Holiness is a high calling. For those in leadership, the stakes seem to be even higher. How can we even begin to pursue this call? Sam Schuurman gives us some practical pointers and reminds us how God helps us to pursue his call.
Think of the last book you read on leadership. Did it contain anything on the topic of holiness and its crucial relationship to leadership? A quick survey of the books I have on the subject reveals little in this regard, and I suspect it’s not simply poor judgement in the selection of my books. Robert Murray M’Cheyne is often given the credit for saying, “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness,” and I wholeheartedly agree with him. How tragic it is then that holiness often receives little attention, and perhaps even less practice, among the many voices of our day. I do not hope to do justice to such a significant matter in this brief article. My hope is to sweep away some of the dust and remove a few cobwebs by reflecting upon our call to holiness, and the unique call extended to those in Christian leadership. I will finish by suggesting a few ideas for response.
The call to all
The notion of holiness often brings to mind moral perfection or sinlessness. While these concepts are definitely related, according to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, both the Hebrew and Greek words translated “holy” more accurately mean “separate” or “set apart.” Theologically, holiness has its origins in God, as fundamentally it relates to his ‘separateness’ from creation.
Interestingly, most theologians agree that his holiness is not simply an attribute, but essential to his very nature. His love is similar. Having created humanity in his image, it’s no wonder that we see holiness is required from those called to be his people.
The Israelites were called to “be holy, for [God is] holy” (Leviticus 11:44). The outworking of this holiness is described in great detail in the ‘Holiness Code’ (Leviticus 17-26), which contains a mix of ceremonial, social, and moral commandments. Many of these could be categorised in both a negative sense (a separation from what is unclean, impure, immoral, and to a degree from those outside God’s covenant) and a positive sense (the need to dedicate oneself to God in service). Holiness, then, consists of both separation and consecration.
While the law was fulfilled in Christ and we are made right before a holy God through Christ, the call to holiness does not disappear in the New Testament. In fact, it seems to receive even more attention. Paul is never failing to rebuke immoral believers in his letters, and the clarion call of Peter (referring back to Leviticus) in 1 Peter 1:15 is very well known: “... as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct.”
So, what’s changed? What’s new in the new covenant? Exactly the means by which to achieve said holiness. You see, if the tree is bad it will produce bad fruit (Luke 6:43). But the problem since the fall is that none of us are able to change our tree: “Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23). But the promise of Christ and the Holy Spirit poured out gives new tread to the tyres required to drive this road of holiness. As God promised: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.” Better yet, he said: “I will put my Spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ezekiel 36:26-27 italics added).
So there’s the secret. We can have a new heart that cannot but bear good fruit because of the Holy Spirit who implants it and moves that it may be so! Thanks to Christ and the Pentecost events, we’re now able to become what we’re called to be; to become what somehow we’re already said to be if we’re in Christ: holy, as our God is holy.
Far from the gospel of grace giving us license to sin and be unholy (what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace” (1)), the gospel of grace is the very foundation for a life of holiness. And to grow in such holiness is to grow in blessing and joy, as freedom from sin is always freedom from self-inflicted pain. The more we grow like this, the more we are like God, and the more we will enjoy him. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).
The call to leaders
While it’s obvious that the call to holiness applies to all disciples of Jesus Christ, we do see God react in more extreme ways to the unholiness of his leaders in the Old Testament (think of Moses and David). In addition, both the expectations around a holy life for those in leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-10; Titus 1:6-9) and the warnings for those in leadership (Proverbs 16:12; Matthew 18:6; Acts 20:28) are also clear throughout the entire Bible. If the Holy Spirit is the source of holiness in the life of a Christian, then it follows that those put in positions of leadership should possess a unique quality of the Spirit like we see required in Acts 6:3.
Given enough thought, I’m sure we could all think of deeply unfortunate examples of Christian leaders who’ve fallen prey to sin in a way that’s severely hurt the church and its witness, with years of ministry undermined in an instant. Could some of those pitfalls have been avoided if leaders gave greater attention to the pursuit of holiness and were held accountable for doing so? It’s not hard to see God’s wisdom in asserting that leaders must be holy and growing in holiness.
But beyond the negative ramifications of unholiness lie the unimaginably green pastures of those leaders who are willing to embark on this most needed (yet often neglected) journey: the pursuit of holiness. After all, wasn’t the world changed by virtue of one man’s true virtue? While it was absolutely the cross of Christ that makes the difference, his death would have failed to atone for our sin were he not entirely holy! I echo John Wesley’s sentiment, then, when he says: “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen, such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven upon earth.” (2)
Living worthy of the call
As we all know, understanding the call is one thing; living it is quite another altogether. What does it look like to live a life pursuing holiness? What does this mean for leaders who already have a thousand other demands placed on their time? How do we encourage the pursuit of holiness in the lives of others? Far from having the answers to these important questions, I only wish to make a few humble suggestions. These come mostly from an awareness of my own shortcomings and growing experience of God in this matter.
Deeds of holiness
Given that God is the only one who can wrought true holiness in our hearts, what role are we to play? It is here that I find the language of posturing helpful. I can’t make myself more holy and Christ-like, but I can devote myself rigorously to postures that better allow the Holy Spirit to achieve that outcome. The Puritans understood this well.
We talked earlier about the Holiness Code and how this describes elements of both separation and also consecration. Interestingly enough, this is effectively the doctrine of repentance: continually turning from sin (separation) and turning to God (consecration). Following this line of thought, deeds of holiness could incorporate postures of separation and consecration.
Separation: This is not separation from the world in an aesthetic or monastic sense, but separation from sin. We do not take our responsibility to “put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13) as seriously as we should. This is called Christian Mortification and John Owen (in his excellent exposition of this concept, The Mortification of Sin) reminds us that we must be killing sin daily, or it will be killing us. (3) One of the most helpful postures I use in this area is that of regular accountability and prayer with others.
Consecration: Postures of consecration before God include practically all spiritual disciplines of our faith that enable us to hear and receive from God (reading Scripture in all its forms, prayer, speaking in tongues, spiritual direction etc.). It also includes offering ourselves as living sacrifices (works of service, evangelism etc). Eugene Peterson’s work on what he calls “vocational holiness” is helpful in this regard. (4)
Words of holiness
While the example of authentically pursuing holiness is fundamental to both our own spiritual formation, and our leadership and influencing of others in this matter, leaders must not shy away from the need to communicate that the pursuit of holiness is a directive that God gives to all those he calls his children. In particular, leaders have a serious responsibility to preach a gospel where we are not saved by works, but saved for works.
If we don’t take this seriously, the practical apathy and questionable morality of the church will be the silent message that society hears the loudest! Our message to pursue holiness must be bigger and louder than that which we have achieved ourselves. We do believe a holy God speaks through us after all, though we be mere jars of clay.
So as we sound the holiness trumpet, may it be heard through the headphones of a ‘kingdom come’ that declares we are already righteous, and seen through the screen of a ‘kingdom coming’ that reminds us we will struggle to live out our righteousness this side of Christ’s return. And may the light of Christ’s holiness be more visible in this dark world as his bride, the church, gives witness to him through her deeds and efforts in holiness.
Story: Samuel Schuurman
Sam is Senior Pastor at Kumeu Baptist Church in Auckland. He is married to Rachel and father to one-year-old Theo.
- Which of the practical pointers here might God be asking you to consider in your own life?
- How can we help leaders who have fallen prey to sin? How can we help our leaders pursue holiness?
- If you are a leader, how can you encourage those you lead to pursue holy works, and where is God calling you to pursue this?
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 43.
2. “The Letters of John Wesley,” John Wesley: The Wesley Center Online, wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-letters-of-john-wesley/wesleys-letters-1777/
3. John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (USA: Trinity Press, 2013).
4. Eugene Peterson, Under the Predictable Plant (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994).
Photo credit: Travis Gann/lightstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.