Excerpt from Streams of Living Water

Holi­ness means the abil­i­ty to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. It means being response-able,” able to respond appro­pri­ate­ly to the demands of life. The word virtue (arête) comes into our New Tes­ta­ment from a long his­to­ry in Greek philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion, and it means sim­ply to func­tion well. Virtue is good habits we can rely upon to make our life work. Con­verse­ly, vice is bad habits we can rely upon to make our life not work, to make it dys­func­tion­al, as we say. So a holy life sim­ply is a life that works. 

How con­trary this is to our pop­u­lar notions of holi­ness. Frankly, it is rarely con­sid­ered a com­pli­ment to be seen as holy” these days. And cer­tain­ly no one wants to be thought of as holi­er-than-thou.” To most minds the con­cept of holi­ness car­ries with it an air of arro­gance and judg­ment. Fur­ther­more, it is often asso­ci­at­ed with triv­i­al­i­ties of behav­ior that we all know have lit­tle or noth­ing to do with a vir­tu­ous life. Because these mis­con­cep­tions are so per­va­sive in our cul­ture, it is cru­cial that we learn what holi­ness is not as well as what it is. 

Holi­ness is not rules and reg­u­la­tions. Elab­o­rate lists of dos and don’ts miss the point of a life hid­den with God in Christ. No sin­gle stan­dard of behav­ior is dic­tat­ed by the word holy. All exter­nal legalisms fail to cap­ture the heart of holy liv­ing and holy dying. 

Holi­ness is sus­tained atten­tion to the heart, the source of all action. It con­cerns itself with the core of the per­son­al­i­ty, the well-spring of behav­ior, the quin­tes­sence of the soul. It focus­es upon the for­ma­tion and trans­for­ma­tion of this center. 

Holi­ness is not oth­er­world­li­ness. Its life is not found by devel­op­ing log­ic-tight com­part­ments of things sacred and things sec­u­lar. We do not come into it by stu­dious­ly avoid­ing con­tact with our man­i­fest­ly evil and bro­ken world. 

Holi­ness is world-affirm­ing. The holy life is found smack in the mid­dle of every­day life. We dis­cov­er it while being freely and joy­ful­ly in the world with­out ever being of the world. Holi­ness sees the sacred in all things. It is inte­gra­tive, syn­op­tic, incarnational. 

Holi­ness is not a con­sum­ing asceti­cism. It is not pun­ish­ment for the sake of pun­ish­ment. It nei­ther despis­es nor depre­ci­ates the human body. And it nev­er locates virtue or mer­it in asceti­cal exer­cis­es themselves. 

Holi­ness is a bod­i­ly spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. It affirms the good­ness of the human body and seeks to bring it into work­ing har­mo­ny with the spir­it. It uti­lizes appro­pri­ate Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines for train­ing the body and mind in right liv­ing. It is, in this sense, asceti­cal but nev­er for the sake of the asceti­cism, always for the sake of the training. 

Holi­ness is not works-right­eous­ness.” We can­not muster up our willpow­er to do good deeds and there­by become right­eous. Sanc­ti­fy­ing grace, just like jus­ti­fy­ing grace, is utter­ly and com­plete­ly a work of … well, grace. It is unearned and unearn­able. It is a God-ini­ti­at­ed and God-sus­tained real­i­ty; we can­not do it, con­jure it up, or make it happen. 

Holi­ness is a striv­ing to enter in,” as Jesus tells us. Effort is not the oppo­site of grace; works is. Works has to do with mer­it or earn­ing, and the effort we are called to under­take has noth­ing what­ev­er to do with mer­it­ing or earn­ing any­thing. In fact, the clas­si­cal Dis­ci­plines — fast­ing and prayer, for exam­ple — have no virtue or mer­it what­so­ev­er in and of them­selves. They mere­ly place us before God in such a way that he can begin build­ing the king­dom-right­eous­ness with­in us. (I say mere­ly” because I want to under­score that the virtue is all of God, but I cer­tain­ly do not want to give the impres­sion that our effort is noth­ing. In the econ­o­my of God it is a very impor­tant some­thing. We will come to this presently.) 

Holi­ness is not per­fec­tion­ism. We do not by some act of divine fiat become sin­less crea­tures inca­pable of any wrong action. As holy per­sons we can still make mis­takes — and we do, with sor­row­ful reg­u­lar­i­ty. We fail. We fall. Even so… 

Holi­ness is progress in puri­ty and sanc­ti­ty. We are set apart for divine pur­pos­es. Holy habits deep­en into fixed pat­terns of life. We expe­ri­ence a grow­ing pre­pon­der­ance of right actions flow­ing from a right heart. We are ever in the process of becom­ing holy. 

Holi­ness is not absorp­tion into God. It does not mean the loss of our iden­ti­ty, our per­son­hood. Through holy liv­ing we do not become less real, less whole, less human. Quite the opposite. 

Holi­ness is lov­ing uni­ty with God. It is an ever-expand­ing open­ness to the divine Cen­ter. It is a grow­ing, matur­ing, freely giv­en con­for­mi­ty to the will and ways of God. Holi­ness gives us our truest, fullest, human­i­ty. In holi­ness we become the per­sons we were cre­at­ed to be.

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Excerpt­ed from Streams of Liv­ing Water by Richard J. Fos­ter, pub­lished by Harper­One. Copy­right Richard J. Fos­ter. Used with permission.

Originally published October 1998