In 2 Corinthians 7:1, Paul calls us to “work toward complete holiness.” What does that mean, and how do we do it?
2 Corinthians, chapters 7-10
2 Corinthians 7:1 (NLT):
Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.
The concept of holiness causes a great deal of confusion and disagreement within the Church. I am part of the “tribe” of Christians known as the Wesleyan-Holiness movement. As you might imagine from that name, “holiness” is an important part of our identity. There is no question that the Bible calls God’s people to holiness; the question is, “What exactly does that mean?” The answer to that question is far too broad to address in a blog post. My purpose is to raise a few points that Paul addresses in chapters 7-10, under the framework of the idea of “complete holiness.”
Complete Holiness – Body and Spirit
First, Paul calls us to cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene in the 1960s and 70s. It seemed to me that much of our focus at that time was on things that could defile our bodies. We don’t smoke or use tobacco. We don’t drink alcohol. I’m convinced that it is good to avoid those things, but holiness is about much more than things we don’t do.
I believe that the core of holiness is in being led each day by the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of truth – would lead them:
- “He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth” (John 14:17)
- “When the Father sends the Advocate as my representative – that is, the Holy Spirit – he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:26)
- “I will send you the Advocate – the Spirit of truth. He will come to you from the Father and will testify about me” (John 15:26)
- “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13)
Jesus clearly expected that his followers would be directed by the Holy Spirit in every aspect of life.
Working Toward Complete Holiness
In the second part of verse 1, Paul says, “let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.” So what does it mean to “work toward complete holiness”?
First, as Paul has already said, it means to cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. I think that much more focus should be put on those things that defile our spirits. Paul had plenty of experience as a Pharisee with focusing on things which were believed to defile a person’s body. I’m not saying those things are unimportant, but the things which make a mark on our spirits are much more important. As Jesus said, it’s not what goes into a person which makes him or her unclean, but what comes out of them (Matthew 15:11).
So what things can defile our spirits? Paul spends much of the next two chapters talking about giving, and generosity. The Bible in general talks a lot about our attitudes toward money and material things. I suggest that is because God knows that we tend to place too much importance on them. Money is not the root of all evil, but the love of money is (1 Timothy 6:10).
Complete Holiness – Surrendered Thoughts and Hearts
In chapter 10, Paul says: “We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God” (10:3-5, emphasis added).
C.S. Lewis said that pride is the ultimate sin, the complete anti-God state of mind. We need to guard our hearts and minds as much as we guard our bodies. After all, we can (and at times have) become spiritually proud of our “holiness,” in ways that bring glory to ourselves rather than to God. We work toward complete holiness by surrendering our will to God each day.
Application – Complete Holiness
“Pray like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10, emphasis added). When we pray that God’s will would be done, we start by doing it ourselves (another idea from C.S. Lewis). Each day, we ask God to lead us by his Holy Spirit, just as Jesus promised he would. We work toward complete holiness by striving each day to do what God calls us to do. And while we don’t achieve actual perfection in this life, we can live each day knowing that we are completely surrendered to God. And God is the one who makes us holy!
Father, thank you for reminding us to work toward complete holiness each day. Help us to know your will, and to consciously surrender our will to you each day. Thank you for the promise that you make us holy as we work toward that complete holiness. Help us to recognize the “proud obstacles” of human reasoning and thinking that you have to do things our way. May your kingdom come in ever greater measure in our lives today. Amen.