Obstacles to Cultivating Holiness

Last month Dr. Beeke presented encouragements for cultivating holiness. Now he discusses obstacles to the cultivating of holiness.

The cultivation of holiness will inevitably meet with numerous obstacles. Much impedes holiness. Five common problems against which we need to be on guard are these:

1. Our attitude to sin and life itself is prone to be more self-centered than God-centered. We are often more concerned about the consequences of sin or victory over sin than about how our sins grieve God. Positive consequences and victory then wrongly become by-products of obedience and holiness. The cultivation of holiness necessitates hating sin as God hates sin. Holiness is not merely loving God and our neighbor; it also invalves hatred. The hatred of sin is of the essence of holiness. Those who love God hate sin (Prov. 8:36). We must cultivate an attitude of viewing sin as always being pre-eminently against God (Ps. 51:4).55

Low and distorted views of sin reap low and distorted views of holiness. “Wrong views about holiness are generally traceable to wrong views about human corruption,” J.C. Ryle asserted. “If a man does not realize the dangerous nature of his soul’s diseases, you cannot wonder if he is content with false or imperfect remedies.”56 Cultivating holiness demands a rejection of the pride of life and the lusts of the flesh as well as the prayer, “Give me the single eye, Thy Name to glorify” (psalter 236, stanza 2).

We fail when we do not consciously live with our priorities centered on God’s Word, will and glory. In the words of the Scottish theologian, John Brown, “Holiness does not consist in mystic speculations, enthusiastic fervors, or uncommanded austerities; it consists in thinking as God thinks, and willing as God wills.”57

2. Our progress is hindered when we misunderstand “living by faith” (Gal. 2:20) to imply that no effort towards holiness is commanded of us. Sometimes we are even prone to consider human effort sinful or “fleshly.” Bishop Ryle provides us with a corrective here:

Is it wise to proclaim in so bald, naked, and unqualified a way as many do, that the holiness of converted people is by faith only, and not at all by personal exertion? Is this according to the proportion of God’s Word? I doubt it. That faith in Christ is the root of all holiness no well-instructed Christian will ever think of denying. But surely the Scriptures teach us that in following holiness the true Christian needs personal exertion and work as well as faith.58

We are responsible for holiness. Whose fault is it but our own if we are not holy? As Ralph Erskine counsels, we need to implement the fight-or-flight attitude with regard to sinful temptations. And sometimes we simply need to heed Peter’s plain injunction, “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11). Abstain—often it is that simple.

If you have put off the old man and put on the new (Eph. 4:22–32), live accordingly (Col. 3:9–10). Mortify your members (i.e. unholy habits) and seek those things which are above (Col. 3:1–5)-not as a form of legalism, but as a repercussion of divine blessing (Col. 2:9–23).59 Make a covenant with your eyes and feet and hands to turn from iniquity (Job 31:1). Look the other way; walk the opposite way. Put away uncontrolled anger, gossip, and bitterness. Put sin to death (Rom. 8:13) by the blood of Christ. “Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin,” wrote Owen, “and thou wilt live to see thy lust dead at thy feet.”60



3. On the other hand, we fail miserably when we take pride in our holiness and think that our exertions can somehow produce holiness apart from faith. From beginning to end holiness is the work of God and His free grace (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 13). As Richard Sibbes maintained, “By grace we are what we are in justification, and work what we work in sanctification.”61 Holiness is not partially God’s work and partially our work. Holiness manufactured by our heart is not holiness after God’s heart. All working out of the Christian life on our part is the fruit of God working in us and through us: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12–13). “The regenerate have a spiritual nature within that fits them for holy action, otherwise there would be no difference between them and the unregenerate,” wrote A.W. Pink;62 nevertheless, self-sanctification, strictly speaking, is non-existent.63 “We do good works, but not to merit by them (for what can we merit?); nay, we are beholden to God for the good works we do, and not he to us” (Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 24). As Calvin explained, “Holiness is not a merit by which we can attain communion with God, but a gift of Christ which enables us to cling to him and to follow him.”64 John Murray put it this way: “God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of cooperation as if God did his part and we did ours….God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work.”65

And every virtue we possess, And every conquest won, And every thought of holiness, Are His alone.

