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The Hole in Our Holiness

Kevin DeYoung more from this author »

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Date Published: 5/26/2011
Kevin DeYoung shares five reasons why young Christians often neglect personal holiness.

I have a growing concern that younger evangelicals do not take seriously the Bible’s call to personal holiness. We are too at peace with worldliness in our homes, too at ease with sin in our lives, too content with spiritual immaturity in our churches.

God’s mission in the world is to save a people and sanctify his people. Christ died “that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Cor. 5:15) We were chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” (Eph. 1:4) Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her…so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph. 5:25-27) Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:14)

J.C. Ryle, the Bishop of Liverpool from the nineteenth century, was right: “We must be holy, because this is one grand end and purpose for which Christ came into the world…Jesus is a complete Savior. He does not merely take away the guilt of a believer’s sin, He does more—He breaks its power (1 Pet. 1:2; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9; Heb. 12:10).” My fear is that as we rightly celebrate, and in some quarters rediscover, all that Christ saved us from, we will give little thought and make little effort concerning all that Christ saved us to.

The pursuit of holiness does not occupy the place in our hearts that it should. There are several reasons for the relative neglect of personal holiness.

1) It was too common in the past to equate holiness with abstaining from a few taboo practices like drinking, smoking, and dancing. In a previous generation, godliness meant you didn’t do these things. Younger generations have little patience for these sorts of rules. They either don’t agree with the rules, or they figure they’ve got those bases covered so there’s not much else to worry about.

2) Related to the first reason is the fear that a passion for holiness makes you some kind of weird holdover from a bygone era. As soon as you talk about swearing or movies or music or modesty or sexual purity or self-control or just plain godliness, people get nervous that others will call them legalistic, or worse, a fundamentalist.

3) We live in a culture of cool, and to be cool means you differentiate yourself from others. That has often meant pushing the boundaries with language, with entertainment, with alcohol, and with fashion. Of course, holiness is much more than these things, but in an effort to be hip, many Christians have figured holiness has nothing to do with these things. They’ve willingly embraced Christian freedom, but they’ve not earnestly pursued Christian virtue.

4) Among more liberal Christians, a radical pursuit of holiness is often suspect because any talk of right and wrong behaviors feels judgmental and intolerant. If we are to be “without spot or blemish,” it necessitates we distinguish between what sort of attitudes, actions, and habits are pure and what sort are impure. This sort of sorting gets you in trouble with the pluralism police.

5) Among conservative Christians, there is sometimes the mistaken notion that if we are truly gospel-centered, we won’t talk about rules or imperatives or exhort Christians to moral exertion. To be sure, there is a rash of moralistic teaching out there, but sometimes we go to the other extreme and act as if the Bible shouldn’t advise our morals at all. We are so eager not to confuse indicatives and imperatives (a point I’ve made many times) that if we’re not careful, we’ll drop the imperatives altogether. We’ve been afraid of words like diligence, effort, and obedience. We’ve downplayed verses that call us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12) or command us to cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit (2 Cor. 7:1) or warn against even a hint of immorality among the saints (Eph. 5:3).

I find it telling that you can find plenty of young Christians today who are really excited about justice and serving in their communities. You can find Christians fired up about evangelism. You can find lots of Generation XYZ believers passionate about precise theology. Yes and amen to all that. But where are the Christians known for their zeal for holiness? Where is the corresponding passion for honoring Christ with Christlike obedience? We need more Christian leaders on our campuses, in our cities, in our seminaries who will say with Paul, “Look carefully then how you walk.” (Eph. 5:15)

When is the last time we took a verse like Ephesians 5:4—“Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving”—when is the last time we took a verse like this and even began to try to apply this to our conversation, our joking, our movies, our YouTube clips, our TV and commercial intake? The fact of the matter is if you read through the New Testament epistles, you will find very few explicit commands that tell us to evangelize and very few explicit commands that tell us to take care of the poor in our communities, but there are dozens and dozens of verses in the New Testament that enjoin us, in one way or another, to be holy as God is holy (e.g., 1 Peter 1:13-16).

I do not wish to denigrate any of the other biblical emphases capturing the attention of younger evangelicals. But I believe God would have us be much more careful with our eyes, our ears, and our mouth. It’s not pietism, legalism, or fundamentalism to take holiness seriously. It’s the way of all those who have been called to a holy calling by a holy God.


Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, right across the street from Michigan State University. He has been the pastor there since 2004.

Carson Whitehead
August 16, 2011
wHAT A BLESSING AND SO SUCCINCTLY SAID. IT IS A CONVICTION TO MY OWN HEART. [delete comment]
Gale O''neil
June 4, 2011
Execellent, outstanding article and emphasis. However, I must point out one thing. Most, many evangelical churches, preachers are selective about holiness. We bash gays,but not gluttons. When have you heard a sermon on gluttony from a fat preacher? I believe in holiness but not selective holiness. [delete comment]
Dee Dee Lawson
June 3, 2011
Amen, Brother! [delete comment]
Matthew Carr
May 27, 2011
Scott and Richard, thanks for your input. I understand what you are saying but I would also remind you that Kevin' message was written concerning young people in our churches today. I teach Biology and Bible at a Christian school (secondary) and find that Kevin is right on: there is a false dichotomy in the minds of many Christian youth who don't see the connection between moral purity and being passionate about social problems. [delete comment]
The most important sentence in the message is right near the end, and a good summary of 'real' holiness. 'I believe God would have us be much more careful with our eyes, our ears, and our mouth.' I'm with you. God is not so interested in our cultural stuff as He is with our heart attitudes. [delete comment]
Richard Hopper
May 27, 2011
I'd have to agree with Scott. Having been part of holiness denominations all my adult life I find that evangelism, caring for the poor and personal holiness all go together. However, evangelism and caring for the poor are extensions of holiness. We are set apart to be a special people, to serve an Almighty God and to live a life that exemplifies that relationship with a Holy God. You can't really have one without the other. [delete comment]
Zelebrate Life
May 26, 2011
i believe i am holy not because i wear the right kind of clothing, not because i abstain from alcohol, not because i dont look at another with lust in my eyes, not because I don't have pierced ears.... I know i am holy because when the Father sees me, He sees Jesus who is in me, and is Holy. holiness in never achieved in doing or not doing anything. It is because of the finished work of Christ on the cross. Holy - "set apart" to do the will of the Father. [delete comment]
John W
May 26, 2011
Great topic and excellent points! I would add that the one thing we frequently lack when holiness is missing from our "Christian" lives is a proper perspective of who God is. God is holy. For instance, God considers lust to be the equivalent of adultery. That's how holy God is! He is offended by our thoughts!!! His commandments are a reflection of his nature. If we want to spend eternity with him, then WE will reflect him to others. "Because it is written, 'Be ye holy; for I am holy.' " (1 Peter 1:16) [delete comment]
Scott Hardaway
May 26, 2011
Hmmm, I guess my reaction to this article (and the other comments) is... Really???? I mean, I don't disagree with a focus on holiness--I belong to a holiness denomination and went to a holiness seminary. I preach personal holiness almost every week. We also evangelize; I see that as directly tied to our holiness--how can we call the world to something different unless WE are different? We also serve the poor; I see that as directly tied to our holiness too (and our evangelism for that matter). In fact, it's hard for me to see how any of it could be separated out; in my mind, the Christian life is a holistic, Jesus-take-all-of-me kind of endeavor. But I guess my church is the exception, as it seems lots of people find the need to "resurrect" this idea (funny, I never realized it was dead! I must run in the wrong circles). Oh, and to James Dale, I'd like to say: we wear casual clothing and have a rock band, stage lights, and series-themed sets, too. Then again, maybe I've misunderstood what holiness is all about. I've spent all this time focusing on sexual purity, edifying speech, extending forgiveness and grace to others, financial integrity, living with honesty and authenticity instead of masks, and learning how to discern the agendas/messages of TV/movies/advertising in light of the gospel, etc. when apparently I should have been teaching our people to wear ties and dresses once a week. [delete comment]
Casey Scott
May 26, 2011
Amen! Thanks, Kevin, my thoughts exactly! [delete comment]
James Dale
May 26, 2011
Great article - right on point. I truly believe the lack of seeking holiness is promoted by so many "modern churches." These churches don't look that much different from the world, with rock concerts, light shows, elaborate stage presentations and come as you are apparel. Then you have these "sermons" peppered with a smidgen of Jesus to make it all official. Where is the holiness in all of this? You can't instill the need to pursue holiness when your appealing to the flesh in these so called worship services. [delete comment]
Thomas D. Weill
May 26, 2011
I really enjoyed this message! It's been a long time since sermons like this have been brought forth. Keep up the good work. [delete comment]
Excellent article Kevin! Thanks for broaching a subject that many of us are sometimes reluctant to tackle. Our world and society, (as prophesied,) is on a downward spiral. The gap between the world and the church should be growing wider not simply staying the same. If it is staying the same - If we are simply a "little better" than society, then we, as a church, are spiraling down along with society. We serve a holy and unchanging God! [delete comment]

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