Holy Living Marks of a Healthy Church 7
Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.Hebrews 12:14
The cultural commentator Peter Kreeft wrote an article called How to Win the Culture War. This is what he said:
The strongest weapon in the world is sanctity. Nothing can defeat it…For Christians to really make a difference, we need to join our desire to right wrongs in the world with the desire to right our own hearts. Holiness matters. Paul Kreeft, 2002.
We have been looking at the marks of a healthy church over the past weeks and months. We started with veracity/truthfulness, looking at: what is a sermon; what is a preacher; and how to listen to sermons. Then we started looking at purity/holiness, and we looked first of all at holy worship, both public and then private. And now we look at holy living.
Every week recite that we “believe in a holy, catholic church, the communion of saints”. We believe a holy church – a communion of saints! That makes sense, doesn’t it? When we have the truth, we have the mark of veracity, and we have public and private worship, it doesn’t just stop there. It doesn’t stay within the walls of our church and of our homes. Christianity has to move out into the world in holy patterns of life if we are to impact our world for good.
Let me just set the context for Hebrews 12:14. This is important, because there are many parallels with the situation the Hebrew Christians were in. The Hebrew Christians were Jews who had converted to Christ and here were being tempted to apostatize, to leave the faith and to go back to Christ-less Judaism, mainly because of societal and political and other pressures that were being brought to bear upon them. It was being made intolerable to be a believer, a Christian. And so the apostle, when he is writing to them, from the beginning of the letter is saying: Compare the two religions – true religion of Christ and Christ-less Judaism – and look at the excellence and the superiority of true Christianity. He brings forward many reasons for them to be steadfast and enduring and persevering to the end. He warns them about the terrible consequences of apostasy – of leaving the faith that they had once professed. In Hebrews 11 he brings forward many examples of past believers to demonstrate how others have lived in an ungodly world and had persevered to the end. He is saying that faith in Christ is enough and it will get you through.
And then in Hebrews 12 he starts interpreting the hardships and the difficulties that they are enduring and he is saying: Don’t view these merely as the attacks of an enemy, but rather see behind it the hand of a loving Father. See what is happening to you as chastisement, as wise discipline that a wise, heavenly Father is using as part of the means of helping you persevere to the end. And then here he is pointing out and explaining the way of holiness. He is saying: This is the way that you have to walk if you are to persevere to the end. Verse 14: “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”
I would like to give you two brief negatives about what holiness is not, and then give you six positives about what holiness is.
Holiness Is Not Salvation
Holiness is not salvation. Whatever else holiness is, it cannot and it does not save us. Trying to be holy, trying to be good, trying to be obedient is not the salvation that [the Bible] reveals. J.C. Ryle in his book Holiness has an excellent chapter at the beginning of that book on the difference between justification (or salvation) and sanctification (what flows from our salvation). He says justification happens once; sanctification is ongoing. Justification is the same (as soon as it begins, ten years later, twenty years later, fifty years later); whereas sanctification is progressive, changing, hopefully growing, strengthening. Justification takes place largely outside of ourselves (a declaration of God in the courts of heaven that this person is justified); sanctification takes place largely within as the heart is purified and all the consequences of that on our minds and consciences and words and actions. Justification is an act of God alone (we do not contribute to it); in sanctification we cooperate with God, we work together with God, God enables us to “do” sanctification. Justification gives us a title to heaven; sanctification prepares us for heaven. And there are many other differences.
It is really vital to grasp the distinction between justification and sanctification – being saved and being made holy. One of the greatest mistakes we can possibly make is to think that trying to be holy is going to save us. That is what the vast majority of people in this world think – that if only they can be good enough and do good enough, that will eventually save them and will get them into God’s favour. Whereas the uniform message of [the Bible] is that holiness – obedience, doing good, being good – does not, cannot, will not ever save anyone. Holiness is not salvation.
Holiness Is Impossible without Salvation
Secondly, holiness is impossible without salvation. However hard people try to be holy, however much effort and resolution and will they put into it, unless they are first of all saved they will never be holy. They will never make one footstep of progress in holiness. It is impossible. We must start with salvation – by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. Only then is holiness possible. We must begin with a new heart, a new mind, a new will. We must be born again. We must be regenerated. We must be given a new nature. Holiness is not something that we plant within ourselves; it is something God does from without. And He does that in the act of saving; He puts within us the principle of holiness from which all possible holiness can develop.
