As I pick up my pen to write this article, I am looking through my window at white piles of snow punctuated with black-brown tree trunks and seemingly lifeless branches silhouetted against a somber sky which threatens to extend what already seems like an endless winter.
But my calendar tells me that within a few weeks we will have the first day of spring. What a joy that will be—the crocuses announcing the imminnence of green grass, leafing trees, flowering bushes—colorful and fragrant. Soon the farmers will prepare the soil for the seed, and before long, plants will begin to germinate and grow to maturity. Some will be used for food, some for beauty to adorn homes, weddings, hospital rooms, banquets and programs. Some plants will be used for shade, some for medicinal purposes, some for clothing, some for shelter, paper and perfume.
My mind turns to John 15 where Jesus draws a parallel between the plant kingdom and His children. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He that abides in me and Tin him the same brings forth much fruit for without me you can do nothing.” Jesus looks on us as plants in His garden, and He is expecting fruit, the fruit of righteousness. The idea is not new. Psalm 1 describes the righteous person as a “tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season….” Psalm 92 says:
The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, They will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
Planted in the house of the Lord They will flourish in the courts of our God.
They will still bear fruit in old age, They will stay fresh and green, Proclaiming, “The Lord is upright;
He is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (NlV)
Psalm 144:11 compares “our sons in their youth” to “well-nurtured plants” and Isaiah 61 refers to believers as “oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.”
Soon many children, under the direction of their teachers, will be putting their potted seedlings on classroom windowsills to watch them grow. They will be sure the soil is rich in nutrients; they will water the plants faithfully and they will watch the plants stretch for the sunlight which helps them make food.
The Christian experience must be like that. Believers must determine to surround themselves with soil which will enrich their walk with God. They must feed their faith with nourishment from the Word of God and the fellowship of prayer. They must stretch toward the Son-light who alone can grant life and fruitfulness.
But many of us find ourselves “stretching” for other things—job security, financial success, more possessions, prestige, emotional highs—through illegitimate sexual indulgence, alcohol and drugs.
What does God say we must “stretch” for?
…just as he who called you is holy, so (you) be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ (1 Peter 1:15–16) (NIV).
But Lord, we can’t do that! We are sinful; we are busy there are too many temptations around; you are merciful and loving, and certainly will not hold us accountable for every thought, word and deed. And besides Lord, isn’t holiness really for old people who have the time and the wisdom which comes from experience, to practice holiness?
Pursue holiness, for without holiness, no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14) (NIV)
Holiness is not an option. It is a command. Holiness is an action that we must do—an action of the mind, the emotions, the will. Without holiness, we will not see God. As good Reformed Christians we always stress that we are righteous before God in Christ—and that is true. But we must never use this as an excuse for not pursuing, chasing, making every effort to be holy, for God is holy.
Many passages of Scripture command us to seek righteousness, but Paul in Philippians 3:12–15a makes it very dear.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. (NIV)
WHAT IS HOLINESS?
The first requirement for holiness is that we know, understand and bow before the thrice—holy God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. John Calvin said: “Men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, which they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.”
The BEING of God
We need to be profoundly impressed with the BEING of God. John said in his epistle, “God is light; in him there is NO DARKNESS AT ALL” (I JOHN 1:5)—no impurity, no falsehood, and only a hatred for sin with no intention on His part to dilute, excuse or compromise on sin!
Moses, for one act of disobedience (one which would scarcely be considered sin today), was denied entrance to Canaan; Saul, for one act of sparing animals he was told to kill, had the kingdom wrenched from him; Achan hid a few goods from Ai which he was instructed to destroy and by it brought death on himself and his family; Ananias and Sapphira “lied to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3) and dropped dead instantly. When Jesus appeased the terror of His disciples by calming the storm, their reaction was one of a new “terror”: “They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’” (Mark 4:41) (NIV). R.C. Sproul in his book The Holiness of God says: “In the power of Christ they met something more frightening than they ever met in nature. They were in the presence of the holy” (p. 74). Peter, having fished all night and caught nothing, after contesting Jesus’ command, threw out his net and so many fish jumped in that the nets began to break and two boats were filled. to capacity. What was Peter’s reaction? “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) (NIV). Peter realized he was in the presence of the holy God made man! His response was one of awe and confession. “Peter got a message that was impossible to miss. The transcendent standard of all righteousness and all purity blazed before his eyes…Peter was undone” (Sproul, p. 79).
We are losing our vision of the holiness of God today. There is a folksy sentimentalizing of God which trivializes Him and reduces Him to our level.
I am not opposed to all contemporary Christian music. There are many lofty new offerings of praise based on Scripture; but discernment is a must today, even in our casual listening. Permit me to share a song verse of what I consider to be a tragic perversion of God in His majestic holiness.
Apple-red happiness, popcorn cheerfulness, Cinnamon singing inside; Peppermint energy, gumdrop holidays When you give Christ your life!
The benefits of God’s great love Are super satisfying. Throw away your sin! Let the sunshine in!
Try Him and you’ll see how you’ll get Apple-red happiness, popcorn cheerfulness, Cinnamon singing inside;
Peppermint energy, gumdrop holidays When you give Christ your life!
These and many more like them are contributing to a low view of God which is being reflected in a corrupting of worship and a lack of reverence for the content and authority of the Word of God among us.
The AUTHORITY of God
We also need to be profoundly impressed with the authority of God in our lives—our thinking, our feeling, our willing, our speaking, our doing. I use the words “profoundly impressed” because I mean to say that God’s being and His authority over us must so impact who and what we are, that we throw ourselves before Him in total repentance asking, “Lord, what will you have me to do?” and then plead for His grace to do it. I fear that so much of our Christian “busyness” in worship or in work is what the Bible calls “a form of godliness” without the “substance” or the “power.” Listen to Isaiah.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe is me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Unless each of us has Isaiah’s view of God and Isaiah’s cleansing experience, we are unfit to serve in God’s kingdom in any capacity. It was only after this traumatic encounter between Isaiah and his God in which Isaiah received the fire of purification, that God said, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” and Isaiah cried, “Here am I. Send me!”—and God sent him
God’s authority over us is His by virtue of the fact that He created us, and created us for His glory. His rule is His by right and His rule is one of love. His law which is His holy Word without error, was breathed by Him to delineate the path of obedience which He would have us take. Through this obedience He would receive glory and we as His children would experience well-ordered lives.
But all around us we see hostility to God and His will. And in the visible community of believers we see an increasing disregard of His holy day, a contamination and cluttering of worship, a tampering with and altering of His holy Word to accommodate and justify our own sinful desires, the erosion of marriage and the home, the abuse of human sexuality in fornication, adultery and homosexuality, the disregard for the sanctity of human life demonstrated in attitudes of and actions against the unborn, the handicapped and the elderly. Christians in high places are talking about “minimum thresholds of existence” needed to qualify as a human being about the right and perhaps even the duty one Christian may have to speed the death of another human being by the withholding of food and water, and perhaps, when socially and politically acceptable, by the assistance of lethal injection (10,000 per year rue this way in the Netherlands).
All of these things demonstrate a very low view of God among us, an insensitivity to His holiness and our own unworthiness. Many of us have become spiritually flabby, not even realizing the dangerousness of our own condition. We have given Satan a foothold in our lives and he threatens to undo us personally and corporately.
The Transformation of People
Having been drawn more closely to God through contemplation of His holiness and His expectations of us, we are now confronted with God’s solution to our problem of sin. In Romans 12:1 and 2, the apostle Paul says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (NIV). That’s the prescription: a transformation, a “metamorphosis” if you will, from being a server of self to a server of God. We are not to follow the world, but to rise above it.
How is this to be done? By a “renewal of your mind.” This is the key method, not the “warm fuzzies” of emotional experience first of all. R.C. Sproul has characterized “mind renewal” in this way:
This means nothing more and nothing less than education. Serious education. In-depth education. Disciplined education in the things of God. It calls for a mastery of the Word of God. We need to be people whose lives have changed because our minds have changed.
True transformation comes by gaining a new understanding of God, man, and the world. What we are after ultimately is to be conformed to the image of Christ. We are to be like Jesus, though not in the sense that we can ever gain deity. We are not god-men. But our humanity is to mirror and reflect the perfect humanity of Jesus. A tall order!
To be conformed to Jesus we must first begin to think like Jesus. We need the “mind of Christ.” We need to value the things He values and despise the things He despises. We need to have the same priorities He has. We need to consider things weighty that He considers weighty.
That cannot happen without a mastery of His Word. The key to spiritual growth is in-depth Christian education that requires a serious level of sacrifice.
That is the call to excellence we have received. We are not to be like the rest of the world, content to live our lives with a superficial understanding of God. We are to grow dissatisfied with spiritual milk and hunger after spiritual meat.
This rigorous mastering of God’s Word is not too popular today. Busyness and preoccupation with less important things are replacing a life of contemplation and fellowship with God, thus creating a spiritual vacuum into which Satan quickly moves with his wiles.
WHAT ARE “HINDRANCES” TO HOLINESS?
What are these wiles of Satan which he plies with such skill and subtlety? They are the same ones he used on Eve in Paradise.
Genesis 3 tells us that Satan came to Eve and said, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” Here Satan is trying to make God look unreasonable by distorting the truth. Satan knew that God had not forbidden all the trees of the garden for food, but notice that he charged God with forbidding “any tree” in the garden.
Also notice that Satan is using emphatic language to make God look unreasonable. Did God “really” say? Eve, is your God really such a tyrant so as to surround you with all of this tempting food and then forbid you to eat any of it?
Eve responds with a correction and an apparent fabrication of her own. “God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” Notice that Eve adds a little to what God really said. God had forbidden the eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree, but Eve joins Satan, ever so slightly, in charging God with forbidding even the “touching” of the fruit. She then announces God’s penalty for disobedience: “You will die.”
Satan then responds with a lie: “You will not surely die.” He then charges God with deception: “…God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Another lie. What Satan deliberately did not tell Eve is that her eyes would be opened all-right, and she would know good and evil, but he did not tell her that she would become evil, totally unable to do any good. Furthermore, she would not be like God. Lies and partial truth—more strategies of Satan.
What Satan initiated with Eve was a discussion; and Eve, in yielding to the discussion, opened the door just a crack for Satan to slip in and take a foothold in her life. She should have slammed the door on him.
But she didn’t slam the door. Instead, Satan’s lies and hall truths made an impact on her. Not only did the forbidden fruit begin to look appealing to her, but a desire for a “wisdom” which was not her right to have, grabbed hold of her. “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye and also desirable for gaining wisdom …”
“…she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband…and he ate it.” Oh! The stages of temptation were complete. The deed was done and “the eyes of both of them were opened.”
And were it not for the overwhelming grace of our loving heavenly Father, Adam and Eve and all their posterity including you and me, would be doomed to hell for all eternity—no hope. But immediately God intervened with the promise of a Deliverer (Gen. 3:15); immediately He mercifully ejected Adam and Eve from Paradise Jest they eat from the tree of life and live forever in their sin. The big question is: Am I covered by Christ’s righteousness? Are you?
What does all of this teach us? SATAN HAS NOT CHANGED. He’s still using this strategy today. And he works hardest on confessing Christians. In your quiet time, consider your cherished sin(s). Trace the temptation that Satan has used on you to succumb, and you will find most of the elements discussed above. Sometimes these components of temptation occur over a long period of time, sometimes almost instantaneously, but they are there nonetheless. “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” James 1:13–15) (NIV). Is there any help?
