Good morning. Please turn with me in your bibles to John chapter 17. The gospel of John chapter 17.
We’re working our way through the doctrine of the church, particularly as that doctrine is expressed in the Nicene creed. As we recited earlier, the Creed confesses that the church is one, holy, catholic (which means universal), and it is apostolic. Last week we examined how the church is one.
We saw that the Church IS ONE, and the church is TO BE ONE. That is, the church has been made one by the work of Jesus, and the church is to pursue and express that oneness through our unity with and love for one another.
This week we’re moving on to the second mark of the church: that it is Holy. The church is holy.
Holiness means, very simply, that something is set apart, it is distinct. It is, in a special way, unique. And in the New Testament, holiness usually contains great overlap with righteousness. For a someone to be holy is for that person to be distinctly righteous, set apart from the UN-holiness of the world.
And the holiness of the church is no different. As we will see today, the church both POSESSES holiness, and it SEEKS holiness. That is, the church both IS holy, and IS TO BE holy.
But to some of us this doctrine sounds strange, even flat wrong. We’ve seen and experienced great sin committed by Christians and committed by churches. We can look around and see impure churches around us, even those that we might determine to be false churches. And we see professing Christians also who are not marked by holiness.
How is it that Christians, who still sin, can be considered holy? And how can an institution like the church, which is a collection of self-professing sinners, be called holy?
That’s what we will examine today. And as we will see, the bible teaches that the church IS holy, which encourages us, and that the church IS TO BE holy, which keeps us earnest in our pursuit of continued growth in holiness.
Let’s begin by reading John 17, which contains Jesus’s own prayers to the Father, on behalf of the church. As I read this chapter, pay particular attention to Jesus’s petitions on behalf of his people that they be separate from the world, that they be distinct, and that they be kept from the evil one, that they may be holy.
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 8 For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.12 While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.[a] 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them[b] in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself,[c] that they also may be sanctified[d]in truth.
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me.26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Let’s begin by noting from our text, the Source of the church’s holiness. The source of the church’s holiness. Look again at verse 4:
“I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” Jesus Christ, the perfect son of God, prays to the Father confessing that his job is done. He has finished the race. He’s completed his task, completed the work that the Father had given him to do. But, “What is this mission? And how does it connect to the holiness of the church?”
Well, it is Christ’s completed work that is the Source, the Foundation, of the church’s holiness. Neither the church universal, nor a particular congregation like Morningview, possesses innate holiness. We’re not holy ourselves. We don’t clean up our own personal sin, nor we don’t pull ourselves out of the muck of worldly unrighteousness. Ever since the entrance of sin into the world by Adam and Eve, mankind has been born innately UN-holy, innately unrighteousness. That doesn’t mean that we are all born as bad as we could possibly be, but we are born separated from God, scripture says, born enemies of God, born with sinful inclinations and selfish desires.
In fact, the first thing that a person must come to understand if he wants to be a Christian, is that he is a sinner that needs saving. He lacks personal holiness, and that lack of holiness means that he stands under the just judgement of God, and that he needs a savior.
And that is who Christ is: a savior. And that is his mission: to save. The son of God had a task, and that task was to come and make his bride Holy. Theologians speak of this mission as the covenant of redemption. That is, before the foundation of the world, the triune God, all three persons, covenanted to the plan of salvation. The Father would send the Son to be the perfect sacrifice for his people. The divine Son agreed to come, take on every part of human nature, and be the perfect substitute, the perfectly holy sacrifice to atone for his bride. And the Divine Spirit agreed to apply the benefits of that atonement to the elect people of God.
That is the covenant of redemption, and that covenant is the foundation of any holiness that the church possesses. The church is made up of people whom have been called by God out of the world, people who have been set apart by divine initiative. The holy spirit has wrought in the hearts of God’s people the fruit of Christ’s redemptive work, which is gloriously multi-faceted.
The Spirit effectually calls sinful people and unites them to Christ. Then, by virtue of their union with Christ, they demonstrate the fruit of conversion by their faith in God and repentance from sin. They are justified, that is declared to be righteous, declared to be holy, because of their union with Christ.
Christ’s actual holiness that he demonstrate while on earth, and the merit that he earned by his righteous life and death, are counted to each and every Christian. And it is on the basis of Christ’s own imputed righteousness that the Father now sees us as righteous.
That’s how the church can be called holy. Not because the church currently possesses innate holiness, or that the church is full of people that are perfectly holy. The church is holy by virtue of its union with the perfectly Holy Savior, Jesus Christ. The church, which is called in scripture the bride of Christ, is holy because of the work of the faithful bridegroom. That’s why Paul will say in Ephesians 5: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might make her holy.”
And to go back to John 17, one of the results of Christ’s mission, one of the fruits of his work, is that the church is different, is set apart from the world. In verse 16, Jesus says of the church, 6 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
We have been transformed. We’re of a different spiritual principal. We’ve been made new creations, given new hearts, awakened to the truth of God’s Lordship, and brought into his kingdom of light, all because of the faithfulness of Christ to his assigned mission.
This truth, that Christ is the source and fountainhead of the church’s holiness is important for us to understand.
For one, understanding the holiness of the church is important for our continued humility. It’s important for us to stay humble. That’s because we Christians have a temptation to look at ourselves, and look at the world in which we live, and to start to think that WE are the source of our holiness. We can pridefully compare ourselves to other sinners “out there,” and judgmentally look down upon then for their un-holiness, and forget that Christ’s gracious work on our behalf is the ONLY reason we have any holiness at all. Understanding that Christ and Christ alone is the source of any of my holiness is crucial for continued growth in humility.
But secondly, understanding the holiness of the church is also important to keep us from despairing. It can help keep us from despairing when we’re discouraged by sin. We can look at the church, look at other churches, look at other Christians, or even look at ourselves, and see sin, and can be tempted to become very discouraged. But the doctrine of the holiness of the church, particularly the fact that Christ is the sanctifying source of the church, reminds us that no Christian is getting to heaven because they are perfect. No church is full of innately holy people, so I can be patient with those still struggling with remaining sin.
And even when you fall into sin again, when your remaining sin seems to get the best of you, remember that Christ has accomplished his task. His mission is complete. And part of that mission is making you Holy through union with him. You don’t get to enter into heaven because YOU have it all together. Rather, you’re granted entrance into heaven, and you are made holy, because of Christ’s faithfulness, not because of your own. Let that truth encourage you when you’re discouraged by your remaining sin. Christ is the source of our holiness.
Second. We’ve seen the source of our holiness, now let’s look at the Battleground for the church’s holiness. The Battleground of the church’s holiness.
Look at verse 11, “And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you,” and then down to verse 15, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”
Christ makes clear that our battleground for holiness remains in this world. We don’t come to faith and then are magically transported into heaven. Rather, we’re brought to saving faith in Jesus, and then he leaves us here. In His good providence, we’re left on this earth. We’re left to battle on for more holiness. We are to remain IN the world, but we must continue to pursue distinction FROM the world.
And we MUST battle for holiness. Some mistakenly believe that when we come to faith, we’re made perfectly, innately holy. But that doesn’t fit with our experience as Christians, and it doesn’t fit with this text at all. If the battle were over simply by Jesus’s resurrection, then why would Jesus pray for our sanctification and for us to be kept from the evil one?
Rather, we must understand that the church’s holiness has an already element, and a not yet element. We already ARE holy, and we are to BECOME more holy. Lest we be deceived to think that we have arrived, or that Christ is somehow un-concerned about our moral life after conversion, Christ here prays that we would be kept. That we would be distinct. That we would be made holy. That we would be sanctified.
So, we would be wise to ask ourselves, are we growing in holiness? Are you growing in Holiness? Are you holier than you were 5 years ago? One year ago? And this should be asked as individuals, and as a church. Is Morningview more holy than it was 5 years ago, 1 year ago?
Christ’s work not only saves us from the Power of sin, it should increasingly demonstrate within us a removal from the presence of sin. We should show an upward trajectory in our holiness. Not perfectly, there will be ups and downs, but overall, we should see a growth in holiness. And if we don’t, we should be concerned.
You may be saying, “but pastor, how am I to grow in holiness?” That is our third and final point:
The Means of the church’s holiness. The means of the church’s holiness. Look at verse 17: “Sanctify them in the truth; your Word is Truth.” Sanctify them, which means make them holy, Sanctify them in truth; your word is truth. The Son asks the Father to sanctify his people in the truth, and then equates the truth with the Word of the Father. What does that mean? And how does that make me holy?
Let’s begin with what Jesus says about the word: he states very plainly that “Your word is truth.” Father, thy word is truth. What word is he talking about? Is he talking about the bible here? Well, Jesus didn’t have a bible like ours. The New Testament hadn’t been written yet. He probably had access to the Old Testament writings, but he certainly wasn’t walking around with copies of the scrolls containing all of the old testament books.
