The Necessity of Holiness (Part 1)

The doctrine of justification by faith alone through grace alone is unspeakably precious. It brings hope and peace to sinners, like me, who constantly wrestle with the flesh and war against sin. Still, there is a danger in this great doctrine, as there is in all great doctrines. If only slightly misunderstood and misapplied, the doctrine of justification by faith can feed antinomianism (“against works”), the belief that because one’s standing before God is sure on account of Christ, no works or life change necessarily need exhibit themselves in the Christian. I fear that antinomianism is a danger for the American evangelical church, in particular, because at times this precious doctrine has become for us an excuse for complacency. Even as we hold firm to the doctrine justification by faith, the quest for holiness has become a less and less vigorous one.

To help remedy the tendency towards antinomianism in myself, I have been meditating of late on Jonathan Edwards’s sermon, “The Way of Holiness,” which he preached in 1722. This week, I’d like to share three reasons he gives why “none that are not holy can be in the way to heaven, and why those who never are so can never obtain the happiness thereof” (7). Next week we’ll look at Edwards’s practical applications of this truth.

First, “‘Tis impossible by reason of God’s holiness that anything should be united to God and brought to the enjoyment of him [who] is not holy. Now, is it possible that a God of infinite holiness, that is perfect and hates sin with perfect hatred, that is infinitely lovely and excellent, should embrace in his arms a filthy, abominable creature…? But so hateful, base, and abominable is every unsanctified man, even the best hypocrite and most painted sepulchers of them all. How impossible is it that this should be, that such loathsome beings…should be united to God; should be a member of Christ, a child of God; be made happy in the enjoyment of his love and the smiles of his countenance, should be in God and God in them? It is therefore as impossible for an unholy thing to be admitted unto the happiness of heaven as it is for God not to be, or turned to nothing” (8).

God is the initiator of our salvation. But he is also the one to whom we plead for the continuance and completion of our salvation. The divine work of our salvation does not end at conversion, but rather it issues in progress and perseverance in holiness and, one day, glorification. This is why Paul can say without contradiction, “Therefore, my dear friends…work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

NB: Page references are from Kimnach, Minkema, and Sweeney, ed., “The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader” (New Haven: Yale, 1999).

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