Dear young people, what comes to your mind when you think about a holy life? Do you imagine a priest in religious garb, a monk in his robe chanting, or an ascetic sitting atop a pole meditating? Or perhaps you think a holy life means abstaining from drinking alcohol, smoking, and partying. No swearing, no drugs, and no sex. People who are holy seem to take religion pretty seriously – they go regularly to church, the temple or mosque, and faithfully perform the required rituals and prayers.
It is crucial that we understand what holiness is, and what it means to live a holy life. For without holiness, no man shall see God (Heb. 12:14).
The idea of holiness is essentially separation, or consecration. When something is holy, it is set apart and distinct from the ordinary and common. The concept of holiness is first and foremost applied to God. He is the Holy One – separate and distinct from all His creation. He is God, and there is none else (Isa. 45:22). He is separate from all sin and wholly consecrated to Himself and His glory. Because God is holy, He calls His people to be holy (1 Pet. 1:16). That means we are called to be separate from sin (to hate and forsake it) and consecrated to God (to love and serve Him whole-heartedly). To be holy is therefore to become more and more like God Himself. But all of us are by nature unholy. We were ugly sinners, spiritually dead and delighting in our sins, and wholly incapable of doing anything to makes ourselves holy. Neither do we desire to be holy.
Left to ourselves, we only become more and more unholy, falling deeper and deeper into the snare of our own sins, until we finally perish. We may live an outwardly moral life. We may observe a certain code of conduct and abstain from societal vices. We may not have broken any law of the land and are free from gross sins such as adultery and murder. But for all that, in our unregenerate state, dead in sin and without spiritual life, we are unholy.
If we are to become holy, God must accomplish the work. This work of making us holy, or sanctification, the Westminster Larger Catechism defines as a ‘work of God’s grace’ (Q&A 75). It is therefore not a work that we deserve, or that we could accomplish on our own, or in any way dependent on us. But it is wholly attributed to God. Our entire salvation, including sanctification, is of the Lord. It is of His sovereign grace and mercy. We were dead in trespasses and sins, but God Who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, has made us spiritually alive in Christ (Eph. 2:1,4,5). And the life of faith we now live is a holy life. As children of God, chosen, regenerated, justified, a holy life is not a mere possibility. It is a present reality. It is the fruit of regeneration and justification that must happen in the chain of salvation. For we have been chosen in Christ that we should be holy (Eph. 1:4).
But that does not mean that we just passively sit around and expect God to zap us with holiness instantly. We are called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phi. 2:12). Paul exhorts Timothy to ‘flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure hear’ (2 Tim. 2:22). We are called to mortify the old man and quicken the new man in us (Eph. 4:22-24, Col. 3:5). We are to ‘abstain from all appearance of evil’ (1 Thess. 5:22). We must walk as children of light (Eph. 5:8). The Captain of our salvation summons us to ‘put on the whole armour of God and wrestle against principalities, powers,…against spiritual wickedess in high places, that we may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand’ (Eph. 6:11-13). We are to grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18).
The life of holiness is marked by two outstanding characteristics: struggle against sin, and faith in Jesus Christ.
Struggle against sin? It seems to us that godly men are hardly troubled by sin. They seem to be above the temptations of the flesh and are not attracted by the world. Aren’t they always on the mountain-top of faith, near to God and far from sin and wickedness? But regardless of how God-fearing and sinless they may appear to be, we can be certain that they do struggle with sin in their lives. The Word of God is crystal clear that sin dwells in every human heart, and there is none righteous, no not one (Rom. 3:10) (except Jesus, of course). When we were born again, we died to sin (Rom. 6:2). But sin is not dead to us. The guilt of sin is removed and the dominion of sin is broken in us, but sin is still very much alive in us, i.e. in our old man. Just read Romans 7. Yes, it is the great apostle of the New Testament who wrote that chapter, in which he speaks of the titanic struggle between the old and new man in him. We are called to mortify the old man (HC Q&A 89). We are called ‘Christians’ because we fight against sin and Satan in this life (HC Q&A 32). The very struggle against sin is evidence that we are spiritually alive and striving to live a holy life. The more we grow in grace and godliness, the more we struggle with sin, because we become more conscious of the heinousness of our sins, and how much we have offended God. Even the holiest man in this life has only a small beginning of obedience. A large part of his life involves great struggles against sin.
But the life of holiness is also marked by faith in Jesus Christ. Our very bitter struggle against sin daily drives us to the cross. We realise increasingly our utter inability to fight against sin and walk in obedience. The good that I would I do not. The evil that I would not, that I do. Our only hope is in the ONE power that is greater than the power of indwelling sin in us. When we look by faith to the cross, we know sin has no dominion over us (Rom. 6:14) – that’s the motivation to fight till our last breath! Faith that all, ALL, my sins are forgiven me and not one is counted against me to my condemnation. Faith that I shall at last have complete victory over sin and the grave when Jesus comes for me either at my death, or else at His second coming. This life of faith is sustained and strengthened as we attend to the means of grace that God has graciously given to us – worship, prayer, reading and meditating on the Word.
As we fight against our sins and walk by faith, the Lord conforms us more and more to the image of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is the ultimate goal of growing in holiness. To be conformed to Jesus Christ, the perfection of holiness, for He is God.
It seems that living the holy life is no easy thing to do. Indeed it is. For it is nothing less than fighting a lifelong battle against our sinful flesh. But the blessing is unspeakable. For to live a life of holiness is to live the reality of the covenant of grace: a life of covenant fellowship with the Triune God. In other words, eternal life, which is nothing but the glorious, overwhelming blessing of God Himself as our God in Jesus Christ! Life with God! (Gen. 15:1; Rev. 21:3) What can be more thrilling and blessed than that? Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God! (Matt. 5:8).
The holy life is the only life worth living. For it is life with the Holy One. Now and forever. Do we live holy lives?
Written by: Elder Lee Kong Wee | Issue 47