The Dilemma of Holiness

Some of you read that title and gasped. I suspect that most read it and nodded in agreement. So what’s so difficult about holiness?

The Command

Before we understand the difficulty, we need to understand that holiness is something that God asks of His people. God made it clear very early on that He was holy and that expected the same from His people. Leviticus 11:44 gives us the very first express call to holiness: “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground.”

But God’s call to holiness did not die with the last chapter Malachi. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:22, 24: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Many other New Testament scriptures make it clear that holiness, or being “set apart” to God and living like a “set apart” one, is still a priority to God.

So where’s the dilemma? God’s Word commands us to be holy, so we should be holy, right?

Two Initial Questions

Well, two issues immediately surface. The first question is at the heart of our discussion; I’ll only mention it here as we’ll be spending more time on it later this week. Are we called to be holy, or are we made holy through the death of Christ on the cross? Hebrews 12:14 makes it abundantly clear that we are expected to pursue holiness; yet 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that it’s through Christ’s payment for sin we become the righteousness of God. So does God want us striving to be holy or does he want us to find our holiness in Christ? We’ll talk about the answer to that later.

The next obvious question is: if we are called to be holy, why is it so difficult? (This takes on even greater significance if Christ is the One that makes us holy.) Any honest Christian will tell you that the struggle still exists. I’ve never met a Christian yet who had completely mastered sin. Lust still burns, pride still swells and lies still surface. If God has called us and empowered us to be holy, why can’t we seem to have victory over sin?

Why No Victory?

There are several reasons, but the first and most common reason for failure is an incorrect view of God and an incorrect motive for living a holy life. We so often frame God in our own culture, our own circumstance and our own presuppositions, creating an image that is more Ego than Divine. That’s why the Reformation was such a big moment in the history of Christianity; because Sola Scriptura meant a return to the God-breathed Scriptures for direction instead of the tide of man’s opinion. We are often more concerned about getting caught or achieving victory than obedience to God. Joseph realized when he was tempted by Potiphar’s wife that having sex with her was bigger than just two people in a room; he considered it a “sin against God”. The quickest way to achieve failure in your Christian life is to make holy living all about checking off a calendar and feeling good about yourself. Victory is not commanded; obedience is.

Another reason we fail is because we have categorized sin in our mind. The old folks can’t believe how lewd the young people are, but think little of their gluttony or worry. The young folks are quick to point out the pride of the elders, but take no thought of a lie now and then. You will never have victory over sin in your life if you are not grieved by the insult that all sin is to God. As soon as you are willing to wink at some sins and bark at others, holiness stops being about honoring God’s character and starts being about your crusade against the world.