Holiness is impossible without salvation. And this is really where we have to start. We have to admit this. We have to come before God and say, “I have tried to be holy, I have tried to be good, I have tried to keep the commandments, but I can’t do it. Holiness is beyond me! Nothing I can do can get me to a point where even I am satisfied! Lord, come and make me holy. Come and save me so that I can be made holy. So that holiness is then made possible.”
So two negatives: holiness is not salvation, and holiness is impossible without salvation.
But I want to focus mainly today on the postives.
Holiness Is Separation
Holiness is separation. That is really the root meaning of "holy" – it is "separate." So holiness is separation. It is consecration. When God saves a sinner, He separates that sinner. He puts him in a different place, a different position. He takes him out of the profane mass of humanity and He dedicates him or her to holy use. Holiness is first and foremost a change of position. Theologians sometimes call this positional sanctification. We often think of holiness as something that is progressing, something that happens within (and that is true and that is where we are going to major today), but we have to begin here at the very foundation of holiness. The very foundation of holiness is a change: not of heart, but of position. Here is this sinner in the mass of profane humanity, and he is taken out by God, and God dedicates him and separates him and consecrates him to holy use.
We see this in the Old Testament. When the Israelites were called to build the tabernacle, they were to take from their own worldly goods – the kind of profane things of everyday life, things that were not dedicated and not consecrated – their spoons, their knives, their plates, their fabric, their wood. They were to take that and give it for the work of building the tabernacle and providing the furniture and utensils inside it. When this happened, God said these things were now holy! Spoons do not have a moral nature; they were just wood. There was no change in the nature of these items, but there was a change in their position. There was a change in the use for which they were dedicated. They were taken out of ordinary, everyday mundane, and they were taken over here and they were dedicated and consecrated to holy uses and ends. And God says of them: They are holy now; they cannot go back there; they are changed positionally and they are changed definitively, forever.
The same with the priests, when He took out of the tribe of Levi and He said, “You are going to be my priests; you are going to be holy to the Lord”. They were not perfect – far from it! They were full of sin. There was no change in their nature when God did this. But there was a change in their position, a change in their aims and their uses. God had now separated them out to a holy use.
And this is what God does first. When He is going to make someone holy, He separates them to holiness. You may say, “Well, this seems a bit theoretical. Is this really of any practical impact on my life? I just want a holy heart; it does not really matter what position I am in, does it?” Well, it does! Think of those who campaign for the presidency. When you watch them in the campaigns, you often think that they just do not look presidential. You can hardly imagine them in the presidency. But then when they become president, you often notice quite soon after their inauguration a change in how they appear – in their posture, in their demeanour. The weight of the office and the awesome symbols of the office seems to change their whole appearance – their demeanour, their posture, the impression they give. They have not changed internally, but they are in a new position, which impacts how they speak, how they behave (or at least it should).
Similarly with a Christian. If we really grasp that God has taken us out of unholy humanity and said, “You are going to be holy; you are holy; you are now dedicated and consecrated to holy aims and ends”, that is going to have an impact upon us. When I am tempted to sin (sin is right in front of me and my hand is going out towards it), I have to remind myself that God has dedicated me to be holy! He has taken me out of profanity and He has said, “I want you to be dedicated to pure and holy ends.” When my eyes are wandering, I say, “No eyes! No! God has taken these eyes, and He said they are going to be dedicated to holiness.” My tongue, when it is tempted to gossip, to lie, to misrepresent, I say, “No tongue! You have been taken away from that kind of conduct. You have been dedicated to a holy end definitively!” So I think it is important to grasp this positional definitive change in our status. Holiness is separation – separated to holiness, in order to be holy.
Holiness Is Obedience
Secondly, holiness is obedience. It is very simple, really. Holiness is obedience. What is the opposite of holiness? It is sin, isn’t it? What is sin? Well, the Shorter Catechism tells us it is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God”. It is any lack of obedience and it is any act of disobedience to God’s law. The Ten Commandments is a summary of that law. Throughout the Bible we have many examples of how these laws are applied, and of course we have the perfect capstone of Jesus’ perfect life showing us what that holiness really looks like perfectly in an imperfect world. Holiness is obedience to God’s Ten Commandments.
That does not mean, of course, that it is just external obedience – that is what the Pharisees thought. No, as Jesus taught in His first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, this obedience is to start internally. It is to start in the heart. It is to impact our wills and our consciences and our minds. It is to change our aims and our ambitions and our desires and our thoughts and our consciences. It starts from within; it starts in the heart. And that is not just a New Testament thing. People often associate Moses with very external, written Ten Commandments, but Moses preached to the people that they had to be circumcised in the heart! That this law had to be internalized. God promised that new heart, a fleshy heart. The psalmist said: “Search my heart and see if there be any wicked way within.”
So holiness is obedience, for sure, but, it is also inward. It starts in the spirit. And that is why holiness is usually associated with the work of the Holy Spirit. Of course the Father is involved in our sanctification, as is the Son of God, but the primary agent is the Holy Spirit. Whatever else is true of those who claim to have the Holy Spirit, it is that they are holy or they are being made holy. Holiness is produced by the action of the Spirit upon our spirit. It is spiritual obedience. We are not happy with just that I do not use my tongue to say bad things about people; we want the thoughts of bad things of other people ripped out of our hearts and minds. It is not enough that we do not commit adultery; we want lust ripped out of our hearts. And the Holy Spirit alone can do that. So holiness is obedience – obedience to the moral law of God.
Holiness Is Active
Thirdly, holiness is active. There have been many movements throughout church history where people think they have found the secret key to holiness. There is a movement that is very popular in the U.K. called the Holiness Movement. The idea there is that if you can only yield yourself entirely to the Lord, get to a moment in time where every part of you is surrendered, submitted, yielded to God, then holiness happens. It is a kind of quantum leap change of nature. It is a sort of passive process; you are just trying to let everything go and (as is often said) “Let go and let God”. And that movement has morphed and changed into many different shapes and forms over the years. There is something in human nature that somehow thinks that because hard work does not seem to produce much in the way of holiness, therefore let’s go to the opposite extreme and let’s just try and be utterly passive and see if holiness can happen.
The most current, modern, active, influential version of this in our own day and in this country is the idea that if I can only believe in my justification enough, sanctification will be automatic. If I can only put enough faith in justification in my fuel tank, then sanctification will start motoring along. And so the effort is made to believe more and more and more and more in justification. Let me give you a couple of quotes from a teacher of this idea just to give you the idea:
Sanctification consists of the daily realization that in Christ we have died, and in Christ we have been raised.
Believing again and again the gospel of God’s free justifying grace every day and resting in His verdict is the hard work we are called to.
Do you see what he is saying? The hard work is a believing more and more. A letting go more and more of our own works.
When we stop obsessing over our need to improve that is what it means to improve.
Christian growth is forgetting about yourself.
The gospel liberates us to be okay with not being okay…The gospel tells us, “Relax, it is finished”.Tullian Tchividjian, Glorious Ruin, 2012.
Now, some of these statement would be okay if we were talking about justification, but we are not here. Sanctification is being made, in total: believing more and more in your justification. And the idea is that the more you can do this, then the more holy you will be. But when we look at how holiness is presented in the Bible, it is active, not passive! It is not something that just happens; it is something we pursue. The hard work is not just believing. It is certainly that (justification for sure is the fuel for sanctification), but there also needs to be effort and endeavour. It requires work; it requires exertion. It is active!
Look at the verb here: “follow peace with all men, and holiness” (Hebrews 12:14). We are being told to pursue two thing here: peace and holiness. That word "follow" is the word for an "eager chase," an "earnest pursuit." It is not just somebody walking along, following somebody from a distance and not caring how close they get. It is not even somebody jogging along just trying to keep up with somebody in front of them. The word is actually used for the dogs that go hunting after prey. They are just tearing along, foaming at the mouth, straining every muscle and sinew. They are exploding their lungs to catch up with the fox or the rabbit, or whatever. This is the kind of effort that Paul is speaking of here. “Follow holiness” – there is an earnest pursuit, as if we are chasing game or chasing prey.
One commentator has put it like this: “Holiness is Spirit-powered, gospel-driven, faith-fuelled effort”. It is a great balance, isn’t it? It is not saying it is all human effort. No, it is saying it is Spirit-powered, it is gospel-driven, it is faith-fuelled effort. Do you see the balance there? Yes, the need from outside (the Spirit, and of the gospel and of the faith), but translated into effort and endeavour.
Paul uses various metaphors for pursuit of holiness, one of which is a wrestling match. He is wrestling with himself. He is keeping his body under (1 Corinthians 9:24ff). Watch wrestlers – they are sweating, aren’t they? They are doing everything they can to get their opponent over, to bring them into submission and to win the victory! Paul is saying this is what is required. Holiness is active. It needs effort. It needs energy. It involves muscle and bone and sinew. It involves mental and emotional effort as well. Holiness is active.
Holiness Is Positive
Holiness is positive. If you ask most people in the world what they think holiness is, they will say, “You don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you don’t swear, you don’t commit adultery…” And sadly, in the church that is often the case too; holiness is defined entirely by what we don’t do and by negatives. Now, that is an extremely important part of holiness. Many of the Ten Commandments are framed in the negative. But they imply the positive. And not just imply, but throughout the Bible there are many positives. Yes, we have to pull out the weeds, but we also have to grow the fruit. We have to crucify, to mortify, to murder the works of the flesh, but we also have to cultivate, vivify, bring to life, ripen the fruits of the Spirit. Too often we have defined holiness in these negative terms. “As long as I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t break the Sabbath day, I don’t watch bad movies, I don’t go to pubs, then somehow or other that is holiness.” Well, it is a small part of it. Another part of it is the positive.
Holiness involves the whole man, the whole woman, the whole boy, the whole girl – the whole of life! In many places in the Bible holiness is actually really focused on two particular areas: one is our work and the other is our relationships. Sometimes we associate holiness with anything but our work, but time and again it is the workplace that is to be the primary place where holiness is grown and developed and matured. That is because we spend most of our waking hours, don’t we? At work. Our work is part of our good works, in other words. Vocation is intimately tied up with sanctification. How we do our work is really one of the major areas that God is looking at to see: Is this Christian becoming more holy? How does this person conduct himself, herself, in their work – whether it is at home, in the office, a factory, at school? And it is not just paid employment either; it is what we do in our retirement years as well. How we serve others. Again, emphasizing the positive aspect of holiness.
On the other side, there is our relationships. That is why here it is intimately joined up with peace. “Follow peace with all men, and holiness”. Now, this is not peace at the expense of holiness. That is often used as an excuse (“We shouldn’t do this, because that is going to upset this person” or “We shouldn’t stand up for this truth” or “We shouldn’t advocate for the position, because it just creates trouble and strife”). No, this is not a peace at the expense of holiness. But neither is it a holiness at the unnecessary expense of peace. These Hebrew Christians were incredibly tempted to lash out at their persecutors. They were being severely mistreated, they were suffering great injustice, and the temptation would be to retaliate, to take vengeance, to speak back to those who were mistreating them. But Paul is says, “Follow peace with all”. Insofar as it is possible without it being at the expense of holiness.
He is saying, “I am looking at your relationships to see how holy you are. I am looking at how you react under duress and under pressure.” Holiness is relatively easy or easier when we are not challenged and when there is no difficulty in our life. Our true state of holiness is revealed when the pressure is on – when suffering, trial, difficulties, disappointment and frustration, comes into our lives. He is saying: Follow this kind of holiness. Do not provoke unnecessary quarrels. Do what you can to smooth things out with the people around and about you. “Follow peace…and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”
Holiness is positive. This is not about withdrawal from the world and Monasticism. Neither is it this modern idea of radicalism (we have to be some kind of radical, extraordinary Christians doing extraordinary works, selling everything, going to India or wherever it may be). Throughout, and here too, holiness is rooted in the ordinary, the mundane, the everyday. That is the arena for holiness. It is a very positive expression of it.
Holiness Is Rewarded
Fifthly, holiness is rewarded. God motivates us to holiness at times with warnings (“If you do not…then there will be these consequences”), but He also motivates us with great promises of good. It is possible to live in such a way to increase God’s pleasure in us or decrease God’s pleasure in us as Christians. Now, God’s love for His children remains the same. It never changes. The status of believers as His children never changes. It does not go up or down one iota or fraction. God’s love for His children remains constant, from everlasting to everlasting. But our experience of that love does change. And it changes (at least partly) depending upon how we live and whether we are living in a holy way and in a way that pleases the Lord.
There are a number of verses I could quote. Let me give you a few. Colossians 1:10: “That ye might walk worth of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work”. There is a way to walk unto the Lord that pleases Him. Philippians 4:18 (talking about this offering of money): “an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God”. God looked down on this act and took special pleasure in it. Colossians 3:20: “Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.” He is saying: "Children, there are times when you are behaving in such a way that God’s frown is upon you, not just your parents." But there is also a way of living in such a way that not only are your parents smiling, but God is smiling! He is taking more pleasure in you. The way we live impacts God’s pleasure and His delight in us. John 14:15: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” “And I and my Father will come to you and reveal ourselves to you.” He is saying: “If you live in obedience to me, and you have love-stoked and love-fuelled obedience to me, we will come and we will shed divine love in your heart in a way that you have not known before.”
