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The Pursuit of Holiness

    What do you think about holiness? Are you in a pursuit of holiness? The writer of Hebrews stated the importance of pursuing holiness when he wrote, "Pursue peace with all men and the sanctification [holiness] without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). The Apostle Peter’s comment on pursuing holiness should catch our attention also. "But like the holy one who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:15-16). Holiness and believing in Christ are inseparable. Believers are called saints, holy ones, set apart to God through Jesus Christ.

Holiness has gotten a bad rap

    Words such as holiness, obedience, and discipline have a negative connotation for many, especially those who have been wounded by the judgment and rejection of people who are legalistic in their practice of religion or who have been offended by the hypocrisy they detect among many so-called Christians. Therefore it is important to distinguish between holiness and religious legalism.

What is holiness?

    Holiness means to be set apart and ordinarily describes a special relationship. The Greek word, hagios, signifies something as set apart from others or emphasizes the quality of standing alone. When God declares, "I am God and there is no one like Me" – He announces His holiness. He is set apart from all other gods of man’s making. There is no One like our God! He alone is God.         

    Holiness is also a relational term. In such cases, usually two aspects are involved. For instance, in relationship with God, one is set apart to God – united with Him – and set apart from anything else in this world. After his call to holiness, Peter suggested that his readers look to Jesus as an example of holiness. "If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth" (1Peter 1:17). I wonder if you see what Peter was saying.

    Think about what Peter had learned from Jesus. Every where you read in the gospels about judgment, Jesus, the Son has jurisdiction over judgment. We will all stand before Jesus Christ at the judgment seat (2 Cor. 5:10), not the Father. Never will you find Jesus refer to His Father as the judge. He taught Peter, "For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son" (John 5:22).

    There seems then to be some confusion. The Father, God, according to Jesus, doesn’t judge anyone. The Father gave all judgment to His Son, Jesus. Why did Peter state the premise that his readers address the one who judges (which he knows is Jesus) as Father, if Jesus taught him that the Father, God, doesn’t judge anyone? The answer lies in Peter’s understanding of holiness. After telling his readers that they are to be holy like God is holy, he explained what he meant by holiness. Just as the holy God, the Father and Son, are one, inseparably united in their work, so we, being holy also, are to behave or live our lives in oneness, in an inseparable relationship with Christ. Holiness is about relationship. All of your behavior is to be governed by your love relationship with God, the Father, through Jesus Christ.

    This comment on holiness by my friend and mentor, Jerry White, connects the dots between holiness and relationship. "Our desire to walk in holiness before the Lord is in direct proportion to our love and reverence for Him. We can say right things with our lips and tongues but still not love Him so that with deep passion we forsake all that grieves Him and diligently pursue all that pleases Him. So easy is it to deceive ourselves into thinking that all is well when in fact our souls are merely lukewarm. Genuine love for the Lord Jesus causes you to wage war against sin and pursue holiness in daily practice. The issue is love for Him—deep love." (Jerry White, Jr. 

Holiness is living in union with Christ by the Spirit

    When I say that holiness and being a believer are inseparable, I mean for you to understand what the Bible clearly teaches, namely, that you are to live your life pursuing oneness with God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit who lives inside you. When you do whatever you do, asking this question of the Lord, "How can I best communicate Your presence, love, and power in this situation or relationship?", you are pursuing holiness. This pursuit of holiness is to be applied in everything you do if you trust in Christ for your eternal life. "Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God, the Father" (Col. 3:17). What you look at, where you go, how you dress, what you say, what you eat or drink, and what you listen to – all are to be governed by one standard of wisdom – I am in fellowship with Jesus; represent His words and deeds. When we think this way, we are pursuing holiness and love for our Lord Jesus Christ.

But what about living under grace?  

    Someone might ask, "But what about personal expression or liberty in Christ? If I am now under grace, can’t I do whatever I like? Aren’t I free to be myself and express my unique personality?"  To answer this question, we must distinguish between the world’s idea of freedom and God’s idea of freedom.

    According to the elementary principles of this world and the traditions of men (Col. 2:8) individual expression is a god and a right. We are told by the PC police that homosexuality, fornication, abortion, divorce, and a host of other sins are not only to be tolerated, but praised. We are told our culture has progressed to the point that we should recognize everyone’s right to express themselves without censorship or judgment. Our country was founded on the principle that everyone has a right, a God-given liberty to pursue his or her own happiness. This is how people who live in the domain of darkness think about freedom.

    In stark contrast, the Bible defines liberty in this way. "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit." (2 Cor. 3:17-18). I think the literal Greek rendering of verse 17 is important. It reads like this: Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is Lord, there is liberty." Paul strengthened his point that Jesus, the Lord, is the Spirit, and is the definition and generator of true liberty in verse 18 when he wrote, "just as from the Lord, the Spirit."

True holiness is surrendering yourself to Christ

    Do you see the concept of holiness in what Paul wrote? He said that true, biblical, spiritual liberty isn’t doing what you want or expressing your personal tastes, likes, or dislikes. True liberty results from surrendering yourself to Jesus as Lord through your relationship, your oneness, with the Holy Spirit. The test of a true believer is that expressing Jesus Christ’s presence, love, and power, is liberty! Liberty from what? Liberty from legalism, law, self, the world, darkness, and ignorance of God. "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery [to legalism, sin and self]" (Gal. 5:1).    

Are you confused about holiness and religious legalism?

    It is very common for people to confuse holiness with religious legalism. I hope you can see from the verses above that holiness is what sets us free from legalism. Religious legalism may best be compared to holiness in this way. The religious legalist has a list of standards and rules that serve as Lord in his life. He doesn’t walk in relationship with Christ and pursue expressing His life in each unique situation and relationship. In fact, he doesn’t need the Holy Spirit at all – he has his list of what to do and what not to do and they are his righteousness before God and his own conscience. The religious legalist believes his (and others’) relationship with God rests on adherence to his list (or the group’s list) of external behaviors. This is not to say that many, if not most, of the behaviors on his list are not biblical, right, and honorable. Furthermore, many, if not most of the behaviors on his list will be observed in one who is practicing true holiness.

    So what’s the difference? Motive and relationship. The motives of the religious legalist are self-righteousness, pride, lust for the praise of men, and often guilt over previous moral failures. The motive of true holiness is love for Christ as one’s treasure. Although the one pursuing holiness and the religious legalist may live very disciplined lives, the legalist wants to show others his dedication in order to gain reputation, power, and significance. Acting as a judge of others and policing those around him are ways he expresses the power and significance he feels he deserves due to his moral example. Unfortunately, even true believers fall captive to religious legalists and allow them to control their lives rather than Christ. That’s why the Apostle Paul warned the Colossians not to "let anyone act as your judge in regard to what you eat or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day" (Col. 2:16).

    When it comes to relationships, the religious legalist bases his relationships on adherence to his list of rules and outward behaviors. He may even think he "loves" God and others by expecting them to behave as he does. If he feels that he is blessed because of his outward form of holiness, he may also think they will be blessed if they will behave as he does. Therefore, in his mind, any persuasive argument or relational pressure (rejection or praise) which leads others to live as he lives is loving and advancing the cause of holiness. To the religious legalist, relationships are only of value to the degree that they affirm his standards and praise him. Unfortunately, because his life is not led by the Spirit, those living around him don’t feel loved by the Spirit of Christ. Instead, those who conform feel accepted and significant to the person rather than Christ, and those who don’t conform feel controlled, judged, and rejected. We shouldn’t be surprised if those who have been hurt have a bad taste in their mouths and are confused when it comes to pursuing holiness.

    In contrast, the one pursuing holiness has two things in mind when it comes to relationships. First, he has a passion to walk in union with Christ as he relates to others. He knows that he needs wisdom and love by the Spirit to know how to behave, what to wear, what to say, what not to say, and what to do. Second, he longs for others to grow in their love, passion, and relationship with Jesus Christ. Therefore, the basis of his relationships is knowing Christ and manifesting Christ, rather than similarities and agreement on outward behaviors. To him, relationships are valuable because Jesus loves people, and this spirit is felt and experienced by others.

Pursuing holiness is our responsibility

    Author Jerry Bridges wrote, "It is time for us Christians to face up to our responsibility for holiness. We need to brace ourselves up, and to realize that we are responsible for our thoughts, attitudes, and actions. We need to reckon on the fact that we died to sin’s reign, that it no longer has any dominion over us, that God has united us with the risen Christ in all His power, and given us the Holy Spirit to work in us. Only as we accept our responsibility and appropriate God’s provisions will we make any progress in our pursuit of holiness" (The Pursuit of Holiness, 84-85). Amen.

    I am troubled by what many call the "free grace" movement because it lacks a serious pursuit of holiness. In an effort to cast off the bad feelings they have from religious legalists, hosts of so-called Christians have bolted from any moral pinnings and tolerated everything but what our godless culture considers crimes against humanity (murder and theft). The church has become riddled with worldliness. We should not be surprised the world doesn’t see God in the church and tramples it under foot. Why don’t they see God in the church today? Because the church isn’t pursuing holiness. What did the writer of Hebrews say? I wonder if what he meant was this.  No man (those watching us) will see the Lord if we don’t pursue peace with others and holiness.

    Are you pursuing holiness or have you excused yourself because you don’t want to appear to be a religious legalist or because you think you are under grace? I hope you have been encouraged to pursue holiness in 2013. Those who have experienced true grace should pursue holiness because they received grace in their relationship with God through Jesus Christ. May God revive a spirit of holiness in His church today, and may it start with us.

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