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Higher Holiness

Category Articles
Date July 23, 2019

Wherever there has been conversion with power, the souls that have been reconciled to their Creator will not fail to inquire how they may become ‘perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect’; and every one who seeks to turn a sinner from the error of his way must strive with his whole strength and his utmost skill for the evenest moral path and the highest spiritual walk that he can reach for his own footsteps.

For us who are in the ministry this aim is of primary importance, because, under God, the moral and spiritual health of the nation depends chiefly on the inward health of its Christian ministers. What we say within ourselves is always more to others than what we say for them; and the command, ‘Meditate on these things, give thyself wholly to them, that thy profiting may appear unto all,’ shows the will of God concerning us that our growth in grace should be evident to all around, that it shall be plain to them that our own eye sees the loveliness of the Lord Jesus Christ, and our own heart is taken captive with the beauty of holiness. But when the heart of men is moved, and their intellect awakened in the greatest of human interests, defective, or excessive, or erroneous views regarding holiness — commonly old opinions revived — are apt to be suggested and adopted; and with this most hurtful and deplorable result that the perception of the errors scares some, and by others is made an excuse, so as to turn them aside from the earnest, and hopeful, and thorough pursuit of holiness for themselves. At the present time it is very desirable to aim at making our path clear in this great matter, because, though not in our own Church, nor by our evangelistic brethren from the other side of the Atlantic, yet, by various earnest writers and speakers, opinions have been advanced which are extreme as to what is attainable, or mistaken in what is desirable, or erroneous regarding the nature of true holiness, or one-sided in the means of acquiring it.

Let us lay it down as a first principle that the holiest man in this Church, or on the earth, is the man who, most of all, trusts, admires, and loves the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the best man in the world — the fullest of God and of human brotherhood — in whose heart is deepest written, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain;’ who hates father and mother, and brother and sister, and his own life also, for the sake of Jesus Christ; and in whom the words, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease,’ have a daily and cordial amen. Every man becomes like the object of his strongest love and highest admiration; and if a man admires, and trusts, and loves his own vile self, he becomes in every way vile. The one absolutely beautiful object ever disclosed on this earth of ours is Jesus Christ, wholly admirable from his cradle to his cross. Even those who are not his friends admire his peerless beauty. A recent writer, who disowns his claim to divine authority, yet maintains, ‘The teaching of Jesus carried morality to the sublimest point attained or even attainable by humanity. The influence of his spiritual religion has been rendered doubly great by the unparalleled purity and elevation of his own character.’ But apart from his cross, this sublimest teaching and unparalleled purity only drive us the further off; for we may admire, but cannot touch the spotless One; our conscience acknowledges, but our heart cannot learn his lessons; so unlike us, so contrary, we cannot imitate, and never can possess, his holiness. Through his death alone we reach his life, and even in his cradle we embrace him as

The babe yet lay in smiling infancy,
Who on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss,
So both himself and us to glorify.

Calvary is ours; outside the camp we find the Holy One ‘numbered with transgressors,’ and made ours in all his fullness. In that same hour his blood purges our conscience from dead works to serve the living God; we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, in mind, in will, in heart; and sin hath not dominion over us, because we are under grace. We rejoice in a real likeness to Christ; and we joy in the assured hope that when he shall appear we shall be wholly like him, for we shall see him as he is. If in heaven all were not white as snow; if one spot were left, either one stain of the past not washed away, or one old sin retaining its poison, on that single spot we should gaze for ever, and all heaven would present no beauty and afford no joy. That one stain would occupy eternity with itself.

It cannot, however, be set forth as within the plan of redemption that perfect holiness should be ours on earth. If we wash our hands in snow water, and make ourselves never so clean, we are quickly plunged into the ditch again, and compelled to cry out, ‘O, wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death.’ We are not, therefore, defeated for we have learned that sin is not omnipotent over us but that grace is omnipotent over sin. There is no sin, no temptation, no obstinacy, no vitality of sin over which grace is not almighty to overcome, and at last to uproot it. Where sin and Christ met together on the cross, Christ finished transgression for us, and made an end of sin; and so in us, when sin and the grace of Jesus Christ meet together, grace triumphs, in the end always triumphs, and over every kind of sin. Yet every man who is acquainted with himself must adopt the language of the patriarch of Uz: ‘If I say I am perfect, mine own mouth shall prove me perverse;’ and both the Word of God and the history of the Church attest the humbling truth that ‘No man is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed;’ and the higher any man rises in nearness and in likeness to God, he is always the more deeply conscious of sin, as seen in Job, in Daniel, in Paul. There is a wide gulf between the character of the holiest of the redeemed and of him who was separate from sinners, and the liker they become to the Redeemer the gulf becomes consciously the wider. ‘I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, I repent in dust and ashes, I am carnal sold under sin,’ are the confessions of the highest amongst the saints, while in Jesus of Nazareth we pass in an instant to another form of man altogether, who demands, ‘Which of you convinceth me of sin?’ who asserts, ‘I do always those things that please the Father;’ who announces to the whole world, ‘I am meek and lowly,’ which it would be pride in any other man to say, or in the angel Gabriel to speak of himself. Yet this sinless One is more truly human, more open, more accessible, more sympathetic, more attractive to the worst of sinners than any man of like passions with ourselves.

But while sin still stains all the redeemed on earth, there is a wide difference between one and another in holiness. While some are saved only as by fire consuming their wood, hay, and stubble, an abundant entrance is ministered to others into his kingdom, where without holiness no man shall see the Lord; and between these lowest and highest there is every degree of various holiness. It would be misery for one child of God to live for a single day in the heart and life of another child of God, for the man who strives to be in the fear of the Lord all the day long to live for a day in the measure of hardness, deadness, earthliness, selfishness, pride, acridness of temper, that are allowed by another. It is grace that enables one man to grow in grace above his fellow, but it is our sin that we frustrate the grace of God so sadly in ourselves. Which of us did not once expect to be far better men than we have been? which of us might not have become far better than we now are? and, thanks be to God, which of us may not still be far better in the future than we have been in the past? The past we cannot recall, but it can be confessed and forgiven; and if we yield ourselves as clay into the hands of the great Potter, his hands can mould each one of us as a vessel meet for the Master’s use.


But what is the holiness that we are to hope for and aim at in this present world? As regards what constitutes holiness in redeemed men on the earth, the dangerous opinion has been advanced which makes a very excessive distinction, or rather division, between the new man and the old, between the flesh and the spirit in the believer, as if the sinfulness of the flesh were to be disregarded on account of the holiness of the spirit; forgetting that it is still one person in whom the evil and the good are found, and that if the sinfulness of the old nature is accounted little, it will soon swallow up every trace of holiness in the entire man.

Another perilous opinion rests on an extreme distinction between the will and the emotions, holding that all holiness is in the will, and that if the will is right we need not be distressed for wrong emotions. We cannot be grateful enough for a renewed will, for when the will is not supreme in the man as in dreams, he is ready to become the helpless prey of any emotion; and it belongs to the highest good in the redeemed, when the evil in the affections is met by the resistance of the will, as when the will quenches the sudden emotion of anger. Yet sin in the emotions constantly makes the child of God cry out, ‘Oh, wretched man that I am’; and he is the far holier man of the two whom the sinful emotion makes wretched, than he who regards it as of no account. If there be no sin in evil emotions there is no holiness in good emotions, in love to God or man; and it will then be hard to discover any holiness at all.

A third opinion, very closely allied to the last, is that which reduces the standard of holiness; and instead of our Saviour’s full demand, ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect,’ adopts a measure of man’s own, sometimes called evangelical perfection, which some men fondly think they have attained. But to lower the standard is not to heighten the man; and a fuller discovery of the holiness of God would draw from every living man the confession, ‘I abhor myself in dust and ashes.’ The difference is vast between a partial and an absolute resistance to sin, not only in the contest on our part, but in the strength of sin that contends against us. If we count that to be innocent, which is sin by the law of God, we shall encounter less resistance, and gain an easier victory; but the conquest is partial and deceptive. It is often most of all when we would do good that sin is present with us in greater power than at other times. In the weighty words of Dr Owen — ‘Whosoever contends against indwelling sin shall know and find that it is present with them, that it is powerful in them. He shall find the stream to be strong who swims against it, though he who rolls along with it he insensible of it.’ This element throws some light on our blessed Lord’s resistance to temptation, which is apt to be looked upon as easy because he had no sin within him. But, on the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth, oppressed by suffering, and surrounded by sin, stands alone in an absolute resistance to the least inlet of evil. Therefore against him the pent-up stream of sin without beat with a force which neither Adam nor any fallen man has ever encountered, because they have all yielded to the stream; and so his words of grace come home to us, ‘To him that overcometh, even as I also overcame.’

Another view of holiness, which we prefer to call mistaken rather than erroneous, connects it with a perpetual joy, as expressed in the lines:

If our love were but more simple,
We should take him at his word;
And our lives would be all sunshine,
In the sweetness of our Lord.

The relation between joy and holiness is very close; there is joy the fruit of holiness, and holiness the fruit of joy. ‘The peace of God that passeth understanding keeps the heart and mind in Christ Jesus;’ and there is no more common or hurtful error than in seeking peace with God as the fruit of holiness, instead of looking for holiness as the fruit of peace with God through Jesus Christ. ‘Joy in the Holy Ghost’ belongs to the highest of all holiness, and in this relation joy itself is holiness. But this is only one part of the truth, for sorrow also is holiness in the godly sorrow for sin that worketh repentance not to be repented of. It is far from scriptural to assert that true religion always begins with peace. True religion began in the famished outcast in the far country, when he resolved ‘I will rise and go to my father;’ and it was already begun in the proud soul of Saul of Tarsus, when in darkness and distance it was said of him by the Lord, ‘Behold he prayeth.’ And through the Christian course ‘all sunshine’ is neither attainable nor desirable. Paul, after being justified by faith and having peace with God, after reckoning himself dead unto sin and alive unto God through Jesus Christ, after finding that sin has not dominion over him when he is under grace, after delighting in the law of God in the inner man, has still a sharp, long, and frequent conflict with sin struggling not to be slain and to get the victory. Likewise in his providential life and ministry his spirit is far from resting in a perpetual sunshine, but is often perplexed and cast down by fightings without and fears within. On one occasion his mental anxiety is so severe that he is unable to avail himself of a most favourable opening for preaching the gospel. ‘When I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened to me of the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit, because I found not Titus my brother, but leaving them, went from thence into Macedonia.’ This perplexity on account of the Corinthian Church so oppresses him, that he cannot preach to people thirsting for the word of life; but leaves them, not to go to Corinth, but to find Titus, and learn how the Corinthians had received his letter; and afterwards the Lord grants him a singular blessing at Troas, which he leaves in such perplexity. This is not all sweetness and sunshine; and if we cultivate a mere placid joy, however the Lord may cover our mistake and grant us that smile which we covet, we are nevertheless turning aside in the harvest from the burden and heat of the day, we are declining the battle-field, and in fighting no great battles we can look for no great victories.


Further, in the way of acquiring holiness, its attainment by faith has been spoken of as if it were a new discovery, and also as if a man were sanctified by faith alone in the same sense in which he is justified by faith alone. It is true that many who look to Christ alone for their justification, have been looking partly to themselves for their sanctification; but this obliquity of view springs from a defective sight of justifying righteousness. Sin has no condemnation because we are not under the law, but under grace; and sin has no dominion because we are not under the law, but under grace; and according to our apprehension of free grace are our apprehension and experience of sin’s no condemnation and sin’s no dominion. In our Shorter Catechism, with its wondrous fulness and precision throughout, while our effectual calling is defined as the work of God’s Spirit, our sanctification is described as a ‘work of God’s free grace,’ exactly as justification is an ‘act’ of the same free grace; not thereby setting aside the Spirit’s work, but bringing out the great truth that sanctification comes from grace, and if from grace in God then through faith in us, for ‘therefore it is of faith that it might be by grace.’ Practically it has brought a bright surprise to most believers, when they have found that with the pardon of sin through the blood of Christ there has been the victory over it through the same grace that forgave it. But we are not sanctified at once as we are justified; we are never exhorted to perfect our justification, as we are called to be ‘perfecting holiness;’ and while sanctification is unto faith and never apart from it, it is likewise through trials, through mercies, through temptations, through deliverances; and in it we work out our own salvation, because God worketh in us to will and to do of his good pleasure. But knowing these things, how far short we fall in doing them; with how little confidence can we say to our flocks, ‘Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ?’ What a treasure of unused holiness is mine, is yours, in Christ; there for us, there possessed by us; but how guiltily content we are to have it in Christ, instead of drawing it out of his fullness as grace for grace to ourselves.

