How can we possibly be holy enough to see the living God?
The words “no one” were very clear — and terrifying. I didn’t feel very sanctified. Instead, a vivid sense of my shortcomings were ever before me. Anger, lust, self-centeredness — these sins raised doubts in my heart that I had realized the sanctification needed to see God.
It would take a few years before I would begin to understand the weight of this passage and the meaning of sanctification (and I’m still working at it). What does sanctification look like? How do we know that a person has the holiness to see the living God?
Given the tomes that have been published on the doctrine of sanctification — and the sharp disagreements over its nature and function — this brief article is admittedly introductory. It by no means solves the debate over Christian sanctification, but offers some reflections that, Lord willing, encourage and lead all of us along that rugged path toward holiness.
In the first place, what is sanctification? The Greek term shares forms with our terms for holiness and consecration, and holiness has the sense of setting something apart for God or devoting something to sacred use. Theologically, sanctification describes the process of people being made holy — set apart for God and no longer stained by sin.
Hebrews 12:14 states plainly that this holiness is absolutely necessary if we are to stand before and see a holy God. As I am today, I would die if I saw the Lord because my sin would destroy me in the presence of pure holiness. Only if I am made holy will I be able to enjoy the beauty of God’s full presence.
But isn’t this the gospel of God’s grace? The good news that through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, we can commune with God? That his blood cleanses us from all our sin so we can stand before the triune God, clothed in the righteousness of Christ? But though I will one day receive in full the benefit of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, I am not holy yet, and no one can achieve that state in this life. That’s where sanctification gets sticky.
That Christians still struggle with sin after Christ initially saves them by his grace is made plain by the myriad ethical commands in the New Testament addressed to Christians — not to mention the imperfect lives of the saints and apostles recorded there. If Christians no longer fell into sin, God wouldn’t need to make moral injunctions.
Galatians 6:1 provides a helpful example. Paul commands Christians, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Notice the command is to “restore” or bring back into the fold, not evangelize — the sinner is still a Christian. The verse continues: “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Even those “who are spiritual” are tempted by and can fall into transgression.
And yet the call remains to pursue that necessary sanctification. Despite struggles with sin, moral and spiritual progress should be evident in the Christian. People who have the Holy Spirit must be transformed to become like the Spirit — that is, become holy. Because God is holy, only when we are holy will we see him as he is.
Peter states it clearly: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Peter 1:14–16). Christians must release sinful ways and pursue God’s holiness as the Spirit conforms us instead to the image of Christ, which he will completely and finally do for all who believe in Christ at the last day.
Much of what defines holiness in the Christian life is quite plain from Scripture. A person controlled by the Holy Spirit should not be getting drunk on Friday nights, should not be having sex with her boyfriend, should not be lying about his hours worked on a timesheet, should not be bursting out in furious tirades — and the list goes on.
Yet a great deal of the Christian life is not as clear-cut as we might wish. Scripture spells out many moral questions and gives wise principles for living ethically, but it doesn’t give five-step plans for solving every issue we face, and it even recognizes that, because of personal conscience, certain activities are acceptable for some Christians but not others (1 Corinthians 8). Talk about complex!
And while the question “What would Jesus do?” may remind us to live Christ-centered lives and may stimulate spiritual reflection on a particular dilemma, answering the WWJD question in our specific circumstances is not so easy. For one thing, the Bible simply doesn’t tell us what Jesus would do in every situation, leaving us to a degree of speculation. For another, the WWJD question doesn’t take into consideration how different Jesus was from us; he had divine authority and ability to do things we can’t or shouldn’t do, which clouds the simplistic WWJD question even further. Instead, we need to ask the Father what we should do, cultivate the wisdom of Christ, and follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
Consider this list of activities: Playing cards, dancing, going to movie theaters, swimming with both sexes, drinking alcohol even moderately. For some Christian groups, these activities were once prohibited but are now allowed. And for others, they’re still prohibited.
The history of the church witnesses ongoing and ever-changing debates over what activities constitute immoral behavior. And in one sense, that Christians are debating means they’re at least thinking about how faith in Christ requires changed lives.
Perhaps the problem with these lists, though, is that they simplify moral questions into “yes or no,” rather than engaging their complexity. Some forms of dancing are harmless, while others border on sex. And some R-rated films are edifying for Christians to watch, while some PG films are not (and sometimes it depends on the Christian) — the MPAA is not a Christian organization, and we need to engage the merit of films on other bases.
Instead of creating our own qualification lists for who’s in and who’s not, we need greater humility. We need to resist passing judgment too quickly, listening to the concerns others raise about particular activities, but also praying for wisdom to honor Christ in our decisions. Our aim is neither legalistic nor licentious living.
Christians have sought to apply godly wisdom to life in various ways. In a letter to her son John, Susannah Wesley gave a “rule” for living a life of holiness, arguing against those “condemning all mirth or pleasure as sinful” and instead recognizing that “the ways of virtue are ways of pleasantness.” She penned these words:
Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself.In Adam Clarke, Memoirs of the Wesley Family Collected Principally from Original Documents, ed. George Peck, 2nd ed. (New York: Lane & Tippett, 1848), 332.
That doesn’t mean that the body is in itself evil and the mind good — both are impaired by our human depravity. But it is clearly sinful to give into the body’s sensual cravings, to feed our flesh, to “[gratify],” as Susannah says, “all [one’s] bodily appetites” when we know they only build barriers between us and God. Instead, we must assess our heart’s attitude in any given activity and see whether it enhances our sense of God or incites sinful passions.
Perhaps better than asking what Jesus would do, then, is to ask ourselves these questions: Is my behavior or decision in keeping with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23)? Am I loving God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind in what I’m doing? And in this activity am I loving my neighbor as myself (Luke 10:27)?
The nebulous cloud won’t vanish, but practicing the things we know to be biblically prescribed without demanding others to obey our own inclinations in the cloud may help us move toward holiness when clarity evades us.
While some moral questions don’t present black-and-white options, that doesn’t give license to disregard our spiritual state. If the Spirit of God truly lives in us, then we should be making progress.
Let’s come back to Hebrews 12. Prior to verse 14, the writer challenges Christians to “lay aside … sin which clings so closely” and “run with endurance the race that is set before us,” looking ultimately to Christ who ran victoriously (vv. 1–2). The race imagery pictures progress toward the goal.
And yet the broader passage also speaks at length on God disciplining us. God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (v. 10). Discipline implies that Christians both fail and improve morally as they get nearer to a state of holiness.
Coming to verse 14 again, the passage doesn’t say, “hold onto the sanctification you have attained,” but rather “pursue” or “strive for” (ESV) that sanctification. The idea is one of movement not station, of expending energy not standing still. In other words, Christians aren’t meant to say “I’ve arrived,” but rather to acknowledge “I’m a work in progress” while demonstrating greater life evidence of approaching holiness.
On the night Christ was betrayed, he prayed for his disciples and for those who would trust in him centuries later. He petitioned God the Father to “sanctify them in the truth,” and he added, “your word is truth” (John 17:17).
I found peace from my original fears over Hebrews 12:14 as God graciously brought people into my life to explain his Word to me, but I have also been challenged that my progress in this life is never enough. And thus complacency is perhaps the biggest threat to sanctification. Renewed devotion to God’s Word will help us navigate those inevitable nebulous clouds, preparing us along the way until one day, when the cloud dissipates, we will stand unhindered by sin, transformed by Christ’s holiness, seeing God in all his glory.
Copyright 2008 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.
About the Author
David Barshinger has a Ph.D. in Church History/Theological Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), where he wrote on Jonathan Edwards’ engagement with the book of Psalms. He has served with the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS and Christ on Campus Initiative, and he is currently teaching as an adjunct professor. David lives in Illinois with his wife, Allison, and their four children.