Written by John Moore – Jeff Whitney – Pastor, Church of the Nazarene, Yreka, California, USA
1 Peter 1:13-16
Even after living in this small town for many years, I still forget how much life here centers around Wal-Mart! It has turned into the hub of our community, much like wells must have been in Bible days. I was shopping there awhile back, trying to pick up a few things quickly, when somebody I had never met before stopped me in the aisle …
“Hey, aren’t you the pastor the Church of the Nazarene? Doesn’t your church teach that you can live a sinless, perfect, holy life?” I realized very quickly it was not going to be as quick a trip as I had hoped for!
Holiness … for many it remains a confusing, misunderstood word. When our denomination came into being, it was founded by people who believed there was more to the Christian life than just being saved from your sins. They believed you could grow and mature in a personal relationship with Christ; that you could find victory over sin; that the Spirit of the Living God could cleanse and fill your life; that you could have power, peace and direction for living that you never had before. Yet, over 100 years later, there is still a great debate over what a holy life truly is.
One of our most basic holiness passages is found in 1 Peter 1, “for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (v. 16). The Greek word for “holy” is hagios. It means to be “separated unto God, to be without sin, blameless.” You will find hagios over 700 times in the Bible. It is a dominant theme in Scripture. The root meaning of holy is that we are to be different – not odd, but different – in a very positive way. However, just like with my Wal-Mart friend, a lot of people have come to understand holiness in an odd kind of way. That brings me to my first point:
1. The Problem with a Holy Life
I have been part of the Church of the Nazarene since I was a teenager. Growing up, the model I had of a “holy person” was often someone who was joyless, critical, severe and negative. Instead of being a matter of your heart, of fully dedicating every part of your life to Christ: holiness became more defined by an external checklist of “do’s and don’ts.” My understanding was built on wrong foundations with words like: pressure and manipulation; rather than consecration,empowerment, and Christ-likeness.
I will never forget listening to a Focus on the Family radio interview with Dr. Larry Crabb. He is a committed Christian and a gifted psychologist. When his kids were young, he believed if he could just be the perfect dad, his kids would turn out great. So, what did he do? He bought an overhead projector for family devotions! Because, if he could just give them enough information, everything else would turn out great.
However, a holy life is about so much more than just gathering information, or following a checklist, or trying to do all the right things in our own strength and power. What Peter is telling us, is that our God is a holy God, and those who serve Him must be like Him. If the Bible tells us that, then a holy life must be possible. Children inherit the nature of their parents, and if God is holy, then we must be able to live holy lives too! It’s why Peter encourages us when he writes in verse 13, “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” It’s like Peter is standing right next to us saying, “Roll up your sleeves and go for it!”
If we will roll up our sleeves, then we can admit that these misunderstandings – especially the idea that holiness is some kind of sinless perfectionism – have stolen something very precious from us. We have lost the wonder and beauty of confession – of admitting that we are not perfect, that we make mistakes, that we can even sin. Instead of bringing this to a holy God for his forgiveness and cleansing, we choose instead to live phony lives. In reality, you can only live so long with a dissatisfied soul. I believe that is why so many believers are not finishing well. We get tired of playing the religious game, of covering the gap between where we are really living spiritually, and where people think we are. After awhile we don’t know what to do, we are exhausted with the game … That brings me to my next point:
2. There is a Promise of a Holy Life
One of the things I love about being a pastor is being a witness to how God changes, shapes and transforms lives! However, can any of us really explain all that God has done?
Thirty years ago I was a young sophomore at Northwest Nazarene College. It was February, 1982, and we were in the middle of a very cold winter. It was winter in my heart, too. I was struggling with my call to ministry: trying to figure out what it meant to live a holy life. I remember going to a Sunday night service. I do not remember anything about that night, other than God touched my life in a new way. The Holy Spirit was speaking to my spirit, and I had a sense that God wanted to do a newer, deeper, fresher work in my life. I had been a Christian since a young boy, but I knew God wanted something more from me. I remember kneeling at an altar that night, giving to God everything I knew to give. I left my whole life – my present and my future in His hands. I had a peace I never had before; I felt His power, reassurance, and love. That new work he began, he is still continuing today. You know what? Even thirty years later, it is a beautiful mystery I still cannot fully explain. I realized something very profound that night: at my conversion at five years of age, I had all of God, but God did not necessarily have all of me.
What Peter is telling us here is that at the core of my life, at the heart of who I am: God longs to reproduce the core of Jesus’ life in me. He longs to do the same in you. That’s the promise of a holy life. Because it’s not just some special blessing for pastors or missionaries, it is for all of us! Holy people are men and women who are becoming more and more like Jesus!
The promise of holiness is the radical optimism that the Living God is working in us. But if you have ever struggled with what it means to live a holy life, let me just say one word to you, “Relax … you’re normal!” However, don’t let that keep you from coming to God where you are right now. Because where you are RIGHT NOW – is precisely where God longs to meet you. This much I know from my own journey: God never meets any of us where we PRETEND to be! He meets use precisely where we are! Every single one of us has different struggles; we have different temperaments, different problems and different sins. We are unique. So how we live out this holy life, set apart to God, positively different, is going to look a little different for all of us – unique. Author Gary Thomas has written that the call to a holy life is, “the beautiful fight.” That is a word picture that resonates in my heart because I am comforted by the words of Jesus, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
While the promise of a holy life may be lived out among us in different ways, I believe there are also several common truths that guide us as we take up this command of 1 Peter:
- The promise of a holy life is an overcoming life – If God had shown me thirty years ago in college, what the next thirty years would hold for me, I would not have been able to face it. He has given me the ability to stand firm in the midst of many heartbreaking events. He has given me hope and help when I least expected it. The same is true for many of you. My prayer each day is that at the core of my life, the life of Jesus is being reproduced in me. For me, it began with a commitment to Christ at the age of five, followed by a crisis moment in college, where I consecrated everything to Jesus and He cleansed my heart. What he started so long ago is still far from finished, because a holy life is a daily decision to follow after him.
A few years ago, I was locking up our church after a powerful Sunday morning of worship. Lots of people had found hope and help. When I looked down at the altar, someone had left a pack of cigarettes there. It was a simple symbol of the victory and freedom that only holiness can bring.
- The promise of a holy life is a transforming life – I will never forget an amazing lunch I had with one of my church board members. As he shared his testimony, he said, “Pastor, you probably have no idea that years ago I was a world-class cusser!” He noted that the major battle of his life had been his speech. You would have never known that – for he was one of the most gentle and soft-spoken men I had ever met. However, years ago he found himself in a spiritual rut. The Lord impressed upon him that his lack of growth was due to his colorful vocabulary. He prayed that his speech would be cleansed. He had been a man of “unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5), but when the Lord touched that area of his life, everything else changed. It was another reminder that our character is never truly transformed until we allow the Lord to touch our conduct. A holy life is not a one yard dash, it is a lifelong marathon. It is the prophecy of Ezekiel coming to light, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26).
After 28 years as a pastor, there are two questions I am still often asked. The first is what we believe about holiness. The second is about our church. I love the way my District Superintendent, Rev. Steve Scott, answers the question, “What is the Church of the Nazarene?” He usually answers, “Well, do you know who Jesus is?” Most people do in one way or another. So he continues, “Jesus was from Nazareth, which makes him a Nazarene, and we’re a church that wants to know him and discover how we can be like him since he had such an amazing impact on our world.” That is his opening to share our call to holy living and our mission to serve our world. I just wish I had remembered that answer with my own Wal-Mart encounter!
I believe that Paul’s beautiful prayer in 1 Thessalonians 5 has never been more true, “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. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (5:23-24). I love that prayer, because it takes the truth of a holy life from an abstract idea to a practical possibility. Think about it … “and HE will do it!” May it be so!