This article is a condensed and edited excerpt of my position paper On Personal Godliness from the chapter “What is Personal Holiness?” For the excerpt on “What Motivates Our Pursuit of Holiness?” go here. For “How Do I Grow In Christ-likeness?” go here.
Before speaking in a more systematic fashion on personal holiness, I’d like to open with speaking on the topic more conversationally.
My understanding of personal godliness or holiness stems from the first chapter of Genesis when God creates mankind in his own image (v. 26, 27). It is our being made in the image of God – and Christ’s restoration of this image in his life, death, and resurrection – that establishes what it means for God’s people to be holy. In other words, our holiness is rooted in our being made in the image of God as we reflect and mirror God’s holiness and character in our lives. Allow me to visit three texts to reinforce this.
In John 5:14, Jesus is giving his Sermon on the Mount and tells his followers, “you are the light of the world.” Then in 8:12, Jesus proclaims of himself “I AM the light of the world.” What’s going on here? Is Jesus the light or are we?
When we remember that we’re created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26, 27), alienated from God by our sin (Col. 1:21), and then reconciled to God once again by Christ (Col. 1:22), we perceive that we resume our job of mirroring God when we are brought into union with Christ. We image, or mirror, the light of Christ to the world because we are made in the image of God. We reflect Christ because we restored to his image (2 Cor. 3:18).
And here is where the first chapter of Genesis gives us another glimpse of this reality in creation itself. In the verses preceding the creation of man, God creates the sun (the greater light) and the moon (the lesser light) to give light to the earth (1:14-17).
Jesus is the greater light – the True Light – and we, being made in the image of God, are the lesser light. Like the moon, our job is not to manufacture our own light to the world, but to rather reflect the true light. Thus, personal holiness is the correct mirroring of God’s own character in our lives.
So What is Personal Holiness?
Personal holiness is the believer of Christ conducting him or herself in light of the covenantal promises of God in Christ. It is the fulfillment and application of the Mosaic covenant through Christ and his New Covenant in that of living as a holy nation and a royal priesthood, a people possessed by Christ (1 Pet. 2:9, cf. Ex. 19:6). As those who have the law of God inscribed upon the tablet of their hearts (Heb. 10:16, cf. Jer. 31:33), and as those who have the Spirit of God placed in them and walk in obedience, accordingly (Ezek. 36:26-27).
In simpler terms, personal holiness piggybacks off of the fact that we are made in the image of God and reflect his likeness (Gen. 1:26, 27): thus, personal holiness is the proper representation of God’s character as those made in his image, and this through Christ reconciling us and restoring our ability to do so.
Improved Morality, or Something More?
In our culture today, holiness and sanctification are often thought of strictly in terms of moral improvement. While personal godliness, or personal holiness, is never less than moral improvement, it does entail far more.
Holiness is not merely a growing in morality, but improving in such in relation to God. Hence, holiness and sanctification are exclusively Christian, for while the pagan may grow in perceived morality, they are unable to do so in relation to God because this morality is not birthed by faith in Christ. This is clarified even further when we perceive holiness and sanctification as the two-fold growth in the mortification of sin and a conforming unto the image of Christ (Eph. 4:22-24; Rom. 8:29), which are both alien to those apart from Christ.
Holiness and the Gospel
In another sense, our sanctification is irrevocably married to our justification in the gospel. Justification is the head of the gospel in being the principal work of our salvation and as that which is wrought by God alone by faith in his Son. Yet, our justification is never divorced from our sanctification. If our justification is the head of our salvation, our sanctification is its body, for Christ justifies no one he does not simultaneously sanctify.
When we come to faith in Christ we are justified in a legal sense before God (Col. 2:13-14) as we are declared righteous based on the righteousness of Christ (Rom. 5:17-21). Simultaneously, we are also positionally sanctified as we are set apart in Christ at salvation (1 Cor. 6:11) while we grow in progressive sanctification the rest of our earthly days (2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10). Thus, our personal holiness is the unceasing work of the gospel being fulfilled in our lives in progressive sanctification.
Holiness is not that which we conjure up in our own lives. Holiness is not man-made but rather the blood-purchased application of the gospel to those who are in Christ. Being made in the image of God and having been restored by the work of Christ in the gospel, our holiness is a mirroring of God’s holiness like that of the moon reflecting the light of the sun to give light to the night.
In another sense, our personal holiness and sanctification is the application of the whole work of the gospel in our lives. Christ justifies sinners and by the work of the Spirit these sinners are then progressively made righteous! Our holiness then is the proof that we have actually been justified.
Praise God for this! Glory to Christ that we who were once dead in sin have been made alive in Christ and now walk in good works that Christ has prepared for us (Eph. 2:1-10) and that we are being conformed to the image of the Son (2 Cor. 3:18)!
We grow in holiness by faith as we are sanctified by the Spirit through several means (i.e., Scripture, prayer, affliction, the church). See “How Do I Grow in Christ-Likeness?” for details on this.