The Holiness of God’s People

Posted On June 19, 2018

To our modern ears the term holiness can sound archaic, mystical, and esoteric. Yet holiness is so central to the lives of believers in Christ that it becomes their demarcating trait. Thus, the New Testament often identifies Christians as the “holy ones” or “saints” (Acts 9:13, 32; 26:10; Rom. 1:1, 7; Eph. 1:1; Phlm. 5; Heb. 6:10; Jud. 1:3; Rev. 11:18). The true believer is acquainted with two types of holiness. Holiness is both stative (ἁγιωσύνη, “holiness”) and progressive (ἁγιασμός, “sanctification”). That is to say, through being united to Christ by faith we possess a definitive status of holiness. We are holy because Christ our head is holy. Yet because we are united to Christ, we will be progressively transformed into the image of his holiness. Our lives will be molded by the contours of Scripture’s teaching on God’s holiness (1 Pet. 1:16), since we are united to His Son by Spirit-wrought faith (Eph. 4:4). This Trinitarian formula, with its emphasis on divine agency, is conspicuous. It is paramount we note that any holiness which human beings possess is derived from a divine source. As Herman Bavink says, “Creatures are not inherently holy, nor can they sanctify themselves. All sanctification and all holiness proceeds from God” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:219). Any holiness we may have—stative or progressive—is a gift of God.

In his study of God’s attributes, Octavius Winslow notes, “No perfection of our God considered so far presents Him so like Himself as the perfection of holiness” (Octavius Winslow, Our God, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2007, 101). He continues, “We cannot form a proper idea of God apart from this.” This obstacle is compounded by the problem of sin. As Winslow asks, “what proper notion of divine holiness can a sinful being form?” We cannot even approach this topic apart from a holy mediator. In Winslow’s words, “Only as we keep our eye upon atoning blood can we gaze on the unsufferable [sic] brightness of the God of holiness. We can only deal with divine purity as we deal with the divine Savior” (p. 102).

It was noted above that holiness is both stative and progressive. We are made to be definitively holy before we are gradually conformed into Christ’s image. To say this another way, ontology (being) necessarily produces praxis (doing). The Christian, ontologically holy in and through the work of Christ, behaves in a holy manner. Good works, then, spring not from the strength-of-will of a craven individual, but only from a progressively transforming heart sanctified by Christ.

So the stative/progressive distinction lies at the heart of the gospel, and we must recognize that to compromise on this point is death itself. To capitulate here is to substitute legalism for the gospel of free grace. Divine grace always precedes human action. This holds true for the progressive aspect of holiness as much as it does for the stative. An insidious form of legalism can germinate in a soil of free grace, watered by a “bootstrap” ethic of moralistic piety, and we must always beware. It is not enough to affirm sovereign and efficacious grace at salvation’s inception. The primacy of Christ and the efficacy of the gospel must be maintained from the cradle to the grave. We are not made holy in Christ (1 Cor. 1:2) only to be left to draw from our own resources as Christians. Rather, a life of holiness is a life of dependence on God’s efficacious grace in Christ by His Spirit. In the words of our Lord, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). At the last, God will wholly sanctify us into the definitive holiness which is ours only in Christ (1 Thess. 5:23-24).

By Nathaniel Crofutt, a senior student at Reformation Bible College