Practical Holiness

Our Reformed Heritage

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2014

Lesson 3 – “Practical Holiness” – Hebrews 12:14

There’s a lot of confusion about what’s meant by “Holiness”. There is a sense in which all true believers in Christ are declared to be holy in God’s eyes. There is also the practical side of living a holy life. Holiness is a continuing obligation for God’s people. We should be working on holy living every day. So while we are perfectly holy in one sense, we are far from perfectly holy in another.

To be what God calls us to be, we need to understand what God himself says about it.

A very helpful and classic work on Holiness was written by J. C. Ryle.

In Chapter 3 of his book Holiness he uses this text: Hebrews 12:14, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

John Charles Ryle was born in England in 1815. He was a truly Reformed Christian who stood for the Calvinistic faith. His brilliance wasn’t only in his good understanding of the Bible, it was also in his ability to put profound ideas into words the common people understood. In 1880 he was appointed to be the first Bishop of Liverpool with the Church of England.

Ryle was a prolific writer of popular books and tracts about the Bible and Christian Living. By 1897 his little tracts had sold over 12 million copies in just the English versions. Many were translated into other languages, but the numbers were not reported.

On February 1st, 1900 he delivered a farewell address and readied for retirement. A month later he resigned his office as Bishop. In less than five months after that he died, but his writings live on.

Holiness means to be separated out, to be unique in some way.

In the Old Testament the Hebrew word “qadosh” (קדושׁ) is used. In the New Testament it’s the Greek word “hagios” (ἅγιος). The best meaning seems to be that something is set aside as special.

God is holy because he is unlike anything else in all the universe. He is absolutely unique. That includes his moral perfection, his power, wisdom and glory. He is perfectly reliable which makes his promises uniquely certain. Nothing else in all creation is perfect in the same sense as God is perfect.

1 Samuel 2:2 uses this word for holiness to describe the uniqueness of God. “There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.”

As God’s children, we ought to be holy too. We are commanded to be holy all through Scripture. When the church was in the form of Israel, God said through Moses in Leviticus 19:2, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” We are told in Deuteronomy 18:13, “You shall be blameless before the LORD your God.” This is applied to the New Testament church many times too. Our text in Hebrews 12:14 says that we ought to strive for holiness.

All true believers are declared to be holy in Christ.

This is our Positional Holiness. It’s not just a technical point of theology. Jesus paid the debt of his people, and gives them his holiness which they do not deserve.

Before the throne of God we who believe are truly counted as God’s holy people. When we sin there is no crime against man or God so great that it is beyond the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. He fully and successfully paid for it all.

No one should ever believe the Satanic lie they they have been so bad or evil that they can’t be forgiven. Not only are they forgiven, they are declared to be fully holy in God’s eyes by that amazing grace which secured that judgment by our Savior’s work in his life and death.

The word for saint in the Bible is the same word as the word for holy. The saints are the “hagioi” (ἅγιοι), the holy ones. Paul addresses his New Testament letters to the early churches and to individuals he regularly calls “saints”.

The Roman church teaches that we can only consider dead people to be saints. The church of Scripture has living saints. All who believe can always say with confidence that in God’s eyes they are counted as holy.

But to be among those living saints means that we have to be holy in another sense too. Redeemed hearts are changed hearts.

We need to show Christ’s work of
declaring us unique by being unique.

This is what Ryle calls Practical Holiness. It’s the practical, day-to-day uniqueness of the believer’s life in Christ. Practical Holiness isn’t just knowledge about holiness. It’s the doing of it.

These are my summaries based upon what Ryle points out. We are unique from what we are in our fallen nature. By God’s grace and power we want to have the same mind as God about things. We accept what he says in his word. We try to avoid what we know is sinful, and determine to obey what God commands. We strive to be like our Lord Jesus Christ, to honor and obey what he taught and what he actually did. We use the means God gives us to nurture the fruit of the Holy Spirit: seeking to be meek, patient, gentle, kind, self-controlled and the other virtues God says we should develop. We treat others in ways that promote their spiritual well-being. We show mercy and benevolence whenever we’re able to. We try to be pure inwardly, rooting out tempting thoughts and situations. We fear God as children who stand in awe respecting the Father who loves them perfectly. We want to be faithful in doing what God gives us to do. We focus our minds on things above, not only on the shadows they cast here on earth.

These things God calls us to do take time.

We need to persistently work on our own spiritual growth, and be patient with others as they progress. We all grow at different rates and for different purposes in God’s larger plan. But while we grow to become more holy practically, we are confident of being holy positionally before God.

Ryle says, “Gold is not the less gold because mingled with alloy.” But the gold must be worked on and the alloy removed. We should never be satisfied to be saved without change. The evidence that we are truly Christ’s isn’t what we think, or say, or feel. It is in what we do that proves the work of Christ on our hearts. Our works do not cause salvation or earn it. You can’t have the one without the other.

Ryle anticipated an objection:
Wouldn’t that make us seem strange here on earth?

Wouldn’t this make us stand out as being different than most everybody? Yes, that’s exactly what the word holiness means. You are God’s, no longer your own. You were bought with a price, and now belong to your Savior. The Heidelberg Catechism begins (Q1) by confessing this,

“I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.”

We should stand out as having a morality that honors Christ, and a humility that fits a humble sinner who confesses Christ as his Savior. Our behavior, our beliefs, even our words, will make us seem different to the world.

This is what Christ calls us to be in him. He does not call us to be strange by wearing out-dated clothes, acting awkwardly or inappropriately. We are to be different because Christ is first, and his honor stands above our own comforts and wants. Strange because by faith we see the forest, and not just a collection of personally useful trees. Strange because we really care for sinners around us, and not just for what we can gain for ourselves.

God’s saints have work to do here on earth
in growing in practical holiness.

If someone is apathetic about that, he can’t help but fear that perhaps he is not truly redeemed and declared holy in heaven.

But as we grow in that uniqueness of being a child of God we have evidence that we are declared holy by grace. We have God’s promised inward blessing that goes along with truly loving him, even though we know we are still very imperfect and kept only by his amazing grace.

Ryle says,

“I want to see among believers more of a pilgrim spirit, a more decided separation from the world, a conversation more evidently in heaven, a closer walk with God…”

His advice to us is this,

“begin with Christ. You will do just nothing at all, and make no progress till you feel your sin and weakness, and flee to him. He is the root and beginning of all holiness, and the way to be holy is to come to him by faith and be joined to him. Christ is not wisdom and righteousness only to his people, but sanctification also. Men sometimes try to make themselves holy first of all, and sad work they make of it. They toil and labour and turn over many new leaves and make many changes, and yet … they feel nothing bettered, but rather worse.”

He reminds us that in John 15:5 we are told that Without Christ we can do nothing. Expect him to keep his word. He will, and it will make you different.

Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
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