Holiness and the Social Witness of the Church

“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14)

It is encouraging that many Christians are actively engaging social-political issues to build a better society. Their coordinated and concerted efforts have gained them publicity and respectability; indeed, they may have won new ‘friends’ in the high places of political power. On the other hand, the elements of ungodliness, be they militant gays, permissive postmodernists or cynical atheists resolutely resist and reject any effort to infuse Christian values into society at large. Some religious extremists even threaten the safety and well-being of churches. These forces seem determined to plunge society headlong to self-destruction.

It remains an open question, then, as to whether the Christians will succeed in arresting the disintegration of society. It will be easy for Christian social engagement to wane when the unbelievers persist in hardening their hearts. Christian activism must be backed by Christian holiness if the recent gains are to be lasting. We must heed J.C. Ryle’s warning in his classic book, Holiness* that “Sound Protestant and Evangelical doctrine is useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. It is more than useless: it does positive harm. It is despised by keen-sighted and shrewd men of the world, as an unreal and hollow thing, and brings religion into contempt” (p. xxi). Or in J.I. Packer’s words, “Credible opposition to secular ideologies can be shown by speaking and writing but credible oppositions to holiness can only be shown by holy living.”/Keep in Step with the Spirit (Revel Pub 1984), pp. 102-103./  Perhaps this is what Heb. 12:14 means: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

If holiness is so crucial, if both individual believers and unbelievers at large are to see God, how is it that the subject of holiness is so neglected today? We may identify the following reasons for this neglect:

1. Misunderstanding
Holiness perhaps is misunderstood to be an unattractive way of life, best left alone to eccentrics who cannot cope with living in community. But surely this is a grave misunderstanding. If holiness is in essence to be conformed to the likeness of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18), how can the new image of holy men be anything less than attractive to men? Holiness rightly understood should display an attractive quality. It is said that the greatest saints of God have been characterized not by haloes and an aura of unapproachability, but by sensible cheerful humanity. The biographies of men like Luther, C.T. Studd or Spurgeon show they can be intensely human, lovable and even witty people. Would that this realization be a challenge and an encouragement to believers in their response to the call to holiness. Holiness is not reserved for an elite few; it is for all humans of like passions as we are.

2. Side-tracked by secondary issues
The Church today is busy as never before. Workers are sent out to evangelise, theologians engage in endless controversies with liberals, parachurch groups proliferate in mobilising and training believers. Would Ryle have rejoiced over this? He may not, for he writes, “But while we are thankful for the increase of public religion we must never forget that, unless it is accompanied by private religion, it is of no real solid value, and may even produce mischievous effects. Incessant running after sensational preachers, incessant attendance at hot, crowded meetings, protracted to late hours, incessant craving after fresh excitement and highly-spiced pulpit novelties – all this kind of thing is calculated to produce a very unhealthy style of Christianity” (p. 380). It is amazing that behind much of these Christian appearances are values no different from those shared by the world at large (e.g. ‘Christian’ ideals like self-actualization, prosperity theology and the professional pastor who functions like a business executive). It is only right for us to plunge eagerly into Christian service but God’s first requirement is that we be holy and blameless before Him (Eph. 1:4). We must first be vessels cleansed and pleasing to God (2 Tim 2:21). Otherwise, all these activities will be useless froth and surface slush rather than salt to society.

3. Disillusionment through wrong pastoral advice
Christians today are disillusioned by what has long been offered to them as short cuts to problem-free, feel good spirituality: higher life, entire sanctification and varieties of ‘second blessings’. Such brands of holiness are just too simplistic and superficial in addressing the perplexities and conflicts faced by Christians in modern society. This misguided notion is exposed by Ryle who writes, “On the contrary, they (the most eminent saints) have always had the deepest sense of their own utter unworthiness and imperfections” (p. xxv), and “The nearer he draws to God, and the more he sees of God’s holiness and perfections, the more thoroughly is he sensible to his own imperfections” (p. 110).

