10 Steps to Holiness – One: Know the Game Plan[i]
1 Peter 1:1-7
1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.[ii]
Holy Bible; Holy Trinity; Holy Catholic Church; Holy Grail; Holy Roman Empire; Holy Roller; “Holy Guacamole, Batman!” Those are all phrases we can hear both inside and outside the walls of a church.
In the Bible, the phrase “be holy” occurs 32 times in 31 verses in the English Standard Version. Peter quotes from Lev. 11:45, in 1 Pt. 1:15-16:
…but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”[iii]
Whether we use the Anglo-Saxon word “holiness” or its Latin counterpart “sanctification” we are talking about the same biblical concept. To be holy, or sanctified, means to be devoted to God, reserved for his use. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are perfectly devoted to one another in love. God commands his creatures to be lovingly devoted to him and their neighbors. Think about walking into a restaurant and seeing a table with a “Reserved” sign on it. The table has been set aside for someone else’s use. For what use has God set his people aside? The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains it: “Man’s Chief End is to Glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.”[iv] We have been “reserved” by God to glorify and enjoy him forever. That explains something of the “what” of holiness, but it doesn’t tell us the “how to.”
We’re going to spend 10 weeks on the subject of holiness (or sanctification), focusing on scripture passages central to the subject. We want to see what biblical sources tell us about what holiness is and how it’s nurtured. Most of these passages describe holiness rather than command it. They explain “how God does it” rather than providing a “how to” manual of human techniques. Compared with modern-day expectations, the New Testament has very little to say directly about the ‘how-to” of the Christian life. It is far more concerned with shaping our understanding of God’s work so that a new life gradually emerges in us organically. Yet, we will find there ARE instructions for a holy life, motives for living it, and instructions for how this is accomplished.
So, the first step in our 10 Steps to Holiness is to know the game plan – to understand what God has done for us, is doing in us, and what he will do with us. The opening of Peter’s letter to believers scattered through Roman Asia (modern Turkey) facing persecution shows us something of the big picture – God’s game plan. The apostle doesn’t start with an expression of sympathy over their troubles. Instead, he addresses them in terms of their new identity in Christ.
Peter tells them they are:
…elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood...[v]
We who trust into Christ for our salvation (and salvation includes both being declared just by God and being made holy by God), have been chosen (elect) through the love God set upon us (foreknowledge) in order to be reserved by the Spirit (sanctification) for devotion to Christ (obedience) and the enjoyment of covenant fellowship with him (sprinkling of his blood).
Peter wants believers to be clear about whose they are, who they are, and what they are in Christ. If you are trusting Christ, you are someone who has been chosen in grace, loved by the Father before he spoke time and space into existence, and are being set apart for service by the Spirit to become obedient to Messiah Jesus who shed his blood for us. Peter breaks out in praise as he writes (v. 3, Blessed be the Father…) because in Christ God had made all the provision necessary to develop our awareness of our new identity and to turn our destiny into a reality. Sanctification is God restoring in our lives his image which we were created to reflect.
In these seven verses, Peter gives the beleaguered believers of Roman Asia six foundations on which a life devoted to glorifying and enjoying God will be built and sustained. It’s comforting to know that these foundations come from the man who always spoke when he should have kept silent, and kept silent in times he should have spoken; he openly rejected Jesus to save his own skin and openly rejected Gentile believers in Antioch despite being directly taught otherwise by God in Caesarea Philippi.
Purpose of the Triune God
In the New Testament, every aspect of our salvation including our being transformed into the likeness of Christ is explained in terms of what the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all do in harmony and unity with one another. All three persons of the Godhead are always working for our salvation. Chosen by the Father, we are saved by the work of the Son and sealed and kept and made holy by the work of the Holy Spirit. God’s priority is to save (justify and sanctify) us. If MY priority is to continue to be all about me, rather than all about Jesus, it shouldn’t surprise me when my spiritual life is a frustrating experience.
So, we need to be reminded of God’s game plan on a regular basis. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit cooperate with one another, but they also co-operate with me to make me more like Christ. Whatever opposition there may be from the world, the flesh, and the devil, the great Triune God has determined to pour his energy into making us like Jesus Christ. God has in the past destined us, and in the present is transforming us, so that in the future we will be conformed to the image of his Son.
Commanded to Be Holy
Holiness is not simply God’s desire. It is his specific command. God says, “Be like me!” Later, we learn from God the Son that the fulfillment of this command is love for God and for others. That suggests that holiness is growing in holy-love and love is growing in holiness. God gave Israel liturgical practices and ceremonies to act like pop-up picture books the people could hear, see, touch, and even smell. They learned they were to be different from the world around them because they belonged to the God who redeemed them from Egyptian slavery.
As God’s revelation of himself progressed, he revealed what being devoted to him meant on a personal and moral level. Holiness meant knowing God, the Holy One, and reflecting and expressing his character – having fellowship with him in such a way that his people become like him. The prophet Isaiah showed that when he entered the temple one day and found God seated on a throne and the Seraphim shouting about God’s holiness. Isaiah realized that keeping all the Jewish dietary laws and observing the church calendar and attending the feasts, and even coming to the temple to worship were all useless if he was sinful – and he was sinful even in fulfilling the most sacred tasks.
All of Isaiah’s good deeds, all his good intentions, even his temple worship could not make him right with the Holy One of Israel. No wonder Isaiah fell apart. Precisely in the area of his strengths and gifts, he was deeply sinful. If the perfectly holy angelic creatures had to cover their faces before God, what hope did Isaiah have? Finally, he knew exactly what God’s command to be holy really meant! It was FAR more than external conformity. But from God’s holy love came God’s holy pardon as a coal from the altar of sacrifice touched his lips to atone for his guilt and purify his speech.
Only by God applying the sacrifice to Isaiah could the prophet find any relief from the crushing weight of God’s holiness. But that same act of being touched by a coal so burning hot that not even a seraph could handle it without tongs also cleansed Isaiah’s speech. It changed his heart so that the prophet could serve his neighbors by speaking the words of God to them. See the two-fold impacts of being made holy? There is Isaiah’s attraction to and fellowship with God AND his service to Israel by speaking the words of God to them. The command to be holy is a command to love God and love neighbor.
The third foundation Peter gives us is telling us we are elect exiles. In verse 17, he will tell us to conduct yourselves with fear during the time of your exile. The holy Christian is one who was once a full citizen of the sinful world but now belongs to a new, holy nation (1 Pt. 2:9). Those who trust into Christ are transformed from one thing (citizens of the God-hating world) into another thing (citizens of heaven, Phil. 1:20) because God has claimed us for himself.
The cost of no longer belonging to the old kingdom is that we are exiles. We live in a place where we do not hold citizenship. But, Peter writes in vs. 18-21 that we were bought out of the old kingdom by the precious blood of Christ whom God raised from the dead and glorified so that your faith and hope are in God. Our purchase price was exceedingly precious and comes out of the very heart of God before the world’s beginning. What was free to us was costly to him. But God’s eternal sacrificial love for us is the source of our trust and hope as we live like foreigners in a strange kingdom.
The fourth foundation of our holiness is we are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit….[vi] Sanctification, holiness, is the fruit of the Spirit’s ministry. Paul tends to emphasize the Father’s act of adopting us into the family of God, but Peter and John write in terms of the Spirit’s work of regeneration (new birth). The Spirit brings about heart-change, a rebirth that creates new affections in us. We not only experience a change of citizenship, we begin to take on the characteristics of a new family. As John put is, we are born of God; we are now the children of God; we have the seed of God living in us (1 Jn. 3:1-2, 9).
In the act of giving the believer a new heart that longs for rightness with God in Christ, the Spirit also transforms our dispositions, our desires, our affections. We love what we once despised and we despise what we once loved. Being holy is no longer a burden; it’s a privilege. But Peter isn’t done giving us the game plan.
The fifth foundation he lays is to speak of what was for him, at first, an unwelcome and unexpected lesson. In God’s plan, we will be grieved by various trials. This is not happy-clappy health and wealth theology by a long shot! But God has a purpose in our grief: …7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith …may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.[vii]
God knows what he is doing when we suffer. Our growing in holiness requires it. Difficulties, trials, opposition, suffering are the chief instruments God uses to refine his people and make them more like Jesus. If Jesus’ obedience was developed through suffering, we can’t be surprised if God uses the same game plan for us. Paul wrote:
…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. [viii]
The friction God builds into the Christian life is deliberate, strategic, and intended to produce growth in holiness.
Glory to Come
The final foundation of God’s game plan for your holiness is that your faith… may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.[ix] Our growth in holiness is intimately related to how we view the future and our grasp of the right-side up, fully-consummated Kingdom of Christ to come. This is a dominant theme in the New Testament but it tends to get short shrift in American Christian culture these days – perhaps because it’s not considered to be practical or have valuable life application.
Who needs “pie in the sky when you die” when we’re all worried about being the “best me I can be” right now? Simon Peter’s perspective is different. For him, like all the New Testament writers, the certainty of grace and glory yet to be revealed transforms the way we live here and now. God chose to devote the entire NT book of Revelation to the consummation of Christ’s Kingdom to teach us to live with a view to a future reality substantially greater than our present one.
In God’s presently upside-down Kingdom, afflictions produce glory. They are the raw materials out of which God fashions us as his works of art. Because, as Peter says, we “are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” [x] we can rejoice in the present. What will be true for us in Christ’s consummated Kingdom makes an impact on how we live now. God considers our present trials, tests, troubles, and suffering to be that which glorifies him in the here and now and that by which we learn to enjoy him forever.
On that Great Getting’ Up Morning, our holiness will be completed. We will see the face of Jesus and be transformed into the likeness of the Last Adam – fully and eternally restored to the image our father, the first Adam, destroyed in his rebellion. That is why we are already being changed “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Paul speaks of this foundation of holiness with great practical application in the here and now:
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. [xi]
How strange that there are people who believe they will be content pursuing holiness in heaven when they are content to ignore God’s calling to pursue it in this present life. Scripture presents future holiness as the consummation of what God begins in us when the Holy Spirit gives our hearts a new birth in this life. Those who will find supreme enjoyment of holiness in the “there and then” are those who want to pursue it, however imperfectly, in the “here and now.”
Peter lays out these building blocks for us so that we can build them in our thinking and living in the here and now. We want to glorify and enjoy God now because he has given us the game plan of holiness:
- The Triune God is devoted to it;
- God the Holy Father commands us to pursue it;
- Christ the Holy Son died to bring it about;
- The Holy Spirit works it in us to produce the fruit of it;
- God sends trials to us in order to produce it; and,
- The New Heaven and New Earth is full of it.
It is impossible to be devoted to glorifying and enjoying God unless and until you come to rest in the fact that Jesus lived the perfectly holy life you and I can never live on this earth; he died the death you and I deserve for our lack of perfect life-long holiness in thought, word, and deed; and he rose again from the grave as proof that his perfect works were acceptable to God the Father and are freely offered to all who will but trust into him. Our prayer is that you will find no rest and no peace until you come to rest in him whom to know is life abundant and eternal.
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. [xii]
[i] This entire series, with otherwise-noted sources, is a condensed version of Devoted to God: Blueprints For Sanctification by Sinclair Ferguson. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust (2016).
[iv] Morton H. Smith, Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession Standards, electronic ed. (Greenville SC: Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Press, 1996), 2.