Holiness does not come naturally to us. We start off impure; the source of our defilement is deep within us (Mark 7:20-23). And even after we have become Christians, we retain our ‘old nature’ alongside the new one that Christ gives us. So we remain fundamentally sinful; nothing we can do will alter that fact. Our lives will therefore need total reconstruction – and this will not be accomplished in a moment, or without discomfort and inconvenience.
We soon discover that we can’t become holy by our own efforts (by keeping rules or by abstaining from material pleasures). Righteousness and purity (in God’s eyes) aren’t things that we can achieve by sheer willpower or by regular practice. Like the letters in a stick of Brighton rock, the various facets of Christian character have to be put inside us by the Holy Spirit. So does this mean we should ‘let go and let God’ get on with our sanctification? Not quite; holiness is a command (Leviticus 19:2; Hebrews 12:14) as well as a promise (Leviticus 20:8).
Some would say that all we have to do is trust God for our sanctification, just as we do for our justification. This gives the false impression that sanctification, like justification, requires no effort on our own part. We are justified by faith alone; but sanctification is a joint enterprise between ourselves and the Holy Spirit. As Paul puts it,”continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil His good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12,13)
Why are we repeatedly exhorted in Scripture to “be holy”, when holiness can only come from God Himself? Because God doesn’t force Himself upon us; He wants our co-operation. It’s God who sanctifies us – by giving us His own Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16), by speaking to us through Scripture (John 17:17), and by disciplining us through hardships and difficulties (Hebrews 12:7-11). But we have to do our part: we must walk with the Spirit, read the Scriptures and learn from our experiences.
It’s the Holy Spirit who teaches us to hate sin. He convicts us of sin by speaking to us through the Bible, or through sermons and Christian books. Some sins He will point out to us soon after our conversion; as we take action on these, He will gradually bring others to our attention. We will soon discover that renouncing sin is not usually a quick or easy matter; in fact, it may often be painful. The metaphors used in the New Testament are dramatic ones: “put to death” (Romans 8:13), “cut off your eye or hand” (Matthew 5:29,30), “crucify” (Galatians 5:24). These are drastic measures – and God won’t do it all for us. It’s our responsibility! We all find some sinful behaviours easier to deal with than others, and many of us have lifelong weaknesses that we will always struggle with. The important thing is to keep on fighting them, and not give up.
Reading the Bible is important, but don’t get the idea that Christian discipleship is simply a matter of following a set of instructions; it’s more like an apprenticeship in a trade, or learning to play a musical instrument. This is one reason why it takes a lifetime. The Christian life is an ongoing education in holiness, as we get closer to God and come to know Him better. It isn’t so much about conforming to rules as about changing one’s attitude, and learning to look at things from a new (Christian) perspective. It’s developing an instinct for what is ‘right’ that will enable you to navigate an unfamiliar situation. It’s walking in the footsteps of Christ (for He is our role model as well as our Master). It’s feeding your relationship with Him by developing habits of regular prayer and worship – things that can’t be learned from books! It’s keeping company with other people on the same journey (which means learning to forgive – and to be forgiven).
Under the Old Covenant, holiness was a matter of keeping the Law – over 600 major and minor rules, many of them specific to that particular time and culture. The New Testament is relatively short on specific rules; what Christ has given us is a change of heart! In any case, people can keep all the rules and still contrive to cheat. And if, for example, I am generous just in order to fulfil a rule, is that true generosity? (I Corinthians 13:3) But ‘rules’ haven’t been replaced by ‘spontaneity’ either, because ‘what comes naturally’ may come from our old nature, not our new one! For this reason, we can’t do without rules altogether; the Ten Commandments are still relevant. We are also given a number of other principles to point us in the direction we need to go. Here are a few of them:
Live for God’s glory (I Corinthians 10:31).
Put God first, rather than my own profit or convenience.
Imitate Christ (I Peter 2:21).
“What would Jesus do?” doesn’t cover absolutely everything, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb.
Lay up treasure in heaven, not on earth (Luke 12:33,34).
Will I be proud of this on Judgement Day?
Have fellowship with other believers
– so that we can “spur one another on towards love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:24)