Holiness is not merely the changing of our status in heaven; it is acknowledging our love for God and our desire to look more and more like him, whom we say we nlove. It is an ever-increasing oneness prompted by love. (Steve DeNeff)
The message Jesus and his disciples taught to and through the early church was not only a message of forgiveness. It was not only a message of a judicial restoration of one’s relationship with God. It was a message of newness of life, transformation of life, here and now. Paul preached that the gospel message possesses the potential for real change in people and their personalities, such that we are able to vividly and compellingly see a life that is an alternative to one dominated by sin. (1) This means real, present transformation, a transformation into greater and greater Christlikeness, into the image of God, and into holiness. It comes as a command of God, a call to holiness, and is to be known and experienced as a dynamic reality in the everyday life of every follower of Jesus.
It is hardly deniable that Scripture issues a call to holiness given the command of the Father (Leviticus 19:2), of the Son (Matthew 5:48), and of the Holy Spirit by the inspiration given to Peter (1 Peter 1:15–16). In the midst of giving the law to the Israelites, the Father commanded, “You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). When teaching the disciples what it means to live as true children of the Father, Jesus commanded, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter wrote to the dispersed church, urging them to live as obedient children and reminding them, “But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, ‘You must be holy because I am holy’ ” (1 Peter 1:15–16). The call to holiness is Trinitarian, and growth in holiness involves Trinitarian action in the believer, the will of the Father, the example of the Son, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. (2)
The fact that it is Trinitarian adds great emphasis to this call to holiness. The question is how are we going to respond? It’s so easy to read some of the standards in the Bible and think, That sounds nice; it might be good for a monk or a preacher, but I could never be that kind of person. Yet, we are told without equivocation that we are to love God with all our heart, to love our neighbor, and to be holy. The Bible is not a book that sets out high and lofty ideals that are appealing but can be ignored because they are impossible to obtain. It is a practical book of life, not because we are able to live it out but precisely because its demands upon us come with the power of God helping us respond. But we immediately encounter a problem if we think of holiness as something to be achieved, a box to be checked, or a task to be completed.
Holiness is not simply about keeping a list of things we do and don’t do. Sure, that is part of it, but holiness is much more. Holiness is about our total relationship with God. “Sin is, at its root, the absence of God. Holiness, at its root, is the presence of God.” (3) When we looked at the sin of Adam and Eve, we noted that they chose a situation in which the manifest presence of God was absent. An inseparable part of their sin was their choice of life in the absence of God. Holiness “is ultimately about the full manifestation of God’s presence with His people. This is why the essence of sin is choosing the absence of God. In contrast, holiness, at its very foundation, is the sign and seal of God’s presence in the world.” (4)
The holiness of God is perfect and unchanging. The follower of Jesus experiences holiness as being set apart or consecrated for the purposes of God and growth in the likeness of Christ. It is a high calling, indeed the highest calling, in a believer’s life and hence has immediate and profound meaning to a believer:
[H]oliness is not merely the changing of our status in heaven; it is acknowledging our love for God and our desire to look more and more like him, whom we say we love. It is an ever-increasing oneness prompted by love. In our conversion, we were driven or pushed into repentance by a deep conviction or guilt over having broken the rules (Galatians 3:24). In sanctification, we are pulled or compelled by a holy fascination to become one again with the Father and to bear his image. (emphasis added) (5)
A life of holiness is somehow instinctively understood as standing in opposition to a life that conforms to the destructive and dehumanizing standards of the world. It is a life that is moral, sacred, and pure, standing in opposition to that which is profane, godless, and irreverent. We read of the transition between these two ways of living in the words of Scripture: “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20) and “For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). The regeneration that comes through the gospel is freedom from the power of sin, the freedom to live life as God intended, life measured by holiness (Romans 8:2).
Are you interested in learning more about this topic? David Long wrote a book, The Quest for Holiness: From Shallow Belief to Mature Believer. It’s a work that seeks to help individuals, small groups, and entire churches understand humanity’s fallen nature and surrender more and more to the transforming work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Get your copy from our store now.
1. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 116.
2. Melvin E. Dieter, Anthony A. Hoekema, Stanley M. Horton, J. Robertson McQuilkin, and John F. Walvoord, Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 66, 125.
3. Timothy C. Tennent, The Call to Holiness: Pursuing the Heart of God for the Love of the World (Franklin, TN: Seedbed Publishing, 2014), 20.
4. Ibid., 27.
5. Steve DeNeff, The Way of Holiness: Experience God’s Work in You (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan, 2010), 153.