The ‘More and More’ of Holiness

Holiness is the great goal of Christ’s saving mission.

Holiness matters. And it matters far more than we are willing to admit. We may be quite happy to engage in argument and debate over the meaning of the concept in Scripture, but make little effort to fight the inward battles involved in the pursuit of holiness in our daily lives.

 

Holiness has too often been embroiled in confusion and distortion within the Christian community and, sadly, ends up being neglected rather than cultivated within the church. This is especially true in times, like our own, when the gospel becomes more ‘me-focused’ than ‘God-focused’.

Holiness is the great goal of Christ’s saving mission. According to Paul, his purpose in redemption was ‘to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good’ (Tit 2.14). The author of Hebrews urges his readers to ‘pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (He 12.14 [NRSV]. And Jesus himself states it even more bluntly with the words, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 6.48).

Holiness matters. And it matters far more than we are willing to admit. We may be quite happy to engage in argument and debate over the meaning of the concept in Scripture, but make little effort to fight the inward battles involved in the pursuit of holiness in our daily lives.

This struck me recently while reading Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Summing up the main thrust of his letter, he tells them,

Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord to do this more and more (1Th 4.1) [NIV – italics added].

He goes on from there to walk them through some of the glaring failures that were literally a blot on the landscape of the church’s witness in that town and surrounding area. Reminding them that ‘it is God’s will that you should be sanctified’ he goes on to catalogue the list of sexual sins (private as well as public) that were clearly a matter of common knowledge in their wider community. He then says, ‘For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life’ (4.7).

It was as though their journey along the ‘holiness road’ they had begun to travel so well when they received the gospel had been interrupted, or, at least, its pace had noticeably slowed since the early days of their faith: a time for which Paul had commended them (1.2-10).

How true this is for so many Christians, not least, those who serve as leaders in the church. We are eager to debate the technicalities of sanctification, but pour much less energy into living out its practicalities. We may have started eagerly and well, but as time goes by our energy for making progress seems to wane.

John Murray put his finger on this distortion in his handling of progressive sanctification in the chapter of that same name in volume 2 of his Collected Writings.[1] Having addressed the question of ‘Definitive Sanctification’ and its ‘Agency’ in the two preceding chapters, he goes on to consider how this forensic aspect of holiness cannot be separated from its outworking in the Christian life experientially. He fleshes out how this becomes a reality and where it ultimately leads in the two other chapters that follow in this section.

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