The Pursuit of Holiness

A lesson developed from the book, The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer


Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God... (Heb. 12:14)

The Hebrew letter was written to Jewish Christians who were being pressured into returning to the old way of living by law. The writer was trying to show them how the old covenant means of grace did not have power to cleanse the conscience and make people holy. (9:13-14)

Their ritual form of sanctification was unable to change their nature. In contrast, Jesus Christ, the Most High and Holy Priest, through the sacrifice of Himself, is able to provide to His disciples a real sanctification of the heart. Based on this premise, there is no purpose for returning to a ritual form of sanctification:

For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. (10:1-2)

Can we see how most Christians today are depending on a ritual form of sanctification? Year after year they go on sinning and repenting without ever experiencing a true sanctification of the heart. The whole process has turned into a mere ritual. Instead of truly seeking out heart purity by faith, we simply rest on the ritual.

The Hebrew Christians are also being warned about going back to obeying laws by human effort. They are being urged to go forward in their faith by seeking an entrance into the Sabbath-rest of God where everyone rests from their own human works and then lives by Christ's spiritual life through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it... There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered his rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. (Heb. 4:1,9-10)

Because the Hebrew writer knows how much every Christian needs to be encouraged to seek out the promises of God, he writes chapter 11 about the great men of faith. He explores this truth by emphasizing God's faithfulness to people of the Old Testament. The point of the lesson is that when faith lays hold of the promises of God, then God always makes good on His word.

In ever case the faith of the person could be traced to a promise that God had previously given. As Christians, we must learn of God's promises, and then seek them out through faith in God's power. These people were called "witnesses" in the sense that by their loyalty and endurance they have borne witness to what is possible through a life of faith in God.

But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. (Heb. 11:6)

All this sets the stage for the particular way in which the author in chapter 12 seeks to exhort his readers to pursue the full benefits of the new covenant. Within these teachings we find a promise of real sanctification and holiness of heart. And as he points out so clearly, without this holiness, we will not see the Lord.

In 12:1-2 he suggests two ways in which the goal is to be pursued: (1) We are to lay aside all hindrances, especially "the sin which so easily ensnares." The imagery used is that of a runner in a foot race, where every hindrance must be eliminated in order to speed the runner on to victory.

This divesting ourselves of all hindrances includes everything that feeds the flesh-life and keeps it alive and active. This will include practices and alliances that often appear quite normal to the world.

The "sin which so easily ensnares" is deeply connected to our self-centeredness. This is the source of all sin. Here we find the root of the sin problem. Christ expects us to take it to the cross so that we may find life in Him. If we will agree to enter into the reality of His death to self through faith in His power, He will bring our self-life to its end. When He accomplishes this work, He removes everything that is opposed to a life of holiness to the Lord.

The way of the cross is what takes us into the chastening of our Heavenly Father. This hand of discipline includes all the opposition that comes against our flesh-life. Everything that comes into conflict with self is another work of God to expose its continuing activity and strength. Only those who learn to hate the flesh life will ever find the fullness of Christ's life. (John 12:25)

The difficulties we experience in life are intended to expose the corruption in our flesh-life and bring about a condition where we are really willing to die to self. If we truly believe in Jesus and what He teaches, we will accept this path of the cross as the only way to find true spiritual life. If we will yield to the chastening of God, He guarantees that we will be enabled to be "partakers of His holiness" and bearers of his "peaceable fruit of righteousness" in due time.

All these exhortations are reinforced by setting Jesus before us as an example. This does not suggest that we are to attempt to imitate Christ through our own efforts, but rather we are being challenged to pursue with joy, determination, and faithfulness the destiny to which God calls us. The goal of our faith has been scripturally defined by the term "perfection." This is a reference to heart purity or holiness of heart.

But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, "Be Holy, for I am holy." (1 Pet. 1:15-16)

Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matt. 5:48)

Finally, brethren... Be perfect...and the God of love and peace shall be with you. (2 Cor. 13:11 KJV)

Finally, brothers... Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal... And the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Cor. 13:11 NIV)

But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Pet. 5:10-11)

All this exhortation is given in the context of having confidence in God's faithfulness and His ability to fully provide what He requires. God's promises, along with His commands to be perfect, assure us that He will make good on His word. As Jesus has said, "Apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5)

Carnal Christians, those who still fall under temptations through the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, are like the people of Israel during their time of testing in the wilderness. They have not yet completely rejected these things, and so they often use these means to find their spiritual fulfillment. And so they remain in the desert.

Jesus, who was our leader and guide, had to reject all three areas of temptation through real tests of His heart before He was able to leave the desert clothed with power from on high. We must follow His way out of the wilderness by refusing to build our spiritual life with the temporal things of this world.

God's people have been called to a destiny of being conformed to the spiritual image of the Son. If we hope to enter into His spiritual life, we must get past the desert and into the promised land of inheritance. There is no other place of spiritual abundance. The soul will also remain restless until we have entered into the promised Sabbath-rest of God.

We are commanded to pursue the holiness, "to put on the new man which as created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness." We are expected to seek to enter into the holiness of our Lord's life. The command is given because our Lord can now provide us with the heart purity found in His life.

