By Jonathan Moseley
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellences of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 1 Peter 2:9-11
The happier you are in God, the holier you are. Most people tend to think that striving to be holy snatches away your happiness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because holiness is measured by your love for God. The greater your love for God, the greater your hatred for sin. God is the most valuable and majestic and wonderful thing in the universe. We were made to delight in Him. But when our hearts become enamored by something other than him, here’s what happens: we exchange him for that thing. That’s what the Bible calls idolatry. You know why we make this exchange? Because we believe that thing will bring us more happiness than God. A soul completely satisfied and mesmerized by the beauty of God is wonderfully happy and stays far away from anything that could be sinful. Thus, that person is holy. And what I want to do is offer ways we can grow in our holiness.
A Pause for Clarity
But first, I want to take a pause to explain terms that are often misunderstood. When I talk about holiness, there are sometimes sentences I use that start with “You shouldn’t…” and “Don’t…” That shouldn’t be surprising. Peter does that in our text. Since we are a holy nation, we are to abstain from passions of the flesh. In other words, Peter appeals to the pursuit of holiness and also gives us instruction on what we are not to do. They sound like rules, and as a result, I hear two objections:
1) What about Christian freedom?
2) Why are you being legalistic?
So, I want to take a pause and unpack what these terms mean starting with freedom. Christian freedom does not mean we can do anything we want. According to Romans 6:18, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves of righteousness.” In other words, you were once enslaved to sin before you knew Jesus. The Holy Spirit freed you, but now you are a slave to righteousness. The Holy Spirit did not free you from sin so that you could sin. He freed you from sin so that you could enjoy God. You can’t savor and treasure God when you’re in sin—but you can if you are free from it. So, understand what you are freed from and what you are freed to. Christian freedom is not a free pass to do whatever you want because you know you have grace. Paul vehemently condemns this (Rom. 6:1-2). Christian freedom means you have been let loose from the bonds of sin and now have the ability and power to love Jesus.
Now, I want to address legalism. The root word here is legal, which pertains to law. Christians can sometimes think that grace means we now have no law to follow. So, anything that imposes a law is legalism. But Jesus has commandments for us—it’s not that Christians have no law; rather, the reasons we keep it are different. Legalism is about keeping the law to earn God’s favor. Christians do not keep the law in exchange for God’s love. No. But we do keep the law to protect our relationship with God.
Guard Your Treasure
When God gives us commandments, they are not meant to burden us (1 John 5:3-5). They are meant to guard our joy in him (John 15:11). What Satan wants most is to take your happiness in God and place it somewhere else—like in football or in Netflix or in sex or your work. He doesn’t want us ultimately satisfied in God. Satan wants to distract us and take our attention away from God. Thus, God’s aim for his commandments and rules is for our happiness. He has our good in mind. When God gave a commandment to Adam and Eve, it wasn’t to deprive or oppress them. It was to save them. God was not sufficient, so they disobeyed and it cost them their lives. If they would have obeyed God, they would have remained holy—because of their obedience, and happy—because of God’s presence. Holiness and happiness are not at odds. Instead, they were ashamed and were separated from God’s presence.
But Peter says, we are a holy people. We are witnesses to his excellencies, and that makes us supremely happy. So, how can we keep our eyes fixed on his excellencies instead of looking elsewhere? We must guard God as our treasure. I offer two Scriptures that have helped me determine whether or not I’m doing this well.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:22-25).
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
Am I watching a show on Netflix that is honorable and true and just and pure? Am I dating someone who knows Jesus and displays love joy, peace, and patience? Is my work or hobby producing the fruit of the Spirit? Are my conversations and my thoughts bringing out loveliness and excellence? Are my friends cultivating self-control, gentleness, and goodness? You see where I’m going with this. If the answers are no, you either need to reject them outright (yes, cut it out of your life!) or see how the Gospel of Jesus can redeem it.
We long for comfort and significance and pleasure—these things make us happy to a degree and for a season. That’s why we go to them. But if it’s not God, we are forfeiting the One who makes us exceedingly glad and joyful. If you want to grow in holiness, you will have to give up things. This is a not threat to your freedom, because it’s aimed at helping you love Jesus more deeply. This is not legalism—it’s boundaries to protect what our hearts should value and want most. Giving up these things that make us happy but are opposed to God is not easy; that’s why I say the pursuit of holiness hurts. Growing in holiness means giving up what we love, namely, our sin. And this is painful. But we give up these things in faith, because we know that what we’re losing is nothing compared to what we’re gaining, namely, Jesus. We joyfully lay down the fleeting pleasures of sin for the sake of knowing Christ and growing in our happiness of him. This is the essence of holiness.
Jonathan Moseley is the Director of Community and Operations at Renewal Church.