Pursuing Holiness Today

September/October, 2004
Volume 39, Number 5

The word “holy” comes from the same Hebrew root as sanctify or sanctification. It means “unique, different, or separate.” God is unique, different, and separate—and He requires the same for those who are called by His name.

God hates sin. When someone sins, that sin ultimately reaches Jehovah’s throne because we are made by Him and we are to live for His glory. Therefore we are answerable to Him (1 Peter 4:5). God has the right to judge sin and to punish sinners. Our sinfulness is an affront to His holiness. “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20).

Holiness is deciding not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies (Romans 6:11-12). Holiness in life is a recurring theme in the New Testament. Holiness in life is much more important than the gifts and abilities that we have been given, and holiness is much more important than the number of church activities that we engage in.

It is possible to distort New Testament truth by constantly asserting that our only message is that of “grace.” It is certainly true that the believer’s only hope is God’s grace in Christ. We are saved by God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8). We stand in grace (Romans 5:2), and it is by grace that we anticipate the future enjoyment of God’s glory (Acts 15:11). But grace is not God’s only word for us. We are also taught by our Lord that we must both hear and do His words (Matthew 7:24). A faith which does not issue in good works is dead (James 2:26). It takes more than lip profession to enter the kingdom of God. We must also be setting out to do the Father’s will.

Jonathan Edwards is famous for a New Year’s resolution: “Resolved, never to do anything I would be afraid to do—if it were the last hour of my life.” Edwards also wrote this resolution: “Resolved, never to slack off in the fight with my corruptions, no matter how unsuccessful I may be.” Holiness is never totally achieved until we reach the pearly gates—and so we resolve never to slack off! Read the article in this Witness.

—Harold S. Martin

Pursuing Holiness Today

By J. Eric Brubaker

In 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 we are told how to perfect holiness, or what we must do to achieve a holy life.

Pursuing holiness in the twenty-first century is a daunting task. Striving for a godly life is a difficult task because the Christian continually battles the world, the flesh, and the devil. No matter how difficult our times may be, the pursuit of holiness is no different for us than it was for David, or for Job, or for Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. It is no different for us than it was for Peter, James, John, and Paul.

The Bible teaches that there is an unequal yoke between the Christian and the world. The two don’t match. They can’t go together. They are going in different directions. We believe that by the grace of God each of us has become a “temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16). Our bodies are now the place where God dwells —the resting place of His presence. And for that reason we are called to separate from our old ways of living. In 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, Paul includes two promises from various parts of the Old Testament. First, he quotes from Leviticus 26:12, “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (quoted in 2 Corinthians 6:16). And then he quotes from 2 Samuel 7:8, 14, “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”

But between verses 16 and 18 Paul quotes from Isaiah 52:11 where it says, “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” In other words, God is saying, “I will be exclusively yours, if you will be exclusively mine.” God says, “I will be a loving parent to you, if you will be an obedient child to me.” Elsewhere the Bible reinforces the need for separation from sinful ways of living, when it says, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Timothy 2:19).

The Christian is called to a life of separation—from the old ways of life and from close association with those who still live by the world’s standards. It does not mean that we can no longer have friends who are non-Christian. In fact we are to pursue such relationships, but we must be aware that we might be enticed into our old ways of living, and tarnish our testimony.

The story is told about a young woman named Eulalia. She was going to go out on the town one night with a man named Lucinda. He had a notorious reputation. The girl’s father’s name was Seuphronias, and he was asking his daughter why she wanted to be in the company of a man who had ruined so many others. She tried to argue with him saying, “Listen, one night is not going to destroy me. He’s the man that everyone wants to be with and so I am going to take advantage of this opportunity.” She did not listen to her father’s pleading. But just as she was about to step out of the house, dressed in her finest, her father asked her to go over to the fire that had long since burned down, and pick up one of the coals and hold it in her hand. She said she could not do that. “Listen,” he said, “I promise you it is cool enough that it will not burn you.” She said, “I didn’t say it would burn me; I’m afraid that if I pick it up it might blacken and mar my hand.” He said, “Eulalia, that’s what I’m trying to tell you as you go out into the night. One evening may not burn you, but it could mar and blacken you and let scars for the rest of your life.”

Second Corinthians 7:1 says, “Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” It is clear that the path of holiness involves a cleansing of both our bodies and spirits. If we are to walk in holiness it will mean that we pay close attention to what is happening to our entire person.

1. Continuing to Cleanse Our Lives Daily

We are to keep on cleansing our lives. Sometimes we get the idea that we no longer have a responsibility, a work to do in attaining Christian maturity. Sometimes we emphasize justification to the exclusion of sanctification. In other words, we put so much emphasis on being in the family that we forget that we are supposed to be growing in the likeness of our older Brother. But here it says that one of our Christian duties is to cleanse ourselves. In other words, we have a responsibility to watch over our own spiritual condition and to keep our lives clean. David prayed in Psalm 141:3-4, “Set a guard O Lord over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not incline my heart to any evil thing; to practice wicked works with men who work iniquity; and do not let me eat of their delicacies.”

David desired a holy life and knew that it meant watching his tongue and the desires of his heart. He knew that he must separate himself from the delicacies of evil doers. For David, pursuing holiness was hard work. Likewise, Job made a covenant with his eyes, “not to look lustfully at a girl” (Job 31:1). And Solomon wrote, “Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you. Make level paths for your feet and take only ways that are firm. Do not swerve to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil” (Proverbs 4:25-27/NIV). The Bible speaks again and again about paying careful attention to our spiritual condition. Read Deuteronomy 4:9 and 1 Timothy 4:16.

Human nature tends to forget what God has revealed. The Bible is the specific revelation of God to humans. Many of us have read it from little on up, but there is a tendency over time, to forget its message. Pursuing holiness today (for most of us) is not learning a new teaching or a new twist on Scripture, but it is applying what we already know to be the will of God. Human nature tends to make things more difficult than they are. Many of us would do well to return to the simple faith that we knew when we first started out in the Christian life.

2. Removing Contamination by the Flesh Within

Ground that is not cared for grows weeds; furniture collects dust; cars and houses and lawnmowers all become dirty with use. The soul that is not cared for, and is left to itself, will become dirty. The Bible says that we are to keep our souls diligently lest we fall away.

Second Corinthians 7:1 says that we are to “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit.” The NIV says, “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit.” What is it that contaminates the body? Remember that the Christian is to abstain from “fleshy” indulgences, appetites, and desires. We read in Galatians 5:24 that “Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” What is it that our flesh desires? What is it that our flesh most longs for? The “flesh” seeks self-recognition, wealth, personal ease, power, influence, and the like. But Paul issues a stern warning in Philippians 3:18-19, and says, “For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ; whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.”

This is a stern reminder that the Christian life and the path of holiness include a denial of fleshly passions. Saying “no” to what I want is important because in my natural state I am an enemy of the cross of Christ. It is very clear that the path of holiness for us is the same as it was for Paul, and the same as it was for Christ. It always involves denying self and maintaining an eternal perspective.

We are also told not only to cleanse our bodies, but also our spirits. A contaminated spirit is one that has been weighed down with sin. The possibilities are many—greed, unforgiveness, envy, jealousy, anger, selfish ambition. All these defile the spirit and make us unclean.

Reader’s Digest tells the story about a rabbi who was at the synagogue. The phone rang at the synagogue office. The rabbi answered and the voice on the other end said, “Hello, is this Rabbi Schwartz?” “It is,” said the Rabbi. “This is the Internal Revenue Service. We wonder if you can help us?” “I’ll try,” said the Rabbi. “Do you know a man named Herman Cohen?” “I do,” said the Rabbi. “Is this man a member of your congregation?” “He is,” said the Rabbi. “Did he donate $10,000?” “He will,” said the Rabbi.

The temptation to cheat in order to get ahead financially is often inviting. Not only can you get caught doing it, you can also destroy your inner spirit. What we have talked about so far is getting rid of things that are inherently inside of us. They are things that we produce. They are part of the old nature and as we cleanse ourselves of them, we are perfecting holiness.

3. Removing Contamination from the World Without

As one writer points out, the “filthiness” or “defilement” that is referred to in 2 Corinthians 7:1 is most often used to refer to “evil associations.” In other words, not only can we become defiled or contaminated by the old man on the inside, but we can also become contaminated by the world from the outside. The company we associate with will affect what we become. We can’t expect to be growing in holiness and still be running with the old crowd. The old crowd is on a broad road. The old crowd is taking the easy way. The old crowd is going down. The Christian is on a narrow road. The Christian is taking a hard way. The Christian is going up. The two are going in opposite directions. The Christian and the world cannot walk hand in hand. They cannot be yoked together.

