“Pursuing Holiness” (Hebrews 12:14 sermon)

The old Puritans of England in the 1500-1600’s have gotten what J.I. Packer calls “a bad rap.” Usually if someone calls a person a “Puritan”, or says that something is “Puritanical”, they mean it as an insult: that the person is being a “stick in the mud,” or is acting “holier than thou.” But in reality, the English Puritans were some of the best Christians ever to walk the earth, and we can learn much in our own Christian life from reading them.

One book of Puritan writings is called “The Valley of Vision.” It is actually a little book of prayers from the Puritans which a minister (Arthur Bennett) edited in the 1900’s. Many of these prayers are very beautiful, but they are also very convicting. One prayer in particular asks God: “For if I do not walk holily before Thee, how can I be assured of my salvation?” (p. 14)

That’s a good question. If you don’t walk holy before God, how CAN you be assured of your salvation? Our verse for today answers that question in a very firm way:

“Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.”
I. Seeing God is our ultimate goal

The wording that the author of Hebrews uses here is important. Notice he does NOT say:
— “the sanctification without which you will not ‘go to heaven’.”
— “the sanctification without which you will not live forever.”
— “the sanctification without which you will not get a mansion in the sky.”
No, he says without sanctification no one will “SEE THE LORD.”
This is important. He is reminding us that our ultimate goal is to see God. Not just “going to heaven;” not just “living forever;” but seeing God.

This is what we were made for: to behold God, and to be fulfilled by seeing His glory face to face. A lot of people don’t understand this, but if you look, it is all through scripture:
— In Matthew 5:8 Jesus gave the ultimate beatitude, which was: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Seeing God is the greatest reward for the Christian!
— I John 3:2 “When He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” Seeing the Lord is the great reward of heaven.

Why is seeing God such a reward? Because the presence and glory of God is what we were created by God to be satisfied by:
— Psalm 17:15 says “As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be SATISFIED with Your likeness when I awake.” He’s saying that seeing God’s face is what will bring us ultimate satisfaction.
— Psalm 16:11 says “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” As we talked about briefly before, the presence and glory of God — seeing Him — will give us joy and pleasure that will completely satisfy us.

Now, someone may say (and maybe even some of you right now, if you are honest, would admit that you are saying in your heart) “How can just ‘seeing God’ be so great? What’s the great reward of that?” Maybe it doesn’t sound that good to you. But if we think that, it is only because our sin has blinded us to how glorious and fulfilling the presence of God will be. There are things we see here on earth that captivate us with their beauty and glory; why could seeing God not do the same thing, and more?

For example, Chris & Sherri Philips just got back from an amazing trip to Italy. I loved seeing the pictures they put up on Facebook while they were over there. One of my favorites was their picture of the Cathedral of Milan. When I saw their picture of that beautiful Cathedral, I was reminded of a quote by Mark Twain from his book, Innocents Abroad. That book is one of my all-time favorites; I have read it four times. It is Twain’s record of a steamship voyage he took to Europe and the Holy Land just after the Civil War. He writes about all the sites he saw, and he pokes fun at just about everyone and everything he encountered along the way. But every so often in his book he would get serious. One of those places was in the Holy Land, and another was at the Cathedral of Milan. Of that he wrote:

“Howsoever you look at the great cathedral, it is noble, it is beautiful! Wherever you stand in Milan or within seven miles of Milan, it is visible — and when it is visible, no other object can chain your whole attention. Leave your eyes unfettered by your will but a single instant and they will surely turn to seek it. It is the first thing you look for when you rise in the morning, and the last your lingering gaze rests upon at night. Surely it must be the princeliest creation that ever brain of man conceived.”

Now if such a building “conceived of the brain of man”, can “chain your whole attention” as Twain put it, then is it not possible that the glory of God Almighty Himself, who is the Author of all beauty, and glory, and pleasure, might also bring us great pleasure and joy, and might “chain our whole attention” for all eternity?

That’s exactly what God is telling us here in Hebrews. He’s saying that “seeing the Lord” is the ultimate goal for the Christian. We need to realize that this is what we were created for, and make sure that we will be there to see Him in eternity. But here’s the thing: Seeing God is our ultimate goal, but …


II. Holiness Is Required to see the Lord

God commands us here: “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.”

As we have seen, “seeing the Lord” is our ultimate goal. This is what we all want, what we all truly desire, whether we know it or not. But he says there is something required if you are going to see the Lord — and he tells us here that “something” is “sanctification.” Some translations have the word “holiness,” which is a good translation, because that is what “sanctification” means. It means to be “set apart,” to be “holy” and “pure” from sin. “Holy” is something that GOD is, first of all. He is a “holy” God, which means there is no evil or sin in Him. He is totally pure and perfect. And God is ultimate in holiness, which is why the angels before His throne cry out “Holy, Holy, Holy is YHWH of hosts.” When Hebrews say something three times, they are saying it is the ultimate; so that God is “holy, holy, holy” means He is the ultimate in holiness.

And because God is ultimately holy, nothing UN-holy can abide in His presence. It would be destroyed by the consuming fire of His holy presence. This is why we can’t just keep living like we are, in our sins, and think we can go to heaven to be with God. People who think that don’t understand about God’s holiness. Something has to cleanse us from our sin if we want to be able to see God.

