God’s will for His people is not health, prosperity, comfort or pleasure, but holiness (I Thessalonians 4:3). We are to be “a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:14) In other words, He wants us to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29; I John 2:6). Both individually and corporately, we are to be temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:19; 3:16). Everything that happens to us is a means towards our sanctification.
But how do we become holy? This question can be answered in several ways:
1) God declares us holy, and that’s all there is to it – so don’t worry about it.
2) We achieve holiness through obeying His commands.
3) Holiness is a gift of the Holy Spirit (maybe through a ‘second blessing’ or ‘complete surrender’).
All these statements are true to some extent – but none of them can stand alone.
1) We are all ‘holy’ in one sense, simply by virtue of belonging to God – and He isn’t going to dump us if we don’t reach some stratospheric level of perfection in our lives. But if we think there is nothing more to sanctification than this, we are in danger of acquiescing in our sins. ‘Cheap grace’ (Bonhoeffer) can be an easy excuse for lack of discipleship.
2) We have to acknowledge that mere human beings can’t make themselves ‘good enough for God’ – but that doesn’t mean we can shrug our shoulders and give up the moral struggle altogether. The New Testament is full of exhortations to holy living – and they are there for a reason! If Jesus is Lord, then He is to be obeyed. The danger with this approach, though, is that we may start to define holiness in legalistic terms, and measure our sanctification by how closely we conform to a particular standard.
3) God does command us to be holy – but He also supplies the means to make us holy. Christ’s death has set us free not only from the penalty of sin but also from the power of sin, in order to make us new people (Romans 8:1-4). True holiness, then, is not a matter of willpower but an inner transformation, brought about by the Holy Spirit. He will empower us to resist temptation and triumph over sin, achieving in us what we could never do for ourselves. The big question is: how does this happen? If it requires ‘complete surrender’ on our part, how do we achieve that? (And I use the word ‘achieve’ advisedly; ’surrendering’ is essentially something that we ourselves have to do, and how many of us can do it ‘completely’?) Like the gift of tongues, the ‘gift of holiness’ is one that seems to pass many believers by, causing them to feel frustrated and inadequate.
How can we put these three principles together? Christians are already ‘holy’ in the first sense of the word (consecrated to God); but we then have to go through the process of ‘becoming what we are’, so that our lives match up with our calling. Obedience is not the whole story; the Christian life is not simply the imposition of a new set of rules. The Holy Spirit is vital – He is living in us, working with us, providing us with the motivation, energy, desires and resources that do not come naturally to us, and persevering with us until we become like Christ. He does this in all of us, quietly producing His fruit in our lives (Galatians 5:22,23), whether we have had any special experiences of Him or not. But the amount and quality of that spiritual fruit is largely up to us – and this is where obedience comes in.
When we moved into our house in Bracknell (which was in a pretty neglected state) and cut down the jungle that was outside the back door, we found a plum tree in the garden. The tree produced the plums (it certainly wasn’t me!), but I had to go up a ladder and pick them every year. I also learned that if I wanted more plums and better quality plums, then I had to look after the tree properly – I had to thin out the fruit, for example, so that the branches wouldn’t break. It’s the same with the fruit of the Spirit: it comes from the Spirit, but we have to do our part and cultivate it.
So we have a choice: we can allow the Holy Spirit to take firm root in our lives and encourage the growth of His fruit, or we can resist His work and grieve Him (Ephesians 4:30). Every day of our lives, we are choosing between the Spirit and our sinful nature; the more we submit to the Spirit, the holier our lives will become (Galatians 6:8; Romans 8:13).