Kenneth Prior warns: “There is a subtle danger of speaking of sanctification as essentially coming from our own effort or initiative. We can unconsciously do this even while acknowledging our need for the power of the Holy Spirit, by making the operation of that power dependent upon our surrender and consecration.”66

Our dependence on God for holiness ought to humble us. Holiness and humility are inseparable.67 Not least of what they have in common is that neither one recognizes itself. The most holy complain of their impurity; the most humble, of their pride. Those of us who are called to be teachers and examples of holiness must beware of subtle and insidious pride working its way into our supposed holiness.

Holiness is greatly impeded by any number of wrong views of holiness in its relation to humility; for example: (1) As soon as we think, speak or act as if our own holiness will somehow suffice us, without being clothed upon with Christ’s humility, we are already enveloped by spiritual pride. (2) When we begin to feel complacent with our holiness, we may be sure we are far from both holiness and humility. (3) When sell-abasement is lacking, holiness is lacking. (4) When self-abasement does not make us to flee to Christ and His holiness for refuge, holiness is lacking. (5) Without a dependent life on Christ, we shall possess no holiness.

4. Embracing unscriptural, erroneous views about holiness can greatly impede our holiness. The need to experience “the second blessing,” an earnest search for our own special gift of the Spirit, or to exercise various charismatic gifts such as speaking in tongues or faith healing, and the acceptance of Jesus as Savior but not as Lord—these are but a few of the many erroneous interpretations of Scripture that can skew a proper understanding of biblical holiness in our personal lives.

Though addressing these issues lies beyond the scope of this article, allow me to quote three summary statements. Concerning the first error mentioned above, H. Ironside quips: “Far from being ‘the second blessing,’ subsequent to justification, [holiness] is a work apart from which none ever would be saved.”68 Or, to put it another way: It is not just the second blessing that the believer needs, but he needs a second blessing, as well as a third and fourth and fifth—yes, he needs the continual blessing of the Holy Spirit in order to progress in holiness so that Christ may increase and he may decrease (Jn. 3:30).

Concerning the second error mentioned above, John Stott wisely comments that “when Paul wrote to the Corinthians that they were not lacking in spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 1:7), he makes it clear that the evidence of the Spirit’s fullness is not the exercise of His gifts (of which they had plenty), but the ripening of His fruit (of which they had little).”69

And with regard to the third error of separating the Savior from His lordship, the Heidelberg Catechism provides a summary corrective in Question 30: “One of these two things must be true, that either Jesus is not a complete Savior or that they, who by a true faith receive this Savior, must find all things in Him necessary to their salvation.”

5. We are prone to shirk the battle of daily spiritual warfare. No one likes war. The believer is often blind himself to his real enemies—to a subtle Satan, to a tempting world, and especially to the reality of his own ongoing pollution which Paul so poignantly expresses in Romans 7:14–25. To be holy among the holy takes grace; to be holy among the unholy is great grace. Maintaining personal holiness in an unholy world, with a heart prone to backslide, necessitates a perpetual fight. It will involve conflict, holy warfare, struggle against Satan, a battle between the flesh and the spirit (Gal. 5:17). A believer not only has peace of conscience, but also war within (Rom. 7:24 to 8:1). As Samuel Rutherford asserts, “The devil’s war is better than the devil’s peace.”70 Hence the remedies of Christ’s holiness (Heb. 7:25–28) and of His Spirit-supplied Christian armor (Eph. 6:10–20) are ignored at our peril. True holiness must be pursued against the backdrop of an acute awareness of indwelling sin which continues to live in our hearts and to deceive our understanding. The holy man, unlike others, is never at peace with indwelling sin. Though he may backslide far, he will again be humbled and ashamed because of his sin.


