Does it matter, in the final analysis, whether Christ's professed followers live holy lives or not? From watching today's Christian world (and in particular the great evangelical constituency of North America), you might easily conclude that it does not matter. I once had to respond in print to the question, "Is personal holiness passé?"1
I found it hard not to conclude that most present-day believers deep down think it is passé. Packer points to a lack of holiness in teaching ministries, a lack of holiness among leaders, and a lack of holiness in evangelism.
While emphases on holiness seem to have largely vanished today, it is a common and important theme in the Bible. The Apostle Peter, for instance, writes that “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 Pet. 1:15–16). Hebrews 12:14 also emphasises the importance of holiness: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
Chapter 13 of our Confession picks up on the theme of sanctification, helping us to deal with it biblically and practically. In what follows I will briefly comment on the three paragraphs that make up this chapter, with reference to its applicability for the local church.
They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new Spirit created in them, through the virtue of Christ’s death, and resurrection; are also a farther sanctified, really, and personally, through the same virtue, by his word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened, and mortified; and they more and more quickened, and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
Paragraph 1 begins with the work God has already done in the Christian—work that could be described with the phrase ‘God has sanctified us’. J. I. Packer highlights this by speaking of relational sanctification:
“Relational sanctification, the state of being permanently set apart for God, flows from the cross, where God through Christ purchased and claimed us for himself.”2
And as every Christian has been sanctified, the Confession goes on to declare that every Christian is also “farther sanctified, really, and personally”. While we cannot be farther justified or adopted, we should be farther sanctified, in what theologians have termed progressive sanctification.
A Christian may have been (as Paul writes in 1 Cor. 6) sexually immoral, or an idolater, or an adulterer. But not anymore: “you were washed, you were sanctified (ἡγιάσθητε), you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). The Christian has changed and is changing. And this is the experience of all true Christians.
Notice that the Confession does not speak of ‘some who are united to Christ’ at the beginning of paragraph 1. Instead, it speaks of ‘they who are united to Christ’, effectively referring to all Christians.
This biblical teaching has implications for how we approach church membership and church discipline. If someone is not farther sanctified, really, and personally, then what foundation do we have to call this person a brother or a sister?
The means of this progressive sanctification are the word (the Bible) and the Spirit of God. This, too, is highly relevant for Christians in the local church. What emphasis, for example, do we place on the role of the Bible? Are we taking a bare minimum approach, or are we delighting in the word of the Lord and seeing its necessity, especially as elders? Churches need to emphasise the Bible beyond a sermon on a Sunday, while from beginning to end relying not on ourselves, but on the Holy Spirit.
What, then, does this sanctification look like? The remainder of paragraph 1 highlights mortification of sin and growth in holiness, “without which no man shall see the Lord.”
This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life; there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual, and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.
The Confession now states that sanctification is throughout, in the whole man, but that we will not reach perfection in this life. This is something clearly taught in the Bible. The Apostle John, for instance, says in 1 John 1:8 that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
The Christian—having become a Christian—is now engaged in a war. Paul points to that war in Galatians 5:17, highlighting that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Peter similarly exhorts his readers, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Pet. 2:11).
In light of this it would help us to adopt a realistic posture of what the Christian life looks like in accordance with the biblical teaching summarised in the Confession. A failure to grasp these points will lead (and has led) to many unnecessary conflicts within churches. It is important to distinguish, for example, between the unrepentant sin which I highlighted in discussing paragraph 1, and the sin which all of God’s people commit. The godly repent, not just at the beginning of the Christian life, but throughout the Christian life. Whereas the ungodly have no true desire to serve the Lord, the regenerate—who are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17)—do. Yet while the godly are able to serve and please God, they continue to sin. This has implications for how we should deal with the sin of our fellow church members. Expecting perfection of any fellow Christian—including leaders within the church—is a recipe for disaster.
This teaching ought also to affect our preaching. Joel Beeke is helpful on this point:
On the day I left my six months of active duty with the Army Reserves to begin the follow-up years of weekend meetings and summer camps, a sergeant, knowing I might be called up one day, laid his large hand on my shoulder and said, “Son, if you ever have to fight in war, remember three things: first, how the battle ought to go ideally with the tactics you have been taught; second, how the battle really is going (which is often quite different from the ideal, as wars are bloody and seldom go the way that is expected); and third, the ultimate goal, victory for the American people.” This translates well into experiential (or experimental) preaching. Reformed experiential preaching explains how things ought to go in the Christian life (the ideal of Romans 8), how they actually go in Christian struggles (the reality of Romans 7), and the ultimate goal in the kingdom of glory (the optimism of Revelation 21–22). This kind of preaching reaches people where they are in the trenches and gives them tactics and hope for the battle.3
In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail; yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ the regenerate part doth overcome; and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God, pressing after an heavenly life, in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in his word hath prescribed to them.
Drawing on the reality of the war discussed in paragraph 2, the Confession now turns to the reality of overcoming in the Christian life and the attitude of the Christian in light of the war. Thanks be to God, “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:23).
While there are downs in the Christian life, the general trajectory is upward—toward holiness. Men and women who were once slaves of sin are now slaves to righteousness (Rom. 6:17–18). They win increasing victories over sins that may have accompanied them for decades: substance abuse, envy, pride, sexual immorality, and countless more. There desires have changed. Whereas they once desired to please self above all else, they now want to serve the living and true God, who is “holy, holy, holy” (Isa. 6:3).
And as God is holy, we are called to be holy. The brothers and sisters in our churches are called to be holy. This holiness requires the work of the Spirit. It requires us to look to the word. We cannot be obedient to the commands which Christ as head and King has prescribed to us in his word, unless we read and study the word. And then we press on, as the Confession puts it.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne exemplified this when he said, “The greatest need of my people is my own holiness.” We strive then for holiness as we engage in that war, pressing on as we know that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
Monday 19th July 2021
1 J. I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness: Know the Fullness of Life with God, 2nd ed.(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 31. The first edition was published in 1992.
2 J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1993), 169.
3 Joel R. Beeke, Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 25.