1 Corinthians 1:2 Biblical holiness

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The Bible often speaks about holiness.  God makes his people holy; God expects his people to be holy (see 1 Peter 1:15 and many other verses).  But among Christians there is confusion: some passages seem to say we are holy, whilst others seem to say we must become holy.  How can we reconcile these two views?  As always, we need to pay close attention to what the Word of God says.  Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 1:2 Biblical holiness

1. The gift of holiness

Note the description ‘those sanctified in Christ Jesus’ – the verb tense shows this is a single completed event in the past.  (Paul addresses the Corinthians on the basis of what they profess to be – although later it is clear some are hypocrites).  It is crucial to see how this sanctification has taken place – it is ‘in Christ Jesus’.  It is a consequence of the believer’s union with Christ, as set out in Galatians 2:20 and at greater length in Romans 6.  The Christian life can be described as a dying and rising spiritual with Christ.  This is clearly spiritual, not physical – Paul is saying that the life, death and resurrection of Christ are in a profound sense reproduced in the experience of believers.  We benefit from what Christ has done for us as our representative.  It is as if we lived that life of perfect obedience to God’s law, died that death on the cross and rose to new life.  We benefit from what he has accomplished (2 Corinthians 5:21) on our behalf.  The result is twofold:

  • Our standing in the sight of God is transformed.  Once we were ‘children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3), now we are ‘sanctified’, set apart for God as holy.  This relates to our legal standing before the holy Judge.  The Judge declares us ‘righteous’ (‘justified’ Romans 5:1).  This is possible because God imputes the work of Christ to believers (Romans 5:17).  We stand as holy in the court of heaven and are ‘sanctified’.
  • Our bondage to sin is broken.  Our slavery to sin and Satan is broken once for all.  This too is God’s gift.  We are not sinless (see 1 John 1:8) but at conversion the bondage of sin is broken and we are set free from the prison of sin – ‘sin shall not be your master’ (Romans 6:14).  This is ‘definitive sanctification’ true of every Christian.

2. The pursuit of holiness

We read in Hebrews 12:14 ‘Strive…for the holiness without which no-one will see the Lord’ (ESV).  This is an unequivocal command, as is 1 Peter 1:16 ‘be holy’.  The holiness of the Lord as separation from all sin is to be reproduced in his people.  Thus the imputed holiness that changes our status before God is to be matched by acquired holiness that changes our lives and conduct.  We are to become in daily living what we already are in terms of our spiritual status.  This too is dependent on our union with Christ.  As the fruit of that union we have all the necessary resources for growth in holiness: ‘His divine power has given us all we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him’ (2 Peter 1:3).  All the means of grace we need have been provided – the Word. prayer, fellowship, the sacraments, even trials.  These must be used faithfully and in reliance on the Spirit’s blessing.  We live in this world united to Christ – ‘in Corinth…in Christ Jesus’.  We pursue holiness in this present world.

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