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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 during 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 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.

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James Line

commented on Jul 3, 2014

Kevin, I just returned from a denominational 3 days conference in OKC with other pastors. I am 70 years old (gives me credentials to respond). I was overwhelmed by the young pastors at the conference. They participated in open discussions with very deep, thought provoking comments including a study about Holiness by T.A. Noble "Holy Trinity: Holy People". In addition during times of worship it was the young pastors leading the way in responding to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the refreshing moments of worship. I am convinced... as I face the end of my full time pastoral ministry..the future of the doctrine of Holiness will be in good hands. Pastor Jim

Keith Roberts

commented on Jul 3, 2014

Thanks, Kevin, for bringing some balance to this subject. I hear a lot about God's grace to which I wholeheartedly agree but little about the personal pursuit of holiness. As you point out, there are many scriptures that emphasize our responsibility to work with the Holy Spirit's lead in our life as we are progressively conformed to the image of Jesus (Rom.8:29).

Mike Spencer

commented on Jul 3, 2014

I think there is a connection to the gospel that we are missing from an equation that certainly includes diligence, commitment, and duty. Keeping in mind that the Christian must remain conscious of the demand of the law, total perfection, we must continue to cling to the truth of the gospel that Jesus paid it all. We confess (say the same thing as God) about our sin not to beg for forgiveness, but to acknowledge the Son's work on the cross to accomplish our forgiveness. I find 1 John 1:9 rather interesting in this regard because it not only speaks of forgiveness, but cleansing. Like our justification, our sanctification is a work of our Lord and none of our own. This is not to say that we don't work, but that the work we do, and the desire to do it have their source not in our selves, but our Lord. Is holiness important? Absolutely. Can you work your way to holiness? It is because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that we even have an inclination to be holy as He is holy. If we have a desire to be holy, it begins with recognizing that we are not, and that He has done it.

Lighted Prince

commented on Jul 3, 2014

Holiness is but a word with edification, emptied in the banquet of canalism, holiness is the pathway to God yet i pray we all will work that path of his divine light... a pathway where the wages of sin stood at a distance watching the splendour of the Prince of heaven how he snapped from satan "the fallen one" an empire of grace lost forever...

Paul Lockman

commented on Jul 3, 2014

Kevin is dead on in his observations on the effect of our culture on the church of Christ. In my Bible studies with people in other countries I have learned that it is often easier for Hindu's, idol worshipers, animist, atheist, Buddhist and even Muslims to study the New Testament scriptures and see that Christianity is a way of life not an activity. We who have been raised in a "Christian nation" practice a Christianity that has been evangelized by our culture when it should the other way around. As Kevin pointed out, the purpose of Christ love for the church was "to make her holy" Eph 5:26). Holy means "set apart", "separated" or "consecrated". The sanctification of the church is by God through his Spirit (1 Cor. 6;11; 1 Peter 1:2 ). The scriptures teach us that holiness has to do with setting boundaries and making distinctions based on scripture: some things are acceptable to God, some things are not. That separation from the world and setting apart to the service of God occurs through the believer's response to the calling of the gospel. (2 Thess. 2:13) Believers are holy by reason of their divine calling (1 Thess 5:23-24; 2 Tim 1:9; 1 Pet 1:3). Gods purpose is that his people then live a life consistent with their holy status (Eph 5:3) That means living a life according to God's will (1 Thess 4:3-4). Disciples must practice holiness. We must cooperate with the Spirit of God and submit to the teachings of the word of God, but becoming holy does not result from human effort but from our obedience. The Spirit only produces the fruit of righteousness in the obedient believer. (Gal 5:22-23). Unadulterated New Testament Christianity can be practiced by people in every nation by those who are obedient to the word of God.

Karen Clark

commented on Jul 6, 2014

Amen! I strive everyday to live Holy in my lifestyle.

Steven Javed

commented on Jul 7, 2014

It is A good Sermon, i enjoyed it while reading, i just pick a point the "Hole" really we have a hole in our "Holiness" in terms of not practicing the real teaching of Jesus Christ.

George Warner

commented on Sep 17, 2021

One of the best sermons I've read on

Lubna Thomas

commented on Sep 20, 2021

Thanks for enhancing my knowledge how imperative it is to be holy. 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. May holy spirit keep guiding us and lead us towards the thorough holiness.

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