A holy life ought to be one of joy in the Lord, not negative drudgery (Neh. 8:10). The idea that holiness requires a gloomy disposition is a tragic distortion of Scripture. On the contrary, Scripture asserts that those who cultivate holiness experience true joy. Jesus said, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you that your joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (Jn. 15:10–11). Those who are obedient—who are pursuing holiness as a way of life-will know the joy that flows from communion with God: a supreme joy, an ongoing joy, an anticipated joy.

1. The supreme joy: fellowship with God. No greater joy can be had than communion with God. “In thy presence is fulness of joy” (Ps. 16:10). True joy springs from God as we are enabled to walk in fellowship with Him. When we disfellowship ourselves from God by sin, we need to return with penitential prayer to Him like David: “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation” (Ps. 51:12). The words Jesus spoke to the thief on the cross represent the chief delight of every child of God: “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43).

2. The ongoing joy: abiding assurance. True holiness obeys God, and obedience always trusts God. It believes, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that loveGod” (Rom. 8:28)—even when it cannot be seen. Like faithful workers on a Persian carpet, who blindly hand up all colors of strand to the overseer who works out the pattern above them, God’s intimate saints are those who hand Him even the black strands He calls for, knowing that His pattern will be perfect from above, notwithstanding the gnarled mess underneath. Do you too know this profound, childlike trust in believing the words of Jesus: “What I do thou knowest not now: but thou shalt know hereafter” (Jn. 13:7)? That is ongoing, stabilizing joy which surpasses understanding. Holiness reaps joyous contentment; “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6).

3. The anticipated joy: eternal, gracious reward. Jesus was motivated to endure His sufferings by anticipating the joy of His reward (Heb. 12:1–2). Believers too may look forward to entering into the joy of their Lord as they pursue holiness throughout their lives in the strength of Christ. By grace, they may joyously anticipate their eternal reward: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Mt. 25:21, 23). As John Whitlock noted: “Here is the Christian’s way and his end—his way is holiness, his end, happiness.”71

Holiness is its own reward, for everlasting glory is holiness perfected. “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 37). But also their bodies shall be raised immortal and incorruptible, perfect in holiness, complete in glorification (1 Cor. 15:49, 53). Finally, the believer shall be what he has desired to be ever since his regeneration perfectly holy in a triune God. He shall enter into the eternal glory of Jesus Christ as a son of God and fellow heir with Him (Phil. 3:20–21; Rom. 8:17). He shall finally be like Christ, holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25–27), eternally magnifying and exalting the unfathomable bounties of God’s sovereign grace. Truly, as Calvin stated, “the thought of the great nobility God has conferred upon us ought to whet our desire for holiness.”72


I once read of a missionary who had in his garden a shrub that bore poisonous leaves. At that time he had a child who was prone to put anything within reach into his mouth. Naturally he dug the shrub out and threw it away. The shrub’s roots, however, were very deep. Soon the shrub would sprout again. Repeatedly the missionary had to dig it out. There was no solution but to inspect the ground every day, and to dig up the shrub every time it surfaced. Indwelling sin is like that shrub. It needs constant uprooting. Our hearts need continual mortification.

As John Owen warns us: We must be exercising [mortification] everyday, and in every duty. Sin will not die, unless it be constantly weakened. Spare it, and it will heal its wounds, and recover its strength. We must continually watch against the operations of this principle of sin: in our for duties, in our calling, in conversation, in retirement, in our straits, in our enjoyments and in all that we do. If we are negligent on any occasion, we shall suffer by it; every mistake, every neglect is perilous.73

Press on, true believer, in the uprooting of sin and the cultivation of holiness. Continue to fight the good fight of faith under the best of generals—Jesus Christ; with the best of internal advocates—the Holy Spirit; by the best of assurances—the promises of God; for the best of results—everlasting glory.

