Brethren Archive
Hebrews 12:14

A Modest Plea For An Old-Fashioned View Of Christian Holiness

by John Dickie

IN demanding holiness in His children, and, still more in making full provision for their sanctification, what a touching proof we have of our heavenly Father's love! The holy cannot but delight in holiness; how, then, could the infinitely Holy One leave His beloved children to wallow in the filth of sin? No; His glory needs, that we be holy, since He is holy; our blessing needs it, for God Himself cannot make us happy while we remain sinful; our service needs it, for the life of a dumb Enoch pleads more powerfully for God than the tongue of a boisterous Jehu; and so it has been arranged in the wonderful plan of mercy that, while the incarnate Son of God should die to atone for the guilt of sin, the Holy Spirit should come to regenerate and to sanctify the objects of God's pardoning love.

Let us glance briefly at two questions. First, how is holiness to be acquired and cultivated? and second, to what extent is the believer to expect it in the present life?


Not, certainly, by any efforts of the carnal mind, which, in all its phases—religious as well as secular—is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. At all stages and in all measures, holiness is never self-attainable by man; it can be wrought in us only by the grace of the Holy Spirit, which grace is received on our part by simple faith. As we obtain pardon through the blood of Christ alone, we attain sanctification wholly and solely through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

In a way sufficiently similar to that in which the sinner becomes possessed of his sinful nature, which has been conveyed to him from the first Adam, through his parents, the saint too becomes possessed of his new nature directly from the Second Adam by regeneration. And as the sinful propensities of the natural heart are developed and strengthened in the sinner by years of practice, so too, the holy tendencies of the new nature are exercised and confirmed in the believer by the discipline of a godly life. The man, therefore, whose walk is the most close with God shall always be the most holy; for the secret of holiness lies in constant communion with Jesus. We can have increase of holiness only through increase of faith; and this faith, not the belief of any particular promise or statement, but the general walk of faith, as distinguished from that of sight. (2 Cor. 5:7) Then shall our faces shine, not because we try to shine, but because we are luminous with the glory of Christ.

Though we have affirmed, however, that the efforts of the natural man are not capable of attaining to any measures of holiness, we would not be misunderstood, as if asserting that it is not necessary for the spiritual man to strive after it. The text first quoted would correct this mistake, "Follow holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord." Some overlook the necessity for these efforts of the believer, and speak of sanctification as if it were a something to be communicated to him much in the same way as pardon and peace are bestowed upon the anxious sinner, as soon as he ceases his weary struggles, and begins to "believe only". But, in regard to this matter of personal exertion, the two cases are not at all similar. Justification is purely and solely the act of God. "It is God that justifieth." (Rom. 8:33) But while it is God who also sanctifies the believer, the believer himself has much more to do in his sanctification than the unbeliever has in his justification. "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do." Where do we find the anxious sinner addressed in terms the least like these? To him the word is, "Work not, but believe," (Rom. 4:5; John 6:29); but to the saint the word is, "Believe, and work." (Gal. 5:6; James 2 :18,22) God will never dispense with the believer's own willing and doing; we must both will and do; and yet, when we have willed and done, it is not to ourselves, but to God, that we owe it all; for our willing has been the fruit of His working in us to will, and our doing has resulted from His working in us to do.

It is instructive to notice how frequently the believer is enjoined to set himself heartily to the work of his own sanctification; while the sinner is never called to accomplish his own justification. "Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." (2 Cor. 7:1) "Every man that hath this hope in Him, purifieth himself." (1 John 3:3) Peter, after speaking of the believer as being put in possession of a divine nature, does not seem to think that this suffices; for he adds, "And beside this, GIVING ALL DILIGENCE, add to your faith, virtue," etc. (2 Pet. 1:4-7) The possession of a divine nature never can supersede the necessity for our own utmost diligence; for it is not the amount of God's giving—it is the extent to which we faithfully avail ourselves of His gracious gift, that fixes for us the measure of our own actual enjoyment. It seems, then, to me, that it would be a grave mistake to expect, through the appropriation of any particular promise, to be taken out of the believer's present place, as indicated in such passages as Eph. 6:10-17.


