This is a plain truth which divides men and women who profess to know Christ into two categories, those progressing in holiness, and those who are not. It is a very simple principle to grasp. God knows whether you are his or not, but if you profess to know Christ and have no holiness of life, you have no right to assurance that you are a Christian. You are in danger of hell. If you have lived as an authentic holiness-pursuer, and then dropped back for some period only to return again, that is a healthier sign revealing that you are His and your desertion was the temporary disobedience of a true believer.
“Say not that thou hast royal blood in thy veins and art born of God,” said puritan William Gurnall, “unless thou canst prove thy pedigree by daring to be holy.”
There is no such thing as an unholy Christian (at least in any ongoing sense.) Can Christians commit any sort of sin? Yes. Can Christians repeatedly commit sin? Yes. Can Christians commit the worst of sins? Yes. But it is inconceivable that a person could be a Christian without holiness of life.
John stated the principle of persistent holiness like this: “Whoever sins has neither seen Him or known Him,” (1 Jn. 3: 6 NKJV). “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God. In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest” (1 Jn. 3: 9-10).
The above statements, which are as intrusive as the surgeon’s knife, do not argue perfection when considered in context (1 Jn. 1:8; 2: 1), but they do establish the righteous practice of every believer as a sort of guarantee. Authentic Christians are holy. All who are not are merely deceived. “Little children, let no one deceive you” (1 Jn. 3:7).
I once grew some orange trees in my backyard. What I saw on their branches were admittedly somewhat less inviting than others I had seen, but they were oranges nonetheless, and they tasted pretty good. They were not lemons. I could tell that I had an authentic orange tree by its fruit (Mt. 7: 20). The fruit of holiness is found on the branches of every Christian life.
We are told by the writer of Hebrews to “pursue…holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). By this the writer is affirming that holiness is progressive (we must pursue it), but also essential. The combination of these two thoughts is quite helpful. First it assures us that we are in process and therefore no one of us has “arrived.” Sanctification is not instantaneous, nor complete until heaven. We cannot believe in any kind of perfectionism. At any given time, we are part pure and part sinful.
Paul asserted this inability to be perfect when he said that we would have to wait until the Lord comes to know “the things hidden in the darkness” and “the counsels of the hearts” (1 Cor. 4: 5). “For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:4). Even when we perceive that we are living without sin, the Lord may know of sins completely unrecognized by us.
The biblical doctrine of progressive sanctification does not allow for semi-perfectionism either. This popular perspective teaches that when certain pre-requisites on the believer’s part are fulfilled, Christ lives through the Christian. Christ lives His life perfectly through the believer for the duration of the time the believer puts Him on the throne of the life. (There are other terms sometimes used for this act of releasing Christ to be Christ in and through the believer.) If there is not a conscious putting of Christ on the throne, the “flesh” will dominate the believer, and everything is sinful, for self cannot be reformed. Semi-perfectionism says that the life is all perfect or all sinful.
There are some aspects of this view which are helpful and right, yet, all in all, it falls short of the biblical truth that sanctification is a growing matter (1 Thess. 4: 1; 1 Pet. 2:2, etc.). Its particular danger is in implying that, short of experiencing that highest spiritual plane, a professing believer may live a continuously fruitless life and still consider himself a valid Christian. This the Bible does not support (Mt. 13: 23; Rom. 8: 12-13, etc.).
Secondly, holiness is not only progressive, but essential. The writer said, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12: 14). If a professing believer does not love holiness, appreciate holy people and holy conversation, value a holy environment, etc., on his way to heaven, he will find that heaven will be hell to him! Believers do sin; the Bible is clear about that. Yet, their sins are more out of weakness than the old rebellion and apathy. The believer is a new creature with new affections. “The spirit is willing” even if “the flesh is weak” (Mk. 14: 38).