Have you been persuaded that cultivating holiness is worth the price of saying “no” to sin and “yes” to God? Do you know the joy of walking in God’s ways? The joy of experienCing Jesus’ easy yoke and light burden? The joy of not belonging to yourself, but belonging to your “faithful Savior Jesus Christ,” who makes you “sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him” (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1)? Are you holy? Thomas Brooks gives us sixteen marks on “how we shall know whether we have real holiness.” It includes marks like these: The holy believer “admires the holiness of God…possesses diffusive holiness that spreads itself over head and heart, lip and life, inside and outside…stretches himself after higher degrees of holiness…hates and detests all ungodliness and wickedness…grieves over his own vileness and unholiness.”74

It is a daunting list, yet a Biblical one. No doubt we all fall far short, but the question remains: Are we striving for these marks of holiness?

Perhaps you respond, “Who is sufficient for these things” (2 Cor. 6:16)? Paul’s ready answer is, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God” (2 Cor. 3:5). “Would you be holy?…Then you must begin with Christ…. Would you continue holy? Then abide in Christ.”…“Holiness is not the way to Christ; Christ is the way of holiness.”76 Outside of Christ there is no holiness. Then every list of marks of holiness must condemn us to hell. Ultimately, of course, holiness is not a list; it is more than a list—it is a life, a life in Jesus Christ. Holiness in believers proves that they are joined to Christ, for sanctified obedience is impossible without Him. But in Christ, the call to holiness is within the context of sola gratia (grace alone) and sola fide (faith alone).”  “If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared” (Ps. 130:3–4).

“Since Christ cannot be known apart from the sanctification of the Spirit,” Calvin writes, “it follows that faith can in no wise be separated from a devout disposition.”18 Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, holiness, grace and faith are inseparable. Make it your prayer: “Lord, grant that might cultivate holiness today—not out of merit, but out of gratitude, by Thy grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Sanctify me by the blood of Christ, the Spirit of Christ, and the Word of God.” Pray with Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “Lord, make me as Holy as a pardoned sinner can be.”79


55 William S. Plumer, Psalms (1867; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), p. 557.

56 Ryle, Holiness, pp. 1–2.

57 John Brown, Expository Discourses on 1 Peter (1848; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), 1:106.

58 Ryle, Holiness, p. viii.

59 Sinclair Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, cd. Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1988), p. 64.

60 Owen, Works, 6:79.

61 Blanchard, More Gathered Gold, p. 152.

62 Ibid., p. 149.

63 Peter Toon, Justification and Sanctification (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1983), p. 40.

64 Blanchard, More Gathered Gold, p. 148.

65 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), pp. 184–85.

66 Kenneth Prior, The Way of Holiness: A Study in Christian Growth (DownersGrove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), p. 42.

67 Cf. G.C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), chapter 6.

68 H.A. Ironside, Holiness: The False and the True (Glasgow: Pickering and Inglis, 1935), p. 57.

69 John Stolt, The Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirit, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 50.

70 Samuel Rutherford, The Trial and Triumph of Faith (Edinburgh: William Collins, 1845), p. 403.

71 Thomas, Puritan Quotations, p. 140.

72 Blanchard, More Gathered Gold, p. 153.

73 Owen, Works, 3:310.

74 “The Crown and Glory of Christianity: or Holiness, The only way to Happiness” in The Works of Thomas Brooks (1864; repro Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980),4:103–150. I have summarized Brooks’ marks. His entire treatise on holiness (446 pages) is an invaluable classic, but has been mysteriously neglected in contemporary studies on holiness.

75 Ryle, Holiness, pp. 71–72.

76 Blanchard, Gathered Gold, p. 146.

77 Cf. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification, chapter 2.

78 Institutes, 3.2.8.

79 Blanchard, Gathered Gold, p. 146.

Dr. Joel R. Beeke