We are not talking about a "state of grace" that results in the end of all growth. Here is a delicate truth that will require great care in our teaching. It is a truth that must be carefully balanced if it is to be properly understood. In effect, heart purity and freedom from the old willful nature is what enables us to begin growing with ever-increasing glory.

We cannot grow from glory to glory, without ever stumbling back into worldliness, until after the heart has been purified. A Christian with an unpurified heart will find themselves stumbling back four steps every time they try to take two steps forward. The pure heart has nothing for the world to draw on, and so it is always going forward and taking more land for the Lord.

Pursuing peace with all men goes hand in hand with the holiness that comes through purity of heart. Heart purity brings us to the end of our self-life. Without this selfish nature constantly rising up, it becomes easy to live in peace with all men.

The agape love of our Lord has a selfless nature in it. It willingly lays its own life down for the good of others. And so when the heart has been purified, and the Lord shows His life of true righteousness and holiness to the soul, in our own hearts we will be able to live in peace with all men.

Of course, we can also recognize a scriptural limitation to this truth when we consider that everyone who lives a godly life "in Christ" will be persecuted. (2 Tim. 3:12) Therefore, "If it is possible, as much as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men." (Rom. 12:18) Thus, when we balance this command of walking in peace with the command of seeking holiness of life, it implies that one should not seek peace at any cost. Holiness to the Lord must always come first.

Holiness in our text is equivalent to the "perfection," or heart purity, that could not be obtained through the old covenant. (10:1-2) It involves a real change of nature that can only be effected through the power of the blood. Jesus is able to sanctify, or make people holy, through His shed blood. (Heb. 13:12)

After making the statement to pursue peace with all men and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord, the author gives us three warnings. The word "lest" means that we must not ignore the possibility of these terrible consequences. They are the inevitable outcomes of not seeking after holiness.

1. "Lest any man fall short of the grace of God." The abundant provision of God's grace offers the present possibility of holiness, and our falling short of the abundant provision of grace will naturally be accounted to us. "Those who receive abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ." (Rom. 5:17) God will work out these tremendous promises in our life if we lay hold of them with faith. If we ignore and resist His teachings, then we are sure to receive the grace of God in vain. (2 Cor. 6:1)

2. "Lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled." It is amazing how touchy the self-centered nature can be. Evil will continue to erupt from the inner being as long as the self-life remains alive and active. When people cross our willful nature, we are sure to become bitter in our heart.

This bitterness will spring up and cause much trouble. "But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts... This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there." (Jam. 3:14-15) And it will continue to take place in our life if we fall short of the true circumcision of the heart that brings heart purity.

3. "Lest there be any fornicator {spiritual adulterer} or profane {worldly} person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright." This is the warning that brings before us the possibility of being rejected by God if we do not earnestly pursue the goal of holiness.

To understand this truth, we must recognize the distinction between "the birthright" and "the blessing." Esau had the birthright, but he gave up the blessing. As a spiritual type, he would be considered a called out child of God---a Christian---who has obtained the right to receive the heavenly inheritance. While all the blessings of the heavenly realms already belong to all Christians, not all of them have received the fullness of the blessing.

Esau is not necessarily an immoral person in the ethical sense. He is called "profane" because he has not been sanctified or separated wholly to God. In other words, he was still secular or worldly-minded. Esau did not give his birthright much thought, and so he gave it away for a little more temporal food from the world. He still wanted his heavenly inheritance some day, and cried out for it with tears, but he could not receive it because the temporal world was more important to him in his daily walk.

There have been many Christians who have sold their birthright. They too despise the holiness of heart they have been promised. And so, like Esau, they live for the temporal pleasures of this world. Because they have been like the five foolish virgins, they too will one day say, "'Lord, Lord, open to us!' But he answered and said, 'Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.'" (Matt. 25:11-12)

The birthright carries with it the promise of God. God has promised His children a real sanctification of heart. If we do not pursue the holiness of heart that Christ's blood has made available to us, we will one day cry bitterly for the blessing, but it will be to no avail. "For you know that afterward, when {Esau} wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears." (12:17)

God purified the heart of the first disciples on the day of Pentecost. This same heart purity has been available to every regenerate Christian throughout this age of fulfillment. Let us not try to rest in our birthright without going after the fullness of the blessing. We can expect nothing but the worst if we refuse to respond to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: "Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me and tried Me, and saw my works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, 'They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.' So I swore in My wrath, 'They shall not enter My rest.'"

Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living {and holy} God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called "Today," lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin... And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. (Heb. 3:7-13,18-19)

We can know that we are accepted and reconciled to God at the moment of our justification by faith. When we are justified, we are also blessed with a hunger and thirst after righteousness. The refusal to pursue this goal becomes a rejection of the ongoing work of God's grace in the heart.

For those who continue to hunger after righteousness, and pursue it with responsive faith, they will, in due time after the testing, be filled with righteousness. (Matt 5:6) God, through the resurrection power of His Spirit, will purify their heart and lift them into the heavenly realms. In this blessed age of fulfillment we can live continuously in the presence of God. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." (Matt. 5:8)

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and the church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect. (Heb. 12:22-23