It remains now to consider briefly how far the word of God leads us to expect this sanctification to be carried during the present life. I see no limits fixed in the word, no line drawn anywhere, beyond which the happy soul, in its eager advances, may not dare to cross. How holy ought his life to be who calls God his Father, (1 Pet.1:16, 17); who represents Christ to the world; who is dwelt in by the "Spirit of holiness"; and who is commanded by God to perfect holiness in His fear! With the Holy Spirit to sanctify him, with the life of Christ for his appointed pattern, with the throne of grace ever accessible, no one should be contented with any specified measure of sanctification. "Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it." Let us not, then, smite only thrice, and stay. But, while avowing this, I think the Bible gives us no warrant to expect that any believer here shall ever feel that he has attained to sinless perfection. It is only the "pure in heart" who can see God; for the pure heart is the only organ for the divine vision. But as the heart becomes more pure, it becomes more sensitive to the slightest stains of sin. As the eye becomes gradually purged, it discovers more and more the exceeding broadness of the divine law—breadths of which the less enlightened disciple has no conception. The further, therefore, the believer advances toward perfect holiness, the more conscious does he become of unspeakable imperfections; fulfilling the spiritual paradox that the man who is most free from sin, is the man who is most deeply humbled because of it. True, his sins are not what the world or what even careless Christians count sins at all; the things which break his heart are matters at which carnal disciples smile. (1 Cor. 3:3)

Paul, nearing the end of his course, disavows for himself that he had attained perfection. (Phil. 3:12.) James disavows it on behalf of the whole church: "In many things we offend all." (James 3:2) As he, then, who keeps the whole law while yet he offends in one point becomes guilty of all, (James 2:10), how can we consider ourselves to be perfect, when we, each one, offend "in many things"? Peter seems to disclaim perfection, when (1 Pet. 1:2) he places the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus, not before the sanctification of the Spirit and obedience, as we would have expected him to have done if he had been speaking of the blood as sprinkled at first on the sinner's conscience. As the words stand, after sanctification and obedience, it seems to be the need which the obedient saint hourly has for the cleansing blood that is here referred to; and if so, where is there room for sinless perfection? John cuts down all such claims. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves." (1 John 1:8) He does not here rebuke the denial that a man has ever sinned at all; this he does in verse 10; he assails the perfectly distinct error which would lead a man to say that now he has no sin.

Under the law, he that was ceremonially defiled needed to be sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer; but even after this, he remained unclean until the evening. Is not the type fulfilled in us? While in one sense we are already "clean every whit," in another very important sense we remain "unclean until even." Then the word in 1 Pet. 5:10 shall fulfil the promise of 1 Thess. 6: 23,24.

How can it be otherwise while we remain in this tabernacle, wherein we groan, being burdened? Our heavenly Father's purpose is not to sanctify the flesh, but to destroy it; and while we bear it about with us, it shall always disturb and humble us, lusting against the Spirit in such a way that we are never able to do all that we would. (Gal. 5:17) The flesh, of course, does not regain dominion over the believer, but it seeks it; and the consciousness of its workings secures the gracious man from all self-satisfied thoughts about his own attainments.

Who can say that he is already perfect; that he loves God as much as he ought to love Him; that he loves the brotherhood as Christ loves them? (John 13:34) Who is it that comes up even to his own aspirations? If any man professes to do so, before I shall be provoked to seek a share in his alleged blessing, I shall need to be assured that his condition does not arise from his cherishing a low ideal, rather than from his having reached a lofty attainment. Let us, at all events, like Paul, press forward, ever forward, toward a horizon which recedes as the traveller approaches it; and forgetting all past and present attainment, reach forth to the still unattained. "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled"; and the intensity of present hunger indicates the capacity which is being formed within us for receiving, when the time for filling comes.

J. D.

Add Comment: