Theology in 3D

The Sprint for Peace and Holiness (Part 2)

Greg Stiekes | January 30, 2018
New Testament

In Part 1 of this post, I pointed out that running the Christian race in Hebrews 12 is given practical definition in verse 14 of that chapter. Here, the writer of Hebrews encourages believers,

“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).

The word “strive,” in context, refers to the sprinting pace a runner in the ancient games would exert as he sped the distance of one stadia, the finish line always in sight.

But why sprint for “peace” and “holiness”? Because these two virtues are indispensable qualities that define the people of God. Peace with all people refers primarily to relationships with others in the body of Christ. Peace with one another is the visible expression to unbelievers that those who know Christ are genuinely at peace with God (Rom 5:1). Holiness, the kind that will determine whether we will one day be with the Lord, is about our relationship to the Lord himself. Holiness has to do both with my devotion to the Lord as well as my subsequent separation or distinction from the sinful world. I am holy before the Lord in my new position in Christ, but I am called to live a holy life, turning my position into practice.

Today, I would like to take these observations one step further. Why sprint for “peace” and “holiness”? Because peace and holiness go together in the church. You cannot have the one without the other. These two virtues are not only indispensable, but they are also inseparable.

THERE IS NO TRUE PEACE WITHOUT HOLINESS.

Peace without holiness means that we all get along with each other only because no one is allowed to say, this is right or this is wrong. Peace without holiness is the disposition that settles into a Christian community when when the behavior and beliefs of the people do not matter much to anyone, or at least they are not emphasized. It is a community where conflict is avoided at the expense of right doctrine and right living. A community in which its members are content to “live and let live. They “agree to disagree.”

But that disposition is not true peace. It’s merely tolerance. Tolerance can resemble peace because a doctrine of tolerance creates an atmosphere in which it is considered high-minded or arrogant to say that one way or one idea is better than another. Tolerance means that I can hold my own views, but I am also expected to affirm the views of others as equal to or better than my own. Tolerance is a dangerous affront to holiness because it robs the soul of the conviction necessary to discern what is good from bad, or better from best (Heb 5:11b–14).

However, the apostle Paul does not instruct us to be eager to maintain the tolerance of the Spirit by means of the bonds of peace, he says the unity of the Spirit (cf. Eph 4:3). Because faith in Jesus Christ and the resulting indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit produces genuine peace with a holy God and a genuine desire and enabling to live a life of holiness. This is the reason Peter is able to urge believers toward peace on the basis of holiness:

“Let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it” (1 Pet 3:11).

“Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Pet 3:14).

This is a true peace that comes when we agree to believe the same thing about the gospel and the theological and practical implications of the gospel. This is a peace that comes when we agree to live the same way, namely, in holiness before the Lord, living a life that is distinct from the lost world around us. In the church, we unite around sound doctrine, affirming what we believe and how we live. We do not “agree to disagree,” we “agree to agree” in faith and practice.

This does not mean that we see eye-to-eye on every little point of doctrine or practical question. And it does not mean that we lack the freedom to make choices for ourselves and our family. But it does mean that we are endeavoring to live holy lives as God gives us grace, and that we share in that effort with those whom we have come to love in the community of faith.

We are not a truly unified church unless we can affirm peace and holiness. We cannot merely unite, but we must unite around truth and obedience. For our devotion to the Lord and his truth—our commitment to a holy life and holy doctrine—is the very thing that unites us in the first place.

THERE IS NO TRUE HOLINESS WITHOUT PEACE.

Not only is there no true peace without holiness, but the converse is also true. There is no true holiness without peace. The church cannot simply enforce a code of holy conduct upon a group of people apart from the genuine peace from the Holy Spirit alive in the hearts of those people. Holiness is something that we pursue because we desire the follow the Lord who has brought us into true peace before God the Father.

There have been periods of history in which the church has postured itself politically over geographic areas in order to mandate and maintain religious obedience under threat of punishment. Imagine living in Geneva in the 16th century when John Calvin was initiating his reforms. John Calvin was a brilliant theologian and zealous for the purity of the church. But he believed in enforcing holiness, pushing forward mandatory religious reforms for all citizens.

For instance, I have read that if you lived in Geneva at that time you were not allowed under penalty of law to say anything good about the pope, nor to practice any kind of ritual that was associated with Roman Catholicism. You were required by law to give your children Bible names. You were required to attend all preaching services, arrive on time, remain for the whole service, and stay awake. Once, a man left during the sermon and was arrested and imprisoned.

In Geneva at that time, I understand, you may have been sitting in your house with your family one evening when there could be a knock at the door from the church officials. They had the right to enter your home, have a look around, ask questions, and discern whether you were living according to the standards of the church. Besides that, there were spies everywhere who could report you to the church authorities. No one was allowed by penalty of law to gamble, to drink excessively, to sing inappropriate songs, or to dance.

And there are many times in history where similar policies were adopted by the church. There are examples of these kinds of approaches to holiness in Catholic history, Anglican history, and Puritan history.

Now, the people living under those religious governments probably thought twice before breaking one of the Ten Commandments. They certainly spent much time in church and probably did many good works. But do you imagine that there was a lot of joy or unity or peace? No. Because theirs was a system that merely regulates external behavior through fear and threat of corporal punishment. The church cannot through this kind of policy change the heart of a person. The Mosaic Law demonstrated this fact for centuries (Rom 8:3–4), preparing the way for Christ and his salvation which would bring his people into a relationship of peace with God the Father. It is only in this relationship that true holiness can flourish.

On a personal level, regulating behavior through strict adherence to religious standards in an effort to create some measure of peace with God, while ignoring the teaching of the gospel that the believer is already at peace with God, is enslaving. True holiness begins with the freedom that I have through Christ to walk in the Spirit because he has already brought me into peace with God (see Rom 8:1–6).

If peace without holiness is tolerance, then holiness without peace is legalism.

Rather, says our author, we must sprint after both peace and holiness. We must pursue true peace which unites around the doctrines of a holy God, and we must pursue true holiness on the basis of what Christ has done through the Spirit to bring us into harmony with God the Father. To the extent that we are pursuing these virtues, peace and holiness, we are running the race as God intended.

How is your sprinting?


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