We are now coming to the end of this first letter to Timothy, and Paul ends the letter with a personal note to Timothy. His final word to Timothy has to do mainly with personal holiness or sanctification. Believing as I always do, that God speaks to us through His holy Word, I want to apply Paul’s exhortation concerning the matter of personal holiness to us as followers of Christ in the context of this church. I have been asked to speak at a Reformed Family Conference in Durban in July on the subject, “Living holy lives in an unholy World”, and so the subject is much on my mind these days.
The Christian church of our age is not known for its great emphasis on holy living, because any emphasis on holy living is often perceived to be legalistic. Furthermore, the doctrine of sanctification which is at the heart of holy living, has been presented in unbalanced ways in certain quarters of the Christian church for some time. For instance, some have taught that growth in holiness needed to be propelled by a crisis experience, or a second experience following one’s conversion - a so-called baptism in, with or by the Holy Spirit. The problem was that many sincere Christians never received such an experience, following their genuine conversion to Christ. They were then told that they had no faith. They were told that they needed to let go and let God, and still nothing happened. And they were in spiritual torment because of that. They felt like second class Christians. This left many people spiritually confused. Jim Packer, a great contemporary theologian was a product of this movement, until he, as he said, discovered the Puritan writings of the 17th century concerning which he says that they had “a great deal more wisdom about personal holiness than the 19th and 20th holiness teachers”.
The classical view on sanctification, i.e. the view that the church has held by and large over the centuries of her existence, and the view that the Reformed tradition, which is 500 years old this year, has held, is that sanctification or growth in holiness is progressive and not led by an instant experience that would propel one to higher levels of Christian living. They saw sanctification as an ascending graph, with its inevitable ups and downs, but the general trend is up, because the Holy Spirit is steadily at work in the believer. The general trend that we see revealed in the Bible is that we keep on growing as Christians, and as followers of Christ, and that we mature in our faith as time goes by.
Now before I take you to the text, let me offer some further perspective on the nature of sanctification. There are two aspects to the doctrine of sanctification. The first is a passive aspect. Here is what we mean. Since Christians are in union with Christ, they have been sanctified through that union. If you are in Christ, you are holy. You are sanctified, and therefore the Bible calls Christian people ‘saints’ (lit. holy ones). The point is that Christians are holy because Christ has made them holy. Paul in writing to the Corinthians said: “… you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. “ Jesus has cleaned them. That is what we mean by the passive aspect of sanctification. In that sense we can add nothing to our holiness. Christ has done it all. Christians are holy. Period!
But, secondly, it is also true to say that there is a sense in which we cannot simply be passive about that which Christ has done for us, and therefore we must also speak about the responsive aspect of our sanctification. Our conversion to Christ, if it is a true conversion, must lead to an active commitment to holy living. Not every convert to Christ grasps that, particularly if the church in which they find themselves does not actively encourage the process of spiritual growth and discipleship. If that is so, then growth in holiness may be retarded.
The circumstances surrounding the convert may also retard that process. Carl Hugo Hahn (1818-1895),a pioneer missionary in Namibia realised that the Herero converts at Otjimbingwe easily compromised their commitment to holy living when they went back to their villages and to the ways of their forefathers. This gave rise to the idea of the Missions -kolonie, whereby converts were encouraged to stay at the Mission station where they were discipled (catechised) in holy living, and where they were also taught various practical skills.
So, Paul strongly encourages Timothy (using the imperative mood) to actively pursue holiness in terms of 5 verbs (words that denote action). Take note that our quest for active holiness consists not only of things that we need to do, but also of the things that we need to avoid.
1. Flee: “Flee these things”. These “things” are mentioned in 6:4-5. As Christian people we ought not to be puffed up with conceit. We ought not to have an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions and constant friction. We need to flee from these things. Those Christians who are rich need to flee from falling into the peculiar temptations associated with being rich (see vv. 9-10). This matter is so much on Paul’s heart, that he repeats it to Timothy, as he is about to close his epistle in vv. 17-19. Paul’s counsel to the rich in this present age are, both, by way of do’s and don’ts. He tells them not to be haughty; not to put their confidence in the uncertainty of riches, but positively, to trust God, who provides us with everything richly to enjoy and to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which truly is life.
