When it Comes to Holiness

By Rev. Dr. J. Patrick Bowman

Holiness is often seen by professing believers as an abstract concept that is either non-attainable or irrelevant. Some say, “I know I can’t be holy, so why try?” Others quip, “What’s the big deal about holiness?” Maybe you find yourself asking one or both of these questions; why try and what’s the big deal. They are often connected. Deciding we can’t do something brings a minimizing of the importance of the thing we can’t do. This makes our seeming inability less a disability in our thinking and makes us feel better about ourselves. The problem with this often-unconscious defense mechanism is that it keeps us bound by those things we’ve deemed non-attainable and irrelevant. Instead of facing our hesitations openly, we play the victim and fail to “grow through” these issues. Sometimes missing the mark repeatedly before hitting the bullseye is the best teacher. We learn what not to do while learning what we should do.

So it is with holiness, except that holiness is far less about what we do than what we become through God’s grace. Holiness is the desired result of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power in our lives. Our reading this morning is the Apostle Paul praying about the source and fulfillment of our sanctification. A holy God is both the initiator and completer of this work. He will bring it to pass. Of course, our thoughts, attitudes, and actions will change as we become more Christ-like. But we must never think that we can become more Christ-like by merely redirecting our efforts to behavioral modification in our own strength. Our self-effort, again, may make us feel better about ourselves, but cannot stand in the hard places of life.

For example, I’ve seen those fighting addictions use self-effort to quit a behavior, such as drinking or drug use. They believe they can keep their sobriety through their self-effort, negating most of the twelve steps in their program. They can even maintain sobriety for a season, until a stressor more significant than their self-effort comes charging into their lives. It is then that self-effort reveals the weakness inherent in it. The key is allowing the Holy Spirit to redirect our efforts away from self to total dependence on Him.

We do not become sanctified (more Christ-like) by repressing sin in our self-effort any more than a person struggling with addictions does by their self-effort. We can hide our sin behind the frail wall of thinking we can deal with it effectively in our way, on our terms. And just like at Jericho, our walls will come tumbling down. Self-reliance must become reliance on God. The same grace that saves us is the grace that sanctifies us.

 Our actions must be motivated and directed by the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. In Matthew 7:24-27, Jesus tells us,

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock.  Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”(NASB)


Some might read this and say, but even here, Jesus requires effort. But notice that the obedience required comes in response to hearing His word, not from our inclination to act on our own. In John 14:26, Jesus says, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” When the Spirit teaches and applies a word to our lives, we dare not build upon it in self-effort, but in total dependence on and desire for Him to accomplish what He has begun in us. He teaches us how to respond. Notice in the parable of the houses that they look alike on the surface. But when the storm comes, and the foundations are put to the test, it becomes quickly evident that one is built on the solid rock of hearing and heeding God’s word and stands, while the other is built on the sand of hearing yet ignoring God’s word and falls.

Point #2. Why people say what they say when it comes to holiness. The primary way the Holy Spirit teaches us is through the written word of God, the Bible. As the Holy Spirit inspired its writing, the Spirit is the primary interpreter of what He inspired. A major issue in much of the Church today is a lack of Biblical teaching that opens the way for the Holy Spirit to work. Biblical illiteracy is at an epidemic level in the United States. This is far more dangerous than the corona virus.
What appears most disturbing about recent research is that an increasing number of Christians fall within the ranks of the Biblically illiterate. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has observed that:

“Christians who lack biblical knowledge are the products of churches that marginalize biblical knowledge. Bible teaching now often accounts for only a diminishing fraction of the local congregation’s time and attention. The move to small group ministry has certainly increased opportunities for fellowship, but many of these groups never get beyond superficial Bible study.”1

Stating the problem in even more glaring terms is Dr. Kenneth Berding, Ph.D., professor of New Testament at Biola University’s Talbot School of theology:

“I have heard people call it a famine. A famine of knowing the Bible. During a famine people waste away for lack of sustenance. Some people die. Those who remain need nourishment; they need to be revived. And if they have any hope of remaining alive over time, their life situation has to change in conspicuous ways.