4. Insensitivity to God’s holiness
Perhaps the most disturbing reason underlying the neglect is insensitivity to God’s holiness, a malaise that seems to be spreading among evangelicals today. In an age of moral relativism, political correctness and yearning for cultural respectability, it is easy to yield to the temptation of compromise. The church becomes equally tolerant of sin within its ranks when it forgets to tremble in the knowledge of sin exposed before the all-consuming fire of the thrice Holy God. Perhaps this is what Ryle is concerned about when he writes, “Wrong views about holiness are generally traceable to wrong views about human corruption…. If a man does not realize the dangerous nature of his soul’s disease, you cannot wonder if he is content with false or imperfect remedies” (p. 1). The key to evangelical revival requires nothing less than a recovered sensitivity to God’s holiness.

5. Kept from Pride
When we become aware of our own moral bankruptcy, we feel a sense of unworthiness even as Peter did when he cried out. “Depart from me for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). We are also amazed at the grace of God. Peter responds with obedience and faithful labour for Christ because he who is forgiven much will surely love much. It is important to know that just as we began our Christian life through grace, we continue in it only by God’s grace.

Holiness is not a human or even believer’s achievement. It is God’s special gift to His believing people (cf. p. 62). As the church confronts unbelievers, it should remember that it cannot demand holiness from the world, rather it should seek to share holiness as a joyful gift from God. For unless the world perceives the joyful and overwhelming grace of God in the believer’s life, it can only react to the church’s social activism, seeing it as judgmentalism and legalism. The world will only be attracted to a holiness marked by grace, as Ryle describes it, “true holiness is a great reality. It is something in a man that can be seen, and known, and marked, and felt by all around him. It is light: if it exists, it will show itself. It is salt: if it exists, its savour will be perceived. It is a precious ointment: if it exists, its presence cannot be hid” (p. 49).

Ryle further adds, “We must be holy, because this is the most likely way to do good to others…They are a silent sermon which all can read…. There is a reality about such living which makes men feel, and obliges them to think. It carries a weight and influence with it which nothing else can give. It makes religion beautiful, and draws men to consider it, like a lighthouse seen far off… you may talk to persons about the doctrines of the Gospels, and few will listen, and still fewer understand. But your life is an argument none can escape. There is a meaning about holiness which not even the most unlearned can help taking in. they may not understand justification, but they can understand charity” (p. 53).

How the church today must heed these words. In these days when evangelical churches are growing, with new resources and impressive organizations, it is only too easy for her to fall into the temptation of fighting Goliath with the armour of Saul. It will only fail to take captive the strongholds of ungodly opposition and suffer humiliation and ignominious retreat in discouragement.

 

Our High Calling to Holiness
True holiness then is not a self-centred withdrawal from the world or a renunciation of our social duties. It does not evade difficulties, but faces and overcomes them (p. 32). It is nevertheless a costly venture and those who desire to be holy must be prepared to pay the price. God’s grace is indeed free but it is costly, for it will cost a man his whole life if he is to persevere in faithfulness. We must first be willing to pay the price of holiness if we want the world to follow us. Otherwise, we may be vexed as can be over the world, as Lot was, but to no avail, because like Lot we have become conformed to the values and culture of the world. On the other hand, the world, for all its resistance, is on the lookout for sincere people in a world of trendy posturing. It will be impressed by genuinely changed people given over to goals worthy of their total dedication, people it can perceive to be possessed by a winsome love that comes from God alone.

Our high calling to holiness confronts us with immense challenge and awesome responsibility for without holiness there will be no true peace amongst men, nor will they ever see God (Heb 12:14). In the past, God was prepared to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if only there were ten righteous men to be found in that city (Gen. 18). In today’s Sodom and Gomorrah, will the men who are called to holiness again fail Him?

*This post is written in salute to J.C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots (1877). All citations are taken from the edition reprinted by Hendricksen Publishers (2007).

One Comment

  1. Sarah Yap says:

    Thanks Kam Weng for another insightful and timely article. And now for the personal and not so personal life application. May the Lord continue to use your commentaries… for shaping his people and his kingdom sake.