Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.—Hebrews 12:14
Holiness. Sanctification. Being saints. It’s all the same idea. If I were to put a simple definition to holiness it would be: acting like Jesus in all we do. God is the one who is “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3) and we are to be imitators of God walking “in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:1-2). And holiness is a pretty big deal—after all, consider what the author of Hebrews tells us: without holiness no one will see the Lord.
So how do we pursue holiness? How do we become holy?
In one sense there is nothing we can do. Holiness comes from the Lord, much like our righteousness and our justification. In fact, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30, “[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Jesus is our sanctification. He is our holiness. As much as God sees us justified and righteous in Christ, so he sees us holy and perfect in Christ.
Way back in Leviticus God tells the people multiple times to be holy because he is holy, but then in 21:8, aside from being the God who is holy he also is the one “who sanctif[ies] you.” It’s kind of like in Philippians 2 when Paul says to work out our salvation in fear and trembling because God is at work in us.
We are able to pursue holiness because our holy God has already made us holy in Christ. Yet the practical outworking of holiness is still something we must strive for. The commands in the Bible to be holy or live in sanctification are several (Romans 6:19, 1 Thessalonians 4:3ff, 2 Timothy 2:21, 1 Peter 1:15-16 to name a few).
God has made us holy, he is making us holy, and we must pursue holiness.
The pursuit of holiness is a defining aspect of being a Christian. Though Peter does not use the word “holy” in 2 Peter 1:3-11, the ideas of holiness are clearly there—life in the knowledge and glory of God, being partakers of the divine nature, escaping corruption, supplementing faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control. We are called and elected by God, but we are to be diligent to make such calling and election sure, to grow in holiness. So, Peter says: faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brother affection, and love, “if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We might run the race of such pursuit at different speeds, but if we claim to be Christians and have no pursuit of holiness nor a desire to pursue holiness, then we need to seriously reconsider our claim.
First Corinthians provides a good study in the pursuit of holiness, I think. It is easy to pick at the Corinthians, for the way that Paul describes things and what he must tell them to do, they seem to be perhaps the second most messed up church he wrote and ministered to (well second in light of the fact that the many churches of Galatia were all turning after a false gospel and Paul lambasted them, not even providing his usual “I thank God for you” in the opening of his letter—so we’ll call them, whatever their numbers might be, all tied for first).
But as Paul writes to the Corinthian church he writes “to those sanctified in Christ, called to be saints” (1:2).
As messed up as these people were—being hyper divisive, being called by Paul spiritual infants, allowing horrendous sexual immorality to go unchecked, some questioning the resurrection, abusing the Lord’s Supper, mis-using spiritual gifts, etc.—Paul still called them saints and said they were sanctified.
The tone of the letter seems to be, “This is who you are…now live like it!”
And if we were to use the letter as a template, the pursuit of holiness would include such things as wisdom in Christ, unity, serving others, sexual purity, church discipline, humble use of Christian liberty, concern for others, fleeing idolatry, celebrating the Lord’s Supper together, worship, love, and sound doctrine.
Thus, the pursuit of holiness is something we do as individuals but it is also something we do together as a church, encouraging one another and spurring each other on to greater godliness.
In this, there are some aspects of holiness that will look different for different people in different situations. I think Paul even gets to this point in his talks on Christian liberty. There are certainly plenty of things that strictly define holiness—unity, concern for others, sexual purity, etc.
But with other things such as the type of music we listen to, the movies we see, the beverages we drink, the clothes we wear, the Bible translations we use, etc. there is more leeway and freedoms. For example, holiness dictates we dress modestly (1 Timothy 2:9), but it does not dictate whether we dress casual or in our finest to worship the Lord. For some, their conscious will say that to properly come before the King of kings you must offer your best even in terms of dress, and so it will be sin to them not to wear a suit and tie or a dress. Yet for others, they will look at how Jesus dressed as a common man, and how his followers were mainly common men and women. Plus they may say that belonging to Jesus means we belong to a family and family is less formal. Therefore their pursuit of holiness will allow for more casual dress in worship. In this issue, both are right, so long as they act in faith, do not pass judgment on each other, and do not seek to cause the other to stumble (Romans 14:1-23).
If we are in Jesus we are saints, so let us live as saints. Let us pursue holiness in all things and encourage one another in such pursuits!