Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. –Hebrews 12:14
I have a problem with holiness. Not with the concept, of course, but with the action. The reality is that I am a pretty good guy. I love my wife and family, I do not have any skeletons in my closet that are going to cost me my marriage or my job, and to the best of my ability I work at being a person who looks and acts like a follower of Jesus. Even so, I am at times a stranger to God’s holiness. My guess is this pretty much describes you too.
My problem with holiness is twofold. First, I have a hard time maintaining it, and second, Scripture says I need to be holy if I hope to see the Lord. Those two truths put me in quite the pickle. Martin Luther, prior to coming to faith in Christ, was an outstanding friar/monk. He was meticulous in his devotional life, and he followed the letter of the law in his monastery. However, by his own admission, he hated God. Here is what he said about his monastic life:
When I was a monk, I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, vigils and freezing; the frost alone might have killed me. I wearied myself greatly for almost fifteen years with daily sacrifice; tortured myself with many very rigorous works. I earnestly sought to acquire righteousness by my works.
Luther went on to earn a doctorate in letters and became a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, but he was still not converted to the faith. During this time, he became obsessed with Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous will live by faith.’” As he considered this text, all he could envision was the active righteousness of God pouring out his wrath on sinners, and Luther knew he was a sinner. He wrote this:
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my works. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus, I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon the Scripture at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted… At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.
Luther at last was saved. I, like Luther, want to be holy and live for Christ. I, like Luther, am a sinner in desperate need of God’s mercy and grace. I, like Luther, tend to default to good works to attain holiness. How about you?
On Sunday mornings we are walking through the letter of James and being confronted with the reality that faith has works. What does that mean for us? Does it mean we give ourselves over to good works in order to find salvation in God? Never! It means we rest in the biblical truth that, if we have “altogether been born again and entered paradise itself though open gates,” we rest in the assurance that we have been made holy by the great redeeming work of Christ. Now, in response to that great gift from God, we do good works in order that God may be glorified in us (Matt. 5:16). Genuine faith has works, but works do not make genuine faith. Only God can do that great work in us!
Friends, if you have come to know Christ, you are holy. That work is done. You didn’t do it and neither did I. God did it for us in Christ. Your sin was and is and will be given over to him, and he has gladly accepted it and died for it. But that is only half the good news. He has also given you his righteousness and holiness (2 Cor. 5:21). Can you feel, as did Luther, the great weight fall off your shoulders? I hope and pray that you do!
Grace and peace,