Can holiness save us? Can holiness put away sin, cover iniquities, make satisfaction for transgressions, pay our debt to God? No, not a whit. God forbid that I should ever say so. Holiness can do none of these things. The brightest saints are all “unprofitable servants.” Our purest works are not better than filthy rags when tried by the light of God’s holy law. The white robe, which Jesus offers and faith puts on, must be our only righteousness, the name of Christ our only confidence, the Lamb’s book of life our only title to heaven. With all our holiness we are no better than sinners. Our best things are stained and tainted with imperfection. They are all more or less incomplete, wrong in the motive or defective in the performance. By the deeds of the law shall no child of Adam ever be justified. “By grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9).
a. For one thing, we must be holy, because the voice of God in Scripture plainly commands it. The Lord Jesus says to His people, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). “Be you . . . perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Paul tells the Thessalonians, “This is the will of God, even your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3). And Peter says, “As He which has called you is holy, so be you holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, ‘Be you holy, for I am holy’”(1 Pet. 1:15, 16). “In this,” says Leighton, “law and gospel agree.”
b. We must be holy, because this is one grand end and purpose for which Christ came into the world. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him which died for them and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:15); and to the Ephesians, “Christ . . . loved the church, and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it” (Eph. 5:25, 26); and to Titus, “[He] gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14). In short, to talk of men being saved from the guilt of sin, without being at the same time saved from its dominion in their hearts, is to contradict the witness of all Scripture. Are believers said to be elect? It is “through sanctification of the Spirit.” Are they predestinated? It is “to be conformed to the image of God’s Son.” Are they chosen? It is “that they may be holy.” Are they called? It is “with a holy calling.” Are they afflicted? It is that they may be “partakers of holiness.” Jesus is a complete Savior. He does not merely take away the guilt of a believer’s sin; He does more—He breaks its power (1 Pet. 1:2; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:4; Heb. 12:10).
c. We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we have a saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The twelfth Article of our church says truly, that “Although good works cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment, yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith; insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by its fruits.” James warns us there is such a thing as a dead faith, a faith which goes no further than the profession of the lips and has no influence on a man’s character (James 2:17). True saving faith is a very different kind of thing. True faith will always show itself by its fruits; it will sanctify, it will work by love, it will overcome the world, it will purify the heart. I know that people are fond of talking about deathbed evidences. They will rest on words spoken in the hours of fear and pain and weakness, as if they might take comfort in them about the friends they lose. But I am afraid in ninety–nine cases out of a hundred, such evidences are not to be depended on. I suspect that, with rare exceptions, men die just as they have lived. The only safe evidence that we are one with Christ, and Christ in us, is holy life. Those who live unto the Lord are generally the only people who die in the Lord. If we would die the death of the righteous, let us not rest in slothful desires only; let us seek to live His life. It is a true saying of Traill’s: “That man’s state is nothing, and his faith unsound, that finds not his hopes of glory purifying to his heart and life.”
d. We must be holy, because this is the only proof that we love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. This is a point on which He has spoken most plainly, in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters of John: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” “He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is that loves Me.” “If a man love Me he will keep My words.” “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:14). Plainer words than these it would be difficult to find, and woe to those who neglect them! Surely that man must be in an unhealthy state of soul who can think of all that Jesus suffered, and yet cling to those sins for which that suffering was undergone. It was sin that wove the crown of thorns; it was sin that pierced our Lord’s hands and feet and side; it was sin that brought Him to Gethsemane and Calvary, to the cross and to the grave. Cold must our hearts be if we do not hate sin and labor to get rid of it, though we may have to cut off the right hand and pluck out the right eye in doing it.
e. We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we are true children of God. Children in this world are generally like their parents. Some, doubtless, are more so and some less; but it is seldom indeed that you cannot trace a kind of family likeness. And it is much the same with the children of God. The Lord Jesus says, “If you were Abraham’s children you would do the works of Abraham.” “If God were your Father, you would love Me” (John 8:39, 42). If men have no likeness to the Father in heaven, it is vain to talk of their being His “sons.” If we know nothing of holiness, we may flatter ourselves as we please; but we have not got the Holy Spirit dwelling in us; we are dead and must be brought to life again; we are lost and must be found. “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they,” and they only, “are the sons of God” (Rom. 8:14). We must show by our lives the family we belong to. We must let men see by our good conversation that we are indeed the children of the Holy One, or our sonship is but an empty name. “Say not,” says Gurnall, “that you have royal blood in your veins, and are born of God, except you can prove your pedigree by daring to be holy.”
f. We must be holy, because this is the most likely way to do good to others. We cannot live to ourselves only in this world. Our lives will always be doing either good or harm to those who see them. They are a silent sermon which all can read. It is sad indeed when they are a sermon for the devil’s cause, and not for God’s. I believe that far more is done for Christ’s kingdom by the holy living of believers than we are at all aware of. 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 afar off. The day of judgment will prove that many besides husbands have been won “without the Word” by a holy life (1 Pet. 3:1). You may talk to persons about the doctrines of the gospel, and few will listen, and still fewer understand. But your life is an argument that 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.
I believe there is far more harm done by unholy and inconsistent Christians than we are at all aware of. Such men are among Satan’s best allies. They pull down by their lives what ministers build with their lips. They cause the chariot wheels of the gospel to drive heavily. They supply the children of this world with a never–ending excuse for remaining as they are. “I cannot see the use of so much religion,” said an irreligious tradesman not long ago; “I observe that some of my customers are always talking about the gospel and faith and election and the blessed promises and so forth, and yet these very people think nothing of cheating me of pence and halfpence when they have an opportunity. Now, if religious persons can do such things, I do not see what good there is in religion.” I grieve to be obliged to write such things, but I fear that Christ’s name is too often blasphemed because of the lives of Christians. Let us take heed lest the blood of souls should be required at our hands. From murder of souls by inconsistency and loose walking, good Lord, deliver us! Oh, for the sake of others, if for no other reason, let us strive to be holy!
g. We must be holy, because our present comfort depends much upon it. We are sadly apt to forget that there is a close connection between sin and sorrow, holiness and happiness, sanctification and consolation. God has so wisely ordered it, that our well–being and our well–doing are linked together. He has mercifully provided that even in this world it shall be man’s interest to be holy. Our justification is not by works, our calling and election are not according to our works; but it is vain for anyone to suppose that he will have a lively sense of his justification, or an assurance of his calling, so long as he neglects good works or does not strive to live a holy life. “Hereby we do know that we know Him if we keep His commandments.” “Hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts” (1 John 2:3; 3:19). A believer may as soon expect to feel the sun’s rays upon a dark and cloudy day, as to feel strong consolation in Christ while he does not follow Him fully. When the disciples forsook the Lord and fled, they escaped danger; but they were miserable and sad. When, shortly after, they confessed Him boldly before men, they were cast into prison and beaten; but we are told, “They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). Oh, for our own sakes, if there were no other reason, let us strive to be holy! He who follows Jesus most fully will always follow Him most comfortably.
h. Lastly, we must be holy, because without holiness on earth we will never be prepared to enjoy heaven. Heaven is a holy place. The Lord of heaven is a holy Being. The angels are holy creatures. Holiness is written on everything in heaven. The book of Revelation says expressly, “There shall in no wise enter into it anything that defiles, neither whatever works abomination, or makes a lie” (Rev. 21:27).
How will we ever be at home and happy in heaven if we die unholy? Death works no change. The grave makes no alteration. Each will rise again with the same character in which he breathed his last. Where will our place be if we are strangers to holiness now?
Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself, and by whose side would you sit down? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes not your tastes, their character not your character. How could you possibly be happy if you had not been holy on earth?
Now perhaps you love the company of the light and the careless, the worldly–minded and the covetous, the reveler and the pleasure–seeker, the ungodly and the profane. There will be none such in heaven.
Now perhaps you think the saints of God too strict and particular and serious. You rather avoid them. You have no delight in their society. There will be no other company in heaven.
Now perhaps you think praying and Scripture reading and hymn singing dull and melancholy and stupid work, a thing to be tolerated now and then, but not enjoyed. You reckon the Sabbath a burden and a weariness; you could not possibly spend more than a small part of it in worshiping God. But remember, heaven is a never–ending Sabbath. The inhabitants thereof rest not day or night, saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,” and singing the praise of the Lamb. How could an unholy man find pleasure in occupation such as this?
Do you think that such a one would delight to meet David and Paul and John, after a life spent in doing the very things they spoke against? Would he take sweet counsel with them and find that he and they had much in common? Do you think, above all, that he would rejoice to meet Jesus, the crucified One, face to face, after cleaving to the sins for which He died, after loving His enemies and despising His friends? Would he stand before Him with confidence and join in the cry, “This is our God . . . we have waited for Him, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Isa. 25:9)? Do you not think rather that the tongue of an unholy man would cleave to the roof of his mouth with shame, and his only desire would be to be cast out? He would feel a stranger in a land he did not know, a black sheep amid Christ’s holy flock. The voice of cherubim and seraphim, the song of angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven would be a language he could not understand. The very air would seem an air he could not breathe.
I do not know what others may think, but to me it does seem clear that heaven would be a miserable place to an unholy man. It cannot be otherwise. People may say in a vague way they “hope to go to heaven,” but they do not consider what they say. There must be a certain “fitness for the inheritance of the saints in light.” Our hearts must be somewhat in tune. To reach the holiday of glory, we must pass through the training school of grace. We must be heavenly–minded and have heavenly tastes in the life that now is, or else we will never find ourselves in heaven in the life to come.
J.C. Ryle “Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots” 1816-1900