We receive holiness by faith, but we obtain it also by intensity of prayer, of which Coleridge says most truly, that ‘to pray with all the heart and strength, with the reason and the will — prayer with the whole soul — is the highest energy of which the human heart is capable;’ and it is at the same time the most fruitful. If we prayed for holiness as for our very life we should find it above all our asking and thinking.

We obtain it, further, by solemn and unreserved dedication of ourselves to God in Christ, which with our fathers frequently took the form of a written personal covenant with God. Oh, that we did one and all, by the mercies of God, present our bodies, our entire persons, a living sacrifice, that so we may prove in ourselves, in our own hearts and lives, ‘what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.’

But along with faith and prayer and self-surrender, there are daily lessons to be learned in detail by us all. Our Lord Jesus Christ would himself live over again in the world in the person of each one of you, and in the place where he has planted each as his own representative in the earth. In the marriage of the Lamb the Bride will come to him washed in his own blood and clothed with his own righteousness; and also ‘in raiment of needlework’ wrought out through her own hands by God working in her to will and to do; in a clothing minutely beautiful as by the million-fold puncture of the needle — ‘stitch, stitch, stitch’ — till her patient continuance in well-doing is crowned with glory, honour, and immortality. In this trying, humbling, yet most glorious process, the soul is helped by all kinds of detail, such as are found in Thomas a Kempis: ‘How little soever the thing may be, if it be inordinately loved and regarded, it defiles the soul and keeps it back from the supreme good. No man is safe to speak but he that willingly holds his peace. What thou art thou art; nor is it any use to thee to be accounted greater than what thou art in the sight of God.’ Or again, in the words of John Wesley, ‘It is hardly credible how straight the way is, and of how great consequence before God the smallest things are. As a very little dust will disorder a clock, and the least grain of sand will obscure our sight, so the least grain of sin which is upon the heart will hinder its right motion toward God. And as the most dangerous winds may enter at little openings, so the devil never enters more dangerously than by little unobserved incidents, which seem to be nothing, yet insensibly open the heart to great temptations.’

Absolutely sinless holiness, as we have said, is our only scriptural standard, and the least sin is not to be tolerated in us, or excused, or in any way made light of. But it will be asked of whom the Bible speaks when it bids us ‘mark the perfect man,’ seeing ‘there is not a just man on the earth that sinneth not.’ What is his perfection? It is, we take it, a true and steadfast loyalty of heart to God, which in its root pertains to all God’s children, but is more marked in those who ‘wholly follow the Lord’. Above all others on the earth in his day, Job is described as ‘a perfect man,’ but Satan never proposes to try if he is sinless, for neither job himself nor anyone else entertained such a thought. Satan’s boast is that this favourite of heaven will, if tried, turn out not merely faulty but disloyal, will renounce God altogether, will curse him to his face; and Job’s wife, whom Satan spares to aid him when he slays his dutiful children, asks her stricken husband, ‘Dost thou still retain thy perfectness,’ which is well translated ‘thine integrity,’ or thy loyalty to God. In like manner David, under severe chastening, in the 41st Psalm, after special confession of sin, ‘Heal me, for I have sinned against thee,’ blesses God for preserving him in his fidelity through the trial, ‘As for me, thou upholdest me in mine integrity,’ that is literally, ‘in my perfectness.’ Now while sinlessness is the standard which we strive to reach in heaven and always to approach more nearly on earth, this steadfast loyalty of heart is a noble aim for our actual possession day by day. Its daily confession is, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none on earth whom I desire besides thee;’ and its daily estimate of all things is, ‘Thy favour is life, thy loving kindness is better than life.’ The holiest state of man on earth is described in the words of the 139th Psalm: ‘Search me, 0 God, and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’

By sins we feel how low we’re lost,
And learn in some degree
How dear that great salvation cost
Which comes to us so free.

If such a weight to every soul
Of sin and sorrow fall,
What love was that which took the whole,
And freely bore it all.

O, when will God our joy complete,
And make an end of sin?
When shall we walk the land, and meet
No Canaanite therein?

Will this precede the day of death,
Or must we wait till then?
Ye struggling souls, be strong in faith,
And quit yourselves like men.

Our great Deliverer’s love is such,
He cannot long delay;
Meantime, that foe can’t boast of much,
Who makes us watch and pray.

This article was first published in the November 1970 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

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