Editor’s note: This is an eight part series by Charlie on expository preaching.
- In his first post Charlie looked at the essential element of good preaching.
- In his second post Charlie looked at preaching to glorify God and transform lives.
- In his third post, he looks at how the Word of God effects transformation.
- In his fourth post, he looked at preaching the actual words of God.
- In his fifth post, he looked at prayer and communion with God.
- Today, he looks at pursuing a life of holiness.
The skies of northern India are usually pretty hazy due to pollution from factories, vehicles, and seemingly countless open fires. For most of the year, one can sit near to the foot of the largest mountain range in the world, the Himalayas, and not even see their outline. But in the fall, after the monsoon season has passed and the rains have cleansed the skies, the eye is able to behold one of the great wonders of the world. The Himalayas are massive and beautiful and awe-inspiring but in order to see and enjoy them, the skies must be clean.
In much greater measure, God is massive and beautiful and awe-inspiring but in order to gaze upon His beauty and experience His pleasures, the skies of our hearts must be clean, for without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). In Scripture, there is an unalterable connection between holiness of life and the ability to see God. This connection is vital for preaching because sermons that glorify God and transform lives require that the preacher has, in some measure, beheld God’s glory.
Indeed, effective sermons emerge as the preacher communes with God through the Word until his eyes have been opened, his soul has been shaped, and his mouth has been enabled to say what he has seen. The Word must first have power in the preacher before it has power through the preacher. This power is a fruit of unceasing communion with God, and holiness of life is the foundation of that communion. Since this is so, it is of utmost importance that we understand the nature and application of holiness, and how these things relate to preaching.
The Path and Purpose of Holiness
In his first letter, the Apostle John writes, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:1-3). In these verses, John reveals for us a two-fold dynamic between holiness and the sight of God. First, the sight of the glory of God in Christ is the path of holiness because it is the means by which the soul is purified and cleansed. The glory of God causes the soul not only to analyze and react to what it sees but to be shaped by what it sees because his glory is living and active and necessarily transfigures whatever it touches.
Second, the ultimate soul-transforming sight of the glory of God in Christ is the purpose of holiness because communion with Him is the singular reason we seek to be pure as He is pure. The passion for purity is not fundamentally about conforming our behavior to the laws of God, rather, it’s about preparing ourselves to enter into eternal union with God. Holiness is about obedience, yes, but obedience is about love (John 14:21). The children of God long to be with Him who has lavished His extraordinary love upon them, and this hope is what motivates them to pursue purity. They are made holy by the sight of God and for the sight of God, and in this way, the glory of God is both the means and the end of holiness.
Positional and Practical Holiness
Now, the only reason the children of God are willing and able to pursue purity is because Jesus Christ is purifying them for Himself (Titus 2:11-15). Indeed, Jesus has done for them what they could never do for themselves. He has cleansed them once for all in the sight of God, by grace through faith, and has thus gifted them with what might be called “positional holiness.” That is to say, by faith in Christ they have become holy and dearly loved in the sight of God. This is their position, this is their standing before God in Christ, and it is permanent. Nothing they do will either add to or take from what Christ has already done for them because what He’s done is infinitely valuable and eternally significant.
But the effect of this gift from God through Christ is that His children seek to be as He is and to live as He lives. His love toward them motivates them to love Him in return, and love displays itself in obedience. Therefore, although the children of God are holy in His sight, they do still seek by the power of God to conform their behavior to God’s desires. They love their Father; they trust their Father, they want to be with their Father, and most of all they long to be like their Father. Thus, they seek to follow in the way he says they should go. This is what might be called “practical holiness,” that is to say, the process of conforming our behavior to the desire of God our Father.
Both positional and practical holiness are the work of Christ in the children of God. He has done for them, once for all, what they were unable to do for themselves. And He is working in them, day by day, what they cannot work in themselves. Therefore, their part is simply to surrender to Him each day even as they did when they first believed. Of course, they strive to do the will of God but they strive with the strength of God, and this striving has a singular aim, namely, to widen their eyes to behold all the more of the glory of God, and to enlarge their hearts to commune all the deeper with Him who has become their Father in Christ. He Himself is their passion. He Himself is both the path and the purpose of their holiness.
Holiness of Life and Effectiveness in Preaching
The dynamic between holiness and the sight of God is vital for preaching because sermons that glorify God and transform lives emerge as the preacher, in some measure, beholds the glory about which he’s preaching. They require, not only that the preacher has understood God with his mind, but that he has been with God and thus emanates His aroma. It is the presence of God in preaching that exalts His great name and changes the hearts of hearers, and God seems to be most pleased to grant His presence when His Word and will and ways are honored in the life of the preacher. That is, when the preacher is pursuing practical holiness on the basis of his positional holiness in Christ, the Father seems glad to display His glory to the world through the preacher.
As I said, effective sermons emerge as the preacher communes with God through the Word until his eyes have been opened, his soul has been shaped, and his mouth has been enabled to say what he has seen. The Word must first have power in the preacher before it has power through the preacher. What I’ve been describing is the fruit of unceasing communion with God. Holiness of life is the foundation of that communion.
To be a bit more precise, our positional holiness in Christ is the foundation of our communion with God the Father. This foundation is unalterable and can neither be moved nor removed by our day to day lives because the work of Christ on our behalf is that strong. The power of Christ is such that no one can snatch us out of his hand, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ (John 10:28-30; Romans 8:31-39).
This truth, however, does not negate the fundamental law of holiness which says that holiness of life is necessary for beholding the glory of God. Our pursuit of practical holiness, or lack thereof, affects our ability to see God and enter into meaningful communion with Him, even though our standing in Christ is secure.
When a preacher sins by commission or omission, it’s as if the smog of transgression settles into the sky of his soul and obscures his ability to see the glory of God in the face of Christ. The outline of that glory is still perceptible to him, he can still vaguely see some of its specific contours, and the fullness of its presence is an unchangeable reality in his life. However, his sin has obscured his present sight. It has dulled his heart so that the things that once inflamed his affections have now lost their luster, in some measure, and he has to work harder to care about and delight in the things of God. Unfortunately, I’m speaking from experience.
Now, because God is so gracious He sometimes blesses our preaching in spite of our sin. How many times have I failed during the week only to watch Him pour out His power through me on Sunday morning? How many times have I sinned against my wife and others just before a service when there was no time to repent, and yet God was gracious and blessed the preaching? Even after so many years of preaching, the mercy of God is still somewhat mysterious to me. There doesn’t seem to be an exact correlation between my behavior on a given day or week and the effectiveness of my preaching.
But although I rejoice in the mercy of God and praise Him for the fruit I’ve borne in spite of my sin, I don’t want to presume upon His mercy. As one of His blood-bought children I long to be like my Father and enjoy constant communion with Him. I long for Him to use my broken life as an instrument through which others might also enter into this breath-taking fellowship we share. I long for the design of grace to take root in my life, namely, to breed a repentant and obedient heart in me. “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)
When, by the might and mercy of Christ, I do in fact surrender to the design of grace, the gracious wind of the Holy Spirit blows away the smog of transgression from the sky of my soul and reveals the awe-inspiring, worship-evoking, joy-producing sight of the glory of God in the face of Christ. What was formerly a vague outline now transforms into a crisp and penetrating vision that captivates my heart and fills my soul with power to accomplish his purposes for my life.
And this experience of the glory of God is what makes good preaching so powerful. It is not the preacher or his personality or his background or his process or his preparation or his preaching style, rather, it is the glory of God in the face of Christ penetrating into him and pouring through him.
In the next blog entry, I’ll address the relationship between love for the people of God and preaching, but for now, let me put before you several questions. Do you see the connection between holiness and the ability to see the glory of God? Do you understand the path and purpose of holiness, and if your answer is “yes,” does your manner of life display this? Do you understand the difference and relationship between positional and practical holiness? Do you see how these things have such impact on preaching for better or worse? What specifically would the Lord have you do this week to pursue holiness by His Spirit and through the Word he’s given you to preach?