Christian, when have you been most free from sin?
When have you been least motivated by selfish ambition and laziness and lust and self-righteousness? When has the fear of man, the general cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches wielded the least influence over you (Matthew 13:22)? When have you felt the most capacity to love others and the most concern for perishing unbelievers, the persecuted church, and the destitute poor?
In other words, when has your life been most characterized by holiness?
I can tell you when. It’s when you’ve been most in love with Jesus. It’s when you’ve been most full of faith in his promises so that you live by them. It’s when his gospel has been most meaningful and his mission has been most compelling, so that they dictate your life’s priorities.
In other words, you’ve been most holy when you’ve been most happy in God.
Holiness is fundamentally an affection issue, not a behavioral issue. It’s not that our behaviors don’t matter — they matter a lot. It’s just that our behaviors are symptomatic. They are the outworking of our affections in the same way that our behaviors are the outworking of our faith (James 2:17).
Why Holiness Has a Bad Rap
For many Christians, holiness has largely negative connotations. They know holiness is a good thing — because God is holy — and it’s something they should also be — because God says, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44; 1 Peter 1:16). But they think of holiness primarily in terms of denial, as sort of a sterile existence. In fact, God’s holiness is something they tend to fear more than desire.
This is understandable, especially if the teaching they have received has emphasized behavioral holiness over affectional holiness. The Old Testament has a lot of very serious things to say about holiness. When Yahweh called Moses (Exodus 3:10) and delivered the people of Israel, it is clear his holiness was nothing to be trifled with. It was lethal if it was ignored or neglected (Exodus 19:12–14). Also, eight, arguably nine, of the Ten Commandments are prohibitions: “You shall not . . . ” (Exodus 20:1–17). Reading through the requirements in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the overall emphasis we get is the rigor that was required to maintain holiness before God and the warnings given if it wasn’t.
God’s Mercy in All His Prohibitions
But while that impression of holiness is understandable, it is very wrong. Holiness is neither dominantly denial, nor is it sterile purity. We need to remember why God instituted the rigorous moral and ceremonial laws: “in order that sin might be shown to be sin” (Romans 7:13).
[For] if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. (Romans 7:7–8)
All the prohibitions and all the warnings are all mercy, because God wants us to know what our biggest problem is, how deep it goes (Romans 7:15–18), its horrific consequences (Colossians 3:5–6), and how hopeless we are to make ourselves holy (Romans 7:24), in order to point us to the glorious solution he has provided to our biggest problem (Romans 7:25; Romans 5:6–10).
God only emphasizes our unholiness, our sinful state, so that we can escape its grip and its consequences — and know the full joy of living in the abundant, satisfying goodness of God’s holiness. We must understand the nature and seriousness of our disease in order to pursue and receive the right treatment. But, remember, the diagnostic tool’s job is to emphasize the nature of the disease more than the essence of health.
What Holiness Is Really Like
If we want to know the essence of the health of holiness, we need to look elsewhere, like Psalm 16:11: “In your [holy] presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” That is what holiness is really like: as much joy and pleasure as we can contain for as long as is possible — which, because God grants it, is forever.
Do you see it? Holiness is not a state of denial, characterized by abstaining from defiling thoughts, motivations, and behaviors. True holiness is a state of delight. And the more true holiness we experience, the fuller our joy and greater our pleasures!
Holiness is fundamentally an affection issue, not a behavioral issue. This is only emphasized by the fact that all the Law and the Prophets — all the prohibitions and warnings pertaining to our behaviors, the height of holiness — are summed up in the greatest commandments to love God with all we are and our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37–40). Holiness looks most like the delight of true love. And if we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments — meaning that when our affections are really engaged, our behaviors naturally follow (John 14:15).
To Be Holy, Seek Your Greatest Happiness
God is supremely holy. And God is supremely happy (1 Timothy 1:11). God is love (1 John 4:8). And he is all light with no darkness (1 John 1:5). All that is good, all that brings true, lasting joy, and all that is truly, satisfyingly, eternally pleasurable comes from him.
And we are to be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:16). So, to pursue holiness, we must pursue our greatest happiness. Who has delivered us from our bodies of indwelling, sin-induced death? Jesus Christ (Romans 7:24–25)! Our unholy sin disease has been given a cure in the cross. We no longer need to fixate on the diagnostic tool of the law. Now, in pursuit of holiness, we aim primarily at our affections, not primarily at our behaviors. For behaviors are symptomatic of the state of our affections. What is a delight to us ceases to be a duty for us.
So God’s call to move “further up and further in” in holiness is an invitation to joy! Your fullest happiness ends up being the “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).