A few years ago at a Christian conference I heard a challenging talk on sexual purity. I left the session convicted of the need to take purity more seriously, and walked with thousands of other delegates towards the car park. As we grew near, I could hear music; the song ‘Get lucky’ by Daft Punk was blasting from a portable CD player sitting on a chair, and the Christian parking volunteers crowded around it were singing along.
I won’t repeat the lyrics as they are neither edifying nor poetic, but essentially every single delegate was hearing a song that celebrated a one-night stand. Attempting to be gentle, I thanked the parking attendants for serving us and told them that I didn’t think the song was appropriate, especially considering we had just heard a talk on sexual purity.
A few of them responded by saying that they were just discussing themselves whether the music was appropriate and were happy to turn it off. However, some of the other parking volunteers booed me as we drove away.
We all face the struggles of living in a world that doesn’t know Christ. The Christian life is like an iceberg: one tenth of it is spent at church or with other Christians, and nine tenths is spent in the world where, much like salt water, that world attempts to erode our Christian character. The result is that we can end up with a church culture that perpetuates a “do whatever makes you happy” version of Christianity. This attitude is hostile to the challenge of Hebrews 12:14, which exhorts Christians to examine their own holiness, which was purchased for them by Christ, that they might not be found as those who have fallen short of the grace of God but instead reflect a way of life consistent with their new relationship with God (Heb 10:10, 12:15-16). That’s why I propose a different approach: do whatever makes you holy!
Some people think the solution to holiness is to remove ourselves from the world. The Manichaeans of the third to seventh centuries thought this way. They believed that the material world was evil and therefore Christians should avoid all contact with it. However Jesus prayed not that we would be removed from the world but that we would resist the influence of the evil one (John 17:14-18). Therefore, instead of withdrawing from contact with the world, we must strive to resist its influence. If you stand still while riding a bike you fall off; similarly we need to keep making progress in our holiness so that we can resist the influence of the world and bear fruit for God. WC Fields is rumoured to have once said, “a dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a live one to swim upstream”. It is growth in our Christian character, particularly our holiness, that enables us to swim against the currents of the world and protects us from “being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:8).
To justify a lifestyle that heavily celebrates and normalizes sin, I have heard many argue something along the lines of: “I need to be watching/reading/listening/talking about what my friends are into so that I can relate to them and talk about Jesus with them”. On one level we should all be “making the best use of the time” (Col 4:5), seeking to discern what world view an entertainment is reflecting and how we could use it to speak about the truths of the gospel. The problem can be the trap of utilitarianism: if it enables me to relate better with people, being obedient to God is irrelevant. This view misunderstands the place of the moral law in the Christian life and the nature of true biblical witness. The irony is, I believe, that such people are often the least likely to actually proclaim the gospel to their friends, as they have allowed their desire to be accepted to trump their desire to share Jesus.
As we live amidst a moral revolution, entertainment choices are an easy way that Christians can stand out as more concerned with holiness than immediate happiness—particularly when we have access to things like Plugged In and IMDB that help us review the content of different movies and shows. To this end we should seek to make Paul our example. While Paul did sacrifice his rights so as to remove unnecessary barriers to the gospel, he sought never to adopt worldly practices and so compromise his conscience (1 Cor 9:4-15). Rather, he always conducted himself as one “under the law of Christ”, making it his aim to please Christ in all circumstances (1 Cor 9:21; 2 Cor 5:9).
Through faith in Christ, God has saved us from the law as a means of salvation (Rom 7:1-6, 10:4; Gal 3:23-26), freeing us to obey the moral law of God from the heart (Ezek 36:25-27), which functions like a family code for how Christians may please their heavenly father. This enables us to say “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps 119:97). This is how we express our love and thankfulness to God for his saving grace in Christ: : “this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).1
It is Christian obedience to God’s word that will preserve our holiness and the effectiveness of our witness. Like Israel we are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). As such we are to represent God to the world. We have been saved from our sin so that we might proclaim the gospel and show to the world the goodness of what it looks like be set apart to live under the rule of God, that his character might be displayed through us to the world which suppresses the truth about him (1 Pet 1:16, Rom 1:18).
All people have a conscience they are suppressing that accuses them that they are deserving of death when they transgress the moral law of God (Rom 1:32). Peter anticipates that the non-Christian, when confronted by our distinctiveness, will both malign us and ask for a reason for the hope that we have (1 Pet 3:15-16, 4:4). This is why it’s so damaging when we act hypocritically; if we live like the world our lifestyle will never confront the sinner’s conscience.
