he words confronted me: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). I had read that passage many times before. Frankly, I usually rushed past those words, not wanting to face them. Being holy was not a topic I wanted to confront again. I had tried to live a holy life. I had struggled to find victory over sin, only to fail repeatedly. However, now as I read the words I couldn’t get past them.
I fought the conviction for several months. I would read other passages, reflect on other biblical concepts, but the conviction continued—I needed to study the concept of holiness. Finally I went to my computer Bible and created a list of every passage dealing with the subject of holiness. I began to study each verse, comparing it with other passages. Then I came to Leviticus 20:7, 8. Suddenly the topic of holiness took on a dynamic new dimension. “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy.”
This was good news! Holiness is not something I have to produce. Instead, it is a promise of what God will do in my life as I walk with Him.
This new understanding created an intense interest within me to plunge into studying the topic. More than that, holy living became a sacred adventure, exploring what God had to offer.
God’s Call to Holiness
Scripture is clear: God wants us to be holy. He calls us to holiness. We first find this call in Exodus, where God states that Israel is to be a “holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), and His “holy people” (Ex. 22:31). The primary focus in the book of Leviticus is holiness. There we find the call to consecrate ourselves and to be holy based on God’s holiness (Lev. 11:44, 45). In Leviticus 20:7, 8 God connects the call to holiness with obedience. With verse 26 God declares that He sets us apart from the nations around us.
The call to holiness becomes even more powerful in Hebrews 12:14: “Make every effort . . . to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Second Peter 3:11, 12 presents the second coming of Jesus Christ as the motivation for living a holy life.
There is no question: Holiness is necessary. God wants us to be holy. God calls us to holiness. But what does it mean? How do we attain holiness? How do we avoid the extremes of legalism or the tolerant acceptance of our sinfulness?
Holy. The very word challenges us. Sometimes we infer that it means we have to be perfect. We conclude the task is to become sinless. We try to reach that condition. When we fail, we give up in discouragement.
The word “holy” comes from two basic biblical concepts. The root meanings in the Hebrew and Greek languages signify some thing, some place, or some one who is sacred, consecrated, set apart, or dedicated to God. It also includes obedience to God’s law and/or standing blameless before Him (1 Thess. 5:23).
Only God is intrinsically holy (Rev. 15:4). God and sin cannot coexist together. We were created in the image of God—without sin. God intended us to remain separate from sin. It was His desire that we should never experience sin. Adam and Eve’s sin damaged the relationship between God and humanity, and stood in the way of that relationship. When we could no longer maintain a relationship with Him because of sin, He took the initiative. He provided the plan of redemption in order to solve the sin problem. In the person of Jesus Christ the relationship is restored.
In a very real sense the words “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2) are an empowering command. God is saying that because we are in relationship with Him and because He is holy—we are holy. Our condition of being holy is determined not by our performance but by His divine act. “But you were . . . sanctified . . . in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). The verb is sanctify. The noun is saint. And the adjective is holy. Holiness is the result of God’s act in setting us apart.
There are two dimensions to holiness—being and doing. When we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, He sanctifies, or makes us, holy. We are holy because of what Christ has done by setting us apart for His divine purpose. He dwells within us (Matt. 28:18-20; Eph. 3:16-19), and His presence makes us holy just as the ground at Moses’ burning bush was holy because of His presence (Ex. 3). Holy doing is simply living out in our lives the reality of being holy in Christ.
The most important point we must remember about holiness is its source. God, and only God, can produce a holy life. Moses presented the Sabbath as a sign that God is the one who makes us holy (Ex. 31:13). God again clarified that He is the one who produces holiness in us (Lev. 20:7, 8).
Jesus—The Heart of Holiness
We only need to look at Jesus if we want to understand holiness. He is at the heart of holiness in at least three ways.
First, Jesus embodied and demonstrated holiness in His life on earth. There were three primary factors in His life revealing holiness: (1) Jesus had a heart for God. His desire was to be totally obedient to His Father (John 14:31). He was totally dependent upon God for His daily strength, and He sought to reveal God to those around Him (verse 9). (2) Jesus had a heart for holiness. Sin had no hold on His life (verse 30). He lived dedicated to the principles of godliness. Throughout His life He sought to maintain intimate union with God. (3) Jesus also had a heart for others. He came to give His life for sinners (John 10:15-17; 15:13-15). His life and death revealed His dedication to saving and serving sinners. Christ’s holiness was manifested in the way He dealt with people.
Second, there is no holiness for us today without Christ. We cannot live a holy life in our own strength, either before or after the experience of salvation. Only through a daily walk and intimate connection with Christ do we find holiness. The thought is nice—seek to live like Jesus. Ask yourself the question “What would Jesus do?” Then do it. There is only one problem. Holiness is not imitation—seeking to do what Jesus did. Holiness is participation in the very life and character of Jesus.
Third, He gives us a holy heart filled with His presence. In Ezekiel 36:25-27 God promised to cleanse us, give us a new heart of flesh, and place His Spirit within us. The result produces a life of obedience (see verse 27). When Christ promised the Holy Spirit as another Comforter (John 14:16-20), He stated that “on that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (verse 20). Notice the promise that the coming of the Holy Spirit would mean that Christ would be in us.
The apostle Paul made this even clearer in Ephesians 3:16-19:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
I believe the greatest challenge to holy living is not the world around us, the sinful nature within us, or even Satan’s active temptations. Instead, the greatest challenge to holiness today is our failure to accept the reality of who we are in Christ. When we accept Christ, we are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). Christ dwells within us, and we are holy. This gives us the status, starting point, and the power to begin living a new life in Him.
It is important that we recognize who and what we are in Christ. We are His! We are holy! And that changes everything else in life as we learn to live out our new identity.
Dealing With Sin
John* came to the seminar a burdened man. Like many of us, he wanted something more, but didn’t know where to start. He found himself addicted to sinful habits and unable to free himself. He knew he should abandon his sin and live a different life, but the reality of his struggle crippled his daily journey and threatened to alienate him completely from God. He had tried many times to confess his sin, and to abandon it. But each time the problem returned, and usually with a stronger hold. What could he do?
John’s struggle is neither unusual nor abnormal. Most Christians are able to identify and sympathize with him. Yet Scripture has good news for us.
The first 11 verses of Romans 6 declare very clearly that when we are in Christ, we have died to sin. (See especially verses 2, 7, and 11.) Verse 14 boldly proclaims: “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” Verse 18 declares that we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”
This is almost more than what we can believe. Yet it is clear. The controlling power of sin has been broken. Evil may harass us. Satan may tempt us. The devil may deceive us, but he no longer has control. There is a new Master—a new Lord in our lives. We may not feel it, but as long as we are in Christ this is our new reality.
Accepting this freedom from the controlling power of sin by faith is the first step in dealing with our sin. Living holiness is not the freedom from temptation, or even the freedom from a fall into sin. Living holiness is the freedom from sin’s controlling power. Yet sin will continue to tempt or draw us. Our past memories and habits influence us, and wait for a moment of weakness to trip us up.
This is a subject on which the apostle Paul gives us some very practical counsel. We cannot continue to treat sin casually (Rom. 6:1-3). We are no longer “slaves to sin” (verse 6). The next crucial element in dealing with sin is to choose whom or what we will serve.
“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness” (verses 12, 13; see also verse 19).
Because of Christ we have the freedom to choose who or what will reign in our lives. We have a choice as to what or whom our bodies will serve. Our bodies can be “instruments of wickedness” or “instruments of righteousness.” The choice is ours. It is time that we declared our freedom in Christ—freedom to live a new life of obedience and service to Him as Lord.
We must also deal directly with the sin in our lives. Paul tells us “to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22). How do we do this? By taking our sin to the cross. There is a simple process—name it, confess it, claim it, and replace it.
In other words, we put off our sin by recognizing that it is sin—naming it as sin. Too often we are far too casual in how we deal with our sin. We excuse it or call it something else. The first step in repentance is a clear recognition of our sin. Then we must confess it. Bring it to God in clear recognition that it is sin against Him, and ask for His forgiveness. When we have done so we can claim forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:9). Finally we need to replace that sin with righteousness.
In Christ we are now free to live a new life. The secret of living holiness is not found in fighting against sin, or even in putting sin off, as we have just discussed; it is found in developing a new focus for our lives. Once again Paul helps us out. He calls for us to offer ourselves to God, and to offer our bodies to Him as “instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). He invites us to put on God’s armor (Eph. 6:11-18). He challenges us to put on our “new self” (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).
Paul also calls for us to “live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Gal. 5:16). What an incredible promise! He clearly contrasts the acts of the sinful nature with the fruit of the Spirit (verses 19-23). It boils down to a choice of who will be Lord of our lives for each day. If we choose to continue as always, the result is a life of sin and perversion. If we choose to yield to God, the fruit is a transformed life.
How Do I Live Holiness?
Let’s make this practical. How do we live out our holiness? God wants us to make choices to walk with Him in the daily activities of our lives. He wants us to obey because we choose to yield to the One who has loved us with an everlasting love. Remember, He has promised to give us a new heart and to place His Spirit within us (Eze. 36:26, 27). He will produce the life of obedience when we choose to walk with Him.
Here are some practical steps to help us:
1. Focus on Jesus first. Each day take a few minutes to focus on His life and ministry when He was on earth, and now that He ministers for us as our High Priest in heaven (Col. 3:1, 2; Heb. 12:2, 3). By focusing our minds on Christ at the beginning of each day, we place the entire day in the context of His presence. Everything else we do can be done in the conscious awareness of His promises to be with us, and to provide all our needs.
2. Claim the reality of your salvation and eternal life in Christ (1 John 5:11-13). This is the beginning point of the Christian life. Only in the assurance of our salvation can we face the challenges of each day. Knowing that we are right with God helps us be consciously dependent upon Him for every breath and act throughout the day. It is up to us to choose to believe that this is our new reality in Christ.
3. Confess sin. We may not be able to avoid temptation, but we can recognize it for what it is—sin. The earlier we recognize something as sin and choose to deal with it biblically, the easier it is to resolve. Whether at the level of temptation or after a fall, the process is still the same. We recognize or name it as sin. We confess it to God as sin. We accept God’s forgiveness. Then we move forward with a choice to live the new life in Christ (Heb. 12:1; Col. 3:5; Gal. 2:20).
4. Surrender control of your life to God as Master and Lord (Rom. 6:13, 19). Either Jesus is Lord of all, or He is not Lord at all! The secret of the daily Christian life is found in the constant surrender to God’s will, power, and presence. It is good to take a mental step of placing our lives in God’s hands for His will to be done.
5. Walk in intimate union with Christ. He dwells within each one of us. Live in the reality of this divine union (Eph. 3:16-19). It is hard to imagine, but the biblical reality is that God is not only with us, but that through the ministry of the Holy Spirit Christ dwells within us. Again we can make a conscious choice to believe or accept this as our reality. We can accept our partnership with the indwelling Christ. Everything we do becomes cooperation with the Holy God—the human united with the divine in living out the daily life.
The Reality of Holiness
So here we are facing the reality of what God wants to do in our lives. Romans 6:22 puts it this way: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
The promises are real. God makes us holy. He claims us as His own. And He will produce living holiness in our lives as we walk with Him.
“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (1 Thess. 5:23, 24).
Ben Maxson is senior pastor of the Adventist church in Paradise, California.