Holiness Is Not an Option! A.W. TOZER
As he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15–16)
YOU CANNOT STUDY THE BIBLE diligently and earnestly without being struck by an obvious fact – the whole matter of personal holiness is highly important to God!
Neither do you have to give long study to the attitudes of modern Christian believers to discern that by and large we consider the expression of true Christian holiness to be just a matter of personal option: “I have looked it over and considered it, but I don’t buy it!”
I have always liked the word exhort better than command so I remind you that Peter has given every Christian a forceful extortation to holiness of life and conversation. He clearly bases this exhortation on two great facts – first, the character of God, and second, the command of God.
His argument comes out so simply that we sophisticates stumble over it – God’s children ought to be holy because God Himself is holy! We so easily overlook the fact that Peter was an apostle and he is here confronting us with the force of an apostolic injunction, completely in line with the Old Testament truth concerning the person and character of God and also in line with what the Lord Jesus had taught and revealed to His disciples and followers.
Personally, I am of the opinion that we who claim to be apostolic Christians do not have the privilege of ignoring such apostolic injunctions. I do not mean that a pastor can forbid or that a church can compel. I only mean that morally we dare not ignore this commandment, “Be holy.”
We cannot ignore it
Because it is an apostolic word, we must face up to the fact that we will have to deal with it in some way, and not ignore it – as some Christians do.
Certainly no one has provided us with an opinion in this matter. Who has ever given us the right or the privilege to look into the Bible and say, “I am willing to consider this matter and if I like it, I will buy it” – using the language of the day.
There is something basically wrong with our Christianity and our spirituality if we can carelessly presume that if we do not like a Biblical doctrine and choose not to “buy” it, there is no harm done.
Commandments which we have received from our Lord or from the apostles cannot be overlooked or ignored by earnest and committed Christians. God has never instructed us that we should weigh His desires for us and His commandments to us in the balances of our own judgment and then decide what we want to do about them.
A professing Christian may say, “I have found a place of real Christian freedom; these things just don’t apply to me.”
Of course you can walk out on it! God has given every one of us the power to make our own choices. I am not saying that we are forced to bow our necks to this yoke and we do not have to apply it to ourselves. It is true that if we do not like it, we can turn our backs on it.
The record in the New Testament is plain on this point – many people followed Jesus for a while and then walked away from Him.
Once Jesus said to His disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Many looked at one another and then walked away from Him.
Jesus turned to those remaining and said, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (6:67).
Peter gave the answer which is still my answer today: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life” (6:68).
Those were wise words, indeed, words born of love and devotion.
Forced to make a choice
So, we are not forced to obey in the Christian life, but we are forced to make a choice at many points in our spiritual maturity.
We have that power within us to reject God’s instruction – but where else shall we go? If we refuse His words, which way will we turn? If we turn away from the authority of God’s Word, to whose authority do we yield? Our mistake is that we generally turn to some other human – a man with breath in his nostrils.
I am old-fashioned about the Word of God and its authority. I am committed to believe that if we ignore it or consider this commandment optional, we jeopardize our souls and earn for ourselves severe judgment to come.
Now, brethren, I have said that the matter of holiness is highly important to God. I have personally counted in an exhaustive concordance and found that the word holiness occurs 650 times in the Bible. I have not counted words with a similar meaning in English, such as sanctify and sanctified, so the count would jump nearer to a thousand if we counted these other words with the same meaning.
This word holy is used to describe the character of angels, the nature of heaven and the character of God. It is written that angels are holy and those angels who gaze down upon the scenes of mankind are called the watchers and holy ones.
It is said that heaven is a holy place where no unclean thing can enter in. God Himself is described by the adjective holy – Holy Ghost, Holy Lord and Holy Lord God Almighty. These words are used of God throughout the Bible, showing that the highest adjective that can be ascribed to God, the highest attribute that can be ascribed to God is that of holiness, and, in a relative sense, even the angels in heaven partake of the holiness of God.
We note in the Bible, too, that the absence of holiness is given as a reason for not seeing God. I am aware of some of the grotesque interpretations which have been given to the text, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14b). My position is this: I will not throw out this Bible text just because some people have misused it to support their own patented theory about holiness. This text does have a meaning and it ought to disturb us until we have discovered what it means and how we may meet its conditions.
What does holiness really mean?
What does this word holiness really mean? Is it a negative kind of piety from which so many people have shied away?
No, of course not! Holiness in the Bible means moral wholeness – a positive quality which actually includes kindness, mercy, purity, moral blamelessness and godliness. It is always to be thought of in a positive, white intensity of degree. Whenever it is written that God is holy it means that God is kind, merciful, pure and blameless in a white, holy intensity of degree. When used of men, it does not mean absolute holiness as it does of God, but it is still the positive intensity of the degree of holiness – and not negative.
This is why true Bible holiness is positive – a holy man can be trusted. A holy man can be tested. People who try to live by a negative standard of piety, a formula that has been copyrighted by other humans, will find that their piety does not stand up in times of difficult testing.
Genuine holiness can be put into the place of testing without fear. Whenever there is a breakdown of holiness, that is proof there never was any real degree of holiness in the first place.
Personally, I truly have been affected in my heart by reading the testimonies and commentaries of humble men of God whom I consider to be among the great souls of Christian church history.
I have learned from them that the word and idea of holiness as originally used in the Hebrew did not have first of all the moral connotation. It did not mean that God first of all was pure, for that was taken for granted!
The original root of the word holy was of something beyond, something strange and mysterious and awe-inspiring. When we consider the holiness of God we talk about something heavenly, full of awe, mysterious and fear-inspiring. Now, this is supreme when it relates to God, but it is also marked in men of God and deepens as men become more like God.
It is a sense of awareness of the other world, a mysterious quality and difference that has come to rest upon some men – that is a holiness. Now, if a man should have that sense and not be morally right, then I would say that he is experiencing a counterfeit of the devil.
Whenever Satan has reason to fear a truth very gravely, he produces a counterfeit. He will try to put that truth in such a bad light that the very persons who are most eager to obey it are frightened away from it. Satan is very sly and very experienced in the forming of parodies of truth which he fears the most, and then pawns his parody off as the real thing and soon frightens away the serious-minded saints.
I regret to say that some who have called themselves by a kind of copyrighted name of holiness have allowed the doctrine to harden into a formula which has become a hindrance to repentance, for this doctrine has been invoked to cover up frivolity and covetousness, pride and worldliness.
I have seen the results. Serious, honest persons have turned away from the whole idea of holiness because of those who have claimed it and then lived selfish and conceited lives.
But, brethren, we are still under the holy authority of the apostolic command. Men of God have reminded us in the Word that God does ask us and expect us to be holy men and women of God, because we are the children of God, who is holy. The doctrine of holiness may have been badly and often wounded – but the provision of God by His pure and gentle and loving Spirit is still the positive answer for those who hunger and thirst for a life and spirit well-pleasing to God.
When a good man with this special quality and mysterious Presence is morally right and walking in all the holy ways of God and carries upon himself without even knowing it the fragrance of a kingdom that is supreme above the kingdoms of this world, I am ready to accept that as being of God and from God!
The illustration of Moses
By way of illustration, remember that Moses possessed these marks and qualities when he came down from the mount. He had been there with God 40 days and 40 nights – and when he came back everyone could tell where he had been. The lightning still played over his countenance, the glory of the Presence remained. This strange something which men cannot pin down or identify was there.
I lament that this mysterious quality of holy Presence has all but forsaken the earth in our day. Theologians long ago referred to it as the numinous, meaning that overplus of something that is more than righteous, but is righteous in a fearful, awe inspiring, wondrous, heavenly sense. It is as though it is marked with a brightness, glowing with a mysterious fire.
We have reduced God to our terms
I have commented that this latter quality has all but forsaken the earth and I think the reason is very obvious. We are men who have reduced God to our own terms. In the context of the Christian church, we are now told to “gossip” the gospel and “sell” Jesus to people!
We still talk about righteousness, but we are lacking in that bright quality, that numinous which is beyond description.
This mysterious fire was in the bush as you will remember from the Old Testament. A small fire does not frighten people unless it spreads and gets out of control. We are not afraid of fire in that sense, yet we read how Moses, kneeling beside a bush where a small fire burned, hid his face for he was afraid! He had met that mysterious quality. He was full of awe in that manifested Presence.
Later, alone in the mountain and at the sounding of a trumpet, Moses shook, and said, “I am fearfully afraid, and quake.”
We are drawn again and again to that Shekinah that was over Israel for it sums up wonderfully this holiness of God’s Presence. There was the overhanging cloud not made of water vapor, not casting a shadow anywhere, mysterious.
As the light of day would begin to fade, that cloud began to turn incandescent and when the darkness had settled, it shone brightly like one vast light hanging over Israel.
Every tent in that diamond-shaped encampment was fully lighted by the strange Shekinah that hung over it. No man had built that fire. No one added any fuel – no one stoked or controlled it. It was God bringing Himself within the confines of the human eye and shining down in His Presence over Israel.
I can imagine a mother taking her little child by the hand to walk through the encampment.
I am sure she would kneel down and whisper to the little fellow: “I want to show you something wonderful. Look! Look at that!”
Probably the response would be: “What is it, Mama?”
Then she would reply in a hushed voice: “That is God – God is there! Our leader Moses saw that fire in the bush. Later, he saw that fire in the mountain. Since we left Egypt that fire of God has followed us and hovered over us all through these years.”
“But how do you know it is God, Mama?”
“Because of the Presence in that fire, the mysterious Presence from another world.”
This Shekinah, this Presence, had no particular connotation of morality for Israel – that was all taken for granted. It did hold the connotation and meaning of reverence and awe, the solemn and inspiring, different and wonderful and glorious – all of that was there as it was also in the temple.
Then it came down again at Pentecost – that same fire sitting upon each of them – and it rested upon them with an invisible visibility. If there had been cameras, I do not think those tongues of fire could have been photographed – but they were there. It was the sense of being in or surrounded by this holy element, and so strong was it that in Jerusalem when the Christians gathered on Solomon’s porch, the people stood off from them as wolves will stand away from a bright camp fire. They looked on, but the Bible says “no one else dared join them” (Acts 5:13a).
Why? Were they held back by any prohibition or restriction?
No one had been warned not to come near these praying people, humble and harmless, clean and undefiled. But the crowd could not come. They could not rush in and trample the place down. They stood away from Solomon’s porch because they had sensed a holy quality, a mysterious and holy Presence within this company of believers.
Later, when Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians to explain the mysterious fullness of the Holy Spirit of God, he said: “Some of you, when you meet together and you hear and obey God, know there is such a sense of God’s presence that the unbelievers fall on their faces and then go out and report that God is with you indeed.”
Now, that kind of Presence emanates from God as all holiness emanates from God.
If we are what we ought to be in Christ and by His Spirit, if the whole sum of our lives beginning with the inner life is becoming more Godlike and Christlike, I believe something of that divine and mysterious quality and Presence will be upon us.
Saints with holy brightness
I have met a few of God’s saints who appeared to have this holy brightness upon them, but they did not know it because of their humility and gentleness of spirit. I do not hesitate to confess that my fellowship with them has meant more to me than all of the teaching I have ever received. I do stand deeply indebted to every Bible teacher I have had through the years, but they did little but instruct my head. The brethren I have known who had this strange and mysterious quality and awareness of God’s Person and Presence instructed my heart.
Do we understand what a gracious thing it is to be able to say of a man, a brother in the Lord, “He is truly a man of God”? He doesn’t have to tell us that, but he lives quietly and confidently day by day with the sense of this mysterious, awe-inspiring Presence that comes down on some people and means more than all the glib tongues in the world!
Actually, I am afraid of all the glib tongues. I am afraid of the man who can always flip open his Bible and answer every question – he knows too much! I am afraid of the man who has thought it all out and has a dozen epigrams he can quote, the answers which he has thought up over the years to settle everything spiritual. Brethren, I’m afraid of it!
There is a silence that can be more eloquent than all human speech. Sometimes there is a confusion of face and bowing of the head that speaks more divine truth than the most eloquent preacher can impart.
So, Peter reminds us that it is the Lord who has said: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).
First, bring your life into line morally so that God can make it holy; then bring your spiritual life into line that God may settle upon you with the Holy Ghost – with that quality of the Wonderful and the Mysterious and the Divine.
You do not cultivate it and you do not even know it, but it is there and it is this quality of humility invaded by the Presence of God which the church of our day lacks. Oh, that we might yearn for the knowledge and Presence of God in our lives from moment to moment, so that without human cultivation and without toilsome seeking there would come upon us this enduement that gives meaning to our witness! It is a sweet and radiant fragrance and I suggest that in some of our churches it may be strongly sensed and felt.
Now that I have said that, I had better stop and predict that some will ask me, “You don’t go by your feelings, do you, Mr. Tozer?”
Well, I do not dismiss the matter of feeling and you can quote me on that if it is worth it!
Feeling is an organ of knowledge and I do not hesitate to say so. Feeling is an organ of knowledge.
To develop this, will you define the word love for me?
I don’t believe you can actually define love – you can describe it but you cannot define it. A person or a group of people or a race which has never heard of the word love can never come to an understanding of what love is even if they could memorize the definitions in all of the world’s dictionaries.
But just consider what happens to any simple, freckled-faced boy with his big ears and his red hair awry when he first falls in love. All at once he knows more about love than all of the dictionaries put together!
This is what I am saying – love can only be understood by the feeling of it. The same is true with the warmth of the sun. Tell a man who has no feeling that it is a warm day and he will never understand what you mean. But take a normal man who is out in the warm sun and he will soon know it is warm. You can know more about the sun by feeling than you can by description.
So there are qualities in God that can never be explained to the intellect and can only be known by the heart, the innermost being. That is why I say that I do believe in feeling. I believe in what the old writers called religious affection – and we have so little of it because we have not laid the groundwork for it. The groundwork is repentance and obedience and separation and holy living!
I am confident that whenever this groundwork is laid, there will come to us this sense of the other-worldly Presence of God and it will become wonderfully, wonderfully real.
I have at times heard an expression in our prayers, “Oh, God, draw feelingly near!”
I don’t think that God is too far off – in spite of those who can only draw back and sit in judgment.
“Oh, God, come feelingly near!” God drew feelingly near to Moses in the bush and on the mount. He came feelingly near to the church at Pentecost and He came feelingly near to that Corinthian church when the unbelievers went away awe-struck to report that “God is really in their midst!”
I am willing to confess in humility that we need this in our day.