March 2012 - Vol. 58

Why Holiness Is Necessary
by J.I. Packer 

Diseases and Delusions
I opened my eyes to find myself lying on my back in a strange bed. Because my head was raised, I could see into the semidarkness beyond the bed. My first thought was that I was in New York’s Grand Central railroad station at night. (I had recently seen a photo of the huge Grand Central hall at night, and thought I was recognizing that location.) Then I saw, sitting on the left-hand side of the bed, my mother. She was wearing the big flowered overalls and dusting-cap in which she used to clean the house. She did not speak, but smiled and gave me a cold drink through the spout of what looked like a small white teapot. Afterward they told me that I went straight back to sleep.

In fact, as I learned when I woke next, I was nowhere near Grand Central station. I was in the hospital in my English hometown, having had surgery for a depressed fracture of the skull, which was thought to have damaged my brain. What I saw was partly a delusion, for the ward did not really look like the Grand Central station of the photo either by day or by night. The person keeping vigil by my bed had been a nurse in uniform, wearing a frilly headdress, blue frock, and white apron. I saw what I saw (if I shut my eyes I can see it now), but I was not seeing what was there. My shocked and battered brain was playing tricks on me. Reality was different from what I thought it was.

All of that happened in 1933, when I was seven years old. Why do I now hark back to it? Because it illustrates two truths that I find I have to stress over and over again when talking to Christians today.

First Truth
We are all invalids in God’s hospital. In moral and spiritual terms we are all sick and damaged, diseased and deformed, scarred and sore, lame and lopsided, to a far, far greater extent than we realize. Under God’s care we are getting better, but we are not yet well. The modern Christian likes to dwell on present blessings rather than future prospects. Modern Christians egg each other on to testify that where once we were blind, deaf, and indeed dead so far as God was concerned, now through Christ we have been brought to life, radically transformed, and blessed with spiritual health. Thank God, there is real truth in that. But spiritual health means being holy and whole. To the extent that we fall short of being holy and whole, we are not fully healthy either.

We need to realize that the spiritual health we testify to is only partial and relative, a matter of being less sick and less incapacitated now than we were before. Measured by the absolute standard of spiritual health that we see in Jesus Christ, we are all of us no more, just as we are no less, than invalids in the process of being cured. The old saying that the Church is God’s hospital remains true. Our spiritual life is at best a fragile convalescence, easily disrupted. When there are tensions, strains, perversities, and disappointments in the Christian fellowship, it helps to remember that no Christian, and no church, ever has the clean bill of spiritual health that would match the total physical well-being for which today’s fitness seekers labor. To long for total spiritual well-being is right and natural, but to believe that one is anywhere near it is to be utterly self-deceived.

It is not always easy to grasp that one is ill. I remember how in the hospital in 1933 I was, so to speak, kept in cotton wool for several days by doctor’s orders, since nobody knew how much harm might have come to my brain. I also remember how hard it was to think of myself as a sick boy, since at no stage did I feel any ill effects at all. For slipping out of bed to wander round, and for standing on the bed to see how springy it was, I was tongue-lashed, I recall, by the nurse who upbraided me with Welsh eloquence for, in effect, putting my life at risk. After this I remained dutifully bedbound, according to instructionsbut still without any conviction inside me that it needed to be that way. (Seven-year-olds can be as opinionated as any adult, and I certainly was.)

In the same way, Christians today can imagine themselves to be strong, healthy, and holy when, in fact, they are actually weak, sick, and sinful in ways that are noticeable not just to their heavenly Father, but also to their fellow believers. Pride and complacency, however, blind us to this reality. We decline to be told when we are slipping; thinking we stand, we set ourselves up to fall, and predictably, alas, we do fall.

In good hospitals, patients receive regular curative treatment as well as constant care, and the treatment determines in a direct way the form that the care will take. In God’s hospital the course of treatment that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the permanent medical staff (if I dare so speak), are giving to each of us with a view to our final restoration to the fullness of the divine image, is called sanctification. It is a process that includes on the one hand medication and diet (in the form of biblical instruction and admonition coming in various ways to the heart), and on the other hand tests and exercises (in the form of internal and external pressures, providentially ordered, to which we have to make active response). The process goes on as long as we are in this world, which is something that God decides in each case.

Like patients in any ordinary hospital, we are impatient for recovery. The question that forms the title of Lane Adams’ wonderful little book on God’s sanctifying therapy, How Come It’s Taking Me So Long to Get Better? is often our heart-cry to God.1 The truth is that God knows what He is doing, but sometimes, for reasons connected with the maturity and ministry that He has in view for us, He makes haste slowly. That is something we have to learn humbly to accept. We are in a hurry; He is not.

Second Truth
We are all prone to damaging delusions. On my first night in the hospital, the place was not where I thought it was, and the person by my bed was not whom I thought it was: I was in a state of delusion. The next day I felt well and could not think of myself as ill, but that was delusion too. In the same way believers are often deluded about Christian faith and living.

There are the delusions of direct theological error about God’s nature and character and ways and purposes. In liberal and modernist and process theology, to look no further, these abound.

There are the delusions of doubt and unbelief. Something horrible happens, and at once we conclude that God must have forgotten us or turned against us, or perhaps gone out of existence.

There are the delusions of self-confidence. We think we have finally licked some particular sin or weakness by which we were previously dragged down. We relax, and a sense of well-being, security, and triumph creeps over us. Then comes the double whammy of fresh external pressure and a renewed inner urge, and down we go again.

There are also the delusions that disrupt relationships. We misunderstand each other’s motives and purposes. We blame others for causing the tensions and generating the hostility, and are blind to our own part in provoking the difficulties.

There are delusions too, resulting from failure to distinguish things that differ—for example, equating the biblical gospel with Jesus-centered legalism, Jesus-centered lawlessness, Jesus-centered socialism, or Jesus-centered racism; equating secular psychological counseling with biblical pastoral direction; or equating inner passivity as a formula for holiness with the biblical call to disciplined moral effort in the power of the Holy Spirit.2 All such delusions spell disaster.

And then there are delusions about the Christian lifethat it will ordinarily be easy, successful, healthy and wealthy, excitingly punctuated by miracles; that such acts as fornication and tax evasion will not matter as long as nobody finds out; that God always wants you to do what you feel like doing; and so on, and so on. Satan, the father of lies and a past master at deluding, labors constantly to mislead and muddle God’s people, so that humble self-suspicion, and the commonsensical hardheadedness that used to be called prudence, and the habit of testing by Scripture things hitherto taken for granted, become virtues of very great importance.

Throughout this book, I shall be appealing to Scripture constantly. It is the only safe way, for we are all as vulnerable to delusions about holiness as we are about anything else.

God’s Prescription for Us
The sort of physician I appreciate (and you, too, I expect) takes the patient into his or her confidence and explains his or her diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. Then he or she tells you what the prescribed medication is meant to do. You are put fully in the picture, and so you know where you are.

Not all physicians behave this way, but the best doand so does the Great Physician of our souls, our Lord Jesus Christ. His therapeutic style, if I may express it this way, is communicative from first to last. The Bible, heard and read, preached and taught, interpreted and applied, is both the channel and the content of His communication. It is as if Jesus hands us the canonical Scriptures directly, telling us that they are the authoritative and all-sufficient source from which we must learn both what we are to do in order to be His followers and also what He has done, is doing, and will do to save us from the fatal sickness of sin. Think of your Bible, then, as Jesus Christ’s gift to you; think of it as a letter to you from your Lord. Think of your name, written in the front of it, as if Jesus Himself had written it there. Think of Jesus each time you read your Bible. Think of Him asking you, page by page and chapter by chapter, what you have just learned about the need, nature, method, and effect of the grace that He brings, and about the path of loyal discipleship that He calls you to tread. That is the way to profit from the Bible. Only when your reading of the written Word feeds into your relationship with the living Word (Jesus) does the Bible operate as the channel of light and life that God means it to be….

Why did we need salvation?
Why, because we were sinners! And, as such, lost! This has been said already, but the assertion needs now to be amplified.

We were sinners: sinners in practice, because we were sinners by nature. Sin is a universal, trans-cultural reality; an infection from which no human being anywhere, at any time, is exempt. What is it? Formally, it is what answer fourteen of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says it is: “Any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”

But it is also an energy, an obsession, an allergic reaction to God’s law, an irrational anti-God syndrome in our spiritual system that drives us to exalt ourselves and steels our hearts against devotion and obedience to our Maker. Pride, ingratitude and self-gratification are its basic expressions, leading sometimes to antisocial behavior and always, even in the nicest and most honorable people, to a lack of love for God at the motivational level. The religious practice of unregenerate mankind, whatever its form, may be and often is conscientious and laborious. It always proves, however, on analysis to be self-seeking and God-exploiting, rather than self-denying and God-glorifying, in its purpose.

Both Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek have a wide range of words for “sin,” picturing its nonconformity to God in a variety of different ways:

  • as rebellion against our rightful owner and ruler;
  • as transgression of the bounds He set;
  • as missing the mark He told us to aim at;
  • as breaking the law He enacted;
  • as defiling (dirtying, polluting) ourselves in His sight, so making ourselves unfit for His company;
  • as embracing folly by shutting our ears to His wisdom; and
  • as incurring guilt before His judgment seat.
The Bible, functioning as a mirror for self-knowledge, shows us ourselves as playing God, by making ourselves, our wishes and advancement, the center of everything; as fighting God, by refusing to submit to Him and defying His revealed will; and as hating God in our hearts for the claims He makes on our lives. “The mind of sinful man is death . . . the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (Romans 8:6-8)….

