The Hard Work of Holiness

The young nation had finally reached the border of the land they were promised to possess. Though he was nearing the end of his time with them, the leader of the nation at this point was Moses. This was his final message to the people he had led for so many years in the most difficult of circumstances. Fresh on his mind were the errors of the first generation, and it was Moses’ intention to recall them so that they would not be repeated. His final words were negative but realistic: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will surely perish quickly from the land where you are going over the Jordan to possess it. You shall not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed” (Deu 4:26).[1]

The assumption of the Old Testament writers was that the overall trajectory of the nation was going to be marked by failure. It is no coincidence that there was only one man about whom Deuteronomy 6:4-5 was said to be fulfilled: “Before him [Josiah] there was no king like him who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might” (2Ki 23:25). With this in mind, it is important to note the change of tone in the New Testament. Due to the blessings of a new covenant established with the nation, there would be a people who would, like Josiah, possess the spiritual power to love the Lord with all their heart, soul and strength. This same power, though promised to Israel and Judah, redounds to us in Christ (Jer 31:31-32; Eze 36:26-27). As a result, all those who are in Christ live a new reality that the nation as a whole did not possess: “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Eze 36:27).

This new reality is what allows all those who are in Christ to engage in “the hard work of holiness,” to “consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry” (Col 3:5). Without the Holy Spirit, the work of “mortifying the flesh” would be a legalistic exercise in futility. However, the opposite is also true. To possess the Spirit and walk according to the flesh is equally inconceivable from the perspective of the apostles. For us there is no excuse. All who are in Christ are caused to walk in His statutes by the Spirit and therefore must engage in the hard work of holiness. It is no longer a question of a lack of spiritual power but of engaging in the work with the power that has been provided. In general, we can break down “the good fight” into five categories.

Know the Goal – Christ

It is possible to live an entire life in assembly fellowship without knowing the main goal of your existence. Granted, it is difficult to pin down one sentence that would encompass all that the Lord has intended for us, but Philippians 3:10 comes close: “that I may know Him.” These first few words from Paul’s manifesto are enough to focus our minds on the task at hand. Not in a pietistic way, nor in a hypocritical manner, but we desire to know Him in order that we may be like Him: “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” (Mar 1:11).

Know Your Attitude

Paul describes these three pivotal actions as an attitude: “forgetting what lies behind,” “reaching forward to what lies ahead,” and “I press on toward the goal” (Php 3:13-14). What is your attitude toward holiness? Do you apply the same vigour to your holiness as you do to the gym, your vehicles, financial investments, vacations, remodeling your home, etc.? It was Paul’s attitude that allowed him to focus on these goals: “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings” (v10). Holiness does not happen by accident.

Know the Obstacles

In classic 17th-century Puritan style, John Owen makes this point with brutal clarity: “Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? You must always be at it while you live; do not take a day off from this work; always be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Will you be among the casualties of sin? Another story of wasted years, failure, disobedience? May the Lord preserve us from dishonouring Him in this way. Thank the Lord that He has given us His Spirit, His Word to illuminate, and the precise method to accomplish it (Eph 4:22). Know the obstacles and give them no quarter. If they live, then you will die. Don’t be fooled, as we often are, into false alternatives and moral equivocations.

Know the (Preliminary) Objectives

There is another aspect to killing sin which is sometimes harder to do: adding holiness. If we stop at the removal of sin, then we are left with a husk, an empty religious husk. But Christianity is not simply about what we remove but rather what we add to it: “supply moral excellence … knowledge … self-control … perseverance … godliness … brotherly kindness … love” (2Pe 1:5-7). We must not only think of which sins to stop but also which virtues to add.

Know Yourself

“Keep watching and praying that you may not come into temptation” (Mar 14:38). “But since we are of the day, let us be sober” (1Th 5:8). “The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer” (1Pe 4:7). Awareness is fundamental to living a holy life. Are you conscious of your weaknesses? Satan is. We’re not all attracted to the same things and therefore we fail in different ways. Identify the parts of the battlefield where you have been picked off by the enemy in the past and avoid them. It is in the Spirit that we will have victory over sin, not in the stoic determination of the flesh (1Co 10:12). Holiness is hard work, but there is no greater joy than engaging in what we have been called to do (1Pe 1:15).

[1] Scripture quotations in this article are from the NASB.