Freed to Be Holy | John Wimber

By John Wimber

Holiness is God’s transforming power working in us, not a program to improve our lives

Have you ever noticed that the most profound truths of the Christian life are at once easily understood yet perplexing and baffling mysteries? Several truths immediately come to mind: the Trinity, Christ’s virgin birth, the atonement.

And, of course, there’s holiness. Its Old Testament Hebrew root means “separate”-denoting separation from the world and to a divine use. The New Testament’s principle Greek word for holiness communicates purity of character, character that is perfectly conformed to God’s law. That seems simple enough to understand; holiness means separation of life and distinctiveness of character. So in what way is holiness a “perplexing and baffling mystery”? Well…consider these passages of Scripture:

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them-yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Cor. 15:10)

“Paul…. To the saints [literally, holy ones] in Ephesus…. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” (Eph. 1:1,4)

“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 Pet. 1:16)

Taken together, these verses contain an apparent contradiction. First, Paul says that only by God’s grace are we anything. He even addresses the Ephesians as “holy ones,” implying that holiness is somehow a gift that we receive, not something we work for. However, Paul also adds that he “worked harder” than the other apostles, and Peter says-in the form of a strong command: be holy!

Think about these two truths. Divine grace says that holiness is a gift of God, and to try to earn it is fruitless effort. Human responsibility says that God commands us to work hard at holiness (see Heb. 12:14).

How are we to sort out these seeming contradictions in God’s word? I believe an understanding of how grace and personal responsibility work together will change the way we live.

God is holy

Before actually addressing our responsibility for holiness, however, we must be clear about the true nature of holiness. In her song to the Lord, Hanna h said, “There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one beside you” (1 Sam. 2:2). God is uniquely holy; holiness is the very fabric of his nature.

Holiness is the sum of all God’s attributes, the radiance of his glory. Theologian R. A. Finlayson writes: “Since holiness embraces every distinctive attribute of [the] Godhead, it may be conceived of as the outshining of all that God is. As the sun’s rays, combining all the colors of the spectrum, come together in the sun’s shining and blend into light, so in his selfmanifestations all the attributes of God come together and blend into holiness.”

Moses came into the presence of God’s radiating glory at the burning bush, and God said, “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exod. 3:5). The ground was made holy by God’s holiness; God used the ground of his holiness to separate Moses from the world in order to fulfill his purposes.

God revealed his holiness to Moses because he wanted to raise up a holy people, a people who in their way of life would reflect the very nature of God. The benefits of holiness would be great: eternal life, forgiveness, joy, peace, blessing. But there were also requirements. “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant,” the Lord told Moses at Mount Sinai, “then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession….you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5,6).

The Lord also reminded Israel repeatedly that the basis for their holiness was his holiness. Eight times in the book of Leviticus and 60 times in other books of the Old Testament the Lord said, “Be holy, because I am holy” (see Lev. 11:4445). The source of Israel’s holiness was the life of God in them. And the only way of obtaining God’s life was through an intimate, obedient relationship with him.

If we miss this fundamental point-that God is the source of holiness-then we will attempt to make holiness the way to God. But holiness I can never be the way to God, because it’s God’s life in us!

New hearts

The Jews tried to make obedience to the law the way to God and failed to live up to the demands of the old covenant (Heb. 8:9). The law, as good as it was, was incapable of producing holiness. Paul says, “…the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death…” (Rom. 7:10). “By observing the law,” Paul told the Galatian Christians, “no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).

Though the old covenant failed to produce a holy people, the Lord did not abandon his call to raise up a holy nation. The old covenant was a failure because a more fundamental change needed to take place in the people’s hearts before they could fulfill the law. Their hearts were hardened and far from God (Ps. 95:710). They needed a change of attitude, will, desire-their nature needed to be conformed to God’s nature.

Jeremiah prophesied that a time would come in which God would put his laws in our minds and write them on our hearts (31:3134). This relationship would be marked by intimacy: “They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer. 31:34). The writer of Hebrews says that Jeremiah’s words were fulfilled in the new covenant (Heb. 8:13; also see Rom. 6:67).

In Christ we also are empowered by God’s Spirit for holy living. Paul writes, “He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Cor. 1:22). For this reason Paul, when he addressed the Ephesians, calling them “holy ones” (saints); he saw them as possessing new hearts sealed in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:34).

Jacob, Esau

In Christ God forgives us, declares us righteous, and adopts us as his sons and daughters (Heb. 9:15). He changes us into his likeness-declaring us a holy people, a people set aside for his use (1 Cor. 1:2; Heb. 10:10). In other words, we are fully accepted by God in Christ. In Ephesians 1:46 Paul writes, “In love he [the Father] predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”

Because we are accepted by the Father “in the One he loves,” there is nothing that we can do to be holier. Jesus has done it for us!

Terry Virgo helped me understand this truth with an analogy taken from the lives of Jacob and Esau. Esau, you will remember, was the older twin to Jacob, and his father Isaac loved him and favored him over Jacob. When Isaac was blind and on his deathbed, he called for Esau in order to bless him. (In ancient Near Eastern law deathbed bequests had spiritual and legal force; they literally set the direction for the child’s future.)

Jacob-working in league with his mother Rebekah-tricked his father. He wore Esau’s clothes, served Isaac the type of food that only Esau would prepare, and covered his hands and neck with goat skin (Esau was quite hairy). His ruse worked. Jacob hid in Esau’s identity, and received his father’s acceptance, love, and blessing. So too we hide “in Christ”-“in the One he loves”-and are accepted by the Father.

Knowing that we are accepted by the Father means we don’t have to perform for God’s approval. Instead, we obey God because we know we’re accepted in Christ. This may seem like an insignificant point, but our motivations in life have a profound effect on how we live.

Christians motivated by God’s love and acceptance are secure and joyfully obedient children. Those motivated by the desire to gain God’s approval are fearful and legalistic. Both groups may look the same on the outside, but their hearts are in far different places.

Salt and pepper

Holiness is God’s transforming power working in us, not a program to improve our lives. David C. Needham in his book Birthright comments on the radicalness of our new identity: “This new identity is not on the flesh level, but the spirit level-one’s deepest self. This miracle is more than a ‘judicial’ act of God. It is an act so real that it is right to say that a Christian’s essential nature is righteous rather than sinful.” (Birthright, p.61)

Theologians sometimes call this truth “positional holiness,” by which they mean we are declared holy and transformed through faith in Christ’s atoning death on the cross. Positional holiness cannot be earned.

Many Americans hold the mistaken idea that by setting goals and disciplining their outward man they will improve their status with God. One Christmas, several years ago, I had lunch with an attorney friend who illustrates this point well. He spent the hour telling me New Year’s resolutions concerning his religious practices. His goal was to improve his status with God!

I listened for sometime, and then said, “What is it that you want from God?”

He said, “I want him to love me and accept me.”

I said, “You are going about it the wrong way. Your problem has to do with your nature and position, not your performance.”

“What do you mean?”

“See these two large, glass salt and pepper shakers?” I said, picking up the shakers on our table. “You’re like the pepper-a combination of dark and light specks. You’re shaking your life up all the time hoping to rearrange the specks so only the light pieces will show on the surface. You think if your life looks good on the surface your status with God will improve.”

The attorney shuddered. He knew I was right. I continued, “The problem is, shake as much as you will, you’re still pepper. God wants to make you into salt. Improved pepper is not salt. Only God can make pepper into salt; he alone can make sinners into saints.” Then l quoted John 1:1213: “…to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”

What about sin?

However, saying that we are new creations is not the same as saying Christians no longer struggle with sin. Or, stated differently, positional holiness doesn’t let us off the hook from taking personal responsibility to cooperate with God in obeying his commands.

“If we claim to be without sin,” 1 John 1:8 says, “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” John was observing that in this age we will continue to struggle with sin. But he also teaches that we can live holy lives. “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).

Our position in Christ doesn’t remove us from our condition of living in a fallen and sinful world. Positional holiness, therefore, qualifies us to live lives that are pleasing to God. Holiness comes by grace working in us, and holiness is hard work (Heb. 12:14).

Many Christians think, “I can’t overcome my sin. How can something that has already died still have such a hold on me? My old nature is still too strong.” And they go on sinning and suffer from the consequences.

Our problem while we remain here on earth is that our new nature is tied to a body of flesh. The flesh (Greek sarx) is the “sinful nature” at work in us and with which we are no longer identified as redeemed men and women. This sin principle affects our whole being and needs to be progressively overcome:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because se you are not under law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:1214)

There is, then, a struggle to live under grace and in the truth of our new identity in Christ, not under law and enslaved to our old nature. Our struggle is a process called “progressive sanctification,” in which God separates us for his use and conforms us to his nature.

While God initiates progressive sanctification, we must actively cooperate with him. As John Owen, a 17th century English pastor, writes, “God works in us and with us, not against us or without us.”

We can and should expect the Holy Spirit to make a change in us to such an extent that in spite of the struggle we are victorious (1 John 1:9). The change is in what we want-intimacy with God-and in what we do-obey his word. So it is not that the Christian life becomes easy, but it does become easier to live a life of holiness. “There is,” A.W. Tozer writes, “no short cut to sanctity.”


What can you do now, as you read this article, to “make every effort…to be holy”? Here are four steps that will get you on your way.

Accept God’s truth concerning positional holiness. Before doing anything you have to believe everything that Jesus has done for you. In Christ your nature has been changed; when God looks at you, he sees the righteousness of his Son. But don’t take my word for it. Look up the Scriptures I’ve mentioned in this article, and decide for yourself. I believe that God’s word will convince you that you are a new creation in Christ.

Keep short accounts with God (1 John 1:9). This involves five steps. Confront your sin (agree with God that it is wrong). Confess it (ask God for his forgiveness in prayer). Perform appropriate actions of repentance (speak to those you have wronged; make restitution; change your lifestyle). Receive God’s forgiveness (this requires humility and dependence on grace). And forgive others as God forgives you (Matt. 6:1415).

Recognize the difference between temptation and sin. Temptation itself isn’t sin (Jesus was tempted), though if we act on temptations we fall into sin. Accept, therefore, that temptation in itself isn’t sin. But also recognize that temptation can and frequently does lead to sin (James 1:1415), which means you must do something about it. Jesus offers sound direction: first, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation” (Luke 22:40); second, when temptation comes, flee (2 Tim. 2:22). Pray today, “Lord, lead me not into temptation.” And if you are tempted by a person or something you see, leave. Immediately.

Live in brokenness and dependence on God. Realize daily that you do not have power in yourself to overcome sin and temptation. As Paul says in Romans 5:6, “…when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” You were saved by grace, and you will live by grace. So confess your inability to be holy in your own strength, and your absolute need for the empowering of the Holy Spirit to be holy. That is to say, be completely at rest in God’s free gift of holiness while cooperating with him for personal holiness.

Finally, remember that holiness is God’s life in you. Delight in him, and his holiness will transform your life. I guarantee that your reward will be great -for, as the Puritan pastor Thomas Brooks once said, “Holiness is its own reward.”

Source: Equipping The Saints, Vol. 4, No. 1/Winter 1990