Motivations for Holy Living
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1: 14-16)
The word holiness can give rise to thoughts of legalism. Or it can bring to mind the image of someone who is dower and puritanical - isn’t it a shame that the puritans didn’t smile for their portraits?! For example, when I was volunteering on the TFT speaking team a few years ago, I remember one of my colleagues being called a Pharisee - unfairly, I should stress! Rightly teaching what God’s Word says on ethics and godly behaviour can so easily cause this reaction.
The word ‘holy’ carries the meaning of otherness, of being set apart, and of being morally pure. We know we should be holy. We know we fail to be. And it is therefore a word that can trigger guilt instead of joy. For some, the word ‘holy’ brings with it a feeling of helplessness. We’re commanded to be holy, but isn’t that like someone telling you to be the world’s fastest, strongest, or smartest man or woman? A nice idea, but isn’t it unrealistic for ‘normal’ people?
Well, with all this confusion around the command to be holy in mind, we must remind ourselves of some fundamental motivations for holy living. We should be holy:
1. Because our God is holy
God is set apart. Totally other. As Kierkegaard taught, and Barth so often riffed on, there is an infinite, qualitative distinction between God and man. In other words, He is holy. And not just holy. But holy, holy, holy. Biblical Hebrew is a beautiful language. One feature is that repetition is used for the sake of emphasis. In Isaiah 6, the word ‘holy’ is repeated three times, emphasising this aspect of God’s character to the superlative degree. Indeed, God is so holy that even the sinless seraphim shield their faces from the radiance of his holy glory (Isaiah 6:2).
If we thought correctly, this truth of God's holiness would give us motivation to live holy lives: “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do” (1 Peter 1:15). God is holy. To be holy is to be more like Him. Who wouldn’t want that?
2. Because we’re created in God’s image
The second motivation to live holy lives is that we’re designed to live them. To be created in God’s image means that we should reflect and mirror His nature in the world. As we have already established, holiness is a fundamental aspect of God’s nature. So, because we are created in God’s image, we should naturally long to live holy lives.
Theologians often make a distinction between God’s communicable and incommunicable attributes. Those that are incommunicable are not shared with us. For example, God is omnipresent, omnipotent and immutable. We are not and never will be. But other attributes, such as God’s love, are communicable. We will never understand the sheer depth of God’s love, but we can know his love in a tangible way. Being created in God’s image means that we can love and be loved. It’s the same with holiness. We will never be holy, holy, holy; but holiness is still communicable to some degree. It’s an aspect of God’s nature that is to be reflected in his image bearers.
Yes, we’re fallen image bearers tainted by sin. But, as Christians, God’s image upon us is being restored. We have a new heart, new desires and new passions. We’re called to ever more reflect Jesus, who is the perfect image of the invisible God (Col 1:15).
3. Because we are holy
Back to that question of whether being holy is attainable. Well, wonderfully the answer is yes. That’s because, by God’s grace, Christians have already been made holy. As Paul says, “you were sanctified” (1 Corinthians 6:11). This is positional sanctification, meaning that it has already happened. It is done. But this doesn’t minimise the need to go on being sanctified. Don Carson teaches that we are to become what we already are. We are sanctified. Therefore, we are to be sanctified. We must hold these two truths in tension.
In order to become what we are, we must surely recognise and embrace our identity as God’s holy children, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). Quite rightly, the issue of identity comes up so often when speaking on the topic of same-sex attraction. There are so many identity labels that we are urged to wear. But we must ask whether our identity as God’s holy children is central. If we don’t embrace who we really are, we will miss out on an important motivation for holy living.
In Romans 12, in view of the gospel of grace that has been established, Paul says “… offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” The imagery of sacrifice is not a pleasant one when we look through a modern Western cultural lens. To offer our bodies as a living sacrifice is not easy. It doesn’t look appealing in a loose-living, pleasure-seeking culture. As Carson says, “people do not drift towards holiness.” It takes grace-driven effort. We fall and fail. Therefore, we need to motivate ourselves to live holy lives. These three motivations for holy living are not a bad place to start.
This article was published in the Spring 2019 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend.