Working Hard To Be Holy
Topic: Holy Spirit
The church that I pastored on Long Island supported a mission work in Guatemala that was led by a man named Richard Conti, and he was involved in leading both a teen challenge drug rehab center and an orphanage and I had the opportunity to take a few trips there to visit both ministries. One evening Richard took us to a church where one of us was going to preach, and as the small church started worshipping our team started worshipping with them too. We didn’t understand a word they were saying but that didn’t stop us from clapping and shouting “amen” or “hallelujah” every once in a while. After the second song though Richard leaned over and suggested we not look so enthusiastic about the songs. It turns out the church was a “holiness” church and we were singing about how women weren’t allowed to wear makeup or pants. I didn’t even know anyone wrote songs about not wearing makeup and pants! We stopped shouting “hallelujah!”
Unfortunately when many of us think of “holiness” the first thing that comes to mind are churches like that– narrow minded, judgmental, more concerned about celebrating their lists of “do’s and don’ts” than they are about celebrating the liberating grace of Jesus Christ. Josh Harris recently invented a word to describe this mind-set: “rule-igion”. Not religion, but “rule-igion”. He defines rule-igion as the idea that a right relationship with God is earned through rule keeping. Probably some here have been a part of churches that had that kind of rules-oriented, legalistic focus.
Because legalistic churches tend to call themselves “holy” and their brand of rule-igion “holiness”, the word “holiness” has gotten a bad reputation. We’d rather be known as “creative” churches or “relevant” churches or “cutting edge” churches or “missional” churches – anything but holiness churches. Honestly I’d be embarrassed for GCC to be known as a “holiness church” – term is just too associated with legalism. But God isn’t embarrassed by the words holy or holiness and He does want GCC – and all those who belong to the true church – to be known as holy and to be pursuing holiness, and this morning as we continue our series on the Holy Spirit, we’re going to look at God’s call for us to be holy and the Spirit’s work to make us holy. Last week I recommended a book by Francis Chan called Crazy Love and this week I have another great book to recommend: The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung. It is a great book on this subject of living holy lives!
I’ve entitled this message, “Working Real Hard to be Holy”. I have three points, but I want to take the most time on the third point. Gonna be looking at different passages rather than sitting in one passage this morning.
I. God is holy
II. God has made us holy through Christ
III. God calls us to work real hard to be holy
I. God is holy
Far from God being embarrassed to be known as holy, it is the most prominent attribute of God in scripture. The Bible often declares God’s love, and mercy, and kindness, and righteousness, and power. But when scripture gives us a glimpse into heaven and into the very throne room of God, we find angels crying out about God’s holiness. In Isaiah’s vision the angels flew over head and called to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” –Isa. 6:3
And we have the same picture in Rev. 4:8 where the four living creatures never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
In Ezekiel 39:7 God speaks of defending Israel and judging Magog, and He says, “And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel, and I will not let my holy name be profaned anymore. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel.” – Ezek 39:7
God’s passion isn’t that the nations know Him as loving or faithful, but that they know He is holy.
And then consider that the Holy Spirit is known as…the Holy Spirit. Not the loving Spirit (that would be kind of creepy), or the faithful Spirit, or “relevant Spirit” or the “everywhere-at-once-Spirit”, though all those things are true of Him. He is known as the Holy Spirit. Holiness is the attribute associated with His name.
God’s holiness means that He is set apart from everything else in creation – the Creator is different and distinct from the created. He is “other”. Contained in that “otherness” or holiness are all His other attributes: He is loving, faithful, merciful, righteous, wise, powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-present, Creator, Sustainer, the source of all life. In all these things, and in every way, He is “other” – holy. The point is, holy can’t become a word we’re uncomfortable using because if we do, we’re missing the most prominent attribute of God that is worshipped and adored and admired in heaven.
II. God has made us holy through Christ
When we talk about our holiness, there are two different kinds of holiness that we’re talking about. Our positional holiness in Christ, that is, the holiness we have imputed to us through faith in Christ alone, and the process of our becoming holy in the way we live our lives. Our positional holiness is perfectly accomplished through justification, which means we are justified, not by works but by faith in the finished work of Christ. Some have tried to remember what it means to be justified by the phrase, just as if I’d never sinned. That’s correct as far as it goes but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. To be justified by Christ also means, just as if I’d lived as perfectly righteous as Christ lived. He has taken away our sin and given us his righteousness.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, Col 1:19-23
This is our front line of defense against “rule-igion” – our relationship with God can never be earned through rule-keeping, but only as a free gift of grace through faith in Jesus Christ! We are positionally holy in the sight of God because we are in Christ. But we can’t stop there because the gospel doesn’t stop there. God, by His Holy Spirit, is at work in us so that we might also grow in holiness experientially. That brings me to my third point about holiness:
III. God calls us to work real hard to be holy
God calls us to live holy, upright, and blameless lives and to do that, the Bible says we need to apply a lot of effort. It’s not all God, and it’s not all us. It’s the Holy Spirit working in us so that we might work real hard at being holy! This kind of experiential holiness is something we will only achieve through hard work:
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. Heb. 12:14
The surrounding context of this verse makes it clear that the writer is not talking about our positional holiness in Christ but how we actually walk out our Christian walk.
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.1 Thess. 4:1-8
1. It is possible for us to please (and displease) God
Notice that what they got from Paul when he was with them was how they ought to walk and to please God. There is a way that Christians ought to live and a way that we ought not to live. Talking ethics. Talking virtue. Talking obedience to God. not to be saved, but evidence. Not root but fruit.
There is a misguided application of the gospel and the recognition that we are sinners that says something like this: everything I do is shot through with sin and is filthy rags in the eyes of the Lord anyway, so why bother? I can never truly be holy, never truly pure, never truly measure up to His standards, I can never truly please God by my efforts. All that pleases God is Christ’s effort – never mine.
We can think we’re honoring God by thinking that He is never pleased with our efforts, that all our efforts are tainted with sin, and that His standard is absolute perfection. But what kind of father would I be if I was always criticizing my children because their efforts weren’t good enough? When a parent helps his or her 12 month old to take their first steps, that parent isn’t criticizing them for not being able to run like a college athlete. When a child draws a picture of his family, the dad doesn’t yell and scream cause the way his son drew him makes him look like a blend of slenderman and Charlie Brown. When we think God is always displeased with our efforts, we are making a negative statement about God, not ourselves.
There’s a character in Dilbert named “Topper” and when anyone mentions something they’ve done or accomplished, he says, “that’s nothing…” and then he goes on to “top” it. Ever meet someone like that? So in one strip, Alice is mentioning to Dilbert that she went for a long walk the other day just as Topper walks up. “That’s nothing,” he says, “my thighs are so strong that I’m afraid to jump rope when the sun is directly overhead…”
Inadvertently we can think that God is like Topper. Whatever effort we make to please God, He says, “that’s nothing.” He pulls the “perfect card” on us. You say, “Father, I turned the channel when that provocative commercial came on just to guard my heart.” “That’s nothing. My heavenly standards are so high, you’d need to pluck your eyes out of your head, throw them to the ground and stomp on them just for Me to take notice.”
God’s holy standard is perfection, and apart from the cross we could never be saved or please God by our efforts anymore than we could jump rope so high we hit the sun, but after the cross, as beloved children of God, we can please God and in fact, we’re instructed to make every effort to do so. Ephesians 5:10 tells us to try and discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Colossians 1:10 Paul prays for the believers in Colossae that they would walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him and bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. It is possible to please God.
2. Holiness looks like obedience to God’s commands
God gives us commands and grace hasn’t removed those commands from our lives. Jesus said “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” It’s wrong to say that Jesus is interested in relationship not commands. The Bible is full of commands to believers and the reason is that God’s commands don’t negate relationship, they protect our relationship with him. Relationship is strengthened and protected by keeping the law. Our marriages aren’t weakened because we vowed to be faithful to one another and look at that as a sacred commitment to keep and obey.
And so we are to love, to forgive, to honor God, to encourage one another, to flee youthful lusts, to put away anger and malice and moral filth and immorality…and on and on it goes. Not in order to earn God’s love, but because He loves us, and we love Him and want to please Him.
