First, these thoughts are not original with me; I’ve been prompted to respond to something I read recently. So giving credit where credit is due, I’ve been reading The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges (NavPress, 1978); it’s a “modern classic” of Christian writing about discipleship, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to do a biblical deep dive into God’s holiness and our own.
The title of chapter three is “Holiness Is Not an Option,” and I have to admit that’s a scary thought, considering I know my own struggle with pursuing holiness as a Christian. While I understand that our salvation is not a matter of working to achieve perfection or a certain degree of personal holiness, I am concerned that my efforts don’t always reflect a desire for holiness, much less achieve it. To underscore that concern, the chapter begins quoting Hebrews 12:14: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (NIV 1984). The text tells us, very simply, holiness requires an effort and without holiness we won’t see God; in other words: holiness is not optional.
Again, just to be clear, we cannot earn our salvation – our righteousness before God – by anything we might do. Our holiness depends upon Jesus’ death on the cross, which the writer of Hebrews tells us is by God’s will: “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10, NIV 1984).
Yet, because we have been made holy by God’s will through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God calls us to be holy, which Paul emphasizes in his greeting to the church in Corinth:
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours. (1 Corinthians 1:2, NIV 1984)
Paul makes it pretty clear that our holiness doesn’t end with our salvation; it begins there. When we are forgiven in Christ – here Paul says “sanctified” – there’s a call to holiness that follows. Sometimes when I baptize someone, as I lower them into the water and then bring them up out of it, I will say, “Buried with Christ and raised to new life.” As we join with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection, he makes us holy; as we are raised with him, we begin a new life of striving to be holy, to be more like Jesus. Peter said it this way:
But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15, 16, NIV 1984)
God expects us to live holy lives because he has made us holy through Christ.
Since holiness isn’t optional and because it’s a result of our salvation, God also gives us what we need to pursue holiness and live holy lives: the Holy Spirit. Hebrews 12:14 tells us to “make every effort” to be holy, and to that end the Holy Spirit lives within us to empower us and encourage us to pursue God’s holiness in our everyday lives. Even though Jesus makes us holy, even though the Holy Spirit empowers us, we must still make the effort because holiness is not optional. Peter gives us an idea of how we ought to pursue holiness so that it might grow in our lives:
Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. (2 Peter 1:5-7, NIV 1984)
Don’t be discouraged from pursuing holiness because you know you can’t do it on your own. That’s the point! That’s what makes Jesus’ sacrifice Good News. That’s what makes receiving salvation and the Holy Spirit a gift from God. As you grow in your faith in God, trust that he will give you exactly what you need to accomplish what he requires.