By Chad Ragsdale
When someone asks me about God’s will for their life, my reply isn’t usually what they’re anticipating. “Be holy,” I say, for this is the Bible’s simplest solution to the problem.
“So . . . I’m trying to figure out . . . what exactly is God’s will for my life?”
Living and working among hundreds of Bible college students for several years, I’ve heard different versions of this question dozens of times. Where should I go to school? What career should I pursue? Whom should I marry? Should I get married at all?
We can, if we’re not careful, ask this question to the level of obsession. I don’t in any way wish to minimize the importance of the question. It’s a good question. We should not live our lives as if God were irrelevant or unconcerned about the decisions we make. But sometimes we make this question more difficult than it should be. I don’t believe God sits in Heaven with a divine scorecard grading how closely we follow the sovereign plan that he has decided before all time.
Romans 8:28 is familiar to those who have ever gone through a difficult time or have counseled someone who has. Paul says, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” But we stop reading too soon! Paul has just mentioned the purpose of God, which he then explains in the very next verse. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (v. 29).
When I am asked questions about God’s will, the very first thing I say is that God’s will for your life is actually pretty simple to figure out. His will is that you would grow into the likeness of Christ. Every day you live in Christ and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit should see a growing resemblance between your life and Christ.
But what exactly does it look like to be conformed to the likeness of Christ or to be an “imitator of God” (Ephesians 5:1, New International Version, 1984)? There are many possible correct answers to that question. But I believe the most concise answer in Scripture is summarized by one word loaded with meaning: holy.
When Isaiah was drawn up into the throne room of God in Isaiah 6, the seraphim called out to each other with the words, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (v. 3). When John is summoned to the throne room in Revelation 4, the heavenly beings are still singing the same song. (Some songs are always contemporary.)
There are many things the angels in Heaven could say about (and to) God. He is righteous, just, powerful, beautiful, jealous, and loving. But the angels chose holiness. All of those other characteristics give description to God’s holiness. His beauty is a holy beauty. His jealousy and power are holy. His love is a holy love. You might say that, in the end, it is holiness that truly wins!
Jesus reminds us that in our prayers we are addressing our Father in Heaven, who has a hallowed or holy name. God provides the only adequate point of reference for true holiness. God the Son makes us holy through the cross and resurrection.
One of the favorite designations for the follower of Jesus is “holy one” or “saint.” Peter calls us a “royal priesthood” and a “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). Hebrews calls us a “holy family” (3:1). For anyone who has spent much time in a church or in a Bible college dorm, to call us “holy” seems just a little optimistic. But that is what we are! We are unapologetically holy—not because we are perfect, but because our Savior is. And he died to make us holy. To call the body of Christ anything less than holy is to denigrate what happened for us on the cross.
But even though we are made holy by Christ, we are not yet the new creation God finally intends for us to be. It is left to God, the Holy Spirit—that expert on holiness—to recreate us as holy people. God is at work within me to form me gradually, and painfully, into the image of Christ. Therefore, holiness is never my own. It is something God does in me.
And here is the point: to draw near to a holy God is to grow in holiness. As Peter reminds us when he quotes Leviticus, “Just 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; cf. Leviticus 11:44, 45).
Be Set Apart
God’s will for your life and for the community of faith is to grow in holiness. But what is holiness? The simplest definition is to be pure and set apart for God. To grow in holiness is to grow in purity. To grow in holiness means that eventually the gospel actually starts to affect real-world issues like the clothes we choose to wear or not wear, the sorts of things we say or don’t say, the movies we watch or don’t watch, and the passions we pursue or don’t pursue. To grow in holiness means I’m growing to look more like the purity and righteousness of God than the corruption of the world.
But holiness is not just about morality. Holiness is also about mission. To be holy is to be distinct, but not isolated. God’s holiness did not isolate him from the world, and we mustn’t be isolated either. First Peter says we are a holy nation—a people set apart for God, but we are also a royal priesthood. It is a pretty lousy priest who tries to do his job in isolation from broken people.
To be holy is to be dedicated to God’s mission in this broken world. In the Old Testament, the people were told to select animals without blemish or imperfection for their sacrifices. Holy sacrifices to a holy God. Paul says in Romans 12 that we—those who have been made holy by Christ—do not rest in our holiness. We are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. Holiness calls us to God’s mission. Holiness is an invitation to die.
Avoid These Idols
So, how are you doing with that? If you are anything like me, and I think you are, the call to holiness is a persistent struggle for you. What things constantly get in our way when it comes to pursuing holiness? I believe there are at least three idols we permit to replace holiness in our Christian life.
The first idol is perhaps the biggest: happiness. Oswald Chambers said, “Holiness, not happiness, is the chief end of man.” Oh, but happiness is so much more fun. Holiness isn’t going to get that laugh from your coworkers. Holiness isn’t going to give me that brief feeling of satisfaction I might get from tearing down my neighbor behind her back. Holiness isn’t as fun as giving into our anger or our lust.
Pursuing a holy life may actually make me miserable for a time because, let’s face it, it’s always easier and more enjoyable in that moment to let the flesh have its victories here and there. If I’m honest with myself, there are many days I would rather be happy than holy.
The second idol is the most seductive: relevance. Christians are pretty good at turning their lack of holiness into an evangelistic strategy. We kind of enjoy being able to say, “I’m not like those other judgmental Christians (by which we usually mean those nasty, out-of-touch types of Christians who actually abstain from certain things of the world). I’m just like you. I’ve got the same exact problems, the same addictions, the same hang-ups. I know the same pop culture references as you do. I’m not uptight. I can talk like you and dress just like you. I’m relevant!”
We are so busy trying to prove our relevance that we actually sell the gospel short. We easily talk about a God who radically loves the sinner (which he does), but have very little time to talk about a holy God who calls his people to be holy. Holiness just isn’t cool and contemporary. If I’m honest with myself, there are many days I would rather be relevant than holy.
The third idol is the most surprising: sincerity. We have been trained, and trained well, to avoid hypocrisy at all costs. It ranks just behind judgmentalism as the worst of all contemporary sins. We are so determined to defeat hypocrisy that we have turned the word holy into a put-down.
Nowadays it is difficult to even use the word holy without a trace of sarcasm in our voices. Is there anything that makes us feel better about ourselves than calling someone holier than thou? Or, if we’re really nasty, we’ll even call that person a legalist or a Pharisee, just because they have high moral standards. We’ve turned the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector on its head. It is now the tax collector who thanks God for making him a sinner unlike that nasty hypocrite of a Pharisee.
In his book Small Faith, Great God, N.T. Wright says there are actually two different types of hypocrisy—one to avoid and one to embrace. The type of hypocrisy we should avoid is the hypocrisy of pride and self-righteousness. There is also the hypocrisy we must learn to embrace. The world tells us we must always be authentic and sincere. We must avoid being fake at all costs. We must avoid doing anything or pursuing anything that we aren’t really passionate about. We’ve made sincerity a greater virtue than holiness. But Paul tells us to put on Christ, to clothe ourselves with Christ, and to be crucified with Christ. I suppose he meant we should do so even when we don’t particularly feel like it. But I so often will guard my sincerity at the cost of my holiness.
Holiness is not the popular answer when asking about God’s will for your life. It’s not hip. It’s not “relevant.” It actually sounds so (brace yourself) traditional.
It may be good to be reminded every so often that Christ is not interested in calling his people to be popular, hip, or even relevant. He has called us to be holy. It may not be the most popular answer, but it is the most biblical answer. And if those of us who are following Christ are at all concerned about “imitating God” or “being conformed to the image of his Son,” then we must be willing to engage in the often difficult and painful task of removing these idols from our lives.
Chad Ragsdale serves as professor of New Testament and assistant academic dean at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.