Have you ever read something in the Bible that at first glance didn’t settle right with you? This happened to me last week when I read this line from Hebrews as part of my Bible study: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). The second line gave me pause. I thought, "Really? Without holiness no one will see the Lord?" What does that actually mean?
On its face, this proclamation seemed unrealistic. After all, who of us is truly holy, or blameless in the eyes of God? And aren’t we saved by faith rather than works? My mind reeled contemplating this seemingly contradictory statement about holiness. But a few days later I heard a sermon by my pastor, Josh Kelsey of C3 NYC Church, that began to resolve my confusion.
Kelsey’s sermon, “Teach me how to be happy,” focused on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. He highlighted that the root of each “beatitude” Jesus listed in this Sermon is actually a method for His followers to be happy. Pastor Kelsey shared a profound insight, which is, Jesus was actually saying that His followers will only be blessed (or happy) when they acknowledge that they cannot embody these beatitudes without Him.
For example, Jesus taught, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). If we apply Pastor Kelsey’s insight to Jesus’s statement on righteousness, we can see that no one can be filled with righteousness until they understand that this righteousness will not come from their own good deeds.
Jesus actually doubles down on His standard for righteousness a few verses later, saying, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
This is yet another confusing statement if we take it at face value because the Pharisees were Hebrew teachers living in the time of Jesus who strictly adhered to God’s laws. At that time, no one was considered more righteous or “holy” than the Pharisees. Yet Jesus was constantly clashing with the Pharisees, preaching that God’s love and grace overpower the shame associated with failing to meet God’s perfect standard. With this context in mind, how does it make sense for Jesus to claim that His followers have to be even more righteous than the teachers who followed the law so rigidly? The same people who He so often contradicted?
The Zondervan Life Application Bible explains, “Jesus was saying that his listeners needed a different kind of righteousness altogether (love and obedience), not just a more intense version of the Pharisees’ obedience (legal compliance)” (Zondervan NIV Life Application Bible).
So therein lies the answer to my initial confusion about the question of holiness. I was viewing holiness, righteousness, and essentially all of the beatitudes from a worldly perspective, thinking that Jesus’s statement meant we all have to work to achieve a certain level of godliness. While it’s true that faith in Jesus starts a process of sanctification (or gradual growth toward becoming more like Him through reliance on the Holy Spirit), the bottom line is that the minute you accept Jesus as your savior, you are covered by HIS holiness and HIS righteousness.
Theologians refer to this as imputed righteousness. This doesn’t mean you will be completely without sin here on earth. But if you are feeling discouraged by your failure to measure up to God's standard for holiness, take heart and know that is actually the Holy Spirit transforming your desires to align with God’s. The very recognition of your inadequacy is what brought you to Jesus in the first place, and your continued acknowledgment will help you rely more on the Holy Spirit, who will push you to become more like Jesus, the Holy of Holies.
“He has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Timothy 1:9).