“Christians used to be known as ‘people of one book.’ Sure, they read, studied and shared other books. But the book they cared about more than all others combined was the Bible. They memorized it, meditated on it, talked about it and taught it to others. We don’t do that anymore, and in a very real sense we’re starving ourselves to death.”2

Another aspect of Biblical illiteracy is the tendency of church leaders to teach and preach selective passages and themes to the exclusion of presenting the big picture themes that carry us from Genesis to Revelation. Without a connection to the whole, the parts have no place to nest. As Berding says, Christians used to be known as people of one book. However, Christians must also be known as people of the whole book.

DrJ. Carl Laney, Professor of Biblical Literature at Western Seminary, offers a way forward when stating, “How can pastors, seminary professors and Sunday School teachers move beyond merely telling the stories of the Bible to declaring the great story of God’s plan for the ages? The key, I believe, is to give more attention to proclaiming the major Bible themes in our teaching and preaching.”3

 Holiness is one of the significant Bible themes, but if the research is accurate, and these themes are not presented in small group ministry or from behind the pulpit, and people are not reading the Bible on their own, where are they learning about and developing their views on holiness?

Along side a lack of teaching on holiness is the societal pressure to shy away from absolutes. The culture we live in and have not successfully impacted with Biblical truth has turned to a postmodern philosophy. Postmodernism is, “a philosophy that says absolute truth, solid concrete values, does not necessarily even exist.”  It is no longer the case that a Christian worldview is the worldview of a Christian. Convictions once considered truth now appear diluted in the lukewarmness of relativism. As Dr. Carl Broggi, in his contribution to the book World Religions and Cults says,

“Postmodernism embraces relativism to the highest degree. Relativism is the idea that truth and moral values are not absolute but are relative to the persons or groups holding them.

“This means that what is right for one person, may not necessarily be right for another person. Therefore, truth is not really knowable. Truth is whatever you want it to be. This makes truth a moving target. What one believes, what one considers to be right or wrong, is really left up to the individual. I’m OK; you’re OK—the famous saying brought to us by the psychology of the past—is an effective mantra for this viewpoint. What is true for you might not be true for me. In the thinking of the postmodernist, no one is really wrong except for those who hold to absolute truth.“4

The rejection of absolute truth leaves us without a baseline for moral and ethic decisions. This is a major reason the question, “What’s the big deal about holiness?” is on the lips of so many today.

In an article titled Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World, Lindy Keffer gives further voice to the problem saying:

“Whatever happened to the truth?! In our world, the idea of ultimate truth — something that is true at all times in all places and has relevance for our lives — is about as extinct as the dinosaur. In fact, nearly three out of four Americans say there is no such thing as ultimate, or absolute, truth. And the numbers don’t look much better among those who claim to follow Jesus.

“If there is no basis for moral decisions, then whatever you choose to do is fine. Of course, most people like to believe that they have some basis for the decisions they make. So we’ve constructed our own standards:

Science and reason Even though most people have thrown out reason as the source of ultimate truth, some still cling to it. “If I can’t see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it and test it, it can’t be true,” they say.

Popular opinion You only have to look as far as your TV to know that society thinks popular opinion is a good basis for making decisions. Otherwise, why would our advertisements tell us to “catch the wave” or make the “choice of a new generation”? All these ads appeal to the idea that “everyone is doing it” and that you should, too.

Feelings Emotions are perhaps the most popular basis for making choices today. After all, how can anyone argue with how you feel? If feelings are a good standard for decision-making, then you’ll never have to come up with a better defense than, “I did it because I felt like it.”5

Holiness has never appealed to science, popular opinion, or feelings for validation. How can it? Its nature is supernatural, wrought with callings to self-denial and sacrifice, and therefore unpopular to most. This condition makes it a challenge for those leaders that do embrace and teach biblical holiness, as the imperative it is, to gain a hearing.