This seemingly simple reference to the Father’s word has been interpreted in various ways throughout church history. Augustine believed that Jesus’s reference to the father’s word in verse 17 is a reference to himself; that is, the incarnate word that John describes in the very first verses of this book. John Calvin believed that “thy word is truth” refers to the doctrine of the gospel, “which the apostles had already heard from the mouth of their master, and which they were afterwards to preach to others.”
So, is he talking about the bible, about himself, or about the gospel? I think he is talking about all of God’s revelation, the totality of his self-disclosure. Let’s not fall into the temptation of dividing God’s revelation; God’s word is united in its message and power throughout history, even if that word took different forms.
What God reveals in the bible, his in-scripturated written word, is in complete alignment with his plan of redemption, which is his gospel word, which is affected through the apex of all truth, the incarnate word, his Son. That was a big statement, but it is important, so I’ll say it again: What God reveals in the bible, his in-scripturated word, is in complete alignment with his plan of redemption, which is his gospel word, which is affected through the apex of all truth, the incarnate word, his Son. Let me unpack that.
Jesus is the word made flesh, the incarnate Word. Listen to the beginning of John chapter 1. Here we see that this word was spoken by the father before time, and was the means of creation. John chapter 1:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life,[a] and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
This word was with the Father from the beginning, and is co-equal with the father in both eternality, power, life, and holiness.
But the Apostle does not stop when he explains who the word is, he explains what the word has done. Listen to chapter 1, starting in verse 14:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son[d] from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.[e] 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God,[f] who is at the Father’s side,[g] he has made him known.
This word did not remain with the father, but took on flesh, became a man, and came down to earth to make known God. The God whose word was heard in the Old Testament, became flesh, that the word might reveal God. Jesus, the word of God, makes statement like: I am the way, the TRUTH, and the Life. (John 14:6). He is the fullness of divine revelation, the apex of God’s self-disclosure, so much so that he says that whoever has seen me has seen the father. To see Jesus, the word of God, the truth of God, is to see the Father.
The author of Hebrews agrees with John that Christ is the apex of revelation. Hebrews 1:1-2 tells us that:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
Jesus is the eternally spoken word of God that took on flesh that the perfect truth of God might be revealed to mankind. But God’s word does not end with the life of Jesus.
Jesus makes clear in John 17:14 that he has given the Father’s word to the Apostles. In this Word, He has explained the redemptive significance of his life and work. He has revealed the will of the father, the scope of his plan, to the apostles. Furthermore, Jesus explains that he will send the Holy Spirit to guide the Apostles into all truth (John 16:13). After Pentecost, when the fullness of the Holy Spirit is sent to indwell the apostles, the men of God will be led by the spirit of God to put down God’s word into writing.
All of this theology about the Word is important. In sum, it means that God’s written word is the means that God has provided for us to grow in faith and godliness. We grow in holiness through the means of the word of God being pressed into our hearts by faith in Christ.
But don’t hear me as saying this is some mechanical exchange, nor is this a foolproof exercise. Many people pursue holiness in the wrong ways and according to the wrong means. Let’s discuss some wrong ways to pursue holiness. If Christ calls for us to be made holy in the truth, this list would be wrong ways to seek that holiness, seeking it according to half-truths, or misguided truths, thereby making them untruths. I recently re-read John Owen’s masterful work on the Mortification of Sin, and some of the ideas he introduces I will adapt for us this morning.
A first wrong way to seek holiness is to seek it through means not prescribed in God’s Word. Through means not prescribed in God’s Word. Rather than being sanctified according to the truth found in God’s word, some people invent new methods of sanctification. You see the Pharisees condemned of this sin in the gospels. They had their man-made traditions and ceremonies, which were crushing the people of God.
This tendency has taken various forms throughout church history, especially within the Roman Catholic church. Some have worn rough garments, joined monasteries and withdrawn from the world, made extra-biblical vows of celibacy, taken on certain diets, inflicted physical pain upon themselves, and other strange things all with the goal of trying to relieve themselves of their sin and guilt, and to make themselves holy.
We can fall prey to this kind of thinking too. We may think that a VOW to God will somehow make us holy. God, if you help me get out of trouble this time, I swear I’ll never do this or that again. A lot of people make such a vow after they’ve indulged in some besetting sin again. Like the drunkard with a terrible hangover, who swears he will never touch a drink again. But then he’s back at the bar again the next night. Like a dog returning to his own vomit, Proverbs says, is a sinner returning to his sin.
Or we can use other things not found in God’s word. We can be deceived to think that:
• by merely reading theological books you’re more holy.
• Or having a carefully manicured social media presence, as if people thinking you are holy actually makes you holy,
• or we can even judge our holiness based upon how much we serve God, as if business FOR God automatically equates to conformity TO God,
• There’s an endless number of extra-biblical acts of penance we can perform, as if any of those things had been proscribed by God as ways to pursue genuine holiness.
But if we want to be genuinely holy, if we want to really grow in holiness, we need to pursue such holiness according to the means that God has set apart in his word: scripture reading, prayer, fellowship, corporate worship with the body of Christ, and acts of mercy and love. We don’t have to wonder what God wants us to do to be holy, we just have to obey. We have to obey what He clearly says in his word.
A second wrong way to seek holiness is through the power of the flesh, rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit. Through the power of the flesh, rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul talked about this in Romans 8, for example: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if BY THE SPIRIT you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. To seek to kill sin without the spirit is to wage a fruitless war.
We can be tempted to fight in the power of the flesh. Imagine with me a man that is tired of failing in his battle against lust. So, in his fleshly effort alone, he decides to empty his apartment of every single picture of a girl. He cuts off cable. He throws away his phone. He lives like a digital monk in the middle of the city. This man may initially think that he has finally rid himself of his temptation. However, the problem was never merely physical and external; the problem was internal. His heart was the problem. He will soon see that his lustful desires will come back, even if he lives in an empty apartment with barren walls. He’s putting his hope merely in the removal of external stimuli, and hoping that his accountability measures will save him, RATHER than trusting in Christ alone to redeem his sinful desires. Yes, use external accountability measures, but you should never put your faith in them. We do not battle against flesh and blood, our battle is spiritual, and we need the Holy Spirit’s help if we are to make any progress in holiness.
A third wrong way to seek holiness is through proper means, but not in their proper place. Through proper means, but not in their proper place. Men may use proper biblical means, such as prayer, fasting, meditation, and things like that, but they wrongly assign to those means the power to kill sin. They think that by doing great deeds of devotion that they will proportionately grow in holiness.
Let me give you one example: prayer. Prayer is a powerful weapon in the battle for holiness in this life. However, some traditions have so formalized the practice that it could be done with little or no spiritual vitality at all, and with no actual sanctification at all. When a Roman Catholic goes to confess to his priest, the priest might tell him that to receive forgiveness for his sins he will need to say the Lord’s Prayer 5 times. He may, simply by reciting the prayer 5 times, be cleansed of his sin and made holy.
We can be tempted to think this way. We think, “ok I’ve had my quiet time this morning, I’ve prayed and read scripture, maybe I’ve even journaled my prayers, and I prayed before I ate my breakfast. I should be good. I am a little holier now that I was when I woke up.”
The problem is that we’ve turned biblical means (like bible reading and prayer) into mere mechanisms for holiness. We’ve slipped into a legal mindset that equates our holiness with our performance. We’ve forgotten our first point that our holiness is a purely a gift from God, and that we can’t earn our holiness by our own works of the law. Such a mindset will deceive us into thinking that we are holier than we really are, which is a legalistic arrogance like the Pharisees had.
We have to remember that sanctification is a gift of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that makes us holy. Like Paul says in Philippians 2: “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work his good pleasure.”
Yes, we’re called to use the word of God and biblical means to grow in holiness, but whenever we do, whenever we do manifest more spiritual fruit, we have no room to boast. It is God who is working in us. It is God who has moved us according to the work of the Holy Spirit. It is God who has helped us kill any sin. It is God who has planted within us a desire to be more like Jesus. Every bit of it, from start to finish, is grace shown to us because of the work of Christ.
Brothers and sisters, let us be a people who strive, every day, by the power of the Spirit, to be growing in holiness. Let us put off sin. Let us guard our minds and our hearts from sinful temptation, and let us put on the fruit of righteousness.
But let us never do it in our own strength, and never let us be deceived to think that we have gotten where we are by our own doing. It is all a gift of God so that no man may boast, Paul says.
And if you have not yet come to Christ, if you look at your life and you see that you are not living the life that you should, that you aren’t pure in your motives, that you’re not seeking God with all your heart, that you’re not full of love and mercy toward others, then hear today of the good news of Jesus.
Jesus came and died so that sinners might be made holy. He lived the perfectly righteous life and died a sinner’s death, so that His bride might be made spotless. And if you trust in him today, you too are made spotless. You’re made clean. You’re made holy. No, you won’t be perfectly freed from the presence of sin in this life, but you will be freed from the power of sin over you. And you’ll be given the promise of a perfectly sinless life to come, in the new Heavens and the new earth.
Trust in that Christ, and be made perfectly holy.