How the Spirit Sets Us Up for Holiness

The same Spirit that descended on the disciples at Pentecost empowers our devotion to God.
How the Spirit Sets Us Up for Holiness

My grandmother was part of a Holiness Pentecostal church. That meant—among many wonderful things—that they believed in entire sanctification. It was thought that in this life Christians could reach a level of personal holiness in which they could stop sinning.

My grandma made the claim that she was entirely sanctified and no longer sinned. My family was Baptist, and we would have none of this. Here’s what happened to make me think I had popped her sacred bubble. My grandmother’s home phone was part of a party line, which means more than one home was hooked up to the same line. She lived in an area called Vinegar Hill, and she could pick up the phone and hear the conversations of neighbors who were using the phone. I was there when my grandma listened in on such a conversation, then watched as she later called a friend and repeated the overheard conversation.

My grandma then returned to the “setting” room, and I waited a few minutes before I turned the conversation to entire sanctification. Here is how it went:

“Grandma, do you believe in entire sanctification?”

“Yes, I do,” she replied.

“Have you achieved it?”

“Yes, I have now for some years.”

“Grandma, I just heard you gossiping, and gossiping is sin. That means you are not sinless.”

Her response was priceless. “Now Scot,” she said with grandmotherly warmth and her customary twinkle in the eye, “gossiping is a mistake, not a sin, and God looks over mistakes.” Enough said.

What does it mean, then, to be holy or “sanctified”?

Holiness and the Holy Spirit

Over and over the term Spirit, when used in the Bible, is introduced with the term holy, as in “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” and “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 5:5, 1 Cor. 12:3) When the Bible calls the Spirit holy, surely it evokes the bold opposite of the spirits of wickedness and evil (e.g., Mark 1:21–28, Matt. 12:43, Luke 11:26).

So what does it mean to call the Spirit holy? The answer is repeated so often by so many that nearly everyone raises his hand with the same answer: to be holy means to be separate or different. Fair enough, as Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “You are right, you just aren’t right enough.” I want to propose a subtle but important shift in the understanding of the meaning of holiness. To keep with O’Connor’s humorous prose, “I’m willing to defend this one like a fox terrier.”

The word holiness means to be in God’s presence as one “devoted to God,” and because of devotion to God it also means “to be separated from the world.” This dual meaning strikes the right biblical balance. God is holy. To be with God, to be devoted to God, and to walk with God mean that the companion of God is separate from the world. Devotion to God entails the rejection of devotion to the world. But rejecting the world is not the primary emphasis. Holiness is first and foremost devotion to God.

We could translate the word holy as “devout” and we would be accurate. So we see that separation from the world is the impact or result, not the source, of holiness. Devotion to God doesn’t mean isolation or withdrawal, as one finds among some sects. Rather, holiness means that in this world one listens and dances to the music of the Holy Spirit instead of the music of the world.

How can we become holy, or devoted to God? There are three dimensions to growing into holiness. First, we need to practice the spiritual disciplines that promote presence with God, because contact with God is transformative. Those practices are prayer, meditation and contemplation, Bible reading, and a solid diet of good Christian influences, including movies and books. These spiritual disciplines are simultaneously denials of other influences, since playing video games or surfing the internet is not as profitable as praying.

Second, we need to discipline ourselves to practice acts of goodness, holiness, justice, love, compassion, and beauty. Which at the same time means we need to say no to the use or overuse of alcohol, food, sexually provocative movies and literature, violence, anything that feeds hate (such as some news outlets and social media posts). Instead, we need to say yes to good friendships; church participation; and acts of compassion, justice, love, goodness, and beauty.

Third, behind it all, we need to remember that we do not make ourselves holy. We become progressively holy, or we grow sporadically into holiness only because of the grace of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit in us.

Holiness Comes from the Holy Spirit

From start to finish, from inside to outside, from top to bottom, the work of becoming holy—of sanctification—is the work of God through the Spirit, as these Bible verses make clear:

[To Christians] who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of theSpirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood. (1 Pet. 1:2)

For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his HolySpirit. (1 Thess. 4:7–8)

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:23)

. . . because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. (2 Thess. 2:13)

We already have mentioned the spiritual disciplines, but this must be emphasized again: We don’t grow in holiness accidentally or simply because we want to. We grow if we have a vision to be more holy, if we are open to the grace of God’s Spirit being unleashed in our innermost being, and if we surrender to the Spirit’s work in our hearts.

The spiritual disciplines don’t make us holy, nor do they make us loving. We don’t become holy because we spend 15 minutes in the Psalms every day. We don’t become more loving by praying 15 minutes following 15 minutes of Bible reading. We don’t even grow into Christlikeness by reading about Jesus, praying, and then spending 15 more minutes in contemplation.

On their own, these practices don’t accomplish the proper result. For these disciplines to do their proper work, we need to practice them as we are open to God’s Spirit. In other words, the spiritual disciplines are practices that are designed to make us open to the Spirit and open to the presence of God, but they are not the Spirit.

A Surrendered Person

There are four wings to the evangelical movement in the United States: the Reformed, the Anabaptist, the Restorationist, and the Holiness. In the Reformed wing, there is an emphasis on theology, preaching, and social engagement at the level of culture. The Anabaptists emphasize local church, discipleship, justice, and peace. The Restorationists stress the courage to return to the Bible and start all over again. And the Holiness tradition brings an emphasis on surrender, turning from worldliness, and deepening one’s personal spiritual life.

Here I bring our attention to an individual from the Holiness wing who expresses the beauty of holiness. Her name is Phoebe Palmer. In her day Phoebe was a world-famous evangelist as well as a teacher of utter devotion to God.

As Palmer continued to pray and read the Bible and join in fellowship with others and carry on the ministry God had given her . . . allow me to jump to her words:

I felt that the Spirit was leading into a solemn, most sacred, and inviolable compact between God and the soul that came forth from Him, by which, in the sight of God, angels, and men, I was to be united in eternal oneness with the Lord my redeemer, requiring unquestioning allegiance on my part, and infinite love, and everlasting salvation, guidance, and protection, on the part of Him who had loved and redeemed me, so that from henceforth He might say to me, “I will betroth thee unto me for ever” (Hos. 2:19).

Her prose is a bit old-fashioned, but this is the gist of it: Palmer knew that the Spirit was prompting her to surrender to God in utter allegiance and love for God and others. She also knew that God’s covenant meant God would be faithful to her. Palmer was not known in her day for being a reclusive person of prayer given over wholly to the contemplation of God. She was known instead as someone who was “all in.” She loved God, she loved her family, she loved her neighbors as herself, she loved those who needed the gospel, and she loved all those who were in need of compassion. What marked her holiness was a devotion to God that transformed her entire life, which is to say Phoebe Palmer was a model of Spirit-generated holiness.

Holiness and God’s Holy Will

God is holy and God wants us to be holy. Two Bible verses immediately come to mind: “Be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44) and “It is God’s will that you should be holy [or sanctified]” (1 Thess. 4:3). To be holy is characterized by simultaneous devotion to God and separation from everything that is not godlike or Christlike. Yes, sexual sins and indulgence sins and greed sins and hatred sins are high on the Bible’s lists. But remember that God’s deepest will is for us to love God and to love others. God wants our devotion most of all, and that devotion will turn us away from sins.

Here’s another way to say it: anything that is not loving—of God and of others and of self and of all God’s creation—is unholy. But every act of loving God, others, self, or creation is holiness. Love is not an alternative to holiness. Holiness becomes visible when we love God, others, self, and creation. Holiness, I like to say, is love done well.

Notice that when Paul contrasted the works of the flesh with its opposite, he mentioned something positive and good: the fruit of the Spirit. Fruit grows on the branches of those who are “juiced” with the Holy Spirit.

It takes a lifetime and beyond to become holy. Most Christians believe that during this life we grow in holiness. But it is only at the resurrection—or at some divine moment of creation after death and prior to entering heaven—that we become finally holy. But even then, there is reason to consider that in the kingdom of God we might well eternally grow into more and more holiness.

It not only takes a lifetime; it also takes a church or a community of faith to display this new holiness. Here is one of the most memorable descriptions of the church in the whole of church history from the anonymous second-century Epistle to Diognetus:

For Christians are no different from other people in terms of their country, language, or customs. Nowhere do they inhabit cities of their own, use a strange dialect, or live life out of the ordinary. . . . They inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, according to the lot assigned to each. And they show forth the character of their own citizenship in a marvelous and admittedly paradoxical way by following local customs in what they wear and what they eat and in the rest of their lives. They live in their respective countries, but only as resident aliens; they participate in all things as citizens, and they endure all things as foreigners. Every foreign territory is a homeland for them, every homeland foreign territory. They marry like everyone else and have children, but they do not expose them once they are born. They share their meals but not their sexual partners. They are found in the flesh but do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but participate in the life of heaven. They are obedient to the laws that have been made, and by their own lives they supersede the laws.

That’s what new holiness looks like. Idealistic? Perhaps, but probably not. Why? Because the Spirit has been unleashed, and those who are open to the Spirit can do a transforming work that makes God’s people a shining display of loving holiness.

Are you open to the Spirit who brings a new holiness?

Holiness is the result of the Spirit’s work in us, and that same Spirit is engaged in our deepest hearts in a battle between what is good and what is evil.

Scot McKnight is a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary and writer of the popular blog Jesus Creed.

Excerpted from Open to the Spirit: God in Us, God With Us, God Transforming Us; Copyright © 2018 by Scot McKnight. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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How the Spirit Sets Us Up for Holiness