Our Call to Cultivate Holiness

The godly farmer who plows his field, sows seed, fertilizes and cultivates, is acutely aware that in the final analysis he is utterly dependent for an assured crop on forces outside of himself. He knows he cannot cause the seed to germinate, the rain to fall, the sun to shine. But he pursues his task with diligence anyhow, both looking to God for blessing and knowing that if he does not fertilize and cultivate the sown seed his crop will be meager at best.



Similarly, the Christian life must be like a cultivated garden in order to produce the fruits of holy living unto God. “Theology,” William Ames wrote in the opening words of his classic, The Marrow of Theology, “is the doctrine or teaching of living to God.”1 God Himself exhorts His children, “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (I Pet. 1:16). Paul instructs the Thessalonians, “God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness” (1 Thes. 4:7). And the author of Hebrews writes, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12: 14). The believer who does not cultivate holiness diligently will neither have much genuine assurance of his own salvation nor be obeying Peter’s call to seek it (2 Pet. I: 10).2 In this article I will focus on the Christian’s Scriptural call to cultivate Spirit-worked holiness by using diligently the means God has provided to assist him.


Holiness is a noun that relates to the adjective holy and the verb sanctify, which means to “make holy.”3 In both biblical languages holy means separated and set apart for God. For the Christian, to be set apart means, negatively, to be separate from sin, and positively, to be consecrated (i.e. dedicated) to God and conformed to Christ. There is no disparity between Old Testament and New Testament concepts of holiness, though there is a change in emphasis on what holiness involves. The Old Testament stresses ritual and moral holiness; the New Testament stresses inward and transforming holiness (Lev. 10:10–11; 19:2; Heb. 10:10; I Thes. 5:23).4

Scripture presents the essence of holiness primarily in relation to God. The focus of the sacred realm in Scripture is God Himself. God’s holiness is the very essence of His being (Is. 57:15);5 it is the backdrop of all else the Bible declares about God. His justice is holy justice; His wisdom is holy wisdom; His power is holy power; His grace is holy grace. No other attribute of God is celebrated before the throne of heaven as is His holiness: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts” (Is. 6:3). “Holy” is prefixed to God’s name more than any other attribute.6 Isaiah alone calls God the “Holy One” twenty-six times. God’s holiness, John Howe wrote, “may be said to be a transcendental attribute that, as it were, runs through the rest, and casts lustre upon them. It is an attribute of attributes .. and so it is the very lustre and glory of His other perfections.”7 God manifests something of His majestic holiness in His works (Ps. 145:17), in His law (Ps. 19:8–9), and especially at the cross of Christ (Mt. 27:46). Holiness is His permanent crown, His glory, His beauty. It is, says Jonathan Edwards, “more than a mere attribute of God—it is the sum of all His attributes, the outshining of all that God is.”8

God’s holiness denotes to critical truths about Himself. First, it denotes the “separateness” of God from all His creation and His “apartness” from all  that is unclean or evil. God’s holiness testifies of His purity, His moral perfection, His separateness from all outside of Him, His complete absence of sin (Job 34:10; Is. 5:16; 40:18; Hab. 1:13).’

Second, since God is holy and set apart from all sin, He is unapproachable by sinners apart from holy sacrifice (Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22). He cannot be the Holy One and remain indifferent to sin (Jer. 44:4). He must punish sin (Ex. 34:6–7). Since all mankind are sinners through our tragic fall in Adam and our daily transgressions, God can never be appeased by our self-efforts. We creatures, once made after the image of our holy Creator, voluntarily chose in our covenant-head Adam to become unholy and unacceptable in the sight of our Creator. Atoning blood must be shed if remission of sin is to be granted (Rev. 9:22). Only a sufficient Mediator, the God-man Mediator, Christ Jesus, by His perfect, atoning obedience, can fulfill the demands of God’s holiness on behalf of sinners (I Tim. 2:5). And blessed be God, Christ agreed to accomplish that atonement by the initiation of His Father and did accomplish it with His full approbation (Ps. 40:7–8; Mk. 15:37–39). “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). As the Dutch Reformed Lord’s Supper Form stares, “The wrath of God against sin is so great, that (rather than it should go unpunished) He hath punished the same in His beloved Son Jesus Christ with the bitter and shameful death of the cross.”10

By free grace God regenerates sinners and causes them to believe in Christ alone as their righteousness and salvation. Those ofus who are among these blessed believers are also made partakers of Christ’s holiness by means of divine discipline (Heb. 12:10). As Christ’s disciples, God calls us to be more holy than we shall ever become in ourselves in this life (I Jn. 1:10).11 Our of gratitude for His great salvation, He calls us to separate from sin and to consecrate and assimilate ourselves to Himself. These concepts—separation from sin, consecration to God, and conformity to Christ—make holiness comprehensive. Everything, Paul tells us in I Timothy 4:4–5, is to be sanctified, that is, made holy.

In the first place, personal holiness demands personal wholeness. God never calls us to give Him a piece of our hearts. The call to holiness is a call for our entire heart: “My son, give me thine heart” (Prov. 23:26).

Secondly, holiness of heart must be cultivated in every sphere of life: in privacy with God, in the confidentiality of our homes, in the competitiveness of our occupation, in the pleasures of social friendship, in relation with our unevangelized neighbors and the world’s hungry and unemployed, as well as Sunday worship. Horatius Bonar writes:

Holiness…extends to every part of our persons, fill up our being, spreads over our life, influences everything we are, or do, or think, or speak, or plan, small or great, outward or inward, negative or positive, our loving, our hating, our sorrowing, our rejoicing, our recreations, our business, our friendships, our relationships, our silence, our speech, our reading, our writing, our going out and our coming in—our whole man in every movement of spirit, soul, and body.12

The call to holiness is a daily task. It is an absolute, radical call, involving the core of religious faith and practice. John Calvin put it this way: “Because they have been called to holiness, the entire life of all Christians must be an exercise in piety.”13 In short, the call to holiness is a whole-life commitment to live “God-ward” (2 Cor. 3:4), to be set apart to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Thus, holiness is an inward thing that must fill our entire heart and an outward thing that must cover all of life. “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thes. 5:23). “Holiness,” Thomas Boston maintained, “is a constellation of graces.”14 In gratitude to God, a believer cultivates the fruits of holiness, such as meekness, gentleness, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, mercy, contentment, gratitude, purity of heart, faithfulness, the fear of God, humility, spiritual-mindedness, self-control and self-denial (Gal. 5:22–23).

This call to holiness is not a call to merit acceptance with God. The New Testament declares that every believer is sanctified in principle by the sacrifice of Christ: “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10). Christ is our sanctification (I Cor. 1:30); therefore the church as the bride of Christ is sanctified (Eph. 5:25–26). The believer’s status before God is one of sanctity in Christ, on account of His perfect obedience which has fully satisfied the justice of God for all sin.

The believer’s status, however, does not infer that he has arrived at a whoUy sanctified condition (I Cor. 1:2). Several attempts have been made to express the relationship between the believer’s status and condition before God, foremost among them being Luther’s well-known simul justus et peccator (“at once righteous and a sinner”). That is to say, the believer is both righteous in God’s sight because of Christ and remains a sinner as measured according to his own merits.16 Though the believer’s status makes an impact on his condition from the onset of Christian experience (which coincides with regeneration), he is never in a perfectly sanctified condition in this life. Paul prays that the Thessalonians may be sanctified wholly as something still to be accomplished (I Thes. 5:23). Sanctification received is sanctification well and truly begun though not yet sanctification perfected.

This explains the New Testament’s emphasis on holiness as something to be cultivated and pursued. New Testament language stresses vital, progressive sanctification. The believer must strive for sanctity, for holiness (Heb. 12:14). Growth in holiness must and will follow regeneration (Eph. 1:4; Phil. 3:12).

Thus, true believer, holiness is both something you have in Christ before God and something you must cultivate in the strength of Christ. Your status in holiness is conferred; your condition in holiness must be pursued. Through Christ you are made holy in your standing before God, and through Christ you are called to reflect that standing by being holy in daily life. Your context of holiness is justification through Christ, and your route of holiness is to be crucified and resurrected with Him, which involves the continual “mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man” (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 88). You are called to be in life what you already are in principle by grace.


1. The Marrow of Theology, trans. and ed. John D. Eusden (1629; Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1968), p. 77.

2. Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: Navpress. 1978), pp. 13–14.

3. This is made readily apparent with the Dutch word for sanctifcation. heiligmaking (literally: “holy-making”).

4. Cf. Lawrence O. Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), pp. 339–40.

5. See especially Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. J. W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1946).

6. Stephen Chamock, The Existence and Attributes of God (repr. Evansville, IN: Sovereign Grace, 1958). p. 449.

7. The Works of the Rev. John Howe (1848; repro Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria. 1990), 2:59.

8. The Works of Jonathan Edwards (1834; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 1:101; cf. R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1985).

9. R.A. Finlayson, The Holiness of God (Glasgow: Pickering and Inglis, 1955), p. 4.

10. The Psalter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p.136.

11. Stephen C. Neill, Christian Holiness (Guildford, England: Lutterwonh, 1960), p. 35.

12. Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Holiness (repr. Pensacola, Florida: Mt. Zion Publications, 1994), p. 16.

13. Quoted in Donald G. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (New York.: Harper & Row, 1979),2:31.

14 . Quoted in John Blanchard, Gathered Gold (Welwyn, England: Evangelical Press, 1984), p. 144.

15. cr. George Bethune, The Fruit of the Spirit (1839; repro Swengel, PA: Reiner, 1972); W.E. Sangster, The Pure in Heart: A Study of Christian Sanctity (London: Epworth Press, 1954); John W. Sanderson, The Fruit of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Zondervan.1972);Jerry Bridges. The Practice of Holiness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1983); Roger Roberts, Holiness: Every Christian Calling (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985).

16. Cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1 (the believer’s status) and Question 114 (the believer’s condition).

Reprinted with permission from Reformation and Revival, Spring 1995, Volume 4, Number 2. Address: Reformation and Revival Ministries, Inc., P.O. Box 88216, Carol Stream, fllinois 60188-1917, (708) 653-4165.

Dr. Beeke is pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed denomination and is the editor of its periodical, The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth.