Why Holiness Must Be Personal
Editor's Note: “There is a difference between having a rational judgement that honey is sweet and having a sense of its sweetness," Jonathan Edwards wrote. "A man may have the former that knows not how honey tastes.” The Bible often describes our knowledge of God and his gospel with experiential language, using “sense” language like “taste and see” or the “eyes of the heart.” The term Christians have used to identify this emotive knowing is spirituality. Expressions of spirituality have taken many different forms, from Catholic mysticism to Pentecostalism. Evangelicals rejoice in the objective work of Christ in the gospel yet an important aspect of our knowledge of the goodness of God and his saving work is through, what Edwards calls, “the sense of the heart.” That’s hard to define and often harder to bring about. So, over the next several articles, writers for The Gospel Coalition will consider issues related to evangelical spirituality.
Also in this series:
- Collin Hansen, You Must Be Heavenly Minded to Be Any Earthly Good
- Matthew Lee Anderson, Whitewashed Tombs and Gucci-Dressed Sinners
- Brent Nelson, Woe to Me if I Don't Evangelize
- Owen Strachan, You Can Anger God But Not Lose Him
Individualism doesn’t have good mojo these days. In some ways this has been a welcome change, a helpful corrective to the popular, sub-biblical definition of holiness as something like, don’t smoke, drink, or chew and go with girls who do. Thankfully, we are seeing a re-emphasis on community and the reciprocal nature of fellowship that we see so plainly in the New Testament. That corrective, however, has swung too far in some cases, leaving the individual behind.
As a result, personal holiness is getting bad press. Too individualistic! is the familiar cry. The assumption is that if we emphasize personal holiness, then we’ll likely neglect the participation of community. Or, to say it differently, community is the fix for all the sins of Western individualism. Personal holiness, so the logic goes, is either superfluous or covered by the collective.
Before we baptize everything communitarian, let’s remember the Tower of Babel was a collective effort. Heretics often flock together. And look at Paul’s harsh words to the church at Corinth and Galatia. Notice that the Bible doesn’t seem to indicate that being part of a community of believers (a community of saints, “sanctified ones”) will solve all our problems with idolatry and false gospels. Don’t hear me wrong: the “one-another” passages in Scripture mandate that we must not abandon fellowship (see, especially, Hebrews 3:14) and gathering together to hear the preaching of God’s Word. These are important means for holiness.
The two extremes, then, are either (1) emphasizing personal holiness in a way that neglects the importance of fellowship or (2) emphasizing community in a way that negates the need for personal holiness. But the Bible doesn’t drive a wedge between personal holiness and community. Rather, both are necessary and complementary implications of the saving work of the gospel. In fact, the New Testament gives us several reasons to assume our holiness is to be fundamentally personal, along with incentives to labor for it. Below I've listed a few of them.
We Are Personally Indwelt by the Holy Spirit
I don’t think there’s controversy among evangelicals as to whether we are personally indwelt by the Spirit. But many are indifferent to his inward work and, therefore, skim over its implications for personal holiness. Paul in Romans 8:1-11 helps us see the relationship of the Spirit’s work and our holiness. He presents two types of people: those who walk according to the flesh and those of the Spirit. Those who walk according to the flesh set their minds upon the things of the flesh. They’re hostile to God and cannot please him. But those who are indwelt by the Spirit—a consequence of God’s saving work in Christ—walk differently. They set their minds on the things of the Spirit and make decisions in the light of a greater hope (see Rom. 8:12-39).
So here’s Paul’s logic: if you are personally indwelt by God’s Spirit, you will be characteristically different. You will produce demonstrably different fruit. So Paul’s statement in Romans 8:9, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him,” can safely be paralleled to John’s statement in I John 3:10: “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” We cannot call ourselves children of God without his Spirit. The same will be said of us if we lack the Spirit’s fruit.
The corrective, then, to fulfill the “one-another” passages in the New Testament and love your neighbor is a good one. But we must also say that holiness is a matter of desire before it becomes a matter of deed. If we are not doing work on the sinful cravings of our hearts, then loving our neighbors for their good will really only be manipulating our neighbors for our good.
And we may even point out a weakness of those in my own camp––the young and more restless type. There seems to be some hesitation to mention how the Holy Spirit is involved with the gospel-centered life, in fear that it will transition our focus from the objective, justifying work of Christ to a more subjective and inward experience. But we would certainly be malnourished Christians without the Spirit's work inside us. For the Holy Spirit is the person, God himself, who mediates the presence of Christ and magnifies Christ (his glory and work) in our hearts. He is the one who rids us of idols. He is the one who generates all of his fruits, what J. I. Packer calls “the nine-point profile of Christlikeness.” This is precisely why the Spirit in the New Testament is called “the Spirit of Christ,” and we will be hard pressed to be Christ-centered if we do not keep in step with his Spirit.
Church Discipline Only Makes Sense with an Expectation of Personal Holiness
We cannot make sense of the New Testament passages on church discipline if there isn’t an expectation of personal holiness. In 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Paul is worried that a little yeast will leaven the whole lump (5:6). He’s not just worried that sexual immorality will defile the person (which it certainly will), but also that this personal sin will defile the whole community.
And here we come to the rub of this individual/community tension: a community is made up of individuals. If we are going to be a community made up of saints, then the obvious conclusion is that the community is made up of, well, saints! And Paul has some level of expectation that these saints will act like, well, saints! It won’t do to meld individuals together into a glob and overlook personal sin. For the sake of the community, Paul won’t allow for it. It's not a barrel of apples if it's full of prunes. And if a prune comes and wants to settle amongst the apples, the apples will have to tell the prune, “Stay all you want, my friend, but you won’t be able to call yourself an apple.” The good news, of course, is that unlike the prune, who will never become an apple, there is always the hope of God turning the unsaintly into a saint.
A Community of Saints Are Made Up of Fighting Saints
The gospel brings us into a community of the redeemed. But with my Bible in hand, I have to say more. The New Testament doesn’t let us stop at community.
God’s purposes couldn’t be more clear in Ephesians 1:4 that “he chose us before the foundations of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (emphasis mine).
Again, Paul writes to the Ephesians, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, what we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
Even more, the gospel teaches us about personal holiness: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12, emphasis mine).
Finally, and most pointedly, “without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). For only the pure in heart will see God (Matt. 5:8).
So Christians are not those who shadow box with sin. But through prayer, Bible reading, the power of the Spirit, hearing the gospel preached, and believing in the gospel we land a punch. “Any idea,” Packer puts it, “of getting beyond conflict, outward or inward, in our pursuit of holiness in this world is an escapist dream.” We are a people not enslaved to sin, but we labor to overcome it. And if we are not laboring to overcome sin, we will be consumed by it. If we are not laboring to find joy in Christ, we will be grasping for joy in goods that only deplete us of joy.