I’ve been considering this issue for the past few weeks as I’ve read many different posts on this topic of holiness. Specifically, this question has been debated on the Gospel Coalition site, with a lot of interaction between people like Tullian Tchvidjian (post), Kevin DeYoung (post), and one very refreshing post from Jen Wilkin (post).
Because of this whole exchange, I was forced to think over what exactly God expects from his people. If salvation is by grace through faith alone, isn’t striving toward holiness against that very grace?
I think this question can be understood better if we get a real grasp for the point of the gospel. What is the purpose of the gospel? Why did Jesus die for sinners like us? Why did he experience the wrath of God on my behalf? Why did he bare my sins in his body?
Paul tells us that the reason for Christ’s death was that God might have a people for himself that are “holy and blameless” (Eph 1:4), and who are pure and “zealous for good works” (Titus 3:14). Peter adds to this, saying that Jesus died under our sins that we might be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14). John says that Jesus “appeared to take away sins” (1 Jn 3:5), and that by faith in him we become “God’s children” (1 Jn 3:2). And one day Jesus will appear, and we will be “made like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he (Christ) is pure” (1 Jn 3:2-3).
The New Testament gospel overwhelmingly tells us that part of the purpose of the gospel is to purify a people for God. The gospel makes people who are inherently sinful, holy — both positionally and practically. Paul says this, that in salvation we were “washed, …sanctified, …[and] justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 6:11). Paul also tells us that we are regenerated and given a new heart with new-creation abilities, expected to live like Jesus (2 Cor 5:17-21, Titus 3:5-7).
It seems to me that the gospel itself enables us to be willing and ready to obey God in all areas of life. This doesn’t mean we will be perfect of course — but we should at least desire to obey God (when we do sin, Jesus is always and will always be our advocate and our basis for our continued security and forgiveness. God always gives grace to those in Christ). The gospel itself is the very foundation for our holiness, because that is its very purpose!
What this tells me is that growth in holiness is not something we should cringe at. Holiness is not opposed to grace. Rather, it is the inevitable fruit of the gospel. And so we should yearn for holiness. We should hunger for holiness. Because we know that holiness is the end for which we were redeemed. This type of gospel-founded aspiration for holiness is not legalism. It is simply aspiring for what God himself has enabled for us in the gospel. In the gospel, God enables, empowers, and guides us into all obedience. That’s why he sent Christ. That’s why he gave us his Spirit. That’s why he cleansed us and regenerated us. That’s why he redeemed us. It’s all so that we might be his people, desiring his glory and his holiness.
As Jen Wilkins said in her very apt post, “the gospel grants both freedom from the penalty of sin and freedom to begin to obey”. The gospel itself is the freeing power by God’s Spirit to obey as we have never been able to obey! Why then would we not want to obey?
For this reason, I see no reason not to expect Christians to grow in holiness. The message of the gospel itself points to that. God has saved a people for himself, unto holiness. And if we have been redeemed by Jesus, made clean and empowered by his Spirit, we should be people who yearn and thirst for righteousness, knowing that God has already provided it in Christ Jesus. It is not legalism to trust that God will empower us each day to live obedient to Christ. It is not wrong to want to honor Jesus. It is not wrong to take up our cross and die to the old man. In fact, the gospel itself propels us into this type of holiness!
As Paul said in Romans 6:2: “how can we who died to sin still live in it?”.