Holiness is rewarded with God’s pleasure, with God’s presence, and also with personal happiness. It is amazing how many places in the Bible we are told how blessed is the person who walks in the way of the Lord. It is not saying that holy Christians are always bright and cheerful, but it is saying that the general tenor of holiness is to produce happiness, joy, cheerfulness. This is its own reward. God so designed the universe that living in accordance with His standards will produce much more happiness than not living according to His standards.
There is a new field of psychology that has opened up in the last twenty years called positive psychology. A number of psychologists have decided: “We have done enough trying to get people out of the depths and get them back to neutral and heal their problems; let’s now help people move up from there. Let’s help people not just recover from sadness, but become happy.” And what is remarkable about what these psychologists are discovering is how many of the habits that they have tested and how many of the ways people lived that they have researched that are identical to God’s law. They are saying: If you do this, this and this, then science shows this is going to produce more happiness. It is going to be for your benefit. It is going to give you a better life. Now, of course, we knew this. God knew this thousands of years before, if only they would have read His Bible. But still, it is fascinating to see even secular, evolutionary, God-denying scientists coming to the same conclusions that Christians have been able to come to for many years.
The way of holiness is the way of blessedness. Holiness has its own reward. It is rewarded with God’s pleasure, it is rewarded with God’s presence, it is rewarded with personal happiness, and it is rewarded with an improved witness. That is why it is so important for our church to have a reputation for this kind of holiness. As Peter Kreeft said, the strongest weapon in the world is sanctity. Nothing can defeat it. Jonathan Edwards says:
Holiness is a most beautiful, lovely thing. Men are apt to drink in strange notions of holiness from their childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour, and unpleasant thing; but there is nothing in it but what is sweet and ravishingly lovely. ’Tis the highest beauty and amiableness, vastly above all other beauties; ’tis a divine beauty. Jonathan Edwards
As Kreeft said: “For Christians to really make a difference, we need to join our desire to fight wrongs in the world with a desire to right our own hearts” (How to Win the Culture War, 2002). Holiness has real power in witnessing – especially this kind of active, positive holiness.
Holiness Is Vital
Lastly, holiness is vital. It is imperative; it is essential; it is a non-negotiable. “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” That is not just talking about that we won’t see Him here and we won’t have “visions” or insights into who the Lord is here. Certainly holiness gives that (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”). The more holiness we have (as we have seen), the more we will enjoy of God. But this is speaking primarily of seeing God at the very end of our lives, and seeing Him as a God who is favourable towards us, who is going to receive us and welcome us and take us into His kingdom forever. Everyone will see God, but they won’t see as God happy. They won’t see God with open arms. This is the kind of seeing which is being spoken of here. We won’t see him forever in heaven unless we have holiness on earth. It is a non-negotiable. No holiness; no heaven. It is that serious. It is not a minor thing. It is not an optional extra. It is not something for “Premier League” Christians! This is something for every Christian. No holiness; no heaven.
And it is interesting that (verses 15 and following) this is a corporate responsibility. This isn’t just: “I better get focused on myself here”. Sure, do that, but, there is also an element of helping one another there. “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many being defiled” (Hebrews 12:15). He is saying: Don’t just look after yourself here, brothers and sisters in Christ; look after your other brothers and sisters. Be concerned about their holiness. Look diligently. Use every means at your disposal – whether it is loving correction, whether it is confrontation, whether it is church discipline even – to make sure that God’s people are in the way of holiness and stay in the way of holiness. Look diligently! It is a corporate responsibility.
I want to end with a word of encouragement. It does not say, “Follow peace with all men, and perfect holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” If that word "perfect" is in there, we are done. No one is going. The verb here is to "pursue earnestly"; it is not necessarily saying we catch what we are after. It is not: Unless you are perfectly holy, you will never see the Lord. No, it is: Unless you are pursuing perfect holiness, you will not see the Lord. Sometimes it is very difficult for a child of God to see holiness in them. In fact, it is a very strange paradox that the more we grow in holiness, the more we see our unholiness. The more unholy we appear. As our eyes are clearing, we are seeing deeper. We are seeing reality. As sin is purged, we see sin within more clearly. And that can make a child of God utterly despair and give up. “I see more unholiness in myself today than twenty years ago when I was converted!” But we shouldn’t expect otherwise. The question is also not “Are you seeing more holiness in your life” but “Are you pursuing, chasing down, hunting holiness?” Are you going after it? Do you desire it? Do you pray for it? That is what is essential. That is vital. That is what is imperative. That is what is non-negotiable. May God give us that mark in our personal lives and in our church life, so that we truly are a holy church, a communion of saints.