It’s also why the Christian life should be more like a window than a mirror. Our lives should provide an opportunity for people to look at us and see the glorious character of God rather than a reflection of their own God-rejecting worldliness. They may throw rocks at the window because it reminds them of their own perilous sentence before God (Rom 1:32, cf. 1 Pet 4:4), but it is through our holiness that God works to save, as it commends the gospel. This is the sense of 1 Peter 2:12, which says “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” JC Ryle expressed the importance of such holiness well when he wrote:
I believe that far more is done for Christ’s kingdom by the holy living of believers than we are at all aware of. There is a reality about such living which makes men feel, and obliges them to think. It carries a weight and influence with it that nothing else can give. It makes religion beautiful, and draws men to consider it, like a lighthouse seen afar off… Your life is an argument that none can escape… I believe there is far more harm done by unholy and inconsistent Christians than we are aware of. Such men are among Satan’s best allies. They pull down by their lives what ministers build with their lips. They cause the chariot wheels of the gospel to drive heavily. They supply the children of this world with a never-ending excuse for remaining as they are… Let us take heed lest the blood of souls should be required at our hands. From murder of souls by inconsistency and loose walking, good Lord, deliver us! Oh, for the sake of others, if for no other reason, let us strive to be holy!2
Hypocrisy also threatens the credibility of our witness. The very word witness implies a context of opposition; you only call a witness when there is a disagreement. As Christians we are to witness to the truth of the gospel, but just as Jesus’ testimony was rejected we also shall be persecuted as we witness (John 15:18). It is under the pressure of persecution that many give way to hypocrisy. A hypocrite in the Greco-Roman world described an actor in a play. Biblically speaking, it involves somebody who hides or contradicts their professed convictions through how they live. Such people Jesus rebukes heavily (Matt 6:5, 16; Isa 29:13).
Many of us feel the pressure to succumb to hypocrisy when we play sport. I remember discipling a younger Christian who shared with me how discouraged he was by his football team. His team was mainly Christians from our church—who abused the umpires, got angry at other players, and frequently used obscenity and crude joking on the field. A worldly culture had been tolerated and promoted by the older Christians and now undermined the witness of all the Christians in the team. In contrast to this, a younger Christian was an example of holiness in action recently as he spoke with me about how his having nothing to do with the party and drinking culture of his peers leads to conversations on almost a weekly basis at his gym about why he doesn’t celebrate such a lifestyle. As a result, this young man is constantly finding opportunity to share the gospel with his friends.
In order to take holiness seriously we need to make it a habit. Paul teaches us that as we increase in love, knowledge and discernment we will be able to “approve what is excellent” (Phil 1:9-10, cf. Heb 13:18). JC Ryle explains:
Holiness is the habit of being of one mind with God, according as we find his mind described in Scripture. It is the habit of agreeing in God’s judgement, hating what he hates, loving what he loves, and measuring everything in this world by the standard of his word.3
Holiness requires reinforcement by frequent repetition. The late Jerry Bridges exhorts us “to never let an exception occur”. He explains:
When we allow exceptions we are reinforcing old habits, or else failing to reinforce the new one. At this point we must watch the ‘just this once’ type of thinking, which is a subtle, dangerous trap. Because we are unwilling to pay the price of saying no to our desires, we tell ourselves we will indulge only once more and tomorrow will be different. Deep inside we know that tomorrow it will be even more difficult to say no, but we don’t dwell on this fact… We may feel that a particular habit ‘isn’t too bad,’ but continually giving in to that habit weakens our wills against the onslaughts of temptation from other directions.4
We will only begin to make holiness a habit when we acknowledge the fact that our habits, no matter how minor they might seem, have consequences.
A way to help increase the likelihood that you act with more holiness in the future would be to re-enact the scenario, with the benefit of hindsight, in line with how God would want you to respond. Physically training your body will help steer your heart in the right direction.
Not only does holiness equip us for our witness to the world, but it prepares us for the happiness of heaven. As Kevin DeYoung says:
If ungodliness is your delight here on earth, what will please you in heaven, where all is clean and pure? You would not be happy there if you are not holy here. Or as Spurgeon put it, “Sooner could a fish live upon a tree than the wicked in Paradise.”5
It is only by God’s grace that we can remain holy in our witness, so we need to keep praying for one another to have “a clear conscience, desiring to act honourably in all things” (Heb 13:18), that we might “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24, 5:3).
1. JI Packer, Seeing God in the Dark: Unraveling the Mysteries of Holy Living, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, 2013, p. 322. Here Packer says “Love and law are mutually entailed, as Paul shows in Romans 13:8-10. The sixth, seventh, eighth, and tenth commandments prohibit particular actions and attitudes (murder, adultery, theft, covetous jealousy), and Paul quotes them to make the double point that when we keep these commandments we love our neighbor as ourselves, and when we love our neighbor as ourselves we keep these commandments. The point is confirmed by John’s striking reasoning in 1 John 5:2: ‘By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.’ Neighbor love fulfils the law.”↩
2. JC Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, 2003, pp. 42-43.↩
3. JC Ryle, Holiness, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, 2003, p. 35.↩
4. Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness, NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2006, p. 100.↩
5. Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness, Crossway, Wheaton, 2014, p. 15.↩