The text, ‘be holy as I am holy’, is perhaps one of the most old-fashioned sounding in the Bible.
But it is newly alive with interpretative complexities. How are we to be holy? Can Christians be called to be holy? What is the most effective means by which Christians are urged towards holiness? Is it legalism to urge the use of the law in Christian discipleship? Are Christians supposed to put effort into their holiness?
Particularly amusing has been a minor debate taking place in the nether world of the internet as to whether Christians are actually sinners. Given that most would recognise that Christians are also regenerate and justified, it seems unlikely that any can deny seriously that Christians are nonetheless still liable to sin. If any do doubt it, they only need to observe the manner of debate on some blogs: there for all to see is this incontrovertible fact that Christians do indeed still sin.
It reminds me of the old story of Charles Spurgeon – I trust not entirely apocryphal. When at a conference listening to man saying he had attained sinless perfection, the next morning Spurgeon is said to have poured a jug of milk over his head. And watched his sinless perfection evaporate before his (and everyone else’s) eyes.
Of course that debate was different to this one. Then the debate was whether Christians could attain a state of sinless perfection through some higher experience, or an especially devoted yielding of themselves to God. Now the debate is as to the appropriate means towards holiness. It seems incontrovertible that the gospel encourages holiness (Romans 12.1: ‘… in view of God’s mercy… offer your bodies as living sacrifices’, meaning that considering the whole massive panoply of the gospel, – ‘God’s mercy’– we are to sacrifice ourselves for Jesus). It also seems incontrovertible that being called on to obey God is orthodox Christian teaching: much of the second half of Paul’s letters is in the imperative mood, if not literally always in the imperative tense. Yet it is not now solely a matter of will power – by the Spirit, as born again Christians, we are enabled to follow Jesus so we strive to do so. Perhaps Philippians 2.12-13 is the text that we all need to make a renewed effort to memorise, for its wonderful balance: ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose’.
Or a refresher course on J.C. Ryle’s Holiness. Or, if his language from that long ago is a stretch or the book is too long in our soundbite age, at least the excellent The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. As J.I. Packer said of it, ‘The work is pure gold: be sensible, and invest in it’. Anyone fancy doing a reprint of the Bridges classic? Or another of Ryle, perhaps a summary version?
Better still, write a new one. Take Philippians 2 as your text. Work out what God works in.
Josh Moody is the senior pastor of College Church, Wheaton, Illinois.