Some Reasons Personal Holiness has been Neglected in American Churches

Some Reasons Personal Holiness has been Neglected in American Churches

“Good works, performed in obedience to God’s commandments, are these: the fruits and evidences of a true and living faith. By these believers express and show their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that having their fruit unto holiness they may have the end eternal life.” — Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, Chapter 16, Paragraph 2

One of the most frightening verses in the entire Bible is Hebrews 12:14, particularly the final phrase: “…and pursue holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” Yet, like Aragorn’s dramatic words to Frodo Baggins in their encounter at the Prancing Pony in The Fellowship of the Ring, I don’t think we’re frightened enough.

The author’s words are an imperative, and the holiness he is commanding is not the spotless righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer at conversion. Rather, he is speaking of purity of life. Essentially, the writer is telling his audience to pursue Christ-likeness, for without ongoing transformation into the image of Christ, a sinner has no rightful claim on the grace of God. In real life, this means we can go to church, read our Bibles daily, pray regularly, and yet, if we are not being transformed so that our lives reflect Christ’s, as Spurgeon put it, we may prove to be unconverted at last and go to hell on a feather bed.

Given our twin propensities for self-deception and overestimating our own goodness, that passage should shake us up. And if we sneer at discussions of the pursuit of holiness, then dozens of other passages ought to sober us, passages like Romans 12:1-2:

“I appeal to you, therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

But, I don’t think we’re frightened enough, because holiness is not a popular topic among evangelicals today as is evidenced by holiness as a topic missing from much preaching and publishing. As Kevin DeYoung put it in his excellent book by the same title, there’s a hole in our holiness.

But this is nothing new.

J. C. Ryle (1816-1900) wrote his classic work Holiness to address a crisis surrounding the doctrine of sanctification among evangelicals of his day. The rise of Keswick movement, which posited a passive “let go and let God” take on sanctification was drawing many adherents in England. Keswick teaching blunted the nerve that drives the pursuit of holiness, prompting Ryle to write, “We must be holy, because this is one grand end and purpose for which Christ came into the world. . . . Jesus is a complete Savior. He does not merely take away the guilt of a believer’s sin, he does more—he breaks its power.”

Both the Reformers and their heirs, the Puritans, emphasized holiness to a degree that led historians to characterize the Puritan era as most fundamentally a holiness movement. While there are aspects of the Puritans’ lifestyle we have no interest in emulating (we enjoy our electricity and telephones), they taught and modeled holiness with a clarity rarely seen in the history of the church.

In our age of hipster worship services and sermonettes (which Spurgeon once quipped “produce Christianettes”), holiness of heart and life seldom find much traction. Wrote DeYoung, “There is a gap between our love for the gospel and our love for godliness. . . It’s not pietism, legalism, or fundamentalism to take holiness seriously.”

Why? Because God is holy and we are not, yet that seldom frightens us into action. The word “holy” appears more than 600 times in Scripture and, as DeYoung points out, more than 700 times if you include words like sanctify and sanctification. It also warns against worldliness dozens of times. In numerous places including 1 Peter 1:16, God’s Word says “Be holy for I am holy” (says the Lord). The Bible seems to emphasize holiness ad-nauseum, but why don’t we? Heaven and hell are at stake, so why are we not more alarmed? Why does it not drive us to pursue holiness?

I can think of many reasons, but here’s a baker’s dozen:

  • Because we no longer understand the complementarity of law and gospel. Either because the Old Testament is viewed as archaic and useless or out of an underlying fear of promoting legalism, law and gospel are seldom seen together. Yet, as John Bunyan, in The Doctrine of Law and Grace Unfolded, wrote, “If you would know the authority and power of the gospel, labor first to know the power and authority of the law. . . . that man that does not know the law, does not know indeed and in truth that he is a sinner; and that man that does not know he is a sinner, does not know savingly there is a Savior.” Puritan preaching aimed to crush sinners with the law and heal them with the gospel. So must ours.
  • Because 150-plus years of of revivalism has focused on salvation at the expense of sanctification. We tend to preach only half of the Great Commission. Since the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, evangelicals in general and Baptists in particular have focused on seeing sinners converted. Without question, this is good and right, but discipleship in terms of progressively being conformed to the image of Christ is not as often emphasized. Jesus’s words “teaching them to obey all I’ve commanded” seem old school and passé, not cool, akin to “churchianity.”
  • Because we tend to celebrate what Christ saves us from (the penalty of sin), but neglect what he saved us to (liberty from the power of sin). Of course we want to escape the wrath of God, but being liberated from bondage to sin doesn’t appeal as much to our innate self-interest.
  • Because when we do talk about holiness, it’s not always grace-driven, but is more often a heart-calcifying legalism or a rigorous moralism/asceticism. Thus, we avoid it because it is impossible. Our situation is well summarized in the words often attributed to Bunyan: “Run John, run, the law commands, but gives me neither feet nor hands…” Too many sermons amount to mere moralism, all caboose and no engine. As DeYoung wrote, “Any gospel which says only what you must do and never announces what Christ has done is no gospel at all.” Indeed.
  • Because, in our noble drive to be gospel-centered, there is a mistaken notion that we should talk about indicatives and not imperatives. Yet woven through the fabric of Scripture is a relentless pattern of indicative followed by imperative. Ephesians is a clear example of this with the initial three chapters setting forth doctrine and the last three chapters carefully lining out “therefore.” If we preach one without the other, we fail to proclaim the full counsel of God.
  • Because of a fear of legalism among younger Reformed evangelicals. Small wonder this is true for so many of us. The church in which I grew up was often hijacked by legalism. Still, that should not keep us from preaching the imperatives of Scripture, particularly since the gospel is the catalyst that enables us to keep the commandments of God. Yes, legalism is sub-gospel, but a failure to proclaim the law risks leaving sinners wondering why they need Christ in the first place.
  • Because we don’t talk much about the fear of God. When the Israelites stood at the foot of Sinai, they so feared God they begged for him to stop talking. Well does Paul, in Romans 3, describe our current generation of Christians—“there is no fear of God before their eyes.” We have lost any sense of “reverence and awe” in worship because in our corporate worship and in our overall posture, the Creator is now our buddy. As Michael Horton argues, modern evangelicals approach God with a “greasy familiarity,” much as they might a Facebook friend or a fellow pilgrim in following their favorite sports team. Our God is mostly imminent and barely transcendent.
  • Because of weak, sub-biblical teaching on “once saved always saved.” Non-lordship salvation has severed the nerve of holiness. If our decision to follow Jesus punches our ticket to heaven no matter what happens in the days, months, and years that follow, then why fool with the rigors of putting off the old man and putting on the new? There’s little sense of a need to persevere in holiness.
  • Because the god of pop theology is heavy on love and light on wrath. He loves you unconditionally and his job is to forgive. Then what’s to fear? Certainly, God loves his people, but he is simultaneously wrathful against sin. When that’s missing, God’s love gets defined in foggy, frothy, unbiblical terms that tends to terminate on the glory of man. Luther called it a “theology of glory,” one severely at odds with a theology of the cross that commands a follower of Christ to come and die.
  • Because holiness takes time and effort. Many churches prize what I like to call “lightning bolt spirituality.” In a crisis moment, the Holy Spirit strikes you like a lightning bolt and you become 90 percent more sanctified instantly. Sanctification comes through a series of ecstatic experiences sprinkled over the course of our lives. There is little tolerance for slow, steady, daily growth by means of the ordinary means of grace. Plus, those things take effort and a willingness to settle for slow, often undetectable, change over a lifetime.
  • Because of an unbiblical view of Christian freedom. The pursuit of liberty is too often shorn from a simultaneous pursuit of righteousness.
  • Because labeling anything “unholy” seems judgmental and intolerant. An unbiblical equating of love with unbridled liberty and self-expression/self-definition often sits behind this reason. The net effect here is that antinomianism will tend to feel much more like a complement to grace than telling another person “without holiness no one will see the Lord.”
  • Because there are many unregenerate people in our churches. The last thing unregenerate people desire is to pursue holiness.

In Holiness, Ryle spends an entire chapter unpacking Hebrews 12:14, and he presents numerous reasons why the imperative contained therein is profoundly sobering. One of them, which that verse seems to be driving at is this:

“We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we are true children of God. Children in this world are generally like their parents. Some, doubtless, are more so, and some less— but it is seldom indeed that you cannot trace a kind of family likeness. And it is much the same with the children of God.”

Let us preach and teach holiness in our churches—we are not fearful enough.

Jeff is a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition. A native of Blairsville, Ga., Jeff holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The University of Georgia, a Master of Divinity in biblical and theological studies and a Ph.D. in historical theology with an emphasis on Baptist history from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. He is pastor of New City Church in Louisville, KY. Jeff and his wife Lisa have been married for 19 years and have four children.
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