What is Holiness?

Sep 15


Bruce McLaughlin

Bruce McLaughlin

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What is the Christian journey along the path of holiness?


Holiness is the attribute of God which permeates all other attributes.  It is the state of who He is and the act of what He does; it is absolute purity of will,What is Holiness? Articles intellect, heart and action.  Certain words such as love, integrity, righteousness, sanctification, morality, ethics and character, have no meaning aside from the holiness of God.  Holiness makes God perfect in being, wisdom, power, justice, goodness and truth. 

Since man is created in God’s image, every human possesses a soul comprising a will, intellect and heart and every human is capable of action.  As with God, holiness in man is both state and act.  My state is holy if my will, intellect and heart conform respectively to the will, intellect and heart of God.  My acts are holy if they flow from a holy state and are the acts God would do in my place. 

Sin is all things not holy.  The state of my will, intellect and heart is either holy or sinful; my acts are either holy or sinful.  The intersection of sin and holiness is the null or empty set.  Holiness and sin are disjoint sets or mutually exclusive events in the sample space of all possible states and actions.

Although much of reality is part of a causal chain, God does not determine my free will decisions and I will not always select the path of holiness.  Also, my intellect is finite, my wisdom is flawed and I am fully capable of justifying sin by logic and reason.  Finally, my human heart is deceitfully wicked and cannot be trusted (Gen 6:5; Ps 14:1; Prov 12:15, 14:12, 20:9; Isa 32:6; Jer 17:9; Mat 15:19; Mark 7:21; John 5:42; Acts 28:27).  Given my flawed human soul, how can I ever hope to be holy?

The key that unlocks this mystery is a recognition that I cannot hope to be holy unless the Spirit of God occupies and purifies my will, my intellect and my heart.  I cannot lift myself up by my own bootstraps and become holy in the absence of the Holy Spirit.  Prior to my salvation, the Holy Spirit relentlessly exercises His prevenient grace to call, awaken, draw near, convict, save and empower.  He leads me from one step to another as He finds response in my heart and disposition to obedience.  After salvation, the Holy Spirit wants to occupy and purify every room of my heart, make known to me the will of God, help me discern the truth, be Lord of my life and keep me on the path of repentance, faith and obedience.  But the Holy Spirit will never force Himself on me.  I can, for example, tell Him that certain rooms of my heart are “off limits” to Him and He will comply.  Of course, my progress along the path of sanctification will cease at that point and the Holy Spirit will allow me to experience the consequences of my rebellion in this life.

My personal journey along the path of Holiness begins when God convicts me that my heart is as black as a lump of coal and when that realization causes me to feel great remorse.  I then request an audience with God and say something like: “Almighty God, I come into Your presence confessing my sin nature and behavior, having remorse in my heart, wanting to repent, asking for Your mercy, receiving from You the far greater gift of salvation and believing I am saved by faith, the grace of God and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ.”  God responds by giving me the great gift of salvation.  Part of this gift is the regeneration or initial sanctification of my soul.  By this gift, the Holy Spirit begins to reveal the will of God and helps me discern truth from lie.  He occupies and purifies all the rooms of my heart into which He is invited.  For the first time in my life I am not a prisoner of sin.  I am free to pursue the path of righteousness.  This is the first day of my Christian life.  This new life is a daily dying to sin and living to pursue righteousness; it constitutes a life of repentance, faith and obedience continually reaffirmed and renewed.  It means allowing my will and intellect to become increasingly aligned with the will and intellect of God.  It means letting the Holy Spirit occupy and purify an increasing number of rooms in my heart.  It means works of Christian love flow increasingly from a heart that loves God and loves my neighbor. 

I am now on the path to holiness.  How far can I travel along this path of sanctification during my life on earth?  Can I achieve, at least for some interval of time:

  • Holiness in being and holiness in action
  • Purity of heart, will, intellect and action
  • Perfect love, integrity, righteousness, morality, ethics, and character

Can I at least allow the Holy Spirit to occupy and purify nearly every room of my heart?  Can my human will become at least somewhat aligned with the will of God?  Can my feeble intellect discern at least many important truths?  Will the Holy Spirit give me a boost toward the top?  Will He occasionally push me up so I can hang from the edge of the precipice?  Can I be holy, for a while, until I am, once again, weighed down by my own

  • Concupiscence
  • Bad judgment
  • Inconsistent will
  • Weariness caused by the constant struggle against temptation

causing me to lose my grip and fall from the heights?  Scripture suggests the possibility of, at least, hanging from the edge of the precipice for a time.

