How Shall We Then Preach Holiness?
"O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth." (Psalm 96:9)
By Philip A. Matthews
In discussing what the church's doctrinal message should be, we soon arrive at the very important question: How shall we preach a holiness gospel? Shall we emphasize laws and rules, doctrines and traditions, or shall we emphasize the spirit and liberty? This is the crux of the matter among all Christians, now and in the past. Even Jesus, Paul, and Peter had to speak quite a bit on this subject: legalism versus liberty, the letter versus the spirit.
Indeed, this is the classic Christian conflict. Some Christians believe that we must emphasize certain religious laws and rules, or people will end up living just any kind of way and a sinful, selfish, "anything goes" atmosphere will prevail in the church. They believe that people must be explicitly told in no uncertain terms what or what not to wear, eat, do, say, practice, or otherwise live their lives. Sometimes they go to the extreme and actually become downright cultic in their practices. Others go to the other extreme, believing that Christianity is a religion of liberty and freedom, that laws and rules do not matter because God is only looking at the heart anyway and He does not care about external practices. Therefore, they feel free to do just about anything, go just about anywhere, and live just about any way. What exactly is the truth of the matter? Is there no balanced Christianity, located somewhere between these two extremes? How shall we then preach holiness?
Step One: Preach the Presence of God
The prophet Isaiah sheds light on this matter. In the first six verses of the sixth chapter, he records a life-revolutionizing experience. He "saw the Lord." He was ushered into the presence of God Almighty, accompanied with smoke that filled the temple, six-winged angels flying all around, thunderous voices crying "Holy, holy, holy," and other supernatural phenomena.
Notice his reactions. First of all, he was awe-struck and humbled. Next, he was dismayed by an overwhelming realization of his own uncleanness. Then he became acutely aware that everybody he knew was also super unclean. So at this point he desperately cried out for mercy and relief from this painful, alarming awareness of uncleanness, and the angel cleansed him with a coal from the fire. Finally, with this new awareness of the utterly sinful condition of the people around him, he emphatically answered the question, "Who will go?" with "Here am I; send me!"
Here is the significance of this event: Isaiah was already a prophet preaching during the reigns of Uzziah and later kings (Isaiah 1:1). As far as he was concerned, I am sure that he thought he was a pretty good fellow, living fairly righteously and pretty "measured up." But after his experience in the presence of God, he suddenly became aware of his own utter uncleanness and the filthiness of everyone around him. This tells us that being in the presence of God almighty radically changes our views of what is right and wrong, good and bad, holy and unclean. While living in the presence of God, there are certain things we will find offensive to Him and to ourselves that we never before thought were wrong. Things that we were once comfortable with may suddenly be seen in a new light, revealing the fact that though they may actually be permissible, they are really not very pleasing to God.
Thus, the key to living a sanctified life that pleases God is to live and abide in His presence. It is His divine presence that teaches us how to live holiness on an every-day basis. It is impossible to develop a set of rules that would, for all times and all places, cover every conceivable aspect of human life and answer every possible contingency. For example, it is impossible to come up with an explicit, detailed description of what Christians should wear, because clothing changes from age to age and place to place. In the area of permissible foods, it is impossible to develop a set of rules regarding what to eat, because foods, cultural diets, and individual physical conditions change from time to time and place to place. And so it goes for every aspect of human life.
For this reason, the Bible is primarily a book of godly principles, not specific laws. The law of Moses did not cover every detail of every-day life, although it covered many. Neither does the New Testament contain such a complete set of rules. Therefore, the Lord has designed for us to live in His presence (and His presence to live within us), thereby placing within us an inward law that will enable us to live life according to His desires. "I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes..." (Ezekiel 36:27). His Spirit and His presence are the motivating forces that teach us how to live, even in areas of daily life for which the Bible does not give explicit details.