Point #3. What God says in His word when it comes to holiness

Holiness matters because it is the essence of God. It ought to be taken seriously by us because it is a weighty matter to God. Wherever God appears, holiness comes with Him because it cannot escape Him. As Henrey Thiessen wrote in his Lectures in Systematic Theology, God’s holiness “is not really an attribute that is coordinate with the other attributes, but is rather coextensive with them all. Holiness occupies the foremost rank among the attributes of God.”6

Speaking of the scriptural use of repetition as a means of emphasis, theologian R. C. Sproul, from his teaching on the importance of holiness, says:

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is only one attribute of God that is ever raised to the third degree of repetition in Scripture. There is only one characteristic of Almighty God that is communicated in the superlative degree from the mouths of angels, where the Bible doesn’t simply say that God is holy, or even that He’s holy, holy, but that He is holy, holy, holy.

“The Bible doesn’t say that God is mercy, mercy, mercy or love, love, love or justice, justice, justice or wrath, wrath, wrath, but that He is holy, holy, holy. This is a dimension of God that consumes His very essence, and when it is manifest to Isaiah, we read that “at the sound of the voices of the seraphim the doorposts, the thresholds of the temple itself shook and began to tremble” (Isa. 6:4). Do you hear that? Inanimate, lifeless, unintelligible parts of creation in the presence of the manifestation of the holiness of God had the good sense to be moved. How can we, made in His image, be indifferent or apathetic to His majesty?”7

When Moses encountered God at the burning bush, God encountered Moses first with His holiness:

Now Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. So Moses said, ” I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:1-5)

The ground was not holy because of Moses; it was holy because God was there, and He declared it so.

When God had led the Israelites through the Red Sea, Moses and the men of Israel sang a song of worship and rejoicing before the Lord and acknowledged His holiness (Ex. 15:11,13). When the people reached Mt. Sinai, and God prepared them and Moses to hear from God, “there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Ex. 19:16). When God gave His commandments, included was a command to “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8), as God had so done when He finished His work in creation (Gen. 2:1-3).

When God brought the Israelites into the Promised Land and was preparing Joshua to take Jericho, we read in Joshua:

Now it came about when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing opposite him with his sword drawn in his hand, and Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us or for our adversaries?”  He said, “No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the LORD.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and bowed down, and said to him, “What has my lord to say to his servant?” The captain of the LORD’S host said to Joshua, ” Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15)

We see time and time again in the Old Testament, the holiness of God, or His requirement for holiness in His people on display. These are but a few examples.

We’ve looked at what people say when it comes to holiness, why people say what they say when it comes to holiness, and what God says in His word when it comes to holiness. The question we have yet to ask is “How do we respond?” I found a 2013 article by Msgr. Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter – St Cyprian Roman Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. that offers perspective I think worthy of sharing with you in closing.

“We live in a time that has tended to reduce holiness to merely being nice and agreeable. In this manner of thinking holiness tends to be variously thought of as: getting along well with everyone, being kind, agreeable, helpful, likable, generous, pleasant, mild mannered, amiable, good humored, middle of the road, even tempered, placid, benevolent, friendly, forbearing, tolerant, thoughtful, and the like. It can all be summed up by saying that “so-and-so” is “basically a nice person.” And thus the goal seems more to be nice than holy.

If you think this isn’t so, listen to how people talk at funerals. “Wow, Joe was a great guy!….We’re all gonna miss his jokes….Joe liked everybody! Joe would do anything for you!” Now all this is fine. But did Joe pray? Did Joe raise his kids in the fear of the Lord? Did Joe set a moral example that summoned others to holiness? Maybe he did but people don’t usually talk about that at the wake service. All that seems to matter is that Joe was a “great guy.” But the goal in life is not just to be a great guy, it is to be holy.

Now, none of the qualities listed above the previous paragraphs are wrong or bad. But the problem is that we have largely reduced holiness to these sorts of qualities, to being “basically a nice person.” Oh sure, holy people will be known to pray and that sort of stuff but God forbid that some one might exhibit righteous anger or rebuke sin. No, that wouldn’t be nice at all! It’s wrong to upset people isn’t it? And thus we tend to limit what holiness should be like.

