“Say not that thou hast royal blood in thy veins and art born of God,” said puritan William Gurnall, “unless thou canst prove thy pedigree by daring to be holy.”
There is no such thing as an unholy Christian (at least in any ongoing sense.) Can Christians commit any sort of sin? Yes. Can Christians repeatedly commit sin? Yes. Can Christians commit the worst of sins? Yes. But it is inconceivable that a person could be a Christian without holiness of life.
John stated the principle of persistent holiness like this: “Whoever sins has neither seen Him or known Him,” (1 Jn. 3: 6 NKJV). “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God. In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest” (1 Jn. 3: 9-10).
The above statements, which are as intrusive as the surgeon’s knife, do not argue perfection when considered in context (1 Jn. 1:8; 2: 1), but they do establish the righteous practice of every believer as a sort of guarantee. Authentic Christians are holy. All who are not are merely deceived. “Little children, let no one deceive you” (1 Jn. 3:7).
I once grew some orange trees in my backyard. What I saw on their branches were admittedly somewhat less inviting than others I had seen, but they were oranges nonetheless, and they tasted pretty good. They were not lemons. I could tell that I had an authentic orange tree by its fruit (Mt. 7: 20). The fruit of holiness is found on the branches of every Christian life.
We are told by the writer of Hebrews to “pursue…holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). By this the writer is affirming that holiness is progressive (we must pursue it), but also essential. The combination of these two thoughts is quite helpful. First it assures us that we are in process and therefore no one of us has “arrived.” Sanctification is not instantaneous, nor complete until heaven. We cannot believe in any kind of perfectionism. At any given time, we are part pure and part sinful.
Paul asserted this inability to be perfect when he said that we would have to wait until the Lord comes to know “the things hidden in the darkness” and “the counsels of the hearts” (1 Cor. 4: 5). “For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:4). Even when we perceive that we are living without sin, the Lord may know of sins completely unrecognized by us.
The biblical doctrine of progressive sanctification does not allow for semi-perfectionism either. This popular perspective teaches that when certain pre-requisites on the believer’s part are fulfilled, Christ lives through the Christian. Christ lives His life perfectly through the believer for the duration of the time the believer puts Him on the throne of the life. (There are other terms sometimes used for this act of releasing Christ to be Christ in and through the believer.) If there is not a conscious putting of Christ on the throne, the “flesh” will dominate the believer, and everything is sinful, for self cannot be reformed. Semi-perfectionism says that the life is all perfect or all sinful.
There are some aspects of this view which are helpful and right, yet, all in all, it falls short of the biblical truth that sanctification is a growing matter (1 Thess. 4: 1; 1 Pet. 2:2, etc.). Its particular danger is in implying that, short of experiencing that highest spiritual plane, a professing believer may live a continuously fruitless life and still consider himself a valid Christian. This the Bible does not support (Mt. 13: 23; Rom. 8: 12-13, etc.).
Secondly, holiness is not only progressive, but essential. The writer said, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12: 14). If a professing believer does not love holiness, appreciate holy people and holy conversation, value a holy environment, etc., on his way to heaven, he will find that heaven will be hell to him! Believers do sin; the Bible is clear about that. Yet, their sins are more out of weakness than the old rebellion and apathy. The believer is a new creature with new affections. “The spirit is willing” even if “the flesh is weak” (Mk. 14: 38).
What do we say about the person who made a beginning at following Christ and then turns rebellious or apathetic? It really makes no difference if his conversion experience was emotional or sincere. If the life is not changed substantively to conformity with Christ, then there is no salvation, no matter what we say about the nature of the supposed conversion experience. This mark of holy living in the believer is written of by every author of the New Testament. It cannot be denied.
Suppose I were to say to you that the wall beside you is crooked, but you rejoined with, “The wall is straight.” Suppose further that you expressed your perception with tears, stating emphatically that you “really believe that the wall is straight!” But I said that I “really believe that it is crooked!” Does our emotion change the wall into being straight or crooked? Does our sincerity make it straight or crooked? No. What must we do to know if it is straight or crooked? We must drop a plumbline. Then we will know the truth. In the case of the professing believer, God’s Word is the plumbline and the truth is: All Christians display holiness of life.
What the Scripture says about who is a Christian and who is not is more to be believed than what the individual says about himself. You may plead that you “really believe that you are a Christian” while simultaneously living an unholy life, but the Bible tells the truth about you. “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4).
I am not saying that one can forfeit genuine salvation at a point of sinfulness, but that the Christian displays holiness or he never was a Christian in the first place. Jesus said, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Mt. 7: 21). It is not that He knew them once, but now does not know them. These religious practitioners who had a variety of supernatural experience to speak about (see v. 22), were law-breakers at heart and did not pass the litmus test of being Christian, the test of holiness. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (v. 21).
God decreed from eternity past that you would be like Christ (Rom. 8: 29-30); He put His Holy Spirit in you to make sure that it would happen (Phil. 2: 12-13); Christ prayed for you to be sanctified, and His prayers are always answered (Jn. 17: 17); He even promises you that He will lovingly discipline you in order to return you to holiness whenever you stray (Heb. 12: 5-10). How could we ever doubt that God means what He says, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord”?
Paul tells Timothy that the “solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2: 19). Here Paul is saying that the church is sealed with a promise and a pursuit. Believers are promised that the Lord knows them, a statement probably referring to Numbers 16: 5. In this passage God divided the true from the false leaders of Israel by splitting the ground and causing the rebellious people of Korah, Dathan and Abiram to drop into the ground (see 16: 1-40). The earth covered them and they were not seen again.
Moses told the children of Israel to “touch nothing of theirs, lest you be consumed in all their sins.” The meaning of these passages is that although God knows those who are His, it is by our departing from iniquity that we demonstrate we are His elect (2 Pet. 1: 5-11). This is the seal of the Lord, or the mark of His ownership.
Does this fact make any difference to you? If it leaves you cold and does not produce some concern and some movement toward holiness, this is a very bad sign. It is the Word of Truth itself, with the conviction of the Spirit, that causes the believer to move on in holiness (Jn. 17: 17). “It is God who is at work in you , both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2: 13).
A disinterest in holiness is at the root of the problem for the non-believer. He is not stirred by a discussion on the holiness of the authentic believer (unless God is initiating the work of regeneration in him). He wants the benefits of the Christian life, but is not astounded at his rebellion and sickened by it to the point of desiring holiness of life. He may like respectability, but not holiness. The true believer is constituted differently and is therefore hungry for holiness and can be prompted by the Spirit and the Word when he hears an appeal to holiness.
So there you have it, a plain truth which divides men and women who profess to know Christ into two categories, those progressing in holiness, and those who are not. It is a very simple principle to grasp. God knows whether you are his or not, but if you profess to know Christ and have no holiness of life, you have no right to assurance that you are a Christian. You are in danger of hell. If you have lived as an authentic holiness-pursuer, and then dropped back for some period only to return again, that is a healthier sign revealing that you are His and your desertion was the temporary disobedience of a true believer.
If you can continue in rebellion and apathy, I have very little hope for you. You are a Demas, “having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10). Without holiness, “no one,” not even you, “will see the Lord.”
Jim Elliff © 1998