The reason we are half-hearted in our discussion about and pursuit of holiness is the gap between our passion and our pursuit. Kevin DeYoung, a minister and favorite writer of mine, seeks to help us think through this hallmark of the Christian faith.
In my Christian life and ministry experience, I have come across several misconceptions about holiness:
- Holiness is a list of do’s and don’ts (p. 17)
- Holiness is about keeping rules (p. 33)
- Holiness is “old-school” (p. 17)
- Holiness is really hard work and almost impossible (p. 19)
- Holiness is being overly-spiritual (p. 35)
- Holiness is finding your true self (p. 36)
Kevin DeYoung speaks wisely concerning this topic and helps us to move from some of these misconceptions (chapters 1-2) to defining what holiness looks like (chapter 3). DeYoung describes holiness as “piety’s pattern”, where holiness is:
- The renewal of God’s image in us (p. 38)
- Characterized by virtue and not vice (p. 39) (See Galatians 5:19-21)
- Having a clear conscience – he distinguishes between an evil conscience (Heb 10:22), a seared conscience (1 Tim 4:2), a weak conscience (1 Cor 8:7-12) and a defiled conscience (Tit 1:15)
- Obedience to God’s commands (1 Jn 2:3, Jn 14:23, Mk 10:19)
- Conformity to Christlikeness (Rom 8:29)
The rest of the chapters (chapter 4-10) unpack these points. And I really loved how this book thinks about and motivates us to the biblical calling to holiness. It certainly brings clarity, increases our knowledge of God and ourselves and revives the passion to live in the presence of God.
Holiness and the law
The reality is that the Bible looks at holiness as a command (Matthew 5, Colossians 3, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12). The challenge then for us is either being opposed to the law or on the other hand, pursuing holiness out of a wrong motivation. DeYoung reminds us of the biblical understanding of the value of commands in general and the law of God in particular:
- The law leads us to Christ through conviction of sin (Rom 7:7, Gal 3:24).
- The law restrains the world’s wickedness (Gal 3:19)
- The law teaches us God’s will (Rom 7:14, Gal 3:21, Ex 20)
Therefore, the law is not a hindrance to our pursuit holiness, but it defines a straight line like a ruler. Grace then becomes the motivation to pursue this good thing that God calls us to (Rom 7:6, 8:7).
Holiness is possible and pleasing towards God
I found chapter 5 helpful in correcting something we usually like to say but which ends up skewing an important truth about holiness. We usually like to say “your righteousness is like filthy rags” (Is 54:6). It is helpful to grasp what this actually means. We agree that it means there is no amount of good deeds that can earn us salvation – or in theological terms, that can justify us (See Rom 3:20, Rom 10:10-13, Gal 2:15-16). Hence, the reformers cry of sola scriptura (scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola christus (Christ alone) and soli deo gloria (God’s glory alone) – meaning, that scripture alone teaches us that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone for the glory of God alone. Praise God for this redeeming truth that frees us to live in the presence of God. However, while that is true, once justified God calls us to pursue a holy life – which is both possible and pleasing in God’s sight – like Elizabeth and Zechariah:
DeYoung puts it this way:
God’s people can be righteous – not perfectly, but truly and in a way that genuinely pleases GodKevin DeYoung, Hole in our Holiness, 64.
Holiness is Spirit-Empowered, Gospel-Driven and Faith-Fueled Effort
Chapter 6 offers further motivation for the pursuit of holiness. It is common for us to fall into three sorts of ineffective pursuit of holiness: to do it by our own strength, to do it without the grounding of the gospel and to do it half-heartedly, without faith. The gospel connects the gap between justification – God’s declaration of righteousness to the believer – and our sanctification – God’s calling to righteousness of the believer. DeYoung summarizes it this way:
The Spirit sets us apart in Christ so that we might be cleansed by his blood (definitive sanctification) and he works in us so that we can be obedient to Jesus Christ (progressive sanctification). Through the Spirit we are a given a new position and infused with new power” (p. 81)Kevin DeYoung, Hole in our Holiness, 81
This small paragraph helps us to see the importance of the work of the Spirit in our pursuit of holiness. Further, DeYoung teaches us two ways in which the Spirit works in our lives:
- To strengthen us with power for the Christian life (Acts 1:8, Rom 15:19, 1 Thes 1:16)
- To enlighten us . . .