  • God would not command the impossible.  A mature, complete, continuing response to grace is enjoined repeatedly in Scripture (Ex 19:6; John 5:14; 2 Cor 7:1, 13:1; Heb 6:1, 12:14; 1 Pet 1:15-16).  God would not require holiness in this life (Deut 6:5; Luke 10:27; Rom 6:11) if it were intrinsically impossible.
  • God would not promise complete responsiveness to grace if it were intrinsically unattainable.  A complete and mature life of loving holiness is clearly promised in scripture (Deut 30:6; Psalm 119:1-3; Isa 1:18; Jer 33:8; Ezek 36:25; Mat 5:6; 1 Thes 5:23, 24; Heb 7:25; 1 John 1:7-9).
  • The apostles repeatedly prayed for the full and complete life of holiness and perfect love (John 17:20-23; 2 Cor 13:9-11; Eph 3:14-21; Col 4:12; Heb 13:20-21; 1 Pet 5:10).  Were they deluded?
  • Scripture identifies a few entirely sanctified persons (Gen 5:18-24; Gen 6:9; Job 1:8; Acts 11:24).  A single instance establishes attainability.
  • Certain texts that appear to argue for un-attainability can be explained on different grounds (Eccles 7:20; 2 Chron 6:36; Job 25:4; 1 John 1:8-10).

Can persons be easily identified who have been boosted up to entire sanctification (Christian Perfection) or have otherwise been given special empowerment by the Holy Spirit to a peerage above the ranks of the merely saved?  Can some duly elected board of examiners certify such individuals?  Some believe the gift of “tongues” is proof of a particular kind of empowerment.  Others review Scripture covering the twenty “Gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:4-11; 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11) and conclude God:

  • Imparts a variety of gifts according to His divine grace (Eph 4:7,8).
  • Chooses these gifts at His own discretion and not according to our desire (1 Cor 12:11).
  • Wills every Christian exercise one or more spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:4-7).

Perhaps we need to look beyond denominational certifications, personal claims of holiness and personal displays of gifts to identify those who have been boosted up to entire sanctification or have otherwise been given special empowerment by the Holy Spirit to a peerage above the rank and file Christian.  Perhaps we should examine their fruit (Mat 7:16-20; Gal 5:22, 23).


Here is a vignette about one person’s journey along the path of holiness.  Perhaps you are that person.

The human soul may be thought of as a large mansion with many wings, many stories and thousands of rooms.  The intellect encompasses a large wing in the mansion where logic, reason and abstract thought take place.  The “will” is a single command and control center where moral decisions are made; information from other rooms is sent to the “will” for the decision making process.  The “heart” comprises thousands of rooms; each room represents one or more attributes given to us by God when He made us in His image.  These include patience, perseverance, discipline, prudence, discernment, courage, meekness, humility, gentleness, obedience, forbearance, commitment, love, integrity, purity, morality, ethics, forgiveness, mercy, compassion, faithfulness, peace, joy, hope, comfort, strength, honesty and a myriad of others.  Each room in the “heart” complex has the name of an attribute above the door; sometimes a room has several names since attributes can overlap.  The rooms of the heart complex are more or less grouped in wings but these wings are not independent; they intersect and wander from story to story.  The holiness wing, for example, comprises the ground floor with extensions into all other wings.

Only you and the spirits you choose to invite are present in a given room.  A white board hangs on one wall of each room with the words “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” but the boards are not well illuminated and are easy to ignore.  The rooms are interconnected by an intercom system and a quiet but disquieting voice seems to periodically inject advice concerning how the affairs of a particular room should be conducted.  But the rooms are large and it’s easy to get far enough away from the intercom to ignore this disturbing, disquieting voice.  Also, an annoying intermittent knock can be heard coming from an outside door, perhaps the front door or maybe a side door.  But if you have a sufficient number of distractions – the burdens and bitterness of life or perhaps a loud party with some invited spirits – the writing on the white board, the voice on the intercom and the annoying knock can be ignored with relative ease.

One day you are alone in your thoughts and feel the overwhelming presence of sin.  It’s like a heavy weight on your chest that keeps you from breathing.  What is wrong?  You were always able to suppress these feelings and convince yourself that all your actions were justified.  Then you realize the voice on all the intercoms is saying some things that pierce your heart like an ice pick.  What can you do?  Is there no escape from the suffocating power of sin?  You run from one room to another to no avail.  The voice becomes louder and suddenly blurts out, “Open the door where God is knocking!”  You search for the door; it takes a while.  Finally you locate a side door that you thought was a broom closet.  As you peer through a dingy glass, you see a man knocking.  The door has no doorknob on his side so he can’t open it.  There is an intercom right next to the door.  The disquieting voice from the intercom becomes something like a wind or strange breath urging you open the door.

