If you are in Christ, the desire for holiness is woven into your spiritual DNA. You have learned to say with the old prayer, “Sin is my greatest evil, but thou art my greatest good.” Your soul has a new hunger: to be holy as Christ is holy (1 Peter 1:16). Patient as he is patient, bold as he is bold, zealous as he is zealous, pure as he is pure. So you “strive for . . . holiness” (Hebrews 12:14), and you know you are not yet as holy as you long to be.
“Before we ever began to pursue holiness, holiness pursued us, found us, claimed us, filled us.”
In the midst of this godly pursuit, however, we can easily miss one startling and wonderful fact: in Christ, we are already holy. We wake up holy, brush our teeth holy, check our email holy, drive through traffic holy. Before we ever began to pursue holiness, holiness pursued us, found us, claimed us, filled us. Whether we feel like it right now or not, holy is who we are.
And unless we embrace the holiness that is already ours, our pursuit of holiness may leave us more harried and anxious than actually holy.
Holier Than Thou Thinketh
Pause for a moment over the first verses of 1 Corinthians, perhaps the most surprising start of the apostle Paul’s letters. How might you address a church divided by cliques, blemished by sexual immorality, puffed up with spiritual pride? Likely not how Paul begins:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints . . . (1 Corinthians 1:2)
Paul will call the Corinthians some other names before he’s through — “infants in Christ” and “foolish” (1 Corinthians 3:1; 15:36) — but not here at the beginning. To Paul, the Corinthians were not first and foremost immature disciples, but “sanctified . . . saints” — holy holy ones.
If we hear words like sanctified or holy and think of those Christians who are especially Christlike, Paul’s words will make no sense. Whatever the Corinthians were, they were not that, at least not yet. What then is Paul doing? Seeing the bright side? Boosting the Corinthians’ self-esteem? Indulging in a bit of apostolic flattery? No, he is putting his finger on the truest truth about the Corinthians: in Christ, they are holy. For, as John Murray writes, “It is a fact too frequently overlooked that in the New Testament the most characteristic terms that refer to sanctification are used, not of a process, but of a once-for-all definitive act.”
Before sanctification is a process, it is an event — a once-for-all event that happens at our conversion. As Paul will tell the Corinthians later on, “You were sanctified” (1 Corinthians 6:11). And they “were sanctified” the moment they were united to Christ by faith alone, “who became to us” not only righteousness and redemption, but “sanctification” (1 Corinthians 1:30). In other words, holiness is not first and foremost a matter of becoming Christlike, but of being in Christ. If we are in him, then we are holier than we think we are.
Sanctification, then, is both definitive and progressive; Christ becomes our holiness, and then we gradually grow to reflect his holiness. If that distinction feels like splitting theological hairs, consider three implications of definitive sanctification, beginning here: our holiness in Christ gives us a new identity. And that identity is wrapped up in one of the all-time most misunderstood words in the Bible: saint.
“The light in us may be small, and mixed with much darkness still. But in Christ, the sun is rising, not setting.”
Paul would have been disturbed, to say the least, to hear that many today reserve the word saint for those few Christians who have reached the highest echelons of holiness. For the apostle, saint was simply another word for Christian — the well-known and the normal, the Mother Teresas and the mothers in the next pew. No miracles needed; no heroic virtue required — just faith in Christ alone: a fact Paul impresses upon us immediately in six of his thirteen letters (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2).
We may not always feel like saints, of course. But that misses the point. Have we repented and believed? Has sin become hateful to us, and Christ precious? Then we are not what we feel at any given moment; we are what God calls us in Christ. We are light, not darkness (1 Thessalonians 5:5); clean, not dirty (John 15:3); saints, not sinners. And our duty as his people is not to say, “But I feel . . .” — rather, “Thank you.”
Charles Spurgeon observes that when God created day and night, he called the two of them together “day” (Genesis 1:5). Every Christian is likewise a mixture of night and day, of sin and holiness. Yet, Spurgeon writes, “You, like the day, take not your name from the evening, but from the morning; and you are spoken of in the word of God as if you were even now perfectly holy as you will be soon.”
The light in us may be small, and mixed with much darkness still. But in Christ, the sun is rising, not setting. So, God names us by the morning.
Before the Race Begins
Along with a new identity comes a new security. For some, the pursuit of holiness is marked more by insecurity and anxiety than security and peace. We know that without holiness “no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14), and we can’t help but wonder if we’re becoming holy enough fast enough.
To be sure, our practical, lived-out holiness in this life confirms our calling as saints (2 Peter 1:10). But for the introspective and scrupulous among us, this one truth about holiness can slowly become the only truth about holiness. Many of these saints are filled with the Spirit’s fruit, yet they have eyes only for their remaining sin. Holiness is always above their heads and beyond their reach. Maybe in a decade they’ll feel holy enough for heaven.
If this is how we feel, we have turned the emphasis of the New Testament upon its head. For holiness is not primarily the prize at the finish line of the Christian race; it is the gift at the starting line (1 Corinthians 1:2). Before we run for more holiness, God wants us to rejoice in the holiness that is already ours in Christ. Our deepest confidence and highest boast before God lie not in our personal holiness, but in the Holy One to whom we are united by faith (1 Corinthians 1:30–31).
In his classic work on the pursuit of holiness, John Owen writes,
There is not anything that, in our communion with him, the Lord is more troubled with us for, if I may so say, than our unbelieving fears, that keep us off from receiving that strong consolation which he is so willing to give to us. (Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, 77)
If we refuse the strong consolation that comes to us as saints in Christ, then our pursuit of holiness will likely become instead an insane pursuit of self-consolation, a way to purify ourselves so that we can finally feel confident without Christ. But if, morning by morning, we breathe in the consolation that comes from being called a saint, then we will run our race with security and joy.
At Home with Holiness
Some, no doubt, hear of definitive sanctification and become only more comfortable in sin. “Already holy in Christ? No need to fight so hard, then.” To which we can only respond with Paul, “By no means!” (Romans 6:2). Our new identity, together with our new security, also gives us a new destiny. If the Spirit called Holy has claimed us as his own, then holy we must be, and we can never rest content until all our sin is gone.
“The more holy we become, the more at home we will feel. Because in Christ, holy is who we are.”
Imagine yourself in the midst of temptation. Some crude joke is about to cross your lips, some fantasy has offered to entertain you, or some website has reminded you of its presence. Now imagine yourself transplanted in an instant to the temple of the living God. Incense rises before you; candles slowly burn. In the holy silence of that holy place, the presence of God settles upon your shoulders with a weight that brings you to your knees. Suddenly, the joke dies upon your lips; the fantasy vanishes; the very thought of the website makes you flush with shame.
Such is our situation, if only we have eyes to see. Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul asks men tempted toward sexual immorality, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). The question sobers us and challenges us. We are not as alone as we thought we were; the Holy One is with us wherever we go.
But the question also fills us with hope. For unlike the imagined scenario above, holiness not only surrounds us, but indwells us. If the Holy Spirit has made his home in our souls, then not only must we be holy — we can be. No matter how long we have struggled, or how many times we have fallen, the Spirit is able to make us stand (1 Corinthians 1:8–9; 10:12–13).
For now, of course, we are not yet as holy as we long to be. But holiness is our destiny: whole-souled contentment, expansive love, brilliant joy, perfect peace. And until then, the more holy we become, the more at home we will feel. Because in Christ, holy is who we are.