- With the reality of sin
- With the beauty of the Word (1 Cor 2:6-16)
- With the glory of Christ (2 Cor 3:18)
These two outstanding quotations were gems in this chapter:
The gospel encourages godliness out of a sense of gratitudeKevin DeYoung, Hole in our Holiness, 83
Holiness is being who we are in Christ
Being “in Christ” is elementary to what it it means to be a Christian. This concept is what is called union with Christ. In faith, we have been included into and infused with the life of Christ. Holiness then means living out who we are in Christ (p. 98). This citation explains at length what it means to be “in Christ”:
We are found in Christ (Phil 3:9), preserved in Christ (Rom. 8:39), saved and sanctified in Christ (2 Tim. 1:9, 1 Cor 1:30). We walk in Christ (Col 2:6), labor in Christ (1 Cor. 15:58), and obey in Christ (Eph. 6:1). We die in Christ (Rev. 14:13), live in Christ (Gal. 2:20), and conquer in Christ (Rom. 8:37) . . . It’s only when the Spirit joins us to Christ and we are engrafted into his body that we can participate, not only in Christ’s benefits, but in Christ himself.Kevin DeYoung, Hole in our Holiness, 95
Holiness is to be lived out practically
In his eighth chapter, DeYoung tackles one of the most practical areas in our generation – sexuality. When we look at our popular culture, the movies Christians watch and our own private lives, it is clear that sexuality is one of the “high places” of our culture. The “high places” of the Jews in the Old Testament were the idols that they had appropriated from the cultures surrounding them. Although God commanded them to bring them down, the Israelites frequently flirted with them. I could feel the heart of DeYoung when he observes that if Christians of older generations were to be brought back to life, sexuality would be one of the things of our age that they would be shocked about. Why?
Sexual impurity doesn’t shock us. It doesn’t upset us. It doesn’t offend our consciences. In fact, unless it’s really bad, sexual impurity seems normal, just a way of life, and often downright entertaining.Kevin DeYoung, Hole in our Holiness, 108
Our WhatsApp groups and social media timelines reflect this laissez-faire attitude. DeYoung then unpacks the definition of sexual immorality from the New Testament as follows:
Sexual immorality is sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a womanKevin DeYoung, Hole in our Holiness, 111
On reading this, our permissive sexual culture screams within us “boring”, “old-school” or “holy-joe”. The interesting thing about our cultural climate that calls itself liberal is that it is are liberal with all views except those views that are not as liberal as it would judge. For Christians, who are formed much more by popular culture than biblical wisdom, we may tend towards this downgrading of the biblical sexual ethic. But we need to remember, God’s design for our sexuality is best and it is the one that leads to both freedom and ultimate pleasure. When we test-drive, we end up burdened with guilt, shame and bondage, and most crucial within the displeasure of God.
Holiness is aimed at honoring God
So how do we pursue holiness in this contested space of sexuality? The underlying motive is the glory or honor of God. Practically speaking, walking with my wife towards marriage was interesting but also a challenge. The challenge was how to court with honor in the face of God in light of what everyone else was saying. As the dates get closer, there is even more pressure to conform because after all – “si you guys will get married”. We often reminded ourselves, by God’s help and the counsel of mature Christians, that our motivation was the honor of God and not the desire of our bodies or the seemingly-okay advise of culture. This is the heart that the disciple of Christ is called to embrace – God as the chief end of all of life.
But DeYoung also mentions these two additional things:
- Not to stir desire before its time (Song of Solomon 2:7, 3:5, 8:4)
- Treating the opposite sex as brothers and sisters (1 Tim 5:1-2)
Number 2 may be laughable to our culture, but not before God. After all Paul cautions Timothy to treat “younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:1-2). Elsewhere he even says that there shouldn’t be “even a hint” of sexual impurity in the body of Christ (Eph 5:3-12)
These are definitely counter-cultural but certainly helpful truths if we are to honor God with our sexuality.
But because indwelling sin is still a war to wage in the life of the Christian, DeYoung seeks to encourage those who fight and sense that the battle is lost by offering this pastoral counsel:
I praise God because I have seen this in my life. I praise God, because his gospel is a gospel of freedom to honour God.
Holiness is abiding and obeying
DeYoung unpacks the practices of holiness in his second-last chapter. Rather than being routine realities, these practices are God’s means of grace where his people can be certain that God does not command what he does not enable and empower. These FOUR practices are:
- Prayer (1 Thess 5:17)
- God’s Word (1 Jn 4:15, Jn 15:7)
- Fellowship (1 Jn 1:3, Heb 10:24-25)
- Holy Communion (1 Cor 10:15)
These are the practices that help us to abide in Christ. And it is in abiding that we obey:
We obey as we abide and abide as we obeyKevin DeYoung, Hole in our Holiness, 127
This book helps the Christian to consider some of the misconceptions about holiness, that we have believed from popular culture as well as contemporary Christian culture. By defining holiness through a panorama of Scripture, DeYoung unpacks helpful principles to renew our passion and pursuit of holiness. At a time when we have an extreme of liberty that excuses sin and on the other extreme, a legalism that burdens people, DeYoung bridges the gap by anchoring the doctrine of holiness in the reality of the gospel – that through the Spirit’s ingrafting us into Christ, we have the proper motivation, power and goal to grow in holiness.