When Holiness Seems Pointless by Steve Bezner

“Do not quench the Spirit.”—1 Thessalonians 5:19

Somewhere along the way, holiness lost its luster.

The priests in the Bible wore a sign on their foreheads inscribed with the words, “Holy Unto the Lord.” The wording made it plain—the priests were to do the work of the Lord, and to do his work alone.

When I was younger in the faith and in life, I took this understanding of holiness to heart. “To be holy means to be set apart,” I was told. And I understood it. We were to live differently, to be a people who weren’t afraid to be odd in our actions. As I left college and became a pastor, I truly wanted to pursue holiness.

Yet, as I got older, I began to notice that I nudged further and further away from personal holiness.

Ironically enough, this was driven—at least in part—as I began to understand grace. As I drank deeply at the well of Reformed theology in my 20s and early 30s, I was confronted over and over with a stunning truth—God did not love me because of my actions. He simply loved me. Period. At the same time, I discovered the dangers of legalism—people who believed that God would love them if they simply did the right things in the right way.

I didn’t want to be a legalist. And I certainly wanted to plunge headlong into the depths of grace. And so, somewhere, I stopped worrying about holiness. I stopped worrying about my speech. Or what I watched. Or what I listened to. Or…you get the point. I was walking in grace, and I was loving it. To be fair, I didn’t walk too far down a path too many worried about, because I wasn’t overtly rebellious. But I certainly wasn’t chasing personal holiness.

You could call it trying to be cool. Or you call it is growing up. Some preachers might call it worldliness. But, to be honest, I just didn’t see the rationale in holiness. Holiness seemed pointless.

Without thinking, I had stumbled into one of the issues the apostle Paul warned the earliest Christians about when it came to grace. In those days, people would take grace for granted, arguing, “Why worry? God will forgive us!” Paul gave the counter argument: “Should I sin so that grace might abound? God forbid!” (Romans 6:1) The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had argued about such a posture in his book, (The Cost of) Discipleship, calling such an attitude “cheap grace.” I had a double reason to be embarrassed. I knew that verse. And I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Bonhoeffer. But I missed it.


In short, I had confused legalism and holiness. I define legalism as doing things (i.e., keeping rules) so that God will love you. As I already mentioned, that’s impossible. God simply loves, because God is love. But holiness is not legalism. Holiness is different. Holiness is a response to the grace God has shown me. Since God loves me and has offered me grace, I act from a position of thankfulness. I am grateful for the love and the grace He has given, so I now want to experience Him as deeply as I can. I want as much of God as possible. And how do I experience God at a deeper level? Personal holiness.

I am not an electrical engineer, but I have several in my church. And I have learned from them something I never knew about the way electricity behaves. If I hold a piece of copper wire in my hand and stand underneath a power line and hold that copper wire parallel to the power lines above, the wire in my hand will be filled with electricity. Why? Because the copper wire in my hand has both proximity and alignment. But if I move the wire away or if the wire gets out of alignment, it will no longer have power. Both proximity and alignment matter.

This is the way holiness operates. When I draw close to God (proximity) and I obey His commands (alignment), then I am like the copper wire underneath the power lines. I am able to experience the power of God within all Christians—the Holy Spirit. If I move away from God or disobey His commands, I am still filled with Holy Spirit, but I will not experience God in the same way. This is why Paul warns us, “Do not quench the Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 5:19) While I can never lose the Holy Spirit, I can diminish the Spirit’s power in my life. I am a conduit for the power of the Spirit. When I am close to God and in alignment, then His power flows more freely within my life.

So holiness is different than legalism. Legalism is doing something so that God will love me. Holiness, however, is obeying God in response to His grace so that I can experience more of Him in my life. Holiness is not about controlling how much God loves me. Holiness is choosing to live a life as close to God as possible so that I might know more of Him.

Do you want to know more of God? Do you want to experience more of Him? Would you like to sense the Spirit’s power in your life? Draw close to Him in proximity. The Bible says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8) And then obey him in holiness. Rather than quenching the Spirit, fan the flame of the Spirit in obedience. And, when you do, the Lord will allow you to experience more of His goodness and the joy of His grace.

Following rules doesn’t make God love us more.

But pursuing holiness certainly isn’t pointless.

It’s the secret to fanning the flames of God.