The God Who Requires Holiness
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / October 31, 2004
The highest standard of holiness was set before the people of Israel in the wilderness. God said to them, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
Has the standard for holiness changed? With the arrival of the New Covenant, do we now reckon that the standards of the previous covenant are more relaxed?
Not according to Jesus. The introduction of the covenant of grace does nothing to annul the relevance of God’s Law. Jesus says, “Do not think that I cam to abolish the Law of the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Mt. 5:17, 18).
Even in the covenant of grace, there remains a place for holiness. Perhaps an analogy will be helpful. Imagine the kingdom of heaven to be like a beautiful mansion where rooms are rented out. For years you drive by the mansion, admiring its splendor and beauty. The mansion is often the subject of discussion among your friends. In your discussions, you heard rumours that the rent for a room in the mansion was $10,000.00 a month—something you would never be able to afford.
But then, one day, you are driving by and you see a sign that reads ‘Open House’. Upon entering the house you learn that in the mansion there are many rooms, and that there is no cost to become a resident. The rooms are rented free of charge; no strings attached.
You immediately take up residence in the most beautiful room you have ever seen. Much of the mansion is at your disposal—the pool, the games room, the dining area. How do you conduct yourself in the mansion? Do you keep your room tidy? Or, do you allow it to become a pigsty? Are to careful, or careless, when handling the valuables within the mansion? Do you treat the other residents with esteem or with contempt?
The owner was serious when he said that there were no strings attached. Even if we make a mess and misbehave, our place in the mansion is not in jeopardy. But, is this kind of behaviour befitting a recipient of such generosity?
Friends, this is the place of holiness in the Christian life. We do not have, in ourselves, sufficient moral resources to earn a place in the mansion; we must receive it as a free gift. Nor, is holy living required to retain our place in the mansion. Nonetheless, holy living is the most appropriate response to grace received.
Our diligent pursuit of holiness is the prescribed way for us to honour God. Holy behaviour is our ‘thank-you card’ to God for the gift of salvation. Conversely, if we become lax, or indifferent, in our pursuit of holiness we show ourselves to be shamefully ungrateful for what God has done for us.
The standards for holiness did not diminish with the advent of Christ; one could even make the argument that the standards of holiness became even more challenging as Jesus explained the implications of the outward commands.
Because, what we find in the teachings of Christ is that outward conformity does not equal inward righteousness. Compliance to rules does not necessarily equal holy behaviour.
Quoting the prophet Isaiah, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus teaches us that, when it comes to obedience, what is going on in our heart is of paramount importance to God. Jesus says, “This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me” (Mk. 7:6).
We conclude, therefore, that God is not so much concerned with our conformity to the outward requirements of His Law as He is concerned with the condition of our heart as we obey His commands.
This is where the Pharisees fell down. They were careful to engage in all of the religious "activities", but they did not engage these activities with a heart inclined to God. I suspect they did all the ceremonial washings, I suspect they strictly observed the Sabbath, I suspect they faithfully attended the synagogue, I suspect they did everything that the Law required . . . Yet, one thing was missing—their heart. Jesus told the crowd, "their heart is far away from Me . . . in vain do they worship Me"(7:7).
Friends, when you evaluate how well you have kept the Ten Commandments, what are you looking at? Do you look only to the external requirement of the Law? Or, do you also look inward; examining the condition of your heart?
Because, if you only look at the outward aspect of the Law, you will likely imagine that you have kept most, if not, all, of The Ten Commandments when, in reality, that is not likely the case.
We should ask the question: What is murder? Is murder merely killing another person?
Suppose a person wants to kill, but is prevented by his circumstances. Or suppose a person wants to kill, but is too afraid to confront his enemy. Or suppose a person wants to kill, but is afraid of getting caught. What if the person only wants to inflict psychological, and not physical, harm on another? What if the person only wishes to slander, and harbour bitterness against his enemy? Has such a person kept the sixth commandment? ‘No’, according to Jesus’ teaching.