Your palms sweat and you fear the consequences but you open the door.  The man says, “May I come in?”  He is an ordinary looking, quiet man, not at all threatening, so you invite him in.  He then startles you by abruptly asking, “Do you confess your sins with remorse in your heart; want to repent; ask for God’s forgiveness and mercy; believe you can receive peace in your life only by faith in Jesus Christ, the grace of God and the substitutionary atonement; and promise to seek the path of obedience?”  You don’t really know what he is talking about but, somehow, his words give you a measure of peace so you abruptly answer, “Yes” having only a rudimentary understanding of what you have just accepted.  Yet, as soon as you respond, the great heavy weight of sin is lifted off your chest.  The man then says, “I have a gift for you” and hands you a box with the word salvation on the lid.  You remove the lid and find a collection of certificates inside the box; each one has your name on it.  The certificates say things like:

  • You have been redeemed from the bondage of sin.
  • You have been forgiven all sins committed from birth to this point in time.
  • You have been justified as sinless before a holy God.
  • You have been adopted into the family of God.
  • You have been regenerated from the bondage of sin to a life of pursuing righteousness.
  • You will be guided along the path of sanctification.
  • You have been reconciled with fellow believers.
  • You have been united with all believers in the church of Jesus Christ.
  • You can look forward to glorification.

You say, “What do these certificates mean, for example the one about being regenerated?”  The man says, “I am Jesus Christ.  I have paid the price for your salvation.  I am giving you the Holy Spirit who will make known to you the will of God and help you discern the truth.  He will occupy and purify all the rooms of your heart into which he is invited.”  At that instant the disquieting voice from the intercom comes through the door like a wind.  You realize a person is the source of that voice and that person takes up residence in your will and intellect as an advisor.  He also occupies and purifies all those rooms of your heart which you permit him to enter.  He illuminates the white board in each of these rooms and says, “It is the requirement of God’s law that you love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”  If any evil spirits have been residing in those rooms, they are shown to the door.  You have been saved!  You have been reborn as a Christian and this is the first day of your new life.

As the days turn into months and months into years, you grow closer to God and make more rooms of your heart accessible to the Holy Spirit.  Progress is not steady, however.  Sometimes you deliberately sin and sometimes you even tell the Holy Spirit to get out of a room which He had previously occupied and purified.  You stumble along the path toward Christian maturity with some rooms holy and some not.  Only those rooms in which the Holy Spirit resides are holy.  A state of sin exists in those rooms where the Holy Spirit is absent and deliberate acts of sin flow from those rooms.

Perhaps one day you open all the rooms of your heart to the Holy Spirit.  On that day, the state of your entire heart is holy and, for the first time, your relationship with the Holy Spirit is unimpaired.  Your heart is filled with Christian love.  The deliberate acts which flow from your will, intellect and heart are Holy.  You have been entirely sanctified.  However, you are still tempted to sin.  Subsequently, you will often succumb to temptation and ask the Holy Spirit to vacate one or more rooms.  He will comply and your relationship with Him will be broken.  You will not lose your salvation each time you are overwhelmed by temptation; but your entire sanctification will have to be restored by confession of sin, repentance and the forgiveness and mercy of God.  There is no such thing as sinless perfection in this life.

Given all the snares and pitfalls of life, the power of Satan and the weakness of the human soul, the best path for a Christian is one of daily confession and renewal.  Even the full reception of sanctifying grace does not imply that one needs no longer to ask forgiveness or seek the intercession of Christ.  The Christian life is precisely the daily dying to sin and living to pursue righteousness that constitutes a life of repentance, faith and obedience continually reaffirmed and renewed.  Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin.” especially in connection with human infirmities, sins of surprise, errors of judgment and moral misperceptions?  There are no liturgies of classical Christianity that fail to offer confession of sin.  This does not place the way of holiness out of reach for believers, but puts believers constantly on the path of daily confession and renewal.

Holiness is not something imputed to you at the instant of salvation.  Imputation implies the assignment of certain attributes of Christ.  For example, justification is God’s act of removing your guilt and the penalty of sin while imputing to you the righteousness of Christ.  Justification is what God does for you through His Son; holiness is what He works in you through His Spirit.  Justification is a relative change in your standing with God and not the work by which you are made actually just and righteous.  Holiness is imparted to you gradually beginning at salvation and continuing thereafter as God senses a response in your heart and a disposition for obedience.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:8-10)


Many of the following untruths have been around for centuries.  Some can be gleaned from preaching and teaching on 24/7 Christian television.  All are Christian baloney!

  • Rom 7:13-25 describe Paul’s non-Christian life but not his Christian experience.
  • The substitutionary atonement is sufficient to cover a billion times more sin than I could ever commit so, after accepting the great gift of salvation, I no longer need to engage in prayers centered on personal confession, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience; all my future debts have been paid in full.
  • I can never lose my salvation so I don’t really need to be concerned about confession of sin and the requirements of a moral law (antinomianism).
  • Jesus loves me just the way I am so there is no reason to change.
  • Once I achieve a “state” of entire sanctification, I no longer commit deliberate sins and therefore I have nothing to confess.
  • Unless I can speak in tongues, I have not been empowered by the Holy Spirit and I am little more than an unskilled worker with blunt tools in the midst of God’s master craftsmen who have been lifted to a peerage above the ranks of the merely saved.
  • Christian holiness is imputed to me at the instant of my salvation; I am saved therefore I am holy.
  • I must be entirely sanctified or I am destined for hell.
  • If I inadvertently commit an unholy act but my motives are pure, I have not sinned.




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