The Importance And Development Of Holiness

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Levi Durfey




15 But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; 16 Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy. (1 Peter 1:15–16)


From Peter’s words here, we learn that God is holy. In fact, holiness is the most significant attribute of God given in scripture. We like to think that love is the most common character trait of God given in scripture—but his holiness beats it by a long shot.


Philadelphia pastor James Montgomery Boice once spoke to a discipleship group on the attributes of God. He began by asking them to list God’s qualities in order of importance. They put love first, followed by wisdom, power, mercy, omniscience, and truth. At the end of the list they put holiness.


“That did surprise me,” Boice later wrote, “because the Bible refers to God’s holiness more than any other attribute.”


The Bible doesn’t generally refer to God as Loving, Loving, Loving! Or Wise, Wise, Wise! Or Omniscient, Omniscient, Omniscient! But over and over we read the cry of the angels, Holy, Holy, Holy! (Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes, electronic ed., [Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000], 373)


What is holiness? At it’s most basic level, to be holy means to be separated from sin. God, of course, is completely separated from sin. We, according to the text in Peter, are to be like God in his holiness. Holiness is not just separating from sin, it’s also separating to (or dedicating to) God and righteousness.


Early in my Christian walk, I acquired a book called, The Pursuit of Holiness, by Jerry Bridges (the inside of the cover has a date, 1991, about a year after I was saved). It was one of those books that influenced me greatly in my Christian walk. 


Recently, I acquired the electronic version of it and reread it—it’s still the very best book on holiness that I’ve ever read. Jerry Bridges defined holiness this way:


To be holy is to be morally blameless. It is to be separated from sin and, therefore, consecrated to God. The word signifies “separation to God, and the conduct befitting those so separated.” (Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness, [Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1978], 16)


Jerry Bridges also said that many Christians have a “cultural holiness.” Their holiness comes from the culture, the people around them. That may be more or less like the holiness of God. 


But what does the Bible say? It says, “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy.” God must define our definition of holiness, or there is no real holiness. In God, there is a complete absence of evil and sin.


One thing that means for us is that we can never excuse any of our sin. We are prone to say, “That’s just the way I am” or “I’m only human.” Sometimes we feel that we have no choice but to disobey God. 


Other people in our lives make it seem that God’s way can’t be right for our situation. “Look,” they say, “I know you are very religious and all, but you got to use some common sense.” 


As soon as anybody begins to plead for Christians to be holy, somebody comes along and says, “Now, brother, don’t get excited about this; don’t become a fanatic. God understands our flesh; He knows that we are but dust.” 


He knows we are but dust, but He also says He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” and that without holiness, “no man shall see the Lord.” (A. W. Tozer and David E. Fessenden, The Attributes of God: A Jouney into the Father’s Heart, [Camp Hill, PA: WingSpread, 2003–], 1:172)


Also, no Christian should ever allow themselves the excuse, “Well, lots of other Christians do it.” Since when has God operated on the principle of majority rule?


God hates sin. We don’t like that word—hate—much these days. People aren’t supposed to hate. And a God of love is especially not supposed to hate anyone or anything. But the Bible plainly teaches that God hates sin:


16 These six things doth the LORD hate: Yea, seven are an abomination unto him: 17 A proud look, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood, 18 An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, Feet that be swift in running to mischief, 19 A false witness that speaketh lies, And he that soweth discord among brethren. (Proverbs 6:16–19; cf. Zechariah 8:13)


Because God hates sin, we should also cultivate in our hearts a hatred of our sin. To do this, we don’t focus on the sin, but on God’s holiness. We ought to study his holiness; meditate frequently on it. Read the Bible about it, and read good books explaining what the Bible says about God’s holiness.


We are to obey Christ because we love him (John 14:15), and part of our love for him is to discover all that we can about his holiness. Then his holiness becomes a proper motivation to strive to be holy.


Also, holiness is the best witness to unbelievers. Moody said, “A holy life will make the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns, they just shine.”




We all struggle with pursuing holiness. Sometimes our struggle manifests itself in being sensitive to anyone correcting or rebuking us—“Don’t judge me!” We might see legalism everywhere.


Or there are those who are so burdened with the guilt of their lack of holiness, that they start to justify their lack of holiness and give up pursuing it.


There are those who pursue holiness, but are weary from the constant falling and getting back up again.


Why do we struggle with holiness? Because we’re not holy. There are things that we should keep in mind that will make the struggle worth it.


1. Sin Is About God First


It’s easy for us to get focused on our own victory over sin and lose sight of a basic truth: sin is about God first. David said:


4 Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done this evil in thy sight: That thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest. (Psalm 51:4)


11 Thy word have I hid in mine heart, That I might not sin against thee. (Psalm 119:11)


The prodigal son, when he repented, said: 


18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, (Luke 15:18)


Why is it important that we see our lack of holixness as sinning against God more than our own failure to achieve victory? 