This is why the psalmist can speak of God’s commands, His law, as a delight to his soul. Because it is the right way, the best way, to live. His commands lead us to life and protect all that is good and right. Living uprightly is living well. It may be hard at times, but not nearly as hard as living in contradiction to God’s commands.
3. Obedience isn’t the same as perfection
Look at what Paul says in verse 1: we ask and urge you to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. They’re doing it. There’s room for growth. Isn’t that where most of us are?
One of the confusions come when we mistake obedience for perfection. Let’s be honest, none of us are perfect. None of us can or do perfectly obey God’s will. But it doesn’t take perfection to please our heavenly Father. I was reading aloud from 1 Kings the other morning and I came to the passage in chapter 3 where God tells Solomon that if he will walk in God’s ways, keeping his statutes and commandments, as his father David walked, then God promises to lengthen his days. Janice pointed out that David blew it royally – he sinned in a wicked way against the Lord and against Uriah and against Bathsheba, and against others. Yet God says of him, he walked in my ways and kept my commandments. Not perfectly, but overall as a pattern of his life. God would call David a man after his heart. But not always.
God calls many people blameless and righteous – Job and Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth and others. They couldn’t be saved by their righteousness, but they really did have virtue. God calls us to walk in righteousness before Him, and He empowers us to do it.
So God expects the Christian to be marked by virtues like love, joy, peace, self-control, patience, humility, gentleness, purity, and so on. Not perfect, but real. Listen, you will trust someone, not because you think they are perfect, but because you believe them to be trustworthy as a person. We can be imperfect Christians and not be hypocritical Christians. We can struggle with laziness but overall be a hard worker. We can struggle with being impatient but not be abusive. There are differences between a virtuous person and a wicked person.
A big part of seeking to obey God’s commands and live righteously is to guard a clean conscience. A clean conscience is, first the product of God’s forgiveness and washing by Jesus’ blood. Hebrews 9:14 says: “how much more will the blood of Christ…purify our consciences from dead works to serve the living God.”
Paul tells his son in the faith Timothy that the aim of his charge to Timothy is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. And a little bit later warns that those who don’t hold onto their faith and a good conscience make a shipwreck of their faith. God calls us to obedience, virtue, a good conscience, and none of this means we are perfect.
4. The Holy Spirit empowers us to work hard to be holy
Finally, in 1 Thess 4:7-8 Paul says:
For God has not called us for impurity but in holiness. Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards no man but God, who gives His Holy Spirit to you.
To disregard the call to walk holy and please God and abstain from those things that displease God is to disregard God who gave us is Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit does more than save us, He gives us grace to say no to ungodliness. He empowers us to work hard to be holy, but we need to work hard.
He empowers us to make right choices, but we need to make the choices. He enlightens us to see discern truth from lie, but we need to choose the truth. He changes our nature so that we hate darkness and love the light, but we need to choose the light over the darkness. He empowers us to resist sin and choose obedience, but we need to choose to resist sin and obey. We can’t do it apart from the Spirit’s work, but the Spirit doesn’t do it apart from our effort.
As we close, I don’t want to give you a list of things often associated with holiness: do this, don’t do that (although the Bible does give us those lists). I want to encourage you that God really has called you – and empowered you – to be holy. And yes I know that you are imperfect and somedays probably feel like you’re barely saved. But the Father is pleased with your efforts and is calling you and me to work harder at it!
• Trustworthy? Keep your word?
• Loving and kind?
• Forgiving person?
• Fighting lust and fleeing immorality? If you are visiting porn sites, the answer is no. Don’t spiritualize it – flee (Paul says).
• Humble? Putting pride to death?
• Zealous in your love for Christ?
Don’t get condemned – but do be convicted! There is strong assurance when we make every effort to obey God out of a love for Him and a desire to please Him (not a misguided attempt to earn His acceptance). As Kevin DeYoung says, when it comes to godliness, trusting does not put an end to trying. Let’s trust God, especially the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, let’s call upon Him for more of the Spirit’s power, and then let’s work real hard to be holy!