2. Pursue : Here follows a string of positive (do!) pursuits
(i) Pursue righteousness: “the state of heart and mind which is in harmony with God’s law“
(ii) Pursue godliness : the imitation of Christ who was in very nature God
(iii) Pursue faith : here used in the sense of active reliance on God and His promises
(iv) Pursue love in the spirit of I Corinthians 13 :4-7
(v) Pursue steadfastness (perseverance / steadfastness): bearing up under trials, no matter what the cost, knowing that future victory is sure. (Think of the perseverance of Job)
(vi) Pursue gentleness. A meek disposition which was a mark of the life of Jesus.
All these graces are mark of holiness.
3. Fight/ contest (Gr. agōnizo) the good fight of faith. [v.12a] The English word ‘agony’ comes from this term which was used in the competition associated with the Greek athletic games. For Christians it means to live by our faith in God, and in that process to agonize against the temptations of our flesh, the world and the devil. In this battle we are called to put on the whole armour of God. [Eph. 6:10-18]. Any Christian who does not see the need of the daily fight for faith will be quickly overrun by sin and Satan. From that perspective we need to learn that it does take effort to pursue holiness.
4. Take hold (get a firm grip) of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you have made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses [v.12b] Labour to get an understanding of the nature of your salvation. Paul here makes reference to that confession which Timothy made, when he publicly professed his faith in baptism before many witnesses. Frequently, in this Christian walk and in the fight to maintain a holy walk with God, we have to remind ourselves what we were saved from. As we do that, we can see the progress. May we all be able to say with John Newton: “I am not what I ought to be — ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be — I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be — soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection. Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, "By the grace of God I am what I am." John Newton understood his justification from God and he understood the nature of his sanctification.
5. Keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” [v.14].The law of God, the commandment is summed up in the 10 commandments and it consists basically of two applications: “Love God… love your neighbour.” This is the summary of our holiness code, and Paul says to Timothy, ”keep that commandment…until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Keep it by imitating Jesus, who kept the entire law [v.13]. Ungodly rulers like Pontius Pilate knew that He had a holy man before him.The point here is not that Paul commands Timothy to be sinlessly perfect like Jesus, but that he encourages him to look to Jesus, who has kept the law for him, and who has already made him positionally perfect and holy and able to keep the commandment.
In verses 15-16 Paul invites Timothy to have a vision of the blessed , sovereign King of kings and Lord of lords who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see…” If you say this morning that you simply cannot see how you can be this sort of person, commanded in terms of these imperatives, then look to Jesus who invites you to look to Him and to draw strength from Him and who can do through you, exceedingly, abundantly above all that you ever ask or think.
· He will help you to flee from sin for He has overcome sin for us in His death on the cross.
· He will help you in the pursuit of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness and gentleness for these are the fruit of the Spirit, which every true believer is empowered to exhibit.
· He will help you to take hold of the eternal life, because, after all He Himself has called you to that eternal life.
· He will help you to fight the good fight of the faith. He has given you everything from the armoury of God to withstand the evil day and the evil one [Eph. 6:10-18]
· He will help you to keep the commandment, the law, the holiness code for He has commanded and empowered you to keep it.
Look to Him. In Christ God has given us life - real life, and real ability to be holy just as He is holy. When we shall come to the second letter of Timothy, we shall see that we do not lack a thing, and need to fear no thing, for God gave us not a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self -control…. You have been saved and called into a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which He gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” [ 2 Timothy1:7-9]
And so Paul ends the letter with these words: “O Timothy, guard the deposit (treasured possession) entrusted to you.” Refrain from worldly talking, empty and speculative teaching. Refrain from false knowledge. And finally, rely on God's grace. “Grace be with you” (Plural). For the ongoing life of the believer, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is essential. There is nothing that we are able to do apart from the grace of God, and there is nothing that God cannot do through us by His own grace. We are always dependent upon the grace of God. And you have been enabled TO BE holy because you ARE holy. Amen!