Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what holiness is, and how to reflect the holiness of God through Christ in a sinful world.

Believers are called to holy living. This is the clear teaching of the Bible.

As we continue our series on holiness we want to consider the question, “How then does the believer cultivate holiness?”

We will look at seven different ways.

The first way is to know and love Scripture. We should also consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ. Today we will discuss the third, and four aspects of holiness.

Strive for daily repentance before God.

Never rise above the publican’s petition, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Remember Luther’s advice that God would have His people exercise “lifelong repentance.”

Furthermore, believe that Christ is mighty to preserve you alive by His Spirit.

You live through union with Christ, therefore live unto His righteousness. His righteousness is greater than your unrighteousness. His Saviorhood is greater than your sinfulness. His Spirit is within you.

1 John 4:4, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”

Do not despair. You are strong in Him, alive in Him, and victorious in Him. Satan may win many skirmishes, but the war is yours, the victory is yours (1 Cor. 15:57; Rom. 8:37). In Christ, the optimism of divine grace reigns over the pessimism of human nature.

Fourth, we cultivate holiness through prayer and work.

Pray and work in dependence upon God for holiness. No one but God is sufficient to bring clean out of unclean (Job 14:4). Hence, pray with David, “create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps. 51:10).

And as you pray, work.

The Heidelberg Catechism (Question 116) points out that prayer and work belong together. They are like two oars, which when both are utilized, will keep a rowboat moving forward. If you use only one oar—if you pray without working or you work without praying—you will row in circles.

Holiness and prayer have much in common.

Both are central to the Christian life and faith; they are obligatory, not optional. Both originate with God and focus upon Him. Both are activated, often simultaneously, by the Spirit of God. Neither can survive without the other. Both are learned by experience and through spiritual battles. Neither is perfected in this life, but must be cultivated lifelong. The most prayerful often feel themselves to be not prayerful enough; the most holy often regard themselves as unholy.

Holiness and work also have many ties.

Holiness and work are also closely related, especially the work of nurturing and persevering in personal discipline. Discipline takes time and effort. Paul exhorted Timothy, “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). Holiness is not achieved sloppily or instantaneously. Holiness is a call to a disciplined life; it cannot live out what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace—that is, grace which forgives without demanding repentance and obedience. Holiness is costly grace—grace that cost God the blood of His Son, cost the Son His own life, and costs the believer daily mortification. With Paul, he died daily (1 Cor. 15:31).

When you fail, do not despair.

Gracious holiness calls for continual commitment, continual diligence, continual practice, and continual repentance. “If we sometimes through weakness fall into sin, we must not therefore despair of God’s mercy, nor continue in sin, since we have an external covenant of grace with God.”1 Rather, resolve with Jonathan Edwards: “Never to give over, nor in the least to slacken, my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.”2

These two things, fighting against sin and lack of success, appear contradictory, but they are not. Failing and becoming a failure are two different matters. The believer recognizes he will often fail. Luther said that the righteous man feels himself more often to be a “loser than a victor” in the struggle against sin, “for the Lord lets him be tested and assailed to his utmost limits as gold is tested in a furnace.”3 This too is an important component of discipleship. The godly man will persevere even through his failures. Failure does not make him quit; it makes him repent the more earnestly and press on in the Spirit’s strength.

“For the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity” (Prov 24:16).

As John Owen wrote, “God works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.”4

Let us never forget that the God we love loves holiness. This is why the Father offers us affectionate, chastising discipline (Heb. 12:5-6, 10). Perhaps William Gurnall says it best: “God would not rub so hard if it were not to fetch out the dirty that is ingrained in our natures. God loves purity so well He had rather see a hole than spot in his child’s garments.”5

So, pray and work, but remember: we are utterly dependent upon Him in our prayers, and also in our work (Philippians 2:12-13).

Next Post: Worldliness, Fellowship in the local Church, and submission to God.

1. “Baptism Form,” in The Psalter¸ 126.

2. For Edwards’s seventy resolutions to promote holiness made at nineteen years of age, see The Works of Jonathan Edwards (1834; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 1:xx-xxii.

3. Luther: Lectures on Romans, trans. And ed. William pauck (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 189.

4. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, (1851; reprint, London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 6:20.

5. Quoted in I.D.E. Thomas, The Golden Treasury of Puritan Quotations (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), 140.