In Pursuit of Holiness
By Peter Amsterdam
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Holiness is one of the attributes of God, part of His essential being. He is distinct, set apart, different from and greater than anything or anyone else that exists; He is also morally pure. His holiness is the essential difference between God and man.
While we might be able to reflect God through doing holy acts, God is holiness. His holiness is an absence of evil, a perfect freedom from all evil. As humans, we are not capable of this. In 1 John 1:5, we read that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. Light and darkness, when used this way in Scripture, have a greater significance than daylight and nighttime. John is telling us that God is absolutely free from any moral evil and that He is Himself the essence of moral purity.1
God is always in perfect conformity to His own character and always acts consistently with His holy character. Because He is holy, all of His actions are holy. Therefore, we can be confident that His actions toward us are always perfect and just. God can never be unfair, as being so would be contrary to His essential nature.
Because God is holy, we too are called to be holy. The apostle Peter wrote: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”2
The Greek word translated here as conduct means manner of life, behavior, and deportment, the manner in which a person behaves. Elsewhere, Scripture teaches that we are to make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.3 Of course, it’s not possible for us to be completely holy, as we are human and we sin. Nevertheless, holiness is part of our walk with the Lord and of becoming more like Him.
Holiness has two meanings. The first refers to separation or apartness. In the Old Testament, Israel was called a “holy people” because they belonged exclusively to God and were separate from other nations. This paralleled God’s separation or “otherness” from all created things. The concept of Christians as a holy people is also seen in the New Testament: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”4
God’s people are holy by virtue of belonging uniquely to Him.
The second meaning of “holy” refers to purity and cleanness. The Old Testament contains much about ritual holiness, including ceremonial cleansing and distinctions between clean and unclean foods. It also speaks of being cleansed from sin.5 In the New Testament, Jesus did away with ritual/ceremonial purity and put focus on inward purity, moral purity, purity of the heart.6
Through salvation we become holy or sanctified.7 And yet, though we have been forgiven for our sins, we are by no means without sin. While sin no longer reigns in our lives, it is still present within us. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”8 Clearly we still commit sins, yet “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”9
Sin doesn’t have the same grip on us that it had before salvation, but we still grapple with it. We are in a sense made “holy” at salvation, but there is also a progressive transformational process which we go through for the rest of our lives—a growth in holiness. The apostle Paul expressed it this way: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”10
This growth in holiness isn’t automatic; it requires effort, as seen in the imagery of running a race: “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”11 There is a continual laying aside of sin throughout the “race” of our lives. We will never achieve complete Christlikeness nor eradicate sin in our earthly life. Yet, while we know that this will only fully happen in the life to come, we are called to work toward it in our present life.
We should work to conform our whole person to the likeness of God—our heart, emotions, mind, soul, and spirit. As these become progressively transformed, the actions of our body will reflect that inner transformation; our actions, our words, our interaction with others will reflect Christ. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”12
Scripture points out the need for transformation through continual renewal of the mind: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”13 We’re called to develop a scriptural mindset so that our values, desires, and morals are based on the teachings of the Bible rather than on society’s norms.
Godliness also calls for transforming our will to be in alignment with His will as revealed in Scripture. We embrace what God wills and say no to what defies Him. Our choices, decisions, and actions are in harmony with His will and nature as revealed in His Word. God’s grace helps us make right moral choices.
Transformation to Christlikeness is holistic in that it transforms our total person. It’s a process which begins at the time of our salvation and continues throughout our life. It is achieved through God’s grace and the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, but this doesn’t mean that God transforms us into Christlikeness with no effort on our part. When we are serious about being more like Jesus, we of course pray for the Lord to change us, but we also make decisions that move us toward holiness and we put those decisions into practice.
Christlikeness calls us to take a stance against the negative actions, impulses, and thoughts in our hearts and minds that lead to sin; and to embrace the virtues, values, and morals that reflect God’s nature.
Originally published September 2016. Excerpted and republished December 2019. Read by Reuben Ruchevsky.
1 This article is based on key points from the book The Pursuit of Holiness, by Jerry Bridges (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006).
2 1 Peter 1:14–16. Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3 Hebrews 12:14 NIV.
4 1 Peter 2:9.
5 Leviticus 16:30.
6 Matthew 5:8.
7 Hebrews 10:10.
8 1 John 1:8.
9 1 John 1:9.
10 2 Corinthians 3:18.
11 Hebrews 12:1.
12 2 Corinthians 7:1.
13 Romans 12:2.