Becoming Holy: A Starting Point

“Obedience leads to righteous living which leads to holiness.” by Dr. David Winters

Holiness has always seemed mysterious, complicated, unattainable for most, and optional. Of course, that is mostly not true, but those were the barricades I hid behind to avoid serious consideration of becoming holy. If I could keep convincing myself these barriers were legitimate, perhaps I could stay away from taking on an endless series of rules and regulations, essentially giving up control of my life. Holiness would certainly involve this, I thought, and seriously, who wants anyone (even God) telling them what to do and how to live?

Then God led me to consider what the Bible says about holiness, and He gently and patiently helped me start taking down my barricades. The first was my assumption that holiness is optional. I am saved and doing just fine. Do I really need to be holy?

Two passages of Scripture provided an answer. “For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time” (Hebrews 10:10). And, when Jesus was with His disciples just hours before going to the cross, He prayed this to God the Father: “Make them holy by your truth … And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so that they can be made holy by your truth” (John 17:17,19). 

Then Jesus did something that I still have a hard time believing. He prayed for me personally. “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message” (John 17:20). That includes me (and you). Christ died on the cross not only to save us from sin, but so that we could be made holy!

So, I came to understand that God wanted me to be holy, and Jesus gave His life so I could be made holy. Still, I felt that God’s command, “You must be holy because I am holy” (Leviticus 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16), was a stern imposition, and my protests continued. “But God, I know You, and I’m going to heaven. Why do I need to be holy?” I might as well ask the lifeguard if I can go to the deep end of the pool when I don’t know how to swim. She will advise me, “You can’t swim, and chances are good that you will drown.” Her insistence that I learn to swim is for my own good. 

In the same way, God’s requirement that I should be holy is more a loving warning than a harsh command. The Bible is clear that God desires intimate relationship with me. He created me for that very reason. He is merely stating the fact that I need to be holy to be in His presence, and without that, I cannot get to know Him and experience a deep relationship with Him. “Those who are not holy will not see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14)—see what happened to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20) and to Isaiah (Isaiah 6) when they came face-to-face with God and realized they were not holy. They feared for their lives. Personal holiness is a necessary pre-condition for access to God’s intimate presence.

But isn’t holiness reserved for the saints? I knew I was not holy—after all, only God is truly holy, as the argument goes. I reasoned that holiness was just a set of guidelines, more of an aspirational goal than an attainable reality. On the other hand, would God require me to be holy if it were not possible? 

More Scripture provided surprising clarity. In Colossians 1, Paul teaches of the transformation in us when we repent, confess our sin, and ask God for forgiveness: “You who were once far away from God … Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault” (Colossians 1:21,22). This is not because of who I am, or anything I have done. I cannot make myself holy. Holiness comes because of who Christ is, and what He has done. “God has united you with Christ Jesus … Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

Is the Bible really saying that because I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that He died for my sin and was raised to life by the power of the Holy Spirit, and because I have now confessed and repented of my sin, that God has declared that I am holy as I stand in His presence right now, not just someday in heaven? Yes. Paul follows with a warning not to stray from this “state of salvation.” “But you must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News” (Colossians 1:23).

How can God declare me to be holy, when I know I still have inclination to sin and sometimes do sin? The answer is that my holiness is not sinless perfection in this life. Let me explain with an imperfect illustration. After four years of college and four years of medical school, I was declared to be a doctor by my state with all the rights and privileges granted thereby. I had finally made it and had the license to prove it!

But heaven help the patients who saw me in my first few weeks after graduation. I still needed years of advanced residency training with close supervision, with every order being reviewed and signed off by someone with higher authority. I had to study regularly and pass examinations to be board-certified before I was finally hired by a health system to practice medicine independently. Even after years of private practice, I have to continue studying to stay current, and re-sit the boards at regular intervals. In other words, I am a doctor, but I am mostly becoming a doctor. This involved a starting point in time, but in reality, is a process. If I make a mistake, do I stop being a doctor? Does it prove I never was a doctor? No, I learn from my mistake and resolve to never let it happen again. But I’m still a doctor.

In the same way, holiness starts at a point in time and is an ongoing process after that. God declares me holy because of Christ. I have been set apart for Jesus. And I continue becoming holy. How does this happen? The simplicity is breathtaking. On a daily basis, it involves choosing continued obedient faith in Christ. “You can choose to obey God, which leads to be slaves to righteous living,” and “Now you must give yourselves to righteous living so that you will become holy” (Romans 6:16,19). Obedience leads to righteous living, which leads to holiness. This is made possible by the Holy Spirit, through our obedience to God.

How do we obey God? The simplicity continues. Jesus says these are the most important commandments: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).

Our obedience starts (and can probably end) there. Two simple rules—to love God and love each other. Yet if we all really did that, it would revolutionize our world. Hebrews 10:14 assures us that we “are being made holy” by the Holy Spirit. I can start each morning resolving to love God more, and to show that love to others through Him.

If I sin, do I stop being holy, or does it prove I never was holy? Not at all. I am still set apart for Jesus. Christ made me holy by His sacrifice and death, and the Holy Spirit is making me holy through obedience and righteous living. I need to stop keeping myself at the center of this process, and instead, focus on who God is and His presence in my life. I repent, confess and continue my journey of obedience, resolving by God’s strength to become more like Christ, and less like me. I fix my eyes on Jesus. 

Paul addresses this mystery of holiness. “And this is the secret: Christ lives in you” (Colossians 1:27). Christ is holy. His presence in me makes me holy. General Frederick Coutts gives us this definition: holiness is a relationship with God that increasingly expresses itself in Christlike living. This is based on 2 Corinthians 3:18. “And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.” Becoming holy is all about becoming like Christ.

Gradually, God is removing my barriers to holiness. If I want to enjoy all the rich experience of loving relationship with God that He desires for me, holiness is not optional. Because He gave me free will, I can ignore God altogether, but rejecting God is just not an option for me. I have decided to follow Jesus. I don’t want to miss out on anything He has for me. I choose the gift of God with me and in me—eternal life (John 17:3, Romans 6:23).

Holiness is attainable, through continued obedient faith in Christ, spending daily time in His word and in His presence. I am holy, and I am becoming holy. Getting started in holiness is not complicated, as Paul has outlined for us in Scripture. But that does not mean it will be easy. What is simple in concept can be difficult to implement. As we grasp the initial stages of becoming holy, we understand that this will involve a lifetime of loving relationship with God. It is not a destination; it’s a process. But the reward is too great to pass up. This is a decision with life-changing, eternal consequences. 

I was right about one thing—despite my best efforts to comprehend holiness, it is still mysterious, just like God. “Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” (Romans 11:33). However, I will not let that dissuade me. A trail leading deep into the woods, or up a mountain, can be mysterious, but it calls us to explore the mystery, and we set out with great anticipation to see where the trail will lead, and to experience the views along the way. It is the same as we start the great adventure of exploring holiness with God, both His and ours. Let’s see where the path leads! 

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