A. This is what happens when we are “saved.” Even though we sinned, God the Father still loved us, and wanted us to be able to be with Him, so God the Son, Jesus Christ, came to earth and died on the cross to pay for our sins, so if we would repent of our sins, He would forgive us, and “wash” us from our sins through God the Holy Spirit. I John 1:9 says “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to CLEANSE us from all unrighteousness.” When we are saved, we are washed from all our sins, so we can go to heaven to live with a holy God forever and be satisfied by His presence. So “holy” is first of all, something Jesus makes us in our hearts when we put our faith in Him and are saved. You often hear Christians say things like “I am not holy enough on my own to get to heaven, but Jesus MADE me holy when He saved me.” And that is true. “Holy” is something we don’t earn, but that Jesus gives us, so He can take us to heaven to be with Him.

B. But second, we also need to see that “holiness” is also something that will actually begin to happen in your life if Jesus has really saved you. When you give your life to Jesus as your Lord & Savior, He sends His Holy Spirit into your heart, not only to cleanse your heart from the guilt of your sin, but also to give you power to start turning AWAY from sin. So if the Holy Spirit is really in you, you will see some changes in your life. You will actually start to BECOME holy in your everyday life and practices:

— II Corinthians 5:17 says “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; old things have passed away; new things have come.” If old things aren’t passing away, and new things aren’t coming, then you have every reason to doubt whether you are really “in Christ.”

The Book of I John is especially strong regarding this. It gives us a series of tests as to whether a person is really a Christian or not
— I John 3:3 says “Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him, purifies himself, just as He is holy.” He’s saying if your hope is really in Jesus, you will be purifying your life, to become holy like Him.
— I John 2:3 says “By this we know that we have come to know Him: if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him’, but does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
— It goes on in I John 3:10 to say, “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: the one who does not practice righteousness is not of God …”.
All these verses are saying the same thing: if you have really been saved and God’s Holy Spirit is in you, then He will make a difference in your life, and He will start the process of making you holy:
— you will purify yourself;
— you will keep His commandments;
— and you will practice righteousness.
I John makes it clear: If these things are not happening in your life at all, then you can be certain that you are not saved!

This just makes sense. This week I read a neat little book by Elizabeth Nel, who was the personal secretary to Sir Winston Churchill during World War II. At the end of the book, after she described the time she spent serving Churchill, she said that her life had been changed by the time she spent in proximity to that great man.
If someone’s life can be changed because they have been close to a mere mortal man, then will not our lives be changed if the Living God really comes into our life through His Holy Spirit? There must be some change; there must be some difference, if you have really been saved.

I remember a conversation I had with someone a number of years ago, in another state. They were telling me about someone who had lived a very ungodly life; did not go to church, or live for God at all. But then they said, “But he’d prayed the ‘Sinners Prayer’ when he was 6 years old, and you know: ‘once saved, always saved.’”
I was like, really?
— Have you never read where Jesus said “Not everyone who SAYS to Me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who DOES the will of My Father who is in heaven?”
— Have you never read that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; that old things have passed away, and that new things have come?
— Do you not think that if the Holy Spirit of God Almighty truly comes into a person’s life, that He will make some DIFFERENCE in that life?

I’m afraid this is a very common delusion and it is going to end up sending a lot of people to hell: People think just because they “prayed some ‘sinners prayer’ word-for-word” that they are going to heaven, whether anything ever changed in their life or not. Listen: merely repeating the words of a prayer that never impacts your life in any way is NOT going to save you.

Now a prayer of salvation CAN save you, if you really mean it from your heart. But if you DO mean it from your heart, then you will not just happily continue in your same old sins; you will really be sorry for your sins; you will want to “repent” of them like we talked about a couple of weeks ago, and make a “U-turn” and give Jesus control of your life. His Holy Spirit will come into your life and He will help you follow Him and make changes in your life. And you will at least begin to be holy. But if you are not becoming holy at all; if you are just living the same old life you have always lived — then you can be sure God’s Spirit is not in your heart; you are NOT saved; and you have no hope of seeing God!

Now, let me be clear: this does NOT mean that you have to live a perfect life in order to have any hope of getting to heaven. No, Jesus lived that perfect life for us; He paid that price for us. But if Jesus has really saved you, and if His Spirit is in your life then He will give you a desire in your heart to be holy. He will convict you about your sin through His word, and He will help you to WORK on being holy. It doesn’t mean you’re “there” yet; none of us will ever be perfect until we get to heaven. But do you WANT to be holy? Are you WORKING on being holy? If you WANT to be holy, and you are at least WORKING on it, it’s one of the best signs that you are really are genuinely saved.

But let me make it as clear as I can: There is no Biblical assurance of salvation for any person whose life is not becoming holy. This verse says it emphatically: “without holiness, no one will see the Lord.”


III. Holiness Must Be Pursued

It is also significant that this verse says “PURSUE … sanctification.” (As you can see, it actually says “Pursue peace with all men” first, and then it says “and the sanctification (or holiness) without which no one will see the Lord.” But this verb “pursue” goes with both of them. We are to “pursue” peace with people, and likewise we are to “pursue” holiness.)

This is important. He’s saying that holiness is not something that is just “accidentally” going to “happen” to you. If you are going to become holy, it is will be because you have “pursued” it. What does that mean?

The word “pursue” here is actually a Bible word that means to “run after.” It is often used in scripture of someone who is “persecuting” someone: In other words, they are “running after” them in order to persecute them.

In Victor Hugo’s classic novel, “Les Miserables,” Jean Valjean is a former prisoner who has made a new life for himself. But Javert is a policeman, who has made it his life’s ambition to hunt him down and put him back into prison. In the story, Javert is always “running after” Jean Valjean; he just will not be satisfied until he has apprehended him. In the musical version of “Les Mis”, which some of you may have seen, there is a song in which Javert sings about his obsession with “running down” Jean Valjean:

“There, out in the darkness, A fugitive running
Fallen from God, Fallen from grace
God be my witness, I never shall yield
Till we come face to face. Till we come face to face …
And so it must be, and so it is written On the doorway to Paradise
That those who falter and those who fall Must pay the price!
Lord let me find him, that I may see him Safe behind bars
I will never rest Till then
This I swear; This I swear by the stars!”

That solo is a powerful moment in that musical; and it powerfully emphasizes Javert’s obsession with “pursuing” Jean Valjean.
And the Bible is telling us here that THIS is exactly what we are supposed to be doing with holiness: just like Javert relentlessly pursued Jean Valjean, and would “never rest” until he found him; so those of us who really know Jesus as our Savior are to relentlessly pursue holiness, and like Javert, we are never to rest; we are never to be satisfied until we have attained it.

HOW do we “pursue” holiness?
— It begins with what we were talking about last week: getting up every morning to seek God first thing. I have been so delighted to see and hear testimonies of many of our people, who got up first thing every day this week to seek God. That’s the first and most important step to “pursue holiness.” God is holy, and our holiness comes from Him. So the first and best thing we can do to seek holiness is to seek God daily in His word & prayer.

— But as we seek God daily in His word, He will show us things in our lives that are not right, and that need to be changed. See, we aren’t to just “read” God’s word like we read a novel; we are reading it to hear from Him about our life.  Timothy 3:16 says His word is inspired for “correction, and instruction in righteousness.” His word will show us things in our lives that are wrong: wrong actions, wrong words, wrong attitudes; wrong relationships. Every day as you read God’s word, you should come away with God’s instructions about what you need to change in your life. And so part of your prayer time each morning should include asking God to help you change whatever area that He showed you in His word that morning.

— So then, you put that thing into practice, and take practical steps to work it into your life. Maybe there is something you need to get out of your home; or something you need to stop watching on television or on the internet; or something you need to start doing, like seeking God every day in His word, or serving in the church, or helping others in some practical way.

“Pursuing” holiness means you are really working on doing what God showed you in His word that morning. It means you are really “running after” being the kind of person God wants you to be. You aren’t happy just staying where you are; you are “pursuing holiness.”

Let me give you an example of what this might look like: Let’s say that someone in your family, or at your workplace or your school, said or did something that offended you. And you have been “stewing” on that all and all night ever since. And you have been thinking about what you are going to say to them when you see them (you know how that is: “When I see them, I am just going to let them have it …”).
But you really are a Christian; and you are really seeking to walk with God, and pursue holiness. So you get up first thing in the morning and seek God in His word and prayer. And your reading that morning is in Ephesians 5, which says “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
And as you read that word, God shows you that you can’t just keep that bitterness against that person in your heart. You have to forgive them, like He has forgiven you. So you ask God to help you to forgive them, even though it’s hard. And when you go to work or school, or wherever, you do NOT say all those mean things you had practiced saying — because you are “pursuing holiness”, and God’s Holy Spirit is changing you, through His word.

Is that kind of thing happening in your life? Are there changes being made in your life because you are sincerely “pursuing” holiness?
What is it, that you really “pursuing” with your life? What is it that you are “running after”, that you just will not be happy without? If you’re honest, some of you would admit: you are pursuing money; or some new “thing,” or some guy or gal; or fame, or the approval of others; or whatever.

But God’s word says none of these things will ultimately make you happy — and that’s why people have to keep seeking more possessions, more money, and more relationships — because these things will never satisfy us ultimately. You were not designed to be fulfilled by them. You were designed to be ultimately fulfilled by GOD. And in the same way that you are “pursuing” all those other things right now, you need to be “pursuing” holiness. Because only by seeing God will you ever ultimately be satisfied. But the Bible says you will never see God, unless you are holy.

To answer the question of that Puritan prayer we started with: “If I don’t walk holily before God, how can I be assured of my salvation?” The answer is, you CAN’T! That’s why God commands us here: “Pursue … sanctification — (holiness!) — without which no one will see the Lord.”

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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1 Response to “Pursuing Holiness” (Hebrews 12:14 sermon)

  1. Pingback: “Pursuing Holiness” (Hebrews 12:14 sermon) — shawnethomas – For Such A Time As This

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