as we will see, there is far more to this word than we might imagine. And we will be unpacking its rich and significant meaning in the weeks ahead.

Virtually all Christian denominations that hold an orthodox view of Scripture share a common understanding that the believer’s status as a child of God was made possible by the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. God sent His Son to serve as the unblemished sacrifice for the sins of mankind, offering His life in place of ours, so that He might atone for or pay the penalty levied by a holy God against rebellious humanity. The Scriptures make it clear that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). In other words, there is a “wage” or payment due for mankind’s rejection of God, and it is death. And no one gets to escape that outcome, because, “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT).

But Jesus made it possible for sinful men and women to be restored to a right relationship with God by providing Himself as their substitute or stand-in. He took the punishment we deserved and, in exchange, we received His righteousness.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption… – 1 Corinthians 1:30 ESV

Sinful men and women can be restored to a right relationship with God by placing their faith in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By accepting God’s gracious gift of His Son as the payment for their sin debt, sinners can become saints, children of God, and joint heirs with Christ. They receive forgiveness for their sins – past, present, and future. They also receive a new standing before God. The apostle Paul told the believers in Colossae that is was God “who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:12-14 ESV).

The most remarkable aspect of this redemptive work of God on man’s behalf is that it is permanent in nature. It can’t be lost. God doesn’t change His mind. We can’t screw it up. In fact, the apostle Paul reminds us:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. – Romans 8:29-30 ESV

God stands behind the work of His Son. He guarantees it. Christ’s atoning work is efficacious or effective, never failing to accomplish its redemptive work. At the point of salvation, sinful men and women become permanent citizens of the Kingdom of God. And from that point forward, God no longer sees them as sinners, but as saints. Which simply means that they have been set apart for His use. They belong to Him. They are His children.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:12 ESV

And yet, while enjoying their privileged position as children of God and citizens of His eternal Kingdom, Christians must remain on this earth and do battle against an assortment of enemies who stand opposed to them. These include the world, their own indwelling sin nature, and the devil himself. Jesus Himself warned us that the world would hate us.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. – John 15:18-19 ESV

He also told us we would face difficulties in this life.

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 ESV

Which brings us to our topic of sanctification. As we live in this world as followers of Christ, we enjoy a right standing before God. He deems us as righteous because we have received the righteousness of Christ. And yet, we are also commanded to pursue righteousness.

…pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. – 2 Timothy 2:22 ESV

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. – 1 Timothy 6:11 ESV

Not only that, Paul tells us that we are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Colossians 3:12 ESV). Yet, Peter seems to tell us we have to pursue holiness.

…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.” – 1 Peter 1:15-16 ESV

Even Paul appears to contradict himself when he states, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1 ESV). The truth is, the New Testament is filled with countless passages that seem to teach that, while we enjoy a right standing before God, we are not to stand pat. We are not to coast or rest on our laurels. Paul told the believers in Ephesus “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1 ESV). He told the Thessalonian believers “to live in a way that is pleasing to God” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 BSB).

Peter encourages us to “long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2 ESV). Paul tells us that “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 2:15 ESV). Peter encourages us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18 ESV). The author of Hebrews would have us “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14 ESV). And Paul provides us with a word regarding our salvation and our sanctification.

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. – Romans 6:22 ESV

As we will see, there is a sense in which we have been sanctified and are being sanctified. There is the positional aspect of our sanctification and the progressive dimension, which we will be exploring over the next few weeks. But the real issue we want to examine is the delicate and somewhat confusing nature of our role in the process. Can we make ourselves more holy? Do we have the capacity to make ourselves any more acceptable to God than we already are? Is sanctification our job or God’s? Is it a goal to be pursued or a reality to be embraced?

As Peter has pointed out, God has high standards for His children: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16 ESV). Yet Paul tells us, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10 ESV), and Isaiah adds fuel to the fire when he writes: “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6 ESV).

So, what are we to do? And what is the purpose behind our pursuit of righteousness if we have already been declared righteous by God? These are the questions we hope to explore and answer as we make our way through this difficult, yet vital topic. The Bible’s many admonitions concerning spiritual growth are indisputable. But that doesn’t make them understandable. And many of us as Christians struggle with what it means to grow up in our salvation. Spiritual maturity seems unachievable. Christlikeness appears impossible. And any efforts we have put towards growing in godliness seem to fall short.

But it is my hope that as we dig into God’s Word together, we will be able to better understand the true nature of sanctification and our role in it. And that we might be able to say with the apostle Paul:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:12-14 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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