DIVINE HELP TOWARD HOLINESS
“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (I Corinthians 10:13) (KJV). This verse promises that for every sin in any circumstance, there is a way of escape provided by God Himself. Perhaps the best way of escape is for us to purposefully avoid places, circumstances, events and stimuli (such as books, magazines, TV programs and ads, movies, dances) which will give rise to the temptations we dread. God’s promise is true; and if we pray earnestly for His Spirit 1) to open our eyes to see the way of escape and 2) to give strength to walk through that way of escape, HE WILL DO IT!
The Word of God
Our God has graciously placed in our hands His holy Word, without error. We must feed on that Word daily: alone, with our spouse, with our children. Deuteronomy 6:6–8 says:
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.
Read that Word according to a plan, according to a schedule. It must be a set priority.
Hebrews 4:14–16 says: Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. What a blessed avenue Christ has opened for us. Let’s use it at all times in all ways. The Bible says, “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17).
Permit me to share an experience of mine which makes this verse clear. It was moving day. My husband had accepted a call to another church. The van was on our driveway. Movers were scurrying in and out. I was dashing here and there to tie up loose ends when, at a most inopportune moment, a Spanish man stopped to talk. This man had a burden. He and his wife had come to the Lord some time earlier. They had been catechized by my husband and they were seriously attempting to walk the Christian life. But for a number of months now, this man had been coming home from work every day to a house in shambles nothing was picked up, no dishes done, no meal prepared, the baby in a dripping diaper. He had tried to be patient and understanding. His wife said, “The Bible says we should pray without ceasing” so that meant prayer was more important than all these trivial things he was complaining about. (She belonged to a number of prayer groups which she attended every day.) Finally, in exasperation, he had said to her, “We’ve been in the pastor’s house every Sunday for Bible study (for several years with other new Christians) and that house never looks like this. Don’t you think the pastor’s wife believes in prayer?”
So—for two hours we talked on the driveway. I explained that our whole lives must be lived in the attitude of prayer. I used marriage as an example. If I would buy a dress and my husband didn’t like it, I’d probably bring it back. I would not enjoy wearing it. If there is food he doesn’t like, I don’t make it. If there is food he especially enjoys, I’ll make it. If he is burdened about something, I sit down to listen, and so on. The point is that as a spouse, I must be sensitive to pleasing my husband and meeting his needs. The reverse is true also. He must be mindful of me and my needs. (Thankfully my husband is easy to please and eager to please.)
On an even deeper level, we are to be filled with the knowledge of our God, and out of that storehouse we live, in constant fellowship with Him. In all decisions, big and small, we seek to please Him. In our thoughts, words and deeds, we commune with Him.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8 and 9) (NIV)
So “praying without ceasing” means an attitude of the heart and a disposition of the will to “think God’s thoughts after Him,” to be in touch with God at all times. This is only possible through the indwelling of the Spirit. There must also be set times of prayer with God, just like in marriage it is important to set time aside just for your spouse—time to enjoy each other, and time to enjoy other things together. And the reward of fellowship with God is sweet: “My God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory”—and His “riches in glory” are vast!
In John 15 we read: I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (vv.5–8) (NIV)
In God’s garden, believers are the fruit-bearing branches in the vine who is Jesus Christ. All barren branches will burn eternally. How are we to know if we are truly part of God’s garden? Romans 11:16 says, “If the root is HOLY, so are the branches.” Speaking here of the covenant descendants of Abraham, Paul is making the point that formal association with the people of God is not enough; only if a person is holy can he or she be considered a spiritual descendant of the covenant, a “branch” of Christ. Therefore, “pursue holiness” (Hebrews 12:14).
Laurie Vanden Heuvel is co-editor of The Outlook with her husband Rev. Tom Vanden Heuvel, pastor of Byron Center First Christian Reformed Church. Laurie has raised five children who Love and serve the Lord, she teaches part time at Hudsonville Christian School and is an accomplished speaker in defense of the Reformed faith and Biblical living.