What Holiness Is, and Why It Matters
BookTrends - Rediscovering Holiness
By: J.I. Packer|Published: February 3, 2010 4:31 PM
Our grandfather clock, which tells us not only the hours, minutes and seconds but also the days of the week, the months of the year, and the phases of the moon, is something of a veteran.
Scratched on one of its lead weights is the date 1789—the year of the French Revolution and George Washington’s first term as President. Our clock was going before the great Christian theologian John Wesley stopped going, if I may put it so.
It is a musical clock, too, of a rather unusual sort. Not only does it strike the hour, but it also has a built-in carillon (knobs on a brass cylinder tripping hammers that hit bells which play a tune for three minutes every three hours). Two of its four tunes we recognize, for we hear them still today. However, the other two, which sound like country dances, are unknown—not just to us but to everyone who has heard them played.
Over the years they were forgotten, which was a pity, for they are good tunes; and we would like to know something about them.
In the same way, the historic Christian teaching on holiness has been largely forgotten, and that also is a pity, for it is central to the glory of God and the good of souls.
It is nearly 60 years since I learned at school the opening verse of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, titled “The Way through the Woods.” It goes like this:
I suppose it is because I love walking through woods that these lines move me so deeply. Again and again, when I find myself mourning the loss of a good thing that has perished through stupidity, carelessness, or neglect (and I confess that, both as a conservationist and a Christian, I have that experience often), Kipling’s verse jumps into my mind. It haunts me now, as I contemplate the Church’s current loss of biblical truth about holiness.
Our Christian Heritage of Holiness
There was a time when all Christians laid great emphasis on the reality of God’s call to holiness and spoke with deep insight about His enabling of us for it. Evangelical Protestants, in particular, offered endless variations on the themes of what God’s holiness requires of us, what our holiness involves for us, by what means and through what disciplines the Holy Spirit sanctifies us, and the ways in which holiness increases our assurance and joy and usefulness to God.
The Puritans insisted that all life and relationships must become “holiness to the Lord.” John Wesley told the world that God had raised up Methodism “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” Phoebe Palmer, Handley Moule, Andrew Murray, Jessie Penn-Lewis, F.B. Meyer, Oswald Chambers, Horatius Bonar, Amy Carmichae, and L.B. Maxwell are only a few of the leading figures in the “holiness revival” that touched all evangelical Christendom between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.
On the other side of the Reformation divide, Seraphim of Sarov (Russian Orthodox) and Teresa of Ávila, Ignatius Loyola, Madame Guyon and Pére Grou (all Roman Catholics) ministered as apostles of holiness in a similar way. We must realize that, as John Wesley, for one, clearly saw, the Reformation cleavage was much less deep on sanctification and the Spirit than it was on justification and the
Formerly, then, holiness was highlighted throughout the Christian church. But how different it is today! To listen to our sermons and to read the books we write for each other and then to watch the zany, worldly, quarrelsome way we behave as Christian people, you would never imagine that once the highway of holiness was clearly marked out for Bible believers, so that ministers and people knew what it was and could speak of it with authority and confidence. “Weather and rain have undone it again.” Now we have to rebuild and reopen the road, starting really from scratch.
In the Old Testament we read how Isaac, forced to relocate his large household, “reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died” (Gen. 26:18). Isaac thus secured the water supply without which neither his family, nor his servants, nor his cattle, nor he himself, could have survived. He did not prospect for new wells in a water-divining quest that might or might not have succeeded, but he went straight to the old wells. He knew he would find water in them, once he had cleared them of the earth and debris that malevolent Philistines had piled on top of them.
Isaac’s action reflects two simple spiritual principles that apply here in a very direct way:
These are the principles whose guidance I follow in this book. No novelties will be found here. I shall draw, gratefully, from an older Christian wisdom.
The Lost World
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, also wrote an adventure story called The Lost World. In it, Professor Challenger and his friends climb to a supposedly inaccessible plateau in South America and there find both dinosaurs and a previously unknown pattern of human life. The story was clearly meant for boys from nine to ninety, and I vividly recall being thrilled by it, I think at the age of ten, when I heard it serialized on British radio’s Children’s Hour. It ends with Challenger battling frozen disbelief among his scientific peers as he tells them what he had found.
In this book I try to testify to the reality of the lost world of authentic Christian holiness. Will what I say about the supernaturalizing of our disordered lives be believed, I wonder? Will my account of what will appear to many as an unknown pattern of human life have any credibility at all? And what sort of spiritual dinosaur shall I be seen as for producing such ancient ideas? Never mind. In the memorable words of Cary Grant, “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.” For me, that means moving without fuss into my expository task, whether or not I am going to be taken seriously. To this task I now turn.
School of Holiness, School of Prayer
One of the titles I proposed for this book was With Christ in the School of Holiness. That was a deliberate echo, almost a steal, of With Christ in the School of Prayer by Andrew Murray, a much appreciated South African devotional author of two generations ago. I adapted
Holiness, like prayer (which is indeed part of it), is something that, though Christians have an instinct for it through their new birth, as we shall see, they have to learn in and through experience. As Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8)—learned what obedience requires, costs and involves through the experience of actually doing His Father’s will up to and in His passion—so Christians must, and do, learn prayer from their struggles to pray and holiness from their battles for purity of heart and righteousness of life.
Talented youngsters who go to tennis school in order to learn the game soon discover that the heart of the process is not talking about tactics but actually practicing serves and strokes, thus forming new habits and reflexes, so as to iron out weaknesses of style. The routine, which is grueling, is one of doing prescribed things over and over again on the court, against a real opponent, in order to get them really right.
Prayer and holiness are learned in a similar way as commitments are made, habits are formed and battles are fought against a real opponent (Satan, in this case), who with great cunning plays constantly on our weak spots. (That these are often what the world sees as our strong points is an index of Satan’s resourcefulness: presumptuous self-reliance and proud overreaching on our part serve his turn just as well as do paralyzing timidity, habits of harshness and anger, lack of discipline, whether inward or outward, evasion of responsibility, lack of reverence for God and willful indulgence in what one knows to be wrong.) Satan is as good at judo throws as he is at frontal assaults, and we have to be on guard against him all the time.
The process of learning to be holy, like the process of learning to pray, may properly be thought of as a school—God’s own school, in which the curriculum, the teaching staff, the rules, the discipline, the occasional prizes and the fellow pupils with whom one studies, plays, debates and fraternizes, are all there under God’s sovereign providence.
As pushing ahead on the path of prayer and holiness is a prime form of spiritual warfare against sin and Satan, so it is an educational process that God has planned and programmed in order to refine, purge, enlarge, animate, toughen and mature us. By means of it He brings us progressively into the moral and spiritual shape in which He wants to see us.
Physical education in grade school and adult workouts in fitness centers offer perhaps the closest parallels to what is going on here. They, too, require us to endure things we find it hard to enjoy. As a schoolboy I was gangling and clumsy. I loathed “P.T.” (physical training, as it was called in those days). I was in fact very bad at it, but I do not doubt that it was very good for me. Having to heave and bump my dogged way over a period of years through physical jerks that others found easy (and treated as fun and did much better than I could) may well have helped me grasp the virtue of keeping on keeping on in other disciplines that are not immediately gratifying: and God’s program of holiness training always includes quite a number of these.
We must be clear in our minds that whatever further reasons there may be why God exposes us to the joys and sorrows, fulfillments and frustrations, delights and disappointments, happinesses and hurts, that make up the emotional reality of our lives, all these experiences are part of His curriculum for us in the school of holiness, which is His spiritual gymnasium for our reshaping and rebuilding in the moral likeness of Jesus Christ.
It is reported that on one occasion when Teresa of Ávila was traveling, her conveyance dumped her in the mud. The spunky saint’s first words as she struggled to her feet were: “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder that you have so few!” One of the most attractive things about Teresa is that she could be playful like this with her God. But none knew better than she that the ups and downs of her life were divinely planned in order to mold her character, enlarge her heart and deepen her devotion. And what was true for her is true for us all.
In God’s school of holiness our Lord Jesus Christ (the Father’s Son and the Christian’s Savior) is with us, and we with Him, in a controlling relationship of master and servant, leader and follower, teacher and student. It is crucially important to appreciate this. Why is it that in the school of holiness, as in the schools to which we send our own children, some move ahead faster than others? How are the different rates of progress to be explained? Fundamentally, the factor that makes the difference is neither one’s intelligence quotient, nor the number of books one has read nor the conferences, camps and seminars one has attended, but the quality of the fellowship with Christ that one maintains through life’s vicissitudes.
Jesus is risen. He is alive and well. Through His Word and Spirit He calls us to Himself today, to receive Him as our Savior and Lord and become His disciples and followers. Speaking objectively—with reference to how things really are, as distinct from how they might feel at any particular moment—the “there-ness” of Jesus, and the personal nature of His relationship with us as His disciples, are as truly matters of fact as were His bodily presence and His words of comfort and command when He walked this earth long ago. Some, however, do not reckon with this fact as robustly and practically as others do. That is what makes the difference.
I mean this. Some who trust Jesus as their Savior have formed the habit of going to Him about everything that comes up, in order to become clear on how they should react to it as His disciples. (“Going to Him” is an umbrella phrase that covers three things: praying; meditating, which includes thinking, reflecting, drawing conclusions from Scripture, and applying them directly to oneself in Jesus’ presence; and holding oneself open throughout the process to specific illumination from the Holy Spirit.) These Christians come to see how events are requiring them to:
Kept by this means from bitterness and self-pity, these Christians cope with events in a spirit of peace, joy, and eagerness to see what God will do next. Others, however, who are no less committed to Jesus as their Savior, never master this art of habitually going to Him about life’s challenges. Too often they start by assuming that their life as children of God will be a bed of roses all the way. Then when the storms come, the best they can do is stagger through in a spirit of real if unacknowledged disappointment with God, feeling all the time that He has let them down. It is easy to understand why those in the first category advance farther and faster in the love, humility, and hope that form the essence of Christlike holiness than those in the second category.
But what exactly is holiness? We need a full-scale definition, and my next task is to attempt one. Consider first the word itself. Holiness is a noun that belongs with the adjective holy and the verb sanctify, which means to make holy. (It is a pity in one way that we have to draw on two word groups in English to cover what is a single word group in both Hebrew and Greek, but the verb holify would be so ugly that maybe we should be glad it does not exist.) Holy in both biblical languages means separated and set apart for God, consecrated and made over to Him. In its application to people, God’s “holy ones” or “saints,” the word implies both devotion and assimilation: devotion, in the sense of living a life of service to God; assimilation, in the sense of imitating, conforming to, and becoming like the God one serves. For Christians, this means taking God’s moral law as our rule and God’s incarnate Son as our model; this is where our analysis of holiness must start.
In his great book Holiness (published in 1879, still in print, and going strong), the Anglican Bishop John Charles Ryle set out in simple biblical terms a classic twelve-point profile of a holy person. (Being a Victorian, he said “man,” but he meant woman, too.) His description runs as follows:
This excerpt is from Rediscovering Holiness, by J.I. Packer and is used with permission of Regal Books, copyright 2009.
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