Because the latter is born out of our pride—we’re pilling sin upon sin! But when we see our sin as grieving God, we’re concerned about our relationship with him, and we are humbled in his sight. Our focus needs to be on the Lord.


2. Living By Faith Is Work


There are a number of “grace” movements in Christianity who insist that human effort has no place in living by faith. Sometimes Christians, frustrated with a lack of holiness, get attracted to these movements and give up any effort. They wait for God to change them and find themselves doubly disappointed. 


Or, they assume that, since God hasn’t changed them, God has given them freedom to live in their sins. “God’s going to have to change my heart,” they explain, “and until he does, I am fine with this sin and he must be also.”


We must however, accept personal responsibility for our sin and make efforts to battle sins. I do not know how anyone can miss this striving after holiness in the Bible:


13 Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, 14 I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13–14)


1 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, 2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)


Don’t blame God or the Devil for your sin. Accept personal responsibility for it and, with God’s help, strive against it. Don’t give up pursuing holiness, the battle doesn’t end until you are in arms of Jesus.


3. All Sins Need To Be Taken Seriously


Christians have their list of sins that they would never do, a list of sins they know they shouldn’t do, and a list of sins that, well, it’s hard to consider them to be sins. It might be speeding, lying, downloading movies illegally, gossiping, or any number of sins, that we decide can be tolerated.


What is important about sin is not that it seems to be big or small to us (and certainly there are big sins and small sins), but who the lawgiver is. God is the supreme Creator of the universe and all it’s laws. 


When you look at what seems to be small law, remember who it was that gave it. Remember why you are in this battle against sin. Not for victories for yourself, but for a close relationship with the Lord. If he makes a rule and calls something a sin, then it’s got to be important because God is important. Take sin seriously.




One of the stories in the Bible that teaches us about how seriously God treats sin is that of Agag in 1 Samuel 15. 


1 Samuel also said unto Saul, The LORD sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the LORD. 2 Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. 3 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:1–3)


God wanted to finally dole out judgment and justice on the Amalekites for what they did against the Israelites. His instructions were very clear: destroy everyone and everything. Saul went into battle and won, but did he obey the Lord?


9 But Saul and the people spared Agag [their king], and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly. (1 Samuel 15:9)


Okay, so here we have the classic human rationalization: “I know God said destroy everything, but there’s some good stuff here, let’s save it.” Why did he save Agag the king? Perhaps to shame him. 


How did God react to Saul’s disobedience?


13 And Samuel came to Saul: and Saul said unto him, Blessed be thou of the LORD: I have performed the commandment of the LORD. 14 And Samuel said, What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear? 15 And Saul said, They have brought them from the Amalekites: for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed. (1 Samuel 15:13–15)


Well now, Saul thinks that when you disobey God, all you have to do is throw him a bone and things will be okay. Samuel says, “Saul you have disobeyed the Lord.” Saul’s next response is as human as they come, blame someone else:


20 And Saul said unto Samuel, Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and have gone the way which the LORD sent me, and have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. 21 But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God in Gilgal. (1 Samuel 15:20–21)


Samuel presses on Saul the importance of obeying the Lord, and Saul repents of his sin. But the consequences will remain:


26 And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD hath rejected thee from being king over Israel. (1 Samuel 15:26)


What about Agag?


32 Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitterness of death is past. 33 And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal. (1 Samuel 15:32–33)


This seems like such a merciless act, but remember that God was rightly delivering justice to a people who showed no mercy to Israel. God is always just in his dealings with us.


One of the lessons that we learn is that we must treat sin in our lives the same way. God says that we are to “mortify,” or put to death, sin in our lives.


5 Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: 6 For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: (Colossians 3:5–6)


We must take sin seriously. We cannot settle for partial obedience or “buying God off” with good works like donations to the church, or working in a homeless shelter. Our attitude towards holiness must be one of utter serious. Our attitude towards our sin must be like God’s, ready to hew it to pieces before the Lord.




Human beings are creatures of habit—that is a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, if we can develop in our lives good, godly, holy habits, well, that would be a good thing. On the other hand, we all have bad, ungodly, unholy, sinful habits that we just can’t seem to break.


Let’s talk about habits and what it takes to break bad ones and form good ones. Naturally, all this will have to be done in reliance on God through faith. But that does not leave out the need for us to exert effort and strive for holiness.


Paul told Timothy to…


7 …refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness. 8 For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. (1 Timothy 4:7–8)


The word, “exercise” (γύμναζε, VPAM2S, γυμνάζω) means to train or discipline.  The Christian walk is not to be one of ease and sloth. We are to depend on God for growth in holiness, but not to the degree that we can sit back and do nothing. 