In a human court, external, measurable, actions are judged and punished. We can’t see the intentions of the heart, and so we only judge outward things. But, God, who is able to discern our thoughts and the intentions of our heart, judges differently.
Jesus explains this in His Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother . . . 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (Mt. 5:21, 22).
According to the Divine standard, according to the standard that examines my heart, I am as good as a murderer in the eyes of God. If I slander my neighbour, if I harbour bitterness against another, Jesus explains that I have broken the sixth commandment.
He goes on to make a similar explanation with regard to the seventh commandment: “You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:27, 28).
As a Christian community, we rightfully loath how increasingly common acts of adultery have become in society. And yet, we must loath such acts in humility because, as Jesus points out, we who lust with our heart are also guilty before God’s throne of judgment.
In light of Jesus’ teaching we cannot overemphasize the fact that true religion is a matter of the heart. Human beings are prone to forget that God is a spirit, and that the obedience and service we render to God must be of a spiritual kind. And so it is for good reason that Jesus commands us, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart"(Lk.10:27).
When talking about doing certain things we sometimes say, ‘My heart wasn’t in it.’ I pray that we might never use such a phrase in reference to our devotion to God. Because, if our heart is not ‘in it’, our devotion is in vain.
Even within The Ten Commandments, there is an indication that the condition of our heart is a matter of great importance. The tenth commandment, breaks away from the mere external matters when it commands us to “not covet” the various things belonging to our neighbour (Ex. 20:17).
Not only is it wrong to do certain things, as the first nine commandments explain, but it is also wrong to desire certain things.
Our pursuit of holiness, therefore, must begin with the renovation of our hearts.
There are many false notions within the Christian Church about what holiness entails. In some circles, holiness is equated with avoiding such things as smoking, swearing, and gambling. And, in most Christian circles, holiness is measured culturally—that is, we tend to measure our holiness by comparing ourselves with those around us.
This is problematic on at least two fronts. First, so long as we sit in judgment of ourselves, we will likely always be able to find someone who is less holy than we are. And secondly, God has not commanded us to be as holy as the person sitting next to us. God has commanded us, “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
Thankfully for us, God’s prescribed duty is also God’s promised gift. The God who demands holiness also contributes to our growth in holiness. It’s not as if we labour alone towards a standard where progression is impossible. Admittedly, our holiness will not be complete on this side of heaven, and yet because the standard is so high, there will always be room for progression. And because there is always room for progression, we must never relent in our pursuit of holiness.
How then, shall we pursue holiness? Understanding first, that holy behaviour involves the heart, we pursue holiness through the consistent intake of Scripture. There are no shortcuts to holiness, we must be diligent in our study of Scripture. Most of us are familiar with the modern proverb: ‘Garbage in equals garbage out’.
If our intake consists primarily of television watching and the reading of novels, the result is unlikely to be holiness. If we are negligent with the intake of God’s Word, the output is certain to yield a worldview and lifestyle that is littered with rubbish.
The second thing we must do in our pursuit of holiness is we must pray for holiness. Holiness is not something we obtain by simply gritting our teeth, but rather, holiness is something God promises to give us as we seek Him. Jesus told His disciples, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). This is restated positively by the apostle Paul, who writes, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). It remains then, for us to pray for holiness.
In life, we have so many pursuits—some more noble than others. I suspect that if we were to take a poll and ask people what their greatest pursuit is, the most common answer would be happiness. Few would argue against such a pursuit. The problem arises when we attempt to determine where this happiness is to be found.
Those who have sought after holiness have come to understand that our happiness is ultimately bound up in this pursuit. As Charles Spurgeon learned, “We can never be happy, restful, or spiritually healthy until we become holy.” And, as J.C. Ryle learned, “Holiness is happiness, and that man who gets through life most comfortably is the sanctified man.”
Beloved, let us pursue holiness with all our heart, believing that such a pursuit honours God, and that such a pursuit is the surest way to ensure our happiness—in this world, and the next. Amen.