The Duty of Holiness


A story is told of an old man who later in his life believed the gospel and was saved. After some time being a member of a local church, there was a fundraiser that was organised. One of the requirements for the day was that church members would wear t-shirts with a Christian message printed in the front. This presented a dilemma for this old man since he was illiterate and was embarrassed to say so. He experienced a lot of stress thinking about what exactly he would print on his t-shirt.

One day as he was walking in town he saw a poster on a shop window with something written on it. He took it home and gave it to his wife who also could not read, and she copied the words onto his t-shirt. When the big day came, everyone was wearing a t-shirt of their own with words like, “I love Jesus,” “I’m with Christ” and so on. But the attention was on the old man; people were commending him for the message on his t-shirt and how appropriate it was. Curious of what it said, he took a young man aside and asked him what was written on the t-shirt. And this is what it said: ‘Under New Management’. Though originally it meant the shop he took the paper from was under new management, on his t-shirt it meant that he was a new creature in Christ and was now under the new management of the Holy Spirit.

Life in the Spirit can be described with those three words; it is life under new management. A Christian is no longer led by the flesh but is now led by the Spirit.

Life in the Spirit is a life characterised by holiness.

Paul demonstrates that fact in Romans 8. In verses 1–10 he explains and outlines the privileges that Christian’s have in Christ. Then in verses 12–13, in light of these privileges that we have, he highlights the Christians’ responsibility.

Paul wants to show us that life in the Spirit is a life characterised by holiness. A clear demonstration that one indeed has the Holy Spirit residing in them will be displayed clearly in their pursuit of a holy life.

Paul develops this idea in verse 12–13 by showing us at least two facts about pursuing a holy life: holiness is a duty, and holiness is a fight. We’ll address the first here and the second in a follow up post.

Holiness Is A Duty

After Paul has shown us the privileges we have in Christ, he goes on to outline our responsibilities as Christians. In other words, a clear demonstration of life in the Spirit will be displayed in the way we live our lives. The motivation for this kind of life is what God has already done in your life.

Paul goes on to show that because of our relationship with God in Christ and the Spirit living in us, our relationship with sin is totally changed. Pay careful attention to what he says in verse 12, “we are debtors, not to the flesh to live according to the flesh.” This underscores the reality of what God has accomplished in us through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. What Paul is saying is ‘your relationship with sin is not what it used to be before you were a Christian.’ Paul speaks now of a present reality.

What You Formerly Were

To understand this present reality, it is important to look back and be reminded of what life without Christ is like or what the life of one who is not indwelled by the Holy Spirit looks like. Sinclair Ferguson rightly explains that, “only as we begin to appreciate what we once were before we became Christians (or what we would be naturally were we not Christians), do we begin to sense something of the immense grandeur of being new creatures in Christ.”[1]

Everyone outside of Christ is powerless against sin.

But how does the Bible describe a person who is not in Christ?

Think about what Jesus says in John 8:34 speaking to the Jews he says, “truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Paul also shows us the same truth in Romans 3:9 says, “all [everyone without exception] is ‘under sin’ [as slaves].” In fact, if you consider Romans 5:12-6:23, the references to sin in the Greek are usually to the sin, as though it had taken on personal characteristics. As a result, everyone outside of Christ is powerless against sin. The Bible continues to paint a picture of gloom by describing those outside Christ as being dead in sin and trespasses, under the dominion of this sinful world, Satan and the flesh, it says we were sons of disobedience and children of wrath (see Eph. 2:1–3).

Though this is a former description of those who are now in Christ, who have given their lives to God by believing in Jesus Christ, it is the current description of those who have not.

It is in the dark cloud of hopelessness and slavery to sin that we see the brightness of God’s grace.

The worst thing about this condition of being a slave to sin is that one cannot do anything to save themselves from this slavery. The chains that bind a slave cannot be broken by anyone except God. It is like Samson trying to break the ropes with his head shaved. We need someone to free us from this slavery!

Sons of God

And that’s what God did. It is in the dark cloud of hopelessness and slavery to sin that we see the brightness of God’s grace. Look at the word that Paul uses to refer to the people he writes to: “brothers,”a generic term for ‘brothers and sisters.’ The word itself has a great story behind, it’s packed with meaning.

It reminds us that God through Christ delivers or saves us from the dominion of sin in order that we may live freely for Him. He makes us His children and brings us into His family giving us a new identity. He is our Father, we are His children, and to one another we are brothers and sisters. He has sealed us with the Holy Spirit. We are, in the words of Romans 8:14, “…sons of God led by the Spirit.”

Debtors & DJs

And because that is the case Paul says, “we are debtors” not to the flesh to live according to the flesh. In other words, because we are now free from the power of sin, because we are no longer slaves of sin, we owe the flesh nothing. The idea of living “according to the flesh” means living under the desires of sin, or doing what the sinful nature wants. Picture sin as a DJ playing a tune that you are dancing spontaneously to, the flesh loves the tune that DJ sin plays. But when God changes your heart and give you the Holy Spirit, the tunes of DJ sin are not as enticing anymore. There is a new tune that you now love hearing, a tune that is sweeter than the tune of DJ sin. The Puritans called this idea replacing sin with a compulsive power of a new affection.

Although the verse is stated in the negative in terms of what kind of debtors we are not – there is a positive aspect implied stating what kind of debtors we are. Positively, “we are debtors, to the Spirit, to live according to the Spirit.”In contrast to living according to the flesh – we are now to live according to the Spirit because we are debtors of the Holy Spirit. The word “debtor”speaks of the idea of owing a debt. In this case, the debt of sin we could not pay has been paid for us through the death of Jesus Christ.

And all we can say is: O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be! Because of what God has done, because of the privileges that are ours in Christ, we have a duty to live a holy life. Living a holy life should not be misunderstood as repaying the debt but rather as a life of gratitude to God. Life in the Spirit is a life conformed to the wishes of the Holy Spirit, and because He is the Holy Spirit, this life must be characterised by a holy life. One of the indications that you have the Holy Spirit will be seen in a desire for a holy life. Holiness is a badge that indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Because of the privileges that are ours in Christ, we have a duty to live a holy life.

Making a Home

Before I got married my house was dull and a mess. It was dusty and my socks were everywhere, it had no personality. Anyone who would visit me could tell without needing to ask that there is no wife in this house.

But after we got married my wife began to work on our house, beautifying it and making it habitable, changing our curtains, putting nice pictures and paintings on the wall to a point that now it reflects her personality to some extent. In the same way, with the Holy Spirit, when He indwells us, it must be seen in our changed lives that reflect His Holy character that we are indeed living life in the Spirit.

When we come to the knowledge that in Christ we are freed from sin, we are now empowered in our fight against the sin that once bound us. Stay tuned for the next post where I’ll discuss how holiness is not only a duty but also a fight.

[1] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Banner of Truth, 1989), 14 (Kindle edition).

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