But true holiness, while it does not seek a fight, does not easily fit into this world’s schemes and categories. It tends to run against the grain and upset the status quo. Jesus could surely be kind, merciful and forgiving. But he was also holy. And true holiness does not compromise the truth, does not go along to get along. It does not remain silent just so everyone can be happy and unoffended. Jesus did not end up on the Cross because he was “basically a nice person.” He spoke the truth in love. He prophetically denounced hypocrisy, duplicity, sin and injustice. It is true he also blessed children and repentant sinners found refuge in him and a strong advocate. But Jesus was no fool, and he didn’t just go around slapping every one’s back and being nice. Jesus was holy. And holiness is hot to the touch. It is not easily endured by the tepid and worldly minded. They killed him for it.

Too many Christians have substituted niceness for holiness and hence endure almost no hostility from the world. Too many Christians think that getting along and being popular is their main task. Having enemies is somehow “unchristian.” Never mind that Jesus told us to love our enemies (which presupposes we have some). No, having enemies is surely a sign that we are not getting along with people and that is not very nice (err….”holy”).

Now this attitude is deadly to living a prophetic Christian witness. Of course the word “witness” is Biblically tied to the word “martyr.” Martyrs do not end up dead by being nice. They usually end up dead or at least persecuted by running afoul of the world’s norms and priorities. And when told to be nice and go along to get along, they declined and continued as an irritant to a world that demands compromise with evil, approval of sin, and silence about faith. But this is our call, not to be nice, to be holy. Holy means “set apart,” “distinct from what is around it.”

There is a place for niceness and ordinary human kindness. But the point is that holiness cannot be reduced to this. There are times where holiness demands that we speak out strongly and unambiguously. True holiness will lead us increasingly to live in a way that others will often find an irritant. Perhaps our radical simplicity and generosity will prick their conscience. Perhaps our deep devotion to God will cause them to feel uneasy. Perhaps our moral positions will offend their politics or worldly ethics. Our mentioning of a day of judgment that looms may incite their anger. And so forth…. We do not seek conflict, but conflict finds us. The world demands that we back down and be nice, that we get along better.

Holiness is not of this world. True holiness brings an increasingly radical transformation that makes the recipient seem to be a foreigner in this world who speaks with a strange accent and has foreign ways. He does not fit into simple political distinctions, does not conform to worldly categories. True holiness ignites a fire in the recipient and fire changes everything it touches. In the end no one remains neutral to a truly holy person. Either they complain of the heat or draw warmth, but no one is neutral.

Holiness is a lot more than being nice.”8


Berding, Kenneth. The Crisis of Biblical Illiteracy & What We Can Do About It. Vers. Spring 2014. 2014. Article. 20 September 2019. <http://magazine.biola.edu/article/14-spring/the-crisis-of-biblical-illiteracy/&gt;.

Keffer, Lindy. “Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World.” 1 April 2019. Focus on the Family. 9 December 2019. <https://www.focusonthefamily.com/church/absolute-truth/&gt;.

Laney, J. Carl. Biblical Illiteracy in the Church Today, Part 1. 21 June 2016. Western Seminary. Article. 21 September 2019. <https://transformedblog.westernseminary.edu/2016/06/21/7466/&gt;.

Mohler, R. Albert. The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem. 20 January 2016. Article. 20 September 2019. <https://albertmohler.com/2016/01/20/the-scandal-of-biblical-illiteracy-its-our-problem-4/&gt;.

Pope, Charles.  Holiness Is More Than Being Nice
http://blog.adw.org/2013/10/holiness-is-more-than-being-nice-2/

Sproul, R. C. The Holiness of God. n.d. 19 December 2019. <https://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/holiness_of_god/the-importance-of-holiness/?https://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/holiness_of_god/the-importance-of-holiness/?&gt;.

Thiessen, Henry Clarence. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.

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