In the early 19th century, a group of evangelical ministers gathered regularly to discuss how to grow in holiness. Over the course of their meetings, the Eclectic Society included famous ministers such as John Newton and Charles Simeon. The group discussed a wide range of topics, including “What is the nature, evil, and remedy of schism?” and “What can be done at the present moment to counteract the designs of infidels against Christianity?”
On June 22, 1812, the group posed the question, “What is Scripture’s view of growth in grace?” Rev. C. R. Pritchett answered,
1. It is entirely of God. 2. It arises from an intimate and vital union with Christ. 3. It is produced and carried on by the constant and immediate agency of the Holy Spirit.
When was the last time we had a similar conversation about holiness? When was the last time our churches heard an exhortation to holiness akin to William Law’s Serious Call?
When was the last time our churches had a conversation about holiness?
We’ve tended in recent years, for understandable reasons given our secular age, to focus on engaging with culture. But I’m concerned that we’ve lacked focus on integrity of character. We need to talk about holiness again.
How can church leaders clearly call Christians to holiness? How do we cultivate maturity? Here are five ways.
1. Adopt a clear definition.
People’s wrong ideas about holiness come in several variations. Some think holiness is about Pharisaic legalism. Some think holiness is a one-and-done, shot-in-the-arm spiritual experience. Still others think holiness means being boring and narrow minded. The way to defeat this hydra-headed confusion about holiness is to get the right ideas about holiness into our minds. A clear, biblical definition can help. Holiness means being set apart for God.
2. Start with the gospel.
John Owen wrote that one of the most nefariously wrong ideas Christians have about holiness is related to where we start. We don’t start with doing; we start with the work Christ has done in our lives by his Spirit. Foundationally, the Bible teaches we cannot be holy apart from Christ. We must first be born again, made new, raised with Christ, and declared holy in him. Regeneration is the necessary starting point. And for this reason, if you’re a pastor or church leader, the most important step you can take to advance holiness in your church community is to preach and teach the gospel. Many people struggle with holiness because they aren’t really Christians. They need to be made alive before they’ll be able to live a set-apart life.
3. Focus on thinking.
When you teach on holiness, encourage Christians to think about their thinking, to focus on their focus. Our behavior follows the orientation of our affections, emotions, and reason. There’s a correlation between decreasing Christlikeness and decreasing time spent in God’s Word, study, and prayer. In other words, I can’t expect to grow in holiness if I spend most of my time focused on things that aren’t holy. Holiness declines when we move our attention away from the things of God. So, encourage the people you lead to spend time reflecting on the beauties of Christ, the wonders of the gospel, and the glories of heaven.
4. Surgically remove sin.
Sometimes even the best Bible teachers say no more than those first three points. But there’s more. The fourth way to cultivate holiness is what is called “mortification.” Sinful habits and set patterns of thought and behavior must be cut out. Martyn Lloyd-Jones used the image of digging down to the roots. To pull out a weed, you have two options. One is to mow over the weed, but it will grow back. The other is to dig the weed out by the roots. To dig our sin out by the roots, we must ask, “What makes this sin so attractive? Why is it so hard to give up?”
Holiness is becoming who you are made to be in Christ.
Often, for example, there is pain behind lust and addiction. People are self-medicating with porn, drugs, or alcohol. When you’re counseling a church member, listen to him or her. Dig down to discover what’s going on at the root. Don’t merely ask “why” questions, which can be seen as threatening. Share your observations as well: “You seem to be angry.” As a church leader, you can apply biblical and pastoral remedies at the root.
5. Be clothed with Christ’s character.
Paul uses this simple metaphor repeatedly because it’s helpful: Put on your new identity. Clothe yourself with character that fits who you really are. One basic misconception about holiness is that it’s pretending to be something you’re not, that it’s inauthentic. Really, holiness is becoming who you are made to be in Christ.
So, dress yourself with increasing Christlikeness. The work of the Spirit is to gradually make our character more like the Savior’s until we one day stand holy in his presence, wholly his.