44 For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. 45 For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:44-45 ESV
14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV
Sanctification is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied doctrines in the Bible. Few would doubt its existence or the need for the Christian to embrace it as a central theme of Scripture, but there is a great deal of confusion regarding just exactly what sanctification is and what role the believer plays in it.
When reading the two passages above, it can be easy to assume that God’s command to be holy is left up to the individual to pull off. And it is a lofty, unrealistic command because God uses Himself as the standard: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV). For the Israelites, their relationship with God as His chosen people required that they live up to His exacting standards. And God did not leave those standards up to their imaginations. He provided them with His law, a written code of conduct that outlined exactly what holiness looked like in everyday life.
That code of law was behaviorly-based, containing a series of “you shall” and “you shall not” commands. There were things they were required to do and other things they were to refrain from doing. But God expected obedience.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them: I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:36-37 ESV
The law of God was not like a menu at your favorite restaurant. You didn’t get to pick and choose which law you wanted to keep. God clearly said, “you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them.” But it was these statutes and rules that set the people of Israel apart from the rest of mankind. It was God’s divine code of conduct that provided them an unambiguous understanding of what holiness was to look like in real life. And it proved to be foreboding and virtually impossible for the people of Israel to keep.
And this is part of the reason we get uncomfortable with the idea of sanctification. When we read Peter’s words, where he restates God’s command to “be holy,” we find ourselves wondering how in the world we’re supposed to pull off the impossible. And Peter even ups the ante by adding the requirement that our holiness show up in all of our conduct. In other words, the Christian’s call to holiness is holistic and all-encompassing, impacting every area of life.
And Peter was not alone in calling believers to a life of complete holiness. Paul picked up the same theme and repeated it often.
…let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God. – 2 Corinthians 7:1 NLT
God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. – 1 Thessalonians 4:7 NLT
Even the apostle John got in on the act, adding his own twist to God’s call to holiness.
Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. – 1 John 3:2-3 NLT
Work toward complete holiness. Live holy lives. Keep yourself pure. Be holy in all your conduct. Sounds impossible doesn’t it? And because it sounds impossible, many Christians have deemed this commands as implausible. These calls to sinless perfection must be some form of overstated rhetoric or religious hyperbole, intended to improve Christian conduct by setting a high bar. But the problem with that view is it results in one of two outcomes. First, there are those who take the words of Peter, Paul, and John literally and attempt to keep themselves pure and strive for complete holiness; only to find that their efforts fail. Then they become disillusioned and defeated, eventually throwing in the towel altogether. Secondly, there are those who hear these admonitions to holiness and immediately write them off as nothing more than religious rhetoric, meant to be taken figuratively, not literally.
This second group tends to made up of those who already view themselves as holy in God’s eyes. They find comfort and a form of exemption in a verse like Ephesians 2:9: “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” They point to passages like Galatians 5:4 and emphasize that we live under grace, not law.
For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. – Galatians 5:4 NLT
But there is an important distinction made by Paul in this passage. He is not implying that God’s law has been made null and void. He is not suggesting that the law has been done away with. He is simply stating that the law is not to be our means of earning a right standing with God. In other words, keeping of the law is not how men are justified in God’s eyes. The truth is, there never was a time when keeping the law could make anyone right with God. And that’s because man’s sin nature kept him from keeping God’s holy law perfectly.
Back in the book of Galatians, Paul was attempting to get his audience to understand the proper role of God’s law. And he answers the question “Why, then, was the law given?” by stating, “It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). And Paul gave a similar clarification on the role of the law to the believers in Rome.
God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. – Romans 5:20 NLT
The law was intended to show men the degree of their sinfulness. It revealed God’s holy standard and exposed their inability to live up to it – in their own strength. Paul adds the following explanation regarding the law: “For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20 NLT).
So, does that make the law evil? If all the law could do was expose man’s sinfulness, why should we be expected to follow it today? Once again, Paul provides insight into these questions.
But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good. – Romans 7:12 NLT
Paul even told his disciple, Timothy, “We know that the law is good when used correctly” (1 Timothy 1:8 NLT). And Jesus Himself said, “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose” (Matthew 5:17 NLT). Jesus became a man in order that He might live in perfect obedience to the law of God. In doing so, He did what no other man had ever been able to do. He showed what it looks like to “be holy.” He lived in complete submission to the revealed will of God as outlined in the law. Which is what made Him the sinless sacrifice, the unblemished Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
But what about us? How are we supposed to pull of the same seemingly impossible feat? Unlike Jesus, we still have a sin nature to deal with. We are constantly susceptible to the temptations of the enemy and “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16 NIV). There is hardly a day that goes by where we don’t find ourselves succumbing to the “sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV).
This is where we must grasp the reality that there is something radically different between us and the Old Testament Israelites. As Christ-followers we have been given a special empowerment that makes holy living not only possible, but normal and natural. Because of our faith in Christ, we have been given the indwelling presence of His Spirit, who provides us with a capacity to live holy lives – not in our strength, but His. And our Spirit-empowered efforts to pursue holiness are not intended to win us favor with God, but to bring Him glory as we allow His power to make us more and more like His Son.
And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT
And it is essential that we understand that our sanctification, our growth in Christlikeness, is based on faith and fueled by God’s grace. It is not about human effort. Yes, the pursuit of holiness requires effort on our part. It is not some kind of passive, let-go-and-let-God kind of experience. Paul tells us we are to “Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear” (Philippians 2:12 NLT). But he also reminds us, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT).
We can be holy as God is holy. We can live pure lives, just as Jesus did. Why? Because we have been united with Him in His death and in His resurrection. We have been given the Spirit of God to empower and perfect us. As Peter so aptly puts it: “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT). So be holy.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.