New Life
The New Testament goes on to explain to us the newness of our life in Christ as a real and radical alteration of our personal being. It tells us that believers have been united to Christ, and are now “in” Him, having died (finished with their old life) and been raised (started off in a new life) with their Lord (Romans 6:3-11; Ephesians 2:4-10; Colossians 2:11-14). In Christ they enjoy a new status. They are:

  • justified (pardoned and accepted);
  • adopted (made God’s children and heirs); and
  • cleansed (fitted for fellowship with their holy Creator).
All aspects of their new status become real by virtue of Christ’s suffering for them on the cross (see Romans 3:21-26, 5:1, 8:15-19; Galatians 4:4-7; John 15:3; 1 John 1:3-7). This is momentous. To be justified means that, by God’s own judicial decision, I stand before Him now and forever “just as if I had never sinned.” To be adopted means that now I may call my Creator-Judge “Father,” in the intimacy of His beloved family, and know myself to be an heir of His glory“heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). To be cleansed means that nothing in my past imposes any restraint on my fellowship with God in the present.

Nor is that all. In Christ believers are also involved in a process of character change. The Holy Spirit (through whose agency faith was engendered in them) and Christ (through whom the new life was won for them, and became consciously real to them) now indwell them to transform them “into his [Christ’s] likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Christ and His Spirit empower them to put sinful habits to death and bring forth in them the new behavior patterns that constitute the Spirit’s “fruit” (see Romans 8:9-13; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 5:22-26). This, too, is momentous.

We who believe have to wake up to the fact that the ministry to us of the Father and the Son through the Spirit has turned us into different people from what we were by nature. Our present task is, as it is sometimes put, to be what we areto live out what God has wrought in, expressing in action the new life (new vision, motivation, devotion, and sense of direction) that has now become ours. Or, as Paul puts it, “Live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1). The thought is the same.

The hearts of saved persons will always affirm that their conversion, or new birth, or renewal (different people use different words at this point) was the work of God from first to last. All the searching and struggling that went into it will be felt to have been no less divinely orchestrated than were its final stages of conviction, commitment, and assurance. Ever since the fifth century, Western Christians have used Augustine’s term for God’s initiative of life-giving love within the soul, giving thanks for His prevenient grace: grace that moves in as a renovating force to make the spiritually blind see, the spiritually deaf hear, and the spiritually dumb speak. (“Prevenient” means “coming before”coming to one, before one is spiritually alive, in order to impart life.)….

God’s Future Plan of Salvation
The lesson to be learned here is that our thinking about the future part of God’s saving plan must start where Binney starts: namely, with recognition that the triune God is light. This means that He is holypure and perfect, loving all good and hating all evil. Also, it means that He constantly searches out all that is in us, so that “everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). (The exposing of what would otherwise lie hidden in darkness is one of the thoughts that the biblical image of light regularly conveys: see John 3:19-21; Ephesians 5:11-14.) So no unholiness in us will go unnoticed.

The triune God who is light is also loveholy love (see 1 John 1:5; 4:8,16). What does this mean? It means that only what is actually holy and worthy can give God actual satisfaction. As the love that binds spouses in a good marriage is an evaluative love that appreciates the excellence of the loved one, so the love that binds Father, Son, and Spirit is an evaluative love whereby each delights in the holiness of the other two, and in the holiness of the holy angels. That love will not have full joy of us who are Christ’s until we are holy too. Nor can we fully love God, and fully enjoy Him as we love Him, while we know ourselves to be still in the grip of moral weaknesses and perversities. To know oneself, here and now, to be, in Luther’s phrase, simul justus et peccator a justified sinner, right with God though sinning stillis a wonderful privilege. But the hope set before us is yet more wonderful, namely to be in the presence of God, seeing Him and fellowshipping with Him, as one who is a sinner no longer. What God plans for us in the present is to lead us toward this goal.

So the divine agenda for the rest of my life on earth is my sanctification. As has already been hinted, I have been raised from spiritual death and born again in Christ so that I might be changed into His moral likeness. “You were taught,” Paul tells me (for I, like all other Bible-readers, stand with the Ephesian Christians at this point), “with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self . . . to be made new . . . and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24; see also Colossians 3:9-10). The detailed moral directives in each of Paul’s letters show me that he means this in the most literal and down-to-earth sense.

Increasing conformity to the image of Christto His righteousness and holiness, His love and humility, His self-denial and single-mindedness, His wisdom and prudence, His boldness and self-control, His faithfulness and strength under pressureis the sum and substance of the “good works” for which Christians have been created (that is, re-created) in Christ (Ephesians 2:10). It is also the “good” for which in all things God works in the lives of those who love Him (Romand 8:28). The God in whose hands I am, willy-nilly, and whom I have in fact gladly and penitently put in charge of my life, is in the holiness business. Part of the answer to the question that life’s roller-coaster ride repeatedly raises, why has this happened to me? is always: it is moral training and discipline, planned by my heavenly Father to help me forward along the path of Christlike virtue (see Hebrews 12:5-11).

[excerpt from Rediscovering Holiness (Revised and Updated) Know the Fullness of Life with God, Chapter 2, by J.I. Packer, published by Regal Books, 2009.]

J. I. Packer is a Reformed theologian and retired professor of theology at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. He is a prolific author, and a well-known pastor, teacher, and lecturer.
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