Blood and Water: The Christian Fight for Holiness

Photo by  Joel Filipe  on  Unsplash

Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

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The apostle John stood on Golgotha and watched Jesus die in agony. He heard him utter, “It is finished,” and he saw his head drop at the moment of his death. He saw the soldier take his spear and plunge it into Jesus’ side, right into his heart. And he saw something remarkable: an immediate flow of blood and water (John 19:34). This distressing and surprising sight gripped John’s mind and soul. We know that because of the very weighty testimony he gives to it:

The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. (John 19:35; see also 1 John 5:6-8; all Scripture quotations from NIV)

This makes us think of the temple. The temple was God’s house, and a person could only go into God’s house via the altar and the sea (1 Kings 7:23-26 and 2 Chron. 4:2-5). At the altar sin was atoned for by the blood of a substitutionary sacrifice. At the sea—which held some seventeen tons of water—sin was washed away.  

Reconciliation to God means blood atonement, and washing. Jesus’ death, releasing water and blood, accomplished both for his people.

Jesus’ death has washed us.

My impression is that we focus very much on the blood. I believe in Jesus, he died for me and his blood atoned for my sins, and so I have been saved from the punishment of hell. This is glorious, but he did not die just to free us from punishment. He died also to wash us and make us clean. He died to save us from the punishment of sin, and he died to wash away the corruption of sin: the guilt of our sin, and its power over our lives.

A believer therefore not only has a new ultimate destiny, but a new life right now. The old sinful nature has been crucified (Rom. 6:6). We have been freed from its slavery (Rom. 6:18). We were once wedded to the sinful nature; but that cruel old husband is now dead, and now we belong to a good husband (Rom. 7:4).  Our sinful hearts of stone are transformed into tender hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). There is rebirth (John 3:7) and a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).

Sanctification is the process of growing in holiness.  

Jesus’ death has washed us. We are free to walk in this new life, we will want to walk in this new life, and we must walk in this new life. This is sanctification.  

The word is built from the Latin sanctus, meaning “holy.” In the Latin Bible the angels around the throne in Isaiah 6 call out Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus! Sanctification is the process of growing in holiness.  

At this point we must distinguish between definitive and progressive sanctification. Definitive sanctification is really the same as justification; it is an act of God whereby he declares us right and holy in his sight on the ground of Jesus’ death:

…But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:11).

 And John saw in heaven a great multitude of the saved, dressed in white robes before the throne of God: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). These passages describe a once-off, complete, and definitive sanctification, wholly wrought by God.

Believers have been sanctified, and they have also been called to grow in holiness.  

Notwithstanding, there are many passages that describe a progressive sanctification, a steady growth in holiness through the believer’s life:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)

Notice here the process: believers are being transformed. We see something similar in Ephesians 5.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Eph. 5:25-27)

Husbands are called to steadily wash and sanctify their wives with the Word of God in the same way that Jesus is steadily washing and sanctifying his church.

Holiness is not something to which only some special Christians aspire.

We see both definitive and progressive sanctification in 1 Corinthians 1:2,  

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified [definitive sanctification] in Christ Jesus and called to be holy [progressive sanctification], together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.  [“Sanctified” and “holy” translate Greek words with the same root.]

There is nothing optional about sanctification.  

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14)

Holiness is not something that some special Christians will aspire to. Every Christian will “make every effort ... to be holy,” for the Lord is holy and without holiness we will never see him. 

Thus, while justification and definitive sanctification are things that the Lord declares true of us, without any cooperation on our part, progressive sanctification is something in which we participate. Progressive sanctification is a work of God in and with us.  God commands us by his Word to work and strive for holiness, