Here’s a question grace preachers hear a lot: “If we are already holy, then why does God call us to be holy?” Answer: He’s calling us to be who we truly are. He is saying, “You are my sanctified children. Act like it. Be who I made you to be.”
As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said:
Holiness is not something we are called upon to do in order that we may become something; it is something we are to do because of what we already are…
“Paul, I’m still confused. It seems there are a lot of scriptures exhorting us to become holy. How do we reconcile those with other scriptures that say that we are already holy?” The best answer I’ve heard comes from Bill Gillham, who compares Christians to oak trees:
Are Christians a truly holy people, or are we trying to become a holy people?… As an oak sapling grows, it doesn’t get “oakier.” Oak is oak. It simply matures into what it is, a full-grown oak tree.
You don’t become an oak tree by acting like an oak tree; nor do you become holy by acting holy. Jesus makes you holy. Your part is to mature into what he has already made you. This takes time, but just as a baby never becomes more human as it grows, you will never become more holy as you mature. You simply grow into who God has already made you to be. Here’s Bill Gillham again:
Needless to say, maturity doesn’t occur in one giant leap, but through a process: “But we all … are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Notice it’s “from glory to glory,” not “from garbage to glory.” You are already holy in Christ … Just as an oak sapling does not get oakier as it matures, neither does a new creature in Christ get holier, more forgiven, more accepted, etc.
Critics of the grace message say we who preach it are opposed to holy living. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we are opposed to is the old habit of trying to make yourself holy by acting holy. You just can’t do it. The standard is too high. But the good news declares God makes us holy. He takes the shards of our broken lives and makes something beautiful, pleasing, sweet-smelling, and Christ-like.
Now that we have a good understanding of why the Bible calls us to be holy, we can look at some of the NT scriptures on holiness:
To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints (Romans 1:7a, ESV). Be saintly because you are saints, as Paul says many times in his letter to the Romans.
Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness (Romans 6:19b). Given that Christ has already sanctified us, a more accurate translation might be “unto holiness” as in, “Just as you used to live unto wickedness when you were wicked, live unto holiness now that you are holy.”
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life (Romans 6:22). A better translation may be, “have fruit unto sanctification.” Holy fruit are reaped not manufactured. Like eternal life, fruit are gifts, not wages (John 3:16, 5:21).
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be His holy people … (1 Corinthians 1:2a). You are sanctified so act like it.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity … (Colossians 3:5a). If you’re a butterfly, don’t act like a caterpillar. If you have been given a new nature, don’t act in accordance with your old one. That’s hypocrisy. It’s pretending to be someone you are not.
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality … (1 Thessalonians 4:3). It is God’s will that you should be sanctified in your conduct, not because your salvation hinges on it, but your wellbeing does. Sin is destructive.
Each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God (1 Thessalonians 4:4–5). You know who your Father is so don’t act like someone who doesn’t.
May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through (1 Thessalonians 5:23a). Sanctification is God’s work, not yours. Just as His gift of salvation is something to work out in your life, so is His sanctification. You already have it, so enjoy it!
But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do (1 Peter 1:15). You are not holy because you act holy. You are holy because you are children of a holy Father. Indeed, you are a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). Be who you truly are.
New Testament exhortations to live holy should not be read as a self-help guide to holiness. Rather, they are pictures of the wholesome, healthy life we get to enjoy as we allow Christ to express his holy life through us.
New Testament exhortations to live holy are advertisements for the abundant life that is already ours in Christ.