What are some things that we can do to build godly habits and tear down sinful ones? Here are only a couple tips:


1. Repetition Forms Habits


Repetition forms habits. This is true of both holy and sinful habits. John Owen, a Puritan pastor in England, had a habit of using lots of words to say anything. On this truth he said:


Observe, that reiterated, repeated acts of the consent of the will unto sin may beget a disposition and inclinableness in it unto the like acts, that may bring the will unto a proneness and readiness to consent unto sin upon easy solicitations; which is a condition of soul dangerous, and greatly to be watched against. (John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, [Edinburgh: T&T Clark], 6:253)


Alright, when you keep committing a sin, it gets easier and more likely that you’ll continue committing it. 


On the good side, we can form holy habits when we continually repeat them. Maybe you want to establish a daily time of prayer, or say nicer things to your spouse, think purer thoughts, or some other holy action. 


Establish a plan to do whatever habit you are trying to form repeatedly. Maybe you set an alarm to remind you to pray. Maybe you take time during your quiet time with God to write out what you love about your spouse. Perhaps you assign a few minutes several times a day to examine your thoughts and try to think on what is pure and holy and loving.


The point is: don’t just sit there and do nothing to pursue holiness in your life. We’ve seen that we are to pursue holiness, so go and do it.


2. Don’t Let Exceptions Occur


Maybe you are trying to lose weight—then someone offers you a cookie or ice cream or both—what might you say? “Just this once won’t hurt.” When you are building a good habit or trying to eliminate a bad habit, it’s the exceptions that make it so much more difficult, especially when you are first making or breaking a habit.


Remember how Saul and the Israelites decided it wouldn’t hurt anything to save some of the spoils of their war with the Amalekites? Even after God said, “Destroy everything”? They thought an exception could be made, especially if they sacrificed to the Lord. But, as we saw, the Lord wasn’t taking exceptions.


Coffee is something that I love and hate, or at least my mind loves it, but my body hates it. Drink too much coffee, I get heartburn. So, I’ve tried totally quitting coffee, which works fine. Tea and me get along just fine, body, mind and soul. 


But then I start to make exceptions—I’ll just have a cup at the coffee shop with the guys. I’ll just have some when I drive a long distance. Pretty soon, it turns into: I’ll just make half-pot to get through the afternoon.


Good habits are the same way. You get a good habit going, maybe reading the Bible more, but then vacation time comes along and you miss several days. Then you have to start building the habit all over again.




Another book that greatly influenced me when I was a young Christian was called Disciplines Of A Godly Man by Kent Hughes (the date written in this book was October, 1992). In it, Hughes talks about the disciplines that godly man (and really a godly woman) should pursue. He begins the book with this story:


SOMETIME IN THE early summer before entering the seventh grade, I wandered over from the baseball field and picked up a tennis racket for the first time … and I was hooked! It was not long before I became a ten-year-old tennis bum. 


My passion for the sport became so intense, I would idly hold a tennis ball and just sniff it. The pssst and the rubbery fragrance of opening a can of new tennis balls became intoxicating. The whop, whop and the lingering ring of a sweetly hit ball, especially in the quietness of early morning, was to me symphonic. 


My memories of this and the summer which followed are of blistering black tennis courts, hot feet, salty sweat, long drafts of delicious rubbery tepid water from an empty ball can, the short shadows of midday heading slowly toward the east, followed by the stadium “daylight” of the court’s lights, and the ubiquitous eerie night bats dive-bombing our lobs.


That fall I determined to become a tennis player. I spent my hoarded savings on one of those old beautifully laminated Davis Imperial tennis rackets — a treasure which I actually took to bed with me. I was disciplined! I played every day after school (except during basketball season) and every weekend. 


When spring came, I biked to the courts where the local high school team practiced and longingly watched until they finally gave in and let me play with them. The next two summers I took lessons, played some tournaments, and practiced about six to eight hours a day — coming home only when they turned off the lights.


And I became good. Good enough, in fact, that as a twelve-and-a-half-year-old, one-hundred-and-ten-pound freshman I was second man on the varsity tennis team of my large 3,000-student California high school.


Not only did I play at a high level, I learned that personal discipline is the indispensable key for accomplishing anything in this life. I have since come to understand even more that it is, in fact, the mother and handmaiden of what we call genius. (R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man, 10th anniversary ed.; rev. ed., [Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001], 11–12)


We are in the greatest race, servants of the greatest King, heirs to the greatest prize—can we really say that we shouldn’t discipline ourselves for holiness any less than athletes discipline themselves for the sport they play?

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