God warned those Hebrew children about evil associations. Way back in Genesis when God promised to bless Abraham with children, He also said. “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict then four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions. Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:13-16).

The iniquity of the Amorites had come to God’s attention and their time was coming. The Israelites would enter the land of Canaan not only to fulfill a promise, but also to bring judgment against the Amorites. In Deuteronomy 7:1-6 the people were told,

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them. Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the Lord will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly. But thus you shall deal with them: you shall destroy their altars, and break down their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images, and burn their carved images with fire. For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth.”

Israel was holy. Israel was a treasured possession. Israel was chosen. And for this reason their worship of the Almighty was to be pure and undefiled. But there was a king who arose in Israel, a wise and wealthy king, the son of a man after God’s own heart, who went to Egypt for a wife. And in the very land that had so persecuted his people, Solomon found a companion. But Solomon also found wives in the land of Moab, and Ammon, and Edom, and Sidon, and in the land of the Hittites. And the Bible says that he “clung to these in love” (1 Kings 11:2). And on a hill east of Jerusalem he built a high place for Chemosh, the detestable god of Moab; and for Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. And the Bible says that he did the same for all his foreign wives, and burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods (1 Kings 11:7-8). This was David’s son. This was a king of Israel. This was a man who had been endowed with wisdom from on high. But he did not take seriously the danger of “evil associations.” He did not take seriously the damaging affect of wrong friends. And the Bible says that “when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David” (1 Kings 11:4).

You know the history. The kingdom was divided, wicked kings arose, and later, Israel and Judah were taken into captivity. And over in Babylon the Lord revealed Himself to the prophet Ezekiel and said:

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: This is Jerusalem, which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her. Yet in her wickedness she has rebelled against my laws and decrees more than the nations and countries around her. She has rejected my laws and has not followed my decrees. Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: You have been more unruly than the nations a-round you and have not followed my decrees or kept my laws. You have not even conformed to the standards of the nations around you …Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself am against you, Jerusalem, and I will inflict punishment on you in the sight of the nations. Because of all your detestable idols, I will do to you what I have never done before and will never do again” (Ezekiel 5:5-9/NIV).

God had brought Israel into the land of Canaan to judge the Amorites for their iniquity. But God ended up judging Israel as well, because the people forgot that they had been put in the center of the nations for a reason. Israel forgot that she was a treasured possession of the Lord of Hosts. Israel forgot that she was to be a witness to the nations. The Israelites forgot that they were on a narrow road—on a difficult road. And as a result Israel sank into more corrupt conduct than the very nations God had sent her to judge. You may remember what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 13:

“Moreover brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted…No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

God has called us out; the church has been summoned to be His treasured possession. We have been called to bear His likeness, to reflect His glory, to advance His kingdom. We have been declared holy, but we must not set our hearts on the vile. Israel’s history speaks to us because it reminds us that in spite of our spiritual advantages, we still have choices to make. We read in 1 Peter 1:14-15, “As obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” The danger of evil associations cannot be overstated, for the Bible says that “bad company ruins good morals” (1 Corinthians 15: 33/NRSV).

Pursuing holiness means self-denial and separation. I suspect that Israel did not make a conscious decision to depart from the living God, but over a period of time the Israelites simply wanted idols more than they wanted Jehovah. Most of us today cannot say that we have made a conscious decision to leave “the straight and narrow path,” but perhaps we are walking forward while looking backward. Perhaps we want Jesus and the nations. Perhaps we want pleasure and paradise.

Pursuing holiness means that our eyes are on Jesus and that our desire is to please Him. Romans 6:22 says that we reap holiness and gain eternal life when we become slaves to God. And elsewhere we read that without holiness “no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12: 14). Our key text says that we are to perfect holiness “in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). All this is to say that we “call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work.” Therefore, we are to “pass the time of our sojourning here in fear” (1 Peter 1:17). We are strangers here, pilgrims here, and wandering through a barren land. Let us renew the commitment to our Master and once again set our sights heavenward.

J. Eric BrubakerJ. Eric Brubaker is one of the team of ministers who serve in the Middle Creek Church of the Brethren in the Atlantic Northeast District. The essay printed on the preceding pages is adapted from a message delivered at the Brethren Alive Conference (July 28, 2002) held on the campus of Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, PA.