Cultivating Holiness (1)

Last month Dr. Beeke treated the Biblical command to “Be holy, for I am holy.” He now addresses the subject of cultivating holiness.


Concretely, then, what must you cultivate? Three things.

1. Imitation to the character of Jehovah. God says, “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16). The holiness of God Himself ought to be our foremost stimulus to cultivate holy living. Seek to be like your Father in heaven in righteousness, holiness and integrity. In the Spirit, strive to think God’s thoughts after Him via His Word, to be of one mind with Him, to live and act as God Himself would have you do.17 As Stephen Charnock concludes:

This is the prime way of honouring God. We do not so glorify God by elevated admirations, or eloquent expressions, or pompous services for him, as when we aspire to a conversing with Him with unstained spirits, and live to him in living like him.18

2. Conformity to the image of Christ. This is a favorite Pauline theme, of which one example must suffice: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who…made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant,…and…humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5–8). Christ was humble, willing to give up His rights in order to obey God and serve sinners. If you would be holy, Paul is saying, be like-minded.

Do not aim for conformity to Christ as a condition of salvation, however, but as a fruit of salvation received by faith. We must look to Christ for holiness, for He is the fount and path of holiness. Seek no other path. Follow the advice of Augustine who contended that it is better to limp on the path than to run outside of it.19 Do as Calvin taught: Set Christ before you as the mirror of sanctification, and seek grace to mirror Him in His image.20 Ask in each situation encountered: “What would Christ think, say, and do?” And then trust Him for holiness. He will not disappoint you (James 1:2–7).

There is room for unending growth in holiness because Jesus is the bottomless well of salvation. You cannot go to Him too much for holiness, for He is holiness par excellence. He lived holiness; He merited holiness; He sends His Spirit to apply holiness. “Christ is all, and in all” 2 (Col. 3:11)—holiness inclusive. As Luther profoundly set forth, “We in Christ=justification; Christ in us=sanctification.”2

3. Submission to the mind of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 8:6 Paul divides people into two categories-those who let themselves be controlled by their sinful natures (i.e. the carnally minded who follow fleshly desires) and those who follow after the Spirit (i.e. those who mind “the things of the Spirit,” Rom. 8:5).

The Holy Spirit was sent to bring the believer’s mind into submission to His mind (1 Cor. 2). He was given to make sinners holy; the most holy increasingly bow as willing servants under His control. Let us beg for grace to be willing servants more fully and more consistently.

How does the Spirit work this holy grace of submission to His mind, thereby making us holy? First, He shows us our need for holiness through conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment Gen. 16:8). Second, He implants desire for holiness. His saving work never leads to despair but always to sanctification in Christ. Third, He grants Christ-likeness in holiness. He works upon our whole nature, molding us after Christ’s image. Fourth, He provides strength to live a holy life by His indwelling and influencing of our soul. If we live by the Spirit, we will not gratify the desires of our sinful nature (Gal. 5:16). To live by the Spirit means to live in obedience to and dependence on that Spirit. Fifth, through humble feeding of Scripture and the exercise of prayer, the Spirit teaches us His mind and establishes an ongoing realization that holiness remains essential as being worthy of God and His kingdom (1 Thes. 2:12; Eph. 4:1) and for fitness for service (1 Cor. 9:24–25; Phil. 3:13).

“Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). Thomas Watson writes: “The Spirit stamps the impression of his own sanctity upon the heart, as the seal prints its likeness upon the wax. The Spirit of God in a man perfumes him with holiness, and makes his heart a map of heaven.”22




That believers are called to holiness is indisputably clear. But the cardinal question remains: How does the believer cultivate holiness? Here are seven directions to assist us.

1. Know and love Scripture. This is God’s primary road to holiness and to spiritual growth-the Spirit as Master Teacher blessing the reading and searching of God’s Word. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (Jn. 17:17). And Peter advised, “Desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Pet. 2:2).

If you would not remain spiritually ignorant and impoverished, read through the Bible at least annually. Even more importantly, memorize the Scriptures (Ps. 119:11), search (Jn. 5:39) and meditate upon them (Ps. 1:2), live and love them (Ps. 119; 19:10). Compare Scripture with Scripture; take time to study the Word. Proverbs 2:1–5 sets before us several principles involved in serious personal Bible study: teachability (receiving God’s words), obedience (storing God’s commandments), discipline (applying the heart), dependence (crying for knowledge), and perseverance (searching for hidden treasure).23 Do not expect growth in holiness if you spend little time alone with God and do not take His Word seriously. Plagued with a heart prone to be tempted away from holiness, let Scripture teach you how to live a holy life in an unholy world.

Scripture teach you how to live a holy life in an unholy world. Develop a Scriptural formula for holy living. Here is one possibility drawn from 1 Corinthians. When hesitant over a course of action, ask yourself:

• Does this glorify God? (1 Cor. 10:31)

• Is this consistent with the lordship of Christ? (1 Cor. 7:23)

• Is this consistent with Biblical examples? (1 Cor. 11:1)

• Is this lawful and beneficial for me-spiritually, mentally, physically? (1 Cor. 6:9–12)

• Does this help others positively and not hurt others unnecessarily? (1 Cor. 10:33; 8:13)

• Does this bring me under any enslaving power? (1 Cor. 6:12)

Let Scripture be your compass to guide you in cultivating holiness, in making life’s decisions, and in encountering the high waves of personal affliction.

2. Use the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper diligently as means of grace to strengthen your faith in Christ. God’s sacraments complement His Word. They point us away from ourselves. Each sign-the water, the bread, the wine—directs us to believe in Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. The sacraments are visible means through which He invisibly communes with us and we with Him. They are spurs to Christlikeness and therefore to holiness.

Grace received through the sacraments is not different from that received through the Word. Both convey the same Christ. But as Robert Bruce put it, “While we do not get a better Christ in—the sacraments than we do in the Word, there are times when we get Christ better.”24

Flee often to Christ by Word and sacrament. Faith in Christ is a powerful motivator for holiness, for faith and the love of sin cannot mix. Be careful, however, not to seek your holiness in your experiences of Christ, but in Christ Himself. As William Gurnall admonishes:

When thou trustest in Christ within thee, instead of Christ without thee, thou settest Christ against Christ. The bride does well to esteem her husband’s picture, but it were ridiculous if she should love it better than himself, much more if she should go to it rather than to him to supply her wants. Yet thou actest thus when thou art more fond of Christ’s image in thy soul than of him who painted it there.25

3. Regard yourself as dead to the dominion of sin and as alive to God in Christ (Rom. 6:11). “To realize this,” writes Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “takes away from us that old sense of hopelessness which we have all known and felt because of the terrible power of sin…I can say to myself that not only am I no longer under the dominion of sin, but I am under the dominion of another power that nothing can frustrate.”26 That is not to imply that because sin no longer reigns over us as believers, we have license to forego our duty to fight against sin. Bridges rightly admonishes us, “To confuse the potential for resisting sin (which God provided) with the responsibility for resisting (which is ours) is to court disaster in our pursuit of holiness.”27 Westminster’s Shorter Catechism balances God’s gift and our responsibility when stating, “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (Question 35).

Seek to cultivate a growing hatred of sin as sin, for that is the kind of hatred against sin which God possesses. Recognize that God is worthy of obedience not only as the Judge, but especially as a loving Father. Say with Joseph in temptation, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9).

Believe that Christ is mighty to preserve you alive by His Spirit. You live through union with Christ. Live unto His righteousness. His righteousness is greater than your unrighteousness. His Saviorhood is greater than your sinfulness. His Spirit is within you: “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Do not despair: you are strong in Him, alive in Him, victorious in Him. Satan may win many skirmishes, but the war is yours, the victory is yours (1 Cor. 15:57; Rom. 8:37). In Christ, the optimism of divine grace reigns over the pessimism of human nature.

4. Pray and work ill dependence upon God for holiness. No one is sufficient to bring a clean thing out of an unclean but God (Job 14:4). Hence, pray with David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps. 51:10). And as you pray, work. John Owen wrote, “God works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.”28 The Heidelberg Catechism (Question 116) points out that prayer and work belong together. They are like two oars, which when both utilized, will keep a rowboat moving forward. If you use only one oar—if you pray without working or you work without praying—you will row in circles.

Holiness and prayer have much in common. Both are central to the Christian life and faith; they are obligatory, not optional. Both originate with God and center upon Him. Both are activated, often mutually, by the Spirit of God. Neither can survive without the other. Both are learned by experience and through spiritual battles.29 Neither is perfected in this life, but must be cultivated lifelong. Both are easier to talk and write about than to exercise. The most prayerful often feel themselves to be prayerless; the most holy often regard themselves as unholy.

Holiness and work are also closely related, especially the work of nurturing and persevering in personal discipline. Discipline takes time and effort. Paul exhorted Timothy: “Exercise thyself rather unto godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). Holiness is not achieved sloppily or instantaneously.30 Holiness is a call to a disciplined life; it called to live out of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace—that is, grace which forgives without demanding repentance and obedience. Holiness is costly grace—grace that cost Cod the blood of His Son, cost the Son His own life, and costs the believer daily mortification in exercising holiness, such that with Paul he dies daily (1 Cor. 15:31).31 Gracious holiness calls for continual commitment, continual diligence, continual practice and continual repentance.32 If you “sometimes through weakness fall into sin, you must not therefore despair of God’s mercy, nor continue in sin, since…we have an eternal covenant of grace with God” (Baptism Form). Resolve with Jonathan Edwards: “Never to give over, nor in the least to slacken, my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.”33

These two things, fighting against sin and lack of success, appear contradictory but are not. Failing and becoming a failure are two different matters. The believer recognizes he will often fail. Luther said that the righteous man more often feels himself to be “a loser than a victor” in the trial of and struggle against sin, “for the Lord lets him be tested and assailed to his utmost limits as gold is tested in a furnace.”34 This too is an important component of discipleship. Nevertheless, the godly man will persevere even through his failures. Failure does not make him quit; it makes him repent the more earnestly and press on in the Spirit’s strength. “For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again: but the wicked shall fall into mischief” (Prov. 24:16).

Let us never forget that the God we love, loves holiness. Hence the intensity of His fatherly, chastising discipline (Heb. 12:5–6, 10)! Perhaps William Curnall says it best: “God would not rub so hard if it were not to fetch out the dirt that is ingrained in our natures. God loves purity so well He had rather see a hole than a spot in his child’s garments.”35

5. Flee Worldliness. We must strike out against the first appearance of the pride of life, the lusts of the flesh and eye, and all forms of sinful worldliness as they knock on the door of our hearts and minds. If we open the door and allow them to roam about in our minds and take foothold in our lives, we are already their prey. “Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the kings meat, nor with the wine which he drank: therefore he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself” (Dan. 1:8; emphasis added). The material we read, the recreation and entertainment we engage in, the music we listen to, and the conversations we have, all affect our minds and ought to be judged in the context of Philippians 4:8: Whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report, “think on these things.” We must live above the world and not be of the world while yet in the world (Rom. 12:1–2).

6. Seek fellowship in the church; associate with mentors in holiness (Eph. 4:12–13; 1 Cor. 11:1).36 The church ought to be a fellowship of mutual care and a community of prayer (1 Cor. 12:7; Acts 2:42). Converse and pray with fellow believers whose godly walk you admire (Col. 3:16). “He that walketh with the wise shall be wise” (Prov. 13:20). Association promotes assimilation. A Christian life lived in isolation from other believers will be defective; usually such a believer will remain spiritually immature.

Such fellowship, however, ought not exclude the reading of godly treatises of former ages which promote holiness. Luther said that some of his best friends were dead ones. For example, he questioned if anyone could possess spiritual life who did not feel kinship with David pouring out his heart in the psalms. Read classics that speak out vehemently against sin. Let Thomas Watson be your mentor in The Mischief of Sin; John Owen, in Temptation and Sin; Jeremiah Burroughs, in The Evil of Evils; Ralph Venning, in The Plague of Plagues.37 But also read J.C. Ryle’s Holiness, Octavius Winslow’s Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, and John Flavel’s Keeping the Heart. Let these divines of former ages be your spiritual mentors and friends.

7. Live “present-tense,” total commitment to God. Don’t fall prey to the “one-more-time” syndrome. Postponed obedience is disobedience. Tomorrow’s holiness is impurity now. Tomorrow’s faith is unbelief now. Aim not to sin at all (1 Jn. 2:1), asking for divine strength to bring every thought into captivity to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), for Scripture indicates that our “thought-lives” ultimately determine our character: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7a). An old proverb says it this way:

Sow a thought, reap an act; Sow an act, reap a habit; Sow a habit, reap a character.


17. A.W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification (Swengel, PA: Bible Truth Depot, 1955), p. 25.

18. Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, p. 453.

19. Aurelius Augustine, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 3.5.14, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, cd. P. Schaff (repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 5:404.

20. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.14.4ff.; d. Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, D.D., cd. John C. Miller (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864),6:220.

21. Quoted in John Blanchard, More Gathered Gold (Welwyn, England: Evangelical Press, 1986), p. 147.

22. Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1856; repro Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1970), p.173.

23. Bridges, The Practice of Holiness, p. 52.

24. Robert Bruce, The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper, trans. and ed. Thomas F. Torrance (Richmond: Jolm Knox Press, 1958), p. 82.

25. Quoted in Joel R. Beeke, Holiness: God’s Call to Sanctification (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), pp. 18–19.

26. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 6—The New Man (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), p. 144.

27. Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness, p. 60.

28. Owen, Works, 6:20.

29. James I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1992), p. 15.

30. cr. Jay Adams, Godliness Through Discipline (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), p. 3.

31. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R.H. Fuller (London: SCM Press, 1959).

32. Bridges, Practice of Holiness, pp. 41–56.

33. For Edwards’ seventy resolutions to promote holiness made at nineteen years of age, see The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 1:xx-xxii.

34. Luther: Lectures on Romans, trans. and cd. William Pauck (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), p. 189.

35. Quoted in I.O.E. Thomas, The Golden Treasury of Puritan Quotations (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), p.140.

36. See Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 28.

37. Thomas Watson, The Mischief of Sin (1671; Pittsburgh: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994); John Owen, “Temptation and Sin,” in The Works of John Owen, vol. 6 (1851; repro London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967); Jeremiah Burroughs, The Evil of Evils; or The Exceeding Sinfulness of Sin (1654; Pittsburgh: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992); Ralph Venning, The Plague of Plagues (1669; repro London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965).

38. John Charles Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (repr. Greensboro, NC: Homiletic Press, 1956); Octavius Winslow, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul (1841; repro London: Banner of Truth Trust, :960); John Flavel, “Keeping the Heart,” in The Works ofJohn Flavel, 5:417–507(1820; repr. London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1968).

(To be continued next month)

Dr. Joel Beeke is pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation of Grand Rapids, MI and editor of the periodical, Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth.