By Davy Ellison
The Real Possibility of Holiness
Numbers are not my thing. Spreadsheets, digits and calculators make my spine tingle—and not in a good way. In school I was not permitted to do the full maths course for GCSE. Instead, I was entered for the intermediate maths GCSE. This was a little humiliating. We had to go to a different room from the rest of our class mates and instead of the blue maths textbook we had to carry around the bright red maths textbook. We were known as Red Book Victims!
Apart from the light mocking I got from so-called friends who were doing regular maths with their blue textbooks, sitting an intermediate maths GCSE also meant that an A or an A* grade was beyond me. Even if I got 100% in my coursework and exam the best grade I could be awarded was a B. It was impossible for me to get an A or an A*.
I wonder if this is your mindset whenever it comes to holiness. Sometimes it is mine. I think many of us consider ourselves as taking intermediate holiness—no matter how well we do it is impossible for us to be holy, it is impossible for us to obey God, it is impossible for us to please God. DeYoung (p. 64) suggests the opposite is true: “The truth is God’s people can be righteous—not perfectly, but truly, and in a way that pleases God.”
A Real Possibility
The Bible makes it clear that holiness is a real possibility and this is vitally important to realise when considering personal holiness as it gives us genuine encouragement to pursue holiness.
DeYoung (p. 65) writes: “If we are to be passionate in our pursuit of holiness, the first thing we must establish is that holiness is possible . . . Acting like holiness is out of reach for the ordinary Christian doesn’t do justice to the way the Bible speaks”. What does he mean? The Bible speaks of Elizabeth and Zechariah as both being righteous before God and walking blamelessly in accordance with all God’s commands (Luke 1:6). It speaks of God commending Job as a blameless, upright man (Job 1:8). It speaks of numerous churches to which the Apostles write commending them for their obedience and godly example. “It sure seems like holiness is a possibility for God’s people” claims DeYoung (p. 65). He goes further (p. 66): “Christians can be rich in good works (1 Tim. 6:18; Acts 9:36). We can walk in a way worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1). We can be trained to live in a way that is holy and acceptable to God (Rom. 12:1-2).”
The Apostle Paul makes this very same point in Romans 12:1–2. These verses serve as the hinge for Paul’s letter to the Romans. We see this as Paul begins chapter 12 with an appeal based on the “mercies of God”. Romans 1–11 constitute the mercies of God. Chapters 1–3 declare that all are sinners, chapters 4–5 assure Christians they are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, chapters 6–8 promise that this justification wins various spiritual gifts and benefits for God’s people and chapters 9–11 assert that God will keep his word. On the basis of these mercies Paul makes an appeal.
The appeal Paul makes is that the Roman Christians present their whole selves as sacrifices that are living, holy and acceptable/pleasing to God. The language of verse 1 is sacrificial language, bringing to mind the sacrifices of the Old Testament—sacrifices which, when offered correctly, were dedicated to God and pleasing to him. One commentator notes that the term translated as pleasing/acceptable means that the sacrifice is not only accepted by, but most heartily welcome to God (Hendricksen, Romans 9–16, p. 402). John Calvin (Commentary on Romans, p. 337) explains that Paul “teaches us, that our work is pleasing to God when we devote ourselves to purity and holiness.” The clear implication in Paul’s appeal is that there is a real possibility to be holy—otherwise he would not and could not appeal to the Roman Christians to be sacrifices that are living, holy and acceptable/pleasing to God!
Therefore, DeYoung (p. 68–69) is right: “It is not impossible for God’s people to commit righteous acts that please God . . . whenever you trust and obey, God is pleased.”
If you have been reading along you will know that what we have been focusing on is the thrust of chapter five. While space does not permit us to cover the ground in chapter six, it is helpful to note that we are not left to ourselves to strive for this holiness which is attainable. We have help through the Spirit, the gospel and the promises of God.
First, God has given each Christian his Holy Spirit who gives us the power to obey God and opens our eyes to the sin that lingers in our life. Second, God has given us His gospel (or mercies to use the language of Romans 12). As we preach the gospel to ourselves we are amazed at God’s goodness and horrified at our weakness. As we do so something else happens, we become eager to love God in response to his love for us. DeYoung (p. 84) explains: “The humility and happiness that come with thankfulness tend to crowd out what is coarse, ugly, or mean.” Third, God gives us promises: “As our covenant God, he guarantees blessing when we obey and threatens curses for disobedience . . . The holy life is always a life of faith, believing with all our hearts that God will do what he has promised.” (p. 87).
We enjoy help. But it still takes effort on our part. After all Peter tells his readers, in light of the gospel, to “make every effort” (2 Peter 1:5). God has granted us these great helps, but “we also work hard to be holy” (p. 89).
The Christian must be encouraged that holiness is not only a real possibility but also empowered by God:
The Bible clearly teaches that holiness is possible. This is good news, not bad news. You have permission to see evidences of grace in your life. You are allowed (and expected) to be obedient. You will never be perfect in this life. You cannot do anything to earn God’s love. But as a redeemed, regenerate child of God you don’t have to be a spiritual failure. By the mercies of God you can “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). (DeYoung, p. 77)
1) What is your reaction to learning that the Scriptures teach holiness is possible?
2) Does the call for holiness in Scripture encourage or discourage your pursuit of holiness? Why?
3) How can we balance God’s help in making us holy (Holy Spirit, gospel and God’s promises) with Peter’s exhortation to “make every effort”?