Can I Live Holy in a Sinful World?
by Cheryl Bridges Johns
A

holy person is beautiful. Such a person seems to have an inner light that radiates through her countenance. She has a power of attraction, drawing others into the presence of God and magnifying the beauty of holiness.

At the same time, holy people reflect an otherness that can be somewhat disconcerting.
By their nature they expose the profane as a contrast to the holy.Their light reveals the ugliness of the darkness that permeates a sinful world.

I know such people. They come from a variety of callings and traditions: a missionary to the Arabs in the Middle East; a Franciscan monk; prayer warriors in my church; my mother-in-law, known for her healing prayers. We do not reserve this type of enchanted life, however, for a few saints or superhero Christians. Scripture is clear that holiness is normative for all Christians, for without holiness “no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14 NKJV).

In spite of the biblical admonitions toward holiness, much of Protestant theology, with its overemphasis on forensic justification and imputed righteousness, has created a Christian culture of sinful people. This arises from failure to see the full gospel—one that brings about actual transformation. Such failure causes many Christians—even Spirit-filled ones—to believe that holiness is not necessary. They are content to remain “sinners saved by grace” but not transformed by that grace. The popular bumper sticker “Christians are not perfect—just forgiven” sums up this concept.

Because of this truncated understanding of salvation, too many believers do not see a life of holiness as necessary for their Christian journey. They are content to live in the shadow lands of a profane culture, making excuses for besetting sins.

Profane Christians are not beautiful. Their bumper stickers do not attract others to the light of God. Rather, they hinder the message that Jesus came to save, heal, and deliver all creation from its bondage to sin.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus made it possible for humankind to rejoin fellowship with the Creator. Jesus came to deliver us from evil, not merely to give us a “Get out of hell” card. In other words, salvation is the healing of broken creation. That which sin marred can once again flourish. Lives broken by addictions can become beautiful vessels of holy presence. Such is the power of the gospel.

However, in a sinful world, how is it possible to lead a life of personal holiness? Be forewarned: the journey into holiness is not easy, but it is wonderful and beautiful.

    The Core of Holiness: The Affections

Affections are the core of who we are. They involve our mind as well as our emotions. They are deep and abiding dispositions that determine the direction of our lives. Through our affections we show who and what we love.

The journey into holiness is thus a journey of our affections. It is our journey
into desiring God. We learn to love as God loves and to desire what is holy. The more we abide in and with a holy God, the more we are transformed into His likeness. Holiness is about having a heart on fire with godly love.

    Cultivating Holiness: Crisis

The heart is not easily set on fire with godly love because the affections of our heart are deceitful. Indeed, sin has wounded the core of our being. As a consequence, we often desire those things that are contrary to the kingdom of God. These things wound our affections, distorting them toward the profane. Our wounded desire must be healed and restored toward godly love, and this restoration requires costly grace. It demands a death.

Jesus, in discipling the Twelve, made it clear that life in the Kingdom involved not only His death, but also the death of His followers. The journey into personal holiness begins with death of self. It involves purging our claims to self-gratification, self-glory, and self-direction. Crisis, then, is the necessary starting point for cultivating a life of holiness. It involves what John Wesley called the “circumcision of the heart,” cutting away those affections that are not godly. Crisis both begins the journey into holiness and is an ongoing part of the journey.

People do not easily receive this message, for everywhere we turn we hear that it is “all about us.” Our culture of narcissism tells us we deserve only the best this world has to offer. Even Christians have bought this message, thinking that the beautiful life offered by the world is the same as the wondrous beauty of a sanctified life.

One clear message of the Azusa Street Revival was that the power of the Holy Spirit came only to those who were willing to die to self. In the course of seeking the baptism in the Holy Spirit, many came into the fires of sanctification. Consider the testimony of Adolph Rosa, an evangelist from the Cape Verde Islands who came to Azusa Street: “The power of God came upon me until I dropped to the floor. I was under the power of God for about an hour and a half, and it was there that all pride, and self, and conceit disappeared, and I was really dead to the world, for I had Christ within in His fullness” (William Seymour, The Pentecostal Baptism Restored).

The type of crisis experience is the beginning of the holiness journey. Crisis breaks things open so the Holy Spirit can show us our true selves, the world, and God in a new way. We are able to receive both the judging and healing aspects of God’s grace. We can say, then, that crisis is necessary and good for us.

    Cultivating Holiness: Development

While crisis is necessary for sanctification, there is the need to weave crisis experiences into a patterned and disciplined life. The development of holiness takes shape by abiding in Scripture, living in Christian community, and practicing Christian disciplines.

Abiding in Scripture

. The reason some Christians neglect Bible study is that they have not placed the Scriptures at the center of their affections. Eugene Peterson observes that the “text” of the “sovereign self” is the one most read by Americans. This “text” is ruled by what he calls a “new trinity” of “needs, wants, and feelings,” and it competes with the biblical text for control in the lives of Christians. This new trinity produces the fruit of consumption and acquisition (Eat This Book). More and more Christians live by this text, and consequently, cheap substitutes replace holiness.

The Bible takes us into another realm. It reveals the life of a triune God who makes known His presence through His Word. When the Scriptures become the center of our affection, they transform us because God’s Spirit is present in His Word.

To read the Bible is to enter into sacred space where God speaks with authority. His Word convicts, comforts, and transforms. We are to live in the Word, making it our food for daily living. As we eat this Word, it transforms us. We begin to radiate its message, not merely apply its message.

Christian Community.

Holiness is not a solitary experience. It is forged within the grace of community. Many only attend a worship service once a week, but this is not enough. We need to form connections with believers who will love us, hold us accountable, pray for us, and journey with us into deeper holiness.

John Wesley understood the need for discipleship. Because of his concern that many of his converts “grew cold, and gave way to the sins which had long easily beset them,” he created class meetings, bands, and other forms of discipleship (Wesley’s Letters, 1748). These groups enabled believers to bear one another’s burdens, exhort one another, and hold each other accountable.

Practicing the Disciplines.

The disciplines are structured means whereby we pattern transformation into our daily lives. Pentecostals have found that prayer, fasting, service, and worship are especially effective in cultivating a heart of holiness. Prayer takes believers into the presence of God. It is the means of developing intimate communion with Him.

Holy people are people of prayer

. Richard Foster observes that prayer “is the central avenue God uses to transform us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives” (Prayer).

Forms of prayer include adoration, intercession, thanksgiving, healing, and confession, to name a few. Whatever form, prayer shapes the affections toward godly love. Each form of prayer uniquely transforms our affections. Confessional prayer keeps believers in a posture of ongoing repentance and submission. To live a life of penitent prayer is to live with the door of our affections always open to hearing and responding to the Word of God.

Fasting

is a powerful discipline that exposes the inner desires of our heart. These desires are often hidden, but through fasting we are able to see more clearly. We can see how much we crave food, things, and pleasures of this world, and how little we hunger for eternal things.

While fasting from food is the most common practice, there are other types of fasts. During Lent (the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter) I try, as much as possible, to fast from media. This journey into Lenten silence calls me to give up TV, radio, Facebook, and so on. I try to go deeper into the stillness of God’s presence. I am addicted to the sights and sounds of technology. But as the days go by, I find delight in free space created by unplugging. There is rest from the tyranny of technology, and here I find rest in the presence of God.

Service

is a necessary discipline toward a life of holiness. We cannot be holy without serving others. William Law, whose life and writings greatly impacted 18th-century England, wrote in his book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, a beautiful description of true service:

Condescend to all the weaknesses and infirmities of your fellow creatures, cover their frailties, love their excellencies, encourage their virtues, relieve their wants, rejoice in their prosperities, compassionate their distress, receive their friendship, overlook their unkindness, forgive their malice, be a servant of servants, and condescend to do the lowest offices to the lowest of mankind.

Self-righteous service, on the other hand, promotes pride. In this type of service, there is a focus on honor and external rewards. Ministers are especially prone to the temptation toward self-righteous service. Frequently, people praise their good works. If they are not diligent, they begin to believe the reports of others. Egos become inflated and the good works that are done become counterproductive toward a heart of holiness. Cultivating a life of holiness means that laity and ministers alike serve out of hearts aflame with godly love. Holy affections produce a missional heart.

The discipline of worship

has been central to Pentecostal spirituality. It has shaped our affections with passion for the King- dom. As believers participate in this sacred space, they taste the wonder and beauty of the age to come. They are transformed more into the likeness of this glory. They are filled with passion for the Kingdom.

    Conclusion: A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

The postmodern world is hungry for the authentic and real. People long to see a profoundly beautiful life that images the genuine over against the fake. Such lives are possible if we are willing to pay the price. We pay that price in the fires of death to self. We cultivate it through the practices of abiding in Scripture and living faithfully in community. We further shape it through the disciplines of prayer, fasting, worship, and service. This is the life that is to come when the glory of the Lord shall fill the whole earth. We are now in the ready room for that time. Let us allow the Holy Spirit to dress us as the beautiful bride so when our Lord appears we will not be found wanting.