Thus, we see the absolute necessity for every Christian to live in the presence of God. Every Christian must be filled with the Spirit of God. Without this, Christianity simply cannot work the way God designed. He has given us His word, but without the Spirit and presence of God, our Christianity is incomplete. We absolutely must have something more than the letter of the Word. We must moment by moment live in His presence in order to fulfill a righteousness that could never be completely written down.
Practice the Presence of God
In His divine presence, life is vastly different. In His presence, we are forced to decide if our actions and attitudes are holy and approved by God. In His presence we are convicted to do only "what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God" (Romans 12:2). We are refrained from doing whatever cannot done in His presence and with His approval.
Thus, in every area of life, the question should be: Could we get Jesus Christ to join us in our activities, our attitudes, our mode of dress, our manner of speaking, our type of behavior or conduct, our associations, the places we frequent, the thoughts we think, etc.? Knowing what we know about Him from His word and through His Spirit that we possess, can we imagine Him doing the things that we do? How would we live our lives if we, like Isaiah, had to live in the temple, filled with His divine, overwhelming presence, with seraphim and cherubim flying all over the place? How would we live if every deed, thought, and motive had to be scrutinized by an all-knowing God, and everything done-even if it seemed small and inconsequential, or was done merely for recreation or relaxation-had to be offered and accepted as an act of worship to Almighty God?
This is what it means to live life in the presence of God, "Coram Deo." This is the Christian standard, and the details of such cannot and need not all be written down. Paul summarizes this concept in two scriptures: "Whether therefore you eat or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31), and "Whatsoever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Colossians 3:17).
For instance, a young Christian once decided to go to a pro football game. He had been given two free tickets and had been greatly desiring a chance to go somewhere with his teenage son. They drove 90 miles to the game, full of expectation and hope of having a good time. But upon their return, I was somewhat surprised when he said, "Pastor, I'll never go to another football game. It just wasn't a place for a Christian." He described the drinking, the revelry, the profanity, the crazy, outrageous behavior of the fans around them. He kept wishing that neither of them had come, especially his young son. He knew it certainly was not an activity he would have wanted Jesus to attend with him, nor one in which he could have comfortably indulged in the presence of God. Though the Bible itself does not explicitly forbid such activities, living in the presence of God taught him that it was not for him.
Here, then, is the way God intended things to be: He knew that the Law did not adequately fulfill His will for man. First of all, it did not change the hearts of people, even those who obeyed it. Second, people found it very easy to legally get around the Law, to obey its letter but fail to obey its spirit and true meaning (Matthew 23:23; Luke 10:29-37). Thus, God never placed much hope in the idea that any list of rules would ever achieve the true righteousness He required.
Instead, He sent Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to completely change people from the inside out, placing within them a Spirit that would motivate them to achieve the practical holiness He desired, on their own, without external prompting or pressure (Rom. 8:3-4; Phil. 2:12). His desire was that people would do more than merely mechanically follow some list of religious rules and expectations, that they would be sensitive to His Spirit and directly respond to Him. God knew the great potential: With this type of inner law, a more sound and higher level of righteousness could be lived. But He also knew the risks of having no external law: if people were not sensitive to His Spirit, the level of righteousness attained would actually fall below that of the written Law.
Therefore, the problem today is not that we are not preaching hard enough or explicitly enough against evil or undesirable things, nor that we are not "lifting up the standard" and trying hard enough to enforce it, but that we are not emphasizing living in the presence of God. Our real problem is that we have too many Christians who do not live in the Spirit, i.e., who are not sensitive to His Spirit, who do not know or follow His convictions regarding every aspect of their lives, and who are so accustomed to the natural selfishness of this world that they do not realize how much a holy God is against it. Our problem is a world filled with un-spiritual Christians, spiritual meaning "Spirit-filled" and "Spirit-led."
Carnal and Immature Christians
This problem is aggravated by two serious complications: (1) Too many Christians like carnality and would rather live selfish instead of spiritual lives (that is, they want to live selfishly and fleshly); and (2) Too many other Christians are immature Christians and would rather be given a list of do's and don'ts than to be forced to discover for themselves the perfect will of God. It is much easier to obey a list of rules than it is to find out for yourself exactly how God wants you to live. A canned religion is always simpler than a living salvation. Too many Christians have the attitude, "Just tell me what to do and I'll do it. Don't make me have to go to God for myself and work out my own salvation," although that is exactly how Christianity is supposed to operate. "...Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which works in you..." (Philippians 2:12-13).
Christianity was never meant to be lived according to a law (neither written nor verbal). It was meant to be lived in the Spirit, from a law that emanates from within. If one does not have that Spirit within, then there is absolutely no way that that person will ever live the holiness God desires. If one does not have that Spirit within, then substituting adherence to a list of do's and don'ts is not an adequate replacement, no matter how good it looks. The only real answer is to get the Spirit and live in His presence.
For example, merely getting rid of your TV does not automatically make you more spiritual, although I have heard this fallacy taught from many pulpits. One gets more spiritual by seeking for and living in the presence of God, by becoming more submissive and sensitive to the Spirit of God. Leonard Ravenhill once wrote, "He that would be much for God must be muchwith God." Merely dumping your TV does not add even one extra degree of spirituality to your life.
Therefore, brethren, which message should we preach: Get rid of your TV because it's against the saints' rules to watch TV, or, Live in the presence of God and you will have little time or desire for TV? Which of the two represents real spiritual growth within the heart of the person? Which of the two is merely following a list of rules that anybody, even a sinner, can obey? Which of the two represents God's true desires, and thus, is God's true message?
Take another example. God's intentions were that modesty in dress would be a natural fruit or result of a life lived in the presence of God. The two New Testament scriptures that mention outward dress also include the concept of an inward spiritual condition: "shamefacedness" (1 Tim. 2:9-10) and "a meek and quiet spirit" (1 Peter 3:4). Modesty of dress is to be a natural offshoot of a saint who, by living in the presence of God, exhibits moderation and quietness of spirit in every area of life. We are to dress and do everything else modestly because it agrees with our quiet spirit, not because we are following a list of what not to wear.
Thus, it is my assertion that a person truly living in the presence of God will never feel comfortable bringing into that divine, convicting presence any clothing that is designed to enhance sex appeal, expose or reveal the body, attract undue attention, emphasize pride and show-off-ism, identify with any negative social elements, or demonstrate any other impure, selfish desires or attitudes. If any person can be comfortable dressing themselves in such a manner, then the answer is not to more urgently compel them to obey the rules and "measure up to the standard" but to more urgently compel them to live closer to the presence of God. It has never been God's intention merely to cover up with long, drab clothes a person who is not really meek, quiet, shamefaced, or modest on the inside. However, by emphasizing obedience to rules rather than possession of the Spirit, we can be guilty of covering up with long dresses and long sleeves many people who are not modest inwardly. Such a practice might look good outwardly, and the whole church may appear to be completely "measured up," but in reality all we would have is a bunch of hypocrites-people who do not really have what they profess to have.
How Legalism Gets Started
What has happened among many Christian groups, especially the holiness movement (circa 1900 AD), is that godly men and women of the past, fully filled with the Spirit of God and consistently living in His divine presence, developed a certain lifestyle consisting of various practices that the religious world called "holiness." They had many good reasons why they did or did not do certain things, why they did or did not wear certain things, why they did or did not go to certain places. They were not simply following a set of rules or regulations, but were generally following what living in the presence of God taught them to do-at that period and time and for that culture and place.
For example, many of them taught against and did not go to picnics, because at that time picnics were big social events at which many less-than-Christian revelries and activities took place. Today, however, a picnic is not a big, special, community event; it may be nothing more than a wholesome time of family recreation. So it would be senseless to preach against picnics just because the old folks did. In fact, it is perfectly fine for the church itself to sponsor picnics for its families. As another example, the early holiness preachers preached against and refused to wear silk clothing as "costly array," but not too long ago I bought a silk shirt for $10, less than most cotton polyester ones. So the "costly array" argument against silk is no longer valid.
This whole process is a duplication of what happened to the Jews of Jesus' day. It traces the process that leads to religious legalism. God Himself had given them the Law. It had a special anointing for that time, that place, and that people. They tried to follow and enforce it to the letter. But by the time Jesus arrived on the religious scene, God wanted them to begin following the Spirit of God and the spirit of the law instead of the letter of the law. But the Jews refused to follow the Spirit, which was presenting to them Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the law. Instead they kept holding to the Law itself, a work of the Spirit of a bygone day, and rejected Jesus. Thus, they kept their religious and cultural lifestyle, but they lost their religious relationship with God. Religious people-including Christians-have been making this mistake since time immortal.
The Holiness Relationship Versus the Holiness Lifestyle
The point is that many of the older brethren legitimately came up with a lifestyle of "holiness" that reflected their convictions produced by daily living in the presence of God. However, we cannot merely reproduce their teachings and call that "holiness." We cannot simply repeat their rules for living and label that "holiness." We cannot preach, "Saints don't go to picnics" or "Saints don't wear silk shirts" merely because the older brethren decided that that was "holiness." "Holiness" is not a set of rules nor a mode of dressing, but a spiritual walk. "Holiness" was not some cultural lifestyle they chose to adopt but their practice of daily living in the presence of God. "Holiness" was their close, completely dedicated, spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. We must have that same "holiness" relationship in order to receive from God the convictions He desires us to have in this day and time.
Of course, the convictions He gives us will not necessarily be the same He gave them. This is why we must have that living, "holiness" relationship ourselves. Without it, we are merely repeating rules and regulations and doggedly holding to traditions without the spirit behind them. Without it, we are not really practicing or preaching true "holiness." We must emphasize and practice the "holiness relationship" instead of some cultural "holiness lifestyle."
Step Two: Teach the Limits of Christian Liberty
Of course, when talking about these matters, the first fear and objection that arises is this: "If we emphasize only the spirit of holiness and never give people a list of do's and don't's, what will the church eventually begin to look like? What standardized image will we portray to the world? How will we keep evil out of the church? People are tired of seeing only false Christianity." This is a legitimate concern. It is a definite probability that if people are given liberty and told to live close to God and follow His convictions there is no guarantee that they will all come up with the same convictions. It is almost certain that they will not end up doing, wearing, or believing the exact same things. There will be diversity, not uniformity, but God already expects this because He did not give us explicit commands in every area of human life.
However, instead of worrying over "what standardized image will we portray to the world," the real question should be, How can we enforce any image that the Bible does not directly command? How can we absolutely forbid anything that the Bible does not directly forbid? What more can we do if the Bible itself presents loopholes-practices that the Bible does not absolutely forbid or positively command or is silent about? Can we go beyond the Bible? Are we justified to try to hide from people the fact that the Bible actually gives them freedom in certain areas simply because we do not want them to exercise that freedom because it might make the church look "bad?"
A good example of a loophole in the Bible is 1 Timothy 5:23, in which Paul advised Timothy to "drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake..." Whether we like it or not, this verse is an allowance for Christians to drink wine. Furthermore, we know that this wine was alcoholic and addictive because of the apostles' other admonitions concerning it (1 Timothy 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7; Ephesians 5:18; 1 Peter 4:3). These scriptures show that, in Paul's day, the crux of the matter was not wine itself, but wine in "excess" (Ephesians 5:23), too "much wine" (1 Tim. 3:8), as opposed to a "little wine" (1 Tim. 5:23).
Knowing this, that the Bible does not expressly forbid and condemn wine, does that mean that we cannot teach against it? By no means! We can teach against it by using the "anti-addiction argument" of 1 Corinthians 6:12 to show that since wine is addictive (i.e., it brings one under its "power" ) it should be avoided. We can teach against it by using the "non-edification argument" of 1 Corinthians 10:23 to show that since wine is generally destructive (physically and socially), rather than "edifying" and "expedient," it should be avoided. We can also use the "sanctity of the body argument" in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 to show that, because we now know that every drop of alcohol destroys thousands of irreplaceable brain cells, it "defiles" and destroys the body, the "temple of God," and thus should not be used at all (not even "in moderation"). And there are many other principles in the Bible that we can use to discourage the drinking of wine and other alcoholic beverages. But we will never find a scripture that completely closes this loophole.
Please keep in mind that I emphatically teach against the use of any alcoholic beverages in any amount. I also teach against the use of every other controlled substance, including nicotine. (The same arguments against alcohol-the sanctity of the body, the anti-addiction, and the non-edification arguments-apply to cigarettes and tobacco as well.) My point is merely that someone could go to the Bible and, using only the letter, justify their use of wine and several other questionable practices. Of course, I would not think too highly of that person's honesty before God, because they are looking for loopholes and excuses to indulge their flesh, but that is another point. The Christian whose heart allows him to live his life jumping through loopholes has a serious spiritual problem, and even if he would comply with a list of outward regulations, it would only serve to cover up his deeper inner, spiritual problems.
The only thing we can do with such loopholes-once again defined as practices that the Bible does not absolutely forbid or positively command or is silent about-is: (1) to teach the principles concerning such practices, (2) to give good reasons why we feel Christians should or should not do them, and (3) to emphasize to everyone the critical importance of carefully and conscientiously living every aspect of their lives in the cleansing presence of God.
We must also impress upon them the fact that though they "have been called unto liberty," God does not free them to use that liberty "for an occasion to the flesh" (Galatians 5:13) nor as "a cloak of maliciousness," that is, "a pretext [or excuse] for wickedness" (1 Peter 2:16 Amp). We must preach that there are limits to Christian liberty: we "are free to do only God's will at all times" (1 Peter 2:16 TLB). After that, whether we like it or not, whether we fear that the church will look different or not, people do have the freedom to live according to the convictions God has given them. We have no Bible or authority to carry conscience matters any farther than that.
The Paradox of "Lawless Christianity"
However, I will be quick to admit and repeat that most Christians do not daily live in the presence of God. This is the biggest problem among Christians today. Most of them regularly abuse and misuse their God-given liberty for "an occasion to the flesh." Most Christians do not have that inward spirit and motivation that will cause them to refrain from living lives of selfishness and indulgence. Many are spiritually lazy, many are satisfied to remain spiritually immature, and many have a big problem with honesty before God. This creates a condition within Christianity that is far below God's intentions: Most Christians reject an external list of rules because they do not like the legalism of somebody telling them what or what not to do, but they also neglect to live in God's presence where they would find a holy inner law telling them what or what not to do. Thus, they are in essence lawless: refusing to submit to any written law but failing to possess any inner law. For this reason, we now have the very sad and very serious preponderance of "lawless Christians." By definition, such a monstrosity-"Lawless Christianity"-should not even be able to exist-but it does. May God help us all!
Even so, the most we can do about this situation is what Paul did: to continue harping on living in the Spirit so that people will "not fulfill the lust of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16). We are limited to teaching people how to properly use and not abuse their Christian liberty. We certainly cannot resort to telling people that they do not have liberty, because they do. Nor can we resort to teaching and enforcing compliance to a list of rules so that everything will at least look like holiness on the outside, although deep within, it is not.
Step Three: Preach the Two-Sided Religion
Thus, the danger of emphasizing the lifestyle of holiness above the spirit that is behind that lifestyle of holiness is that it makes us vulnerable to spiritual deception. A lifestyle can be easily taught and easily learned. It can be reproduced by anyone, even a sinner, without having the Spirit that is supposed to be behind it. Possession of the Spirit, however, cannot be faked. Obviously, by emphasizing the laws of our religion instead of its spirit, we can produce a lifestyle that looks like holiness but in actuality is not necessarily holiness at all. The ultimate problem is that we can grow satisfied with that "holy" lifestyle, and never desire and seek the true "spirit of holiness" (Romans1:4) any more. We will have deceived ourselves into thinking we are something that we are not. We will have convinced ourselves that we have "measured up" and there is nothing more to do, when in actuality we are often far short of the complete will of God.
If you do not believe this, then why do we "holiness" Christians now have, and have always had, so many problems among us, a people who look great and completely "measured up" on the outside? Evidently, we are missing something deeper, something spiritual, because we are certainly doing fine with the external manifestations of the "holiness" lifestyle. Brethren, this is a very serious question that we should no longer allow ourselves to overlook, ignore, and pass over lightly: How can true "holiness" be so continually plagued with "carnal" problems, often times in the leadership?
How can a church tell whether it has become satisfied with a "holiness lifestyle" instead of the holiness spirit? It is pretty obvious. Remember what being in the presence of God did for Isaiah. First, it caused him to look inward at his own need, convicting him of his uncleanness and causing him to cry out for purity of heart and lifestyle. But second, and just as important, it caused him to look outward at a lost world and set him on fire for God, placing within him an unquenchable desire and willingness to go for God. Both of these qualities resulted from his experience in the presence of God, and both of them were necessary to prove that he was really living in that presence. A complete gospel is proof that we are living in the presence of God. There is absolutely no way a person or a movement can truly be spiritual, living in and filled with the Spirit of God, andnot be greatly burdened and overwhelmingly stirred about the needs of this world. There is no way a person or a movement can truly be filled with the spirit of love and not be outwardly focused.
Thus, when we see a church with an obvious lack of deep consecration, a lack of a sense of urgency, a lack of an overwhelming concern for the salvation of the world, a lack of a drive to be consumed by the will and work of God-while at the same time we see great faithfulness to obey the rules of the religion, we know then that that church has become satisfied with the "holiness lifestyle" but is neglecting the Spirit behind holiness. That church possesses only one of the infallible, unmistakable signs that accompany God's divine presence. This proves that they are not really living in His presence after all; they have merely learned how and become accustomed to living a "holiness lifestyle." They have perfected the "form of godliness," but "denied" (i.e., not experienced) the "power of godliness" (2 Tim 3:5). This is nothing more than legalism.
When the above conditions prevail in an individual Christian or a group of Christians, yet they feel satisfied with themselves, it is fairly certain that they have fallen in love with religion and the holiness lifestyle without truly possessing the holiness Spirit. There is simply no way truly to abide in the Spirit of Christ and truly to be full of the love of God, and not exhibit any more fervency, zeal, and actual effort to win lost souls than many Christians and churches currently do. Period.
Jesus Christ, the apostles, and multitudes of great men and women of God since that time have all been stirred to live holy, but they were also fired up to save the world. They all had a spirit that gave them an overwhelming motivation toward others. If we claim to be following their practices and holding to their teachings, let us be sure that we do not lose something crucial about the spirit they possessed-the spirit of love that seeks to save the world.
This is why we must get back to emphasizing in our preaching the Spirit and presence of God, not the external traditions of our faith. We need to spend more time, money, and effort catching fish instead of cleaning fish. This is why we must start emphasizing the outward focus of the Christian faith. "True religion and undefiled before God," says James 1:27, "is to keep [ourselves] unspotted from the world" (which corresponds to the "holiness lifestyle"), "AND to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction" (which corresponds to the spirit of love and outreach to others). There is absolutely no way we can neglect either aspect of religion and expect it to be "undefiled before God." Nor can we call it "true religion." A one-sided religion is not approved by God. In fact, it is condemned by God, because "true and undefiled religion" must be both inwardly and outwardly focused (Matt. 25:29-46; Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42; 1 John 3:17-18; James 2:14-17). Brethren, whether we like it or not, without both of these sides of Christianity working equally well in and among us, our religion simply is not "true religion."
© 2000 Philip A Matthews