Our holiness will be a work in progress during this earthly life. But in our resurrection and glorification at the last day we will be made perfectly holy, just like our Lord. Until that time comes we press on, “throwing off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles”, and “running with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb 12:1).
In earlier generations it was far more common to talk about holiness in the Christian life. For the Bible is consistently clear in its call for us to be ‘sanctified’ and become increasingly ‘holy’ as God’s people (see Eph 1:4, 5:25–27; 1 Thess 4:3; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 2:11–14; 1 Pet 1:15–16, 2:9). As God’s redeemed people we have been set apart to live distinctive lives that clearly show the life-transforming power of the gospel. Through the gospel we are saved from a life of sin and saved to a life of holiness.
Our justification and sanctification are inextricably linked. To talk about salvation and holiness as though they were two entirely different things is not helpful. God’s saving grace in our lives should naturally produce changes that lead to holiness (Eph 2:8–10). Pursuing holiness is the ‘normal’ Christian life, the fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit, steadily doing his sanctifying work. God’s divine plan has always been that we, his chosen and saved people, should be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29) “with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor 3:18). So in practical terms, how does this challenge apply to us today?
Some Errors and Cautions
Wrong ideas about holiness have created more than their share of problems down through the centuries, and these are still causing confusion today:
- Instant holiness: There are many people who think that by receiving a second blessing or praying a special prayer of consecration it is possible to experience and sustain a new level of holiness.
- A formula for holiness: Others think that devoutly following a specific set of legalistic disciplines enables them to grow in godliness.
- A ‘holy’ lifestyle: Still others think that the way to holiness is by adopting a particular ascetic lifestyle, often insulated from the real world, in order to align their lives more completely with God and his word.
Of course, throughout our life’s journey there will be times of special blessing when our spiritual growth is invigorated and perhaps accelerated. We should praise God for such times. However, we should not lose sight of the overall thrust and balance of biblical teaching when it comes to how we grow in holiness. Likewise, legalism and asceticism will result in a warped understanding of grace, which is so essential to our freedom in Christ.
The Inner Conflict
While it would be wonderful to have instant holiness or to be able to tap into a guaranteed formula for spiritual growth, the New Testament generally describes this process in terms of a difficult conflict, a long-distance race, a crucifixion, a ‘putting to death’. The battle for holiness is ongoing. Old sins keep surfacing, along with the temptation to new sins. There may be feelings of guilt and failure, perhaps even leading to doubts about one’s salvation.
The battle between the ‘flesh’ (who we are as children of Adam) and the Spirit (who have now become in Christ) is described in Galatians 5, is a part of the experience of every Christian:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Galatians 5:16–17 (ESV))