So often when we think of sin, we think of things we think of as wrong or things our culture says is wrong. But the true standard for holiness comes from God and we can find this standard in the scriptures. True Christians often lacerate their souls because our culture, and sometimes even church culture, tells us something is acceptable that the Word of God and the Spirit of God living within us is telling us is not.
The word “legalism” is often used to discourage someone from biblical preaching and biblical living. This is the idea that we can take God’s commands too seriously or that we are wrong when we hold someone else or even ourselves to the standard of God’s Word. We are saved by grace but a lack of desire to live in holiness and obedience towards the God who saved us is showing a lack of love to that very God.
There is a true “legalism” that is wrong, but it is wrong because it is unbiblical. It is putting conditions on people for salvation or in living lives of holiness that the Bible itself doesn’t prescribe. If the Bible commands it, we should strive to do it, if the Bible forbids it we should strive to live without it. Our love for God is best displayed in our obedience to God.
"By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith." 1 John 5:2-4 (ESV)
Sanctification and Personal Holiness
Although there is a mysterious spiritual nature about the work of sanctification the Lord does in us, there is also a very practical and understandable application in relation to personal holiness. If you play in the mud, you will get dirty. That makes perfect sense, but on a heart and intention level the question really becomes, do you want to get dirty?
I believe that in sanctification intentions of the heart are exposed, I also believe that in some cases it exposes that maybe sanctification isn’t occurring, which might be evidence that a person hasn’t really been born again.
So often we in the church try to give assurance of someone's salvation to them when honestly only the Holy Spirit can do that. That is why we must fight sin as if it truly was our enemy and continue to examine ourselves in light of the Scripture.
Come Out from Among Them
"Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
'I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.'" 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 (ESV)
In the sixth chapter of Paul’s second letter to the church of Corinth he urges these young believers under inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be separated from the world. As the bride of Christ, we are called to keep ourselves pure, unstained and unsoiled by the world as we wait for his return.
Often today we are told something completely opposite of this. We are told by the experiential seeker friendly movement that to reach the world we must be like the world. They use very worldly and pragmatic logic to come to this conclusion. We say win the lost at all costs! That sounds good as a slogan but there is a cost that is too high, and that God would never ask from us. God will never ask you to reach the lost at the expense of your personal holiness and your relationship with God.
The holiness of God is very important to God, as is the holiness of his people. Today if you preach about living a life of personal, practical holiness you might be called legalistic. Honestly, when you preach God’s Word and define what is right and wrong based on the words of Scripture you might be called backward, outdated and judgmental. The only real sin in American culture today is calling sin, sin.
A Holy Nation, A Peculiar People
The words of Scripture, however, plainly tell us that we are called to be separate, different, peculiar even:
"But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." 1 Peter 2:9 (KJV)
We are meant to stand out not to blend in. This is why in Matthew 5 it tells us to be salt and light in this world. If we are reborn in Christ and living our lives according to the Scripture, we will stand out because our lives will be counter cultural, devout, self-sacrificing, Christ centered, different ... holy.
Often the reason why many reject the idea that we should strive for holiness is that they come out of a truly legalistic background where there wasn’t any room for people with outwardly sinful pasts to find acceptance in the body. Instead of being viewed as a new creature in Christ they were rejected and viewed by their past instead of through the lens of their repentance and new life in Christ. This is absurd because all were sinners and in desperate need for the grace of God.
Typically, it is because we rate past sins based on how society perceives them. There is no sin too great or grievous that it can’t be washed away by the blood of Jesus. But in response to this, and in effort not to be perceived as legalistic and judgmental, we have swung the pendulum far the other direction. God’s grace and living devout and holy lives are not at odds with each other. In fact, it is because of the grace of God that we are able to live a life that is holy and pleasing to God.
"For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God." Romans 6:5-10 (ESV)
Overcoming Sin, Living Holy Lives
It’s through the grace of God given to us in the gospel that we are able to crucify our flesh and overcome the sin that once mastered us and to live holy lives.
In much of the evangelical church today we are so afraid of being called judgmental that many are willing to endure all sorts of wickedness in the house of God. We don’t bat an eye at professed Christians living together when they are not married. Pornography and drunkenness are just norms today. We love entertainment that is vile, full of blasphemy, sexual immorality, sorcery and every kind of idolatry. We claimed to be married to God but are having an unashamed and open affair with the world. You cannot live like the world and love the world and still love God.
"Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life —is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever." 1 John 2:15-17 (ESV)
Joshua West is a pastor, evangelist, and author. He is also director of the World Challenge Pastors Network.