Holiness has too often been embroiled in confusion and distortion within the Christian community and, sadly, ends up being neglected rather than cultivated within the church. This is especially true in times, like our own, when the gospel becomes more ‘me-focused’ than ‘God-focused’.
Holiness is the great goal of Christ’s saving mission. According to Paul, his purpose in redemption was ‘to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good’ (Tit 2.14). The author of Hebrews urges his readers to ‘pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (He 12.14 [NRSV]. And Jesus himself states it even more bluntly with the words, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 6.48).
Holiness matters. And it matters far more than we are willing to admit. We may be quite happy to engage in argument and debate over the meaning of the concept in Scripture, but make little effort to fight the inward battles involved in the pursuit of holiness in our daily lives.
This struck me recently while reading Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Summing up the main thrust of his letter, he tells them,
Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord to do this more and more (1Th 4.1) [NIV – italics added].
He goes on from there to walk them through some of the glaring failures that were literally a blot on the landscape of the church’s witness in that town and surrounding area. Reminding them that ‘it is God’s will that you should be sanctified’ he goes on to catalogue the list of sexual sins (private as well as public) that were clearly a matter of common knowledge in their wider community. He then says, ‘For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life’ (4.7).
It was as though their journey along the ‘holiness road’ they had begun to travel so well when they received the gospel had been interrupted, or, at least, its pace had noticeably slowed since the early days of their faith: a time for which Paul had commended them (1.2-10).
How true this is for so many Christians, not least, those who serve as leaders in the church. We are eager to debate the technicalities of sanctification, but pour much less energy into living out its practicalities. We may have started eagerly and well, but as time goes by our energy for making progress seems to wane.
John Murray put his finger on this distortion in his handling of progressive sanctification in the chapter of that same name in volume 2 of his Collected Writings. Having addressed the question of ‘Definitive Sanctification’ and its ‘Agency’ in the two preceding chapters, he goes on to consider how this forensic aspect of holiness cannot be separated from its outworking in the Christian life experientially. He fleshes out how this becomes a reality and where it ultimately leads in the two other chapters that follow in this section.
Part of the problem in cultivating a holiness that lives in Reformed Christianity is that we have a tendency to employ language in our discussion of biblical truth that is technical, clinical and dry. To use an analogy from the world of medicine, physicians instinctively use the language of their medical textbooks to analyse and discuss the needs of their patient, but that is of little help to the poor individual who is hanging on their every word for glimmers of hope or reasons to be worried. As I have argued elsewhere in this column, Christians (any more than patients) are not disembodied brains. Our humanity is a package deal that involves even greater complexity than the organ by which we think and reason.
We must never lose sight of the fact that the Bible addresses us as whole people – in the totality of our humanity. So, whereas there is indeed a necessary place for the technicalities of theological debate and discussion and for precision in our formulation of its conclusions, these can never be isolated from the flesh and blood experience of Christian living.
So, for the Theology Professor, or student, as much as for the serious-minded Christian who thinks, ‘I’ve got the doctrine of sanctification “nailed”’, if they’re honest, they will realise that the challenge has only just begun. To have it ‘nailed’ on paper is a very different thing from working it out in reality.
For this reason, the best and most useful professors, students and everyday Christians are those who have not only wrestled intellectually with these issues, but who know what it means to wrestle daily with their painful realities in our war with the world, the flesh and the devil. They will be as willing, along with Paul and his fellow-apostles, to ‘acknowledge and bewail their manifold sins and transgressions’ as to herald their latest theological insight.
When Paul addressed his ‘more and more’ words to his Christian brothers and sisters in Thessalonica, he was in no sense wagging a critical finger in their direction; he was reflecting his own heart. It was his own deepest longing that he himself would grow in holiness and it was his deepest sadness that so often the opposite was true.
The God we worship is the ‘consuming fire’ whose patience with hypocrites comes at the bottom of the list of the kind of people from whom he withholds what they really deserve. This should make us tremble. But he is also the God who extends mercy and grace to even the worst of hypocrites who are willing to humbly acknowledge their failures and truly seek his pardon and help.
The words of Israel in Hosea’s day, misguided though they were, could not be more true: ‘Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him’ (Hos 6.3). Let us grasp more fully the ‘more and more’ of holiness.
 Murray, J. Collected Writings of John Murray – Systematic Theology Vol 2 (Banner of Truth Trust; Edinburgh) 1977 p. 294
Mark Johnston is a Trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust and a pastor in Wales. He formerly pastored outside Philadelphia, PA.