More Like Jesus: Holiness (Part 1)

September 6, 2016

by Peter Amsterdam

(This article is based on key points from the book The Pursuit of Holiness, by Jerry Bridges.1)

One of the key Bible passages quoted in this series is Ephesians 4:22–24:

Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

This passage instructs we who are new creations2 to put on the new self which is created after the likeness of God, expressed here as true righteousness and holiness. For many, the word “holiness,” or the concept of “being holy,” brings to mind legalistic obedience or the distasteful holier-than-thou attitude. That isn’t what the apostle Paul is speaking about.3

Holiness is one of the attributes of God, part of His essential being. He is distinct, set apart, different from and greater than anything or anyone else that exists; He is also morally pure. His holiness is the essential difference between God and man. While we might be able to reflect God through doing holy acts, God is holiness. His holiness is an absence of evil, a perfect freedom from all evil. As humans, we are not capable of this. In 1 John 1:5, we read that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. Light and darkness, when used this way in Scripture, have a greater significance than daylight and nighttime. John is telling us that God is absolutely free from any moral evil and that He is Himself the essence of moral purity.4

God is always in perfect conformity to His own character and always acts consistently with His holy character. Because He is holy, all of His actions are holy. Therefore we can be confident that His actions toward us are always perfect and just. God can never be unfair, as being so would be contrary to His essential nature.

Because God is holy, we too are called to be holy. The apostle Peter wrote:

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”5

The Greek word translated here as conduct means manner of life, conduct, behavior, and deportment, the manner in which a person behaves. Elsewhere, Scripture teaches that we are to make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.6

Since God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is holy, we who wish to be godly or Christlike must also be holy. Of course, it’s not possible for us to be completely holy, as we are human and we sin. Nevertheless, holiness is part of our walk with the Lord and of becoming more like Him.

Holiness has two meanings. The first refers to separation or apartness. In the OId Testament, Israel was called a “holy people” because they belonged exclusively to God and were separate from other nations. This paralleled God’s separation or “otherness” from all created things. The concept of Christians as a holy people is also seen in the New Testament:

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.7

God’s people are holy by virtue of belonging uniquely to Him.

The second meaning of “holy” refers to purity and cleanness. The Old Testament contains much about ritual holiness, including ceremonial cleansing and distinctions between clean and unclean foods. It also speaks of being cleansed from sin:

For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins.8

In the New Testament Jesus did away with ritual/ceremonial purity and put focus on inward purity, moral purity, purity of the heart.9

Through salvation we become holy (sanctified).10 We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.11 And yet, though we have been forgiven for our sins, we are by no means without sin. While sin no longer reigns in our lives, it is still present within us. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.12 Clearly we still commit sins, yet if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.13

Sin doesn’t have the same grip on us that it had before salvation, but we still grapple with it. We are in a sense made “holy” at salvation, but there is also a progressive transformational process which we go through for the rest of our lives—a growth in holiness. The apostle Paul expressed it this way:

We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.14

This growth in holiness isn’t automatic; it requires effort, as seen in the imagery of running a race:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.15

There is a continual laying aside of sin throughout the “race” of our lives. We will never achieve complete Christlikeness nor eradicate sin in our earthly life. Yet, while we know that this will only fully happen in the life to come, we are called to work toward it in our present life.

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.16 

The words purifies and pure in that last sentence both come from the same Greek word that was used to express holiness and holy.

We should work to conform our whole person to the likeness of God—our heart, emotions, mind, soul, and spirit. As these become progressively transformed, the actions of our body will reflect that inner transformation; our actions, our words, our interaction with others will reflect Christ. As the apostle Paul wrote:

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.17

Author J. Rodman Williams wrote:

In the area of spirit surely much in the believer needs a continuing cleansing. There may be pride or haughtiness of spirit that needs reduction to humility, bitterness of spirit that needs a sweetening by God’s Spirit, a judgmental spirit that needs to be refined by love, a fretful spirit that needs to be renewed in calmness and peace. To these may be added especially an unforgiving spirit that needs to be released from hardness and ingratitude.18

Scripture points out the need for transformation through continual renewal of the mind: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.19 We’re called to develop a scriptural mindset so that our values, desires, and morals are based on the teachings of the Bible rather than on society’s norms.

Becoming more like Jesus means that our feelings, emotions, desires, and passions also need to become Christlike: training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.20 Thus anger, envy, covetousness, lust, and jealousy need to be transformed into Christlike feelings.

Godliness also calls for transforming our will to be in alignment with His will as revealed in Scripture. We embrace what God wills and say no to what defies Him. Our choices, decisions, and actions are in harmony with His will and nature as revealed in His Word. God’s grace helps us make right moral choices.

Transformation to Christlikeness is holistic in that it transforms our total person. It’s a process which begins at the time of our salvation and continues throughout our life. It is achieved through God’s grace and the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, but this doesn’t mean that God transforms us into Christlikeness with no effort on our part. When we are serious about being more like Jesus, we of course pray for the Lord to change us, but we also make decisions that move us toward holiness and we put those decisions into practice.

The act of putting off the old self and putting on the new, as expressed in Ephesians 4:20–24, refers to transformation and holiness, as these acts both require putting off sin and putting on righteousness. The apostle Paul lists specifics in Colossians 3:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. … Now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.21

Paul then follows with the positive:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.22

Christlikeness calls us to discipline ourselves and take a stance against the negative actions, impulses, and thoughts in our hearts and minds that lead to sin; and to embrace the virtues, values, and morals that reflect God’s nature. The next few articles will touch on sin—the “putting off” side of holiness, what we need to eliminate from our lives in order to be more like Jesus. After that, the focus will shift to the “putting on” side—developing within us the things which bring Christlikeness into our lives.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006).

2 2 Corinthians 5:17.

3 For a fuller explanation of the holiness of God, see The Heart of It All: The Nature and Character of God.

4 Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness, 22–23.

5 1 Peter 1:14–16.

6 Hebrews 12:14 NIV.

7 1 Peter 2:9.

8 Leviticus 16:30.

9 Matthew 5:8.

10 The Greek word hagios and its cognates are translated in the New Testament as holy, holiness, sanctify, sanctification.

11 Hebrews 10:10.

12 1 John 1:8.

13 1 John 1:9.

14 2 Corinthians 3:18.

15 Hebrews 12:1.

16 1 John 3:2–3.

17 2 Corinthians 7:1.

18 J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology, Book 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 93–94.

19 Romans 12:2.

20 Titus 2:12.

21 Colossians 3:5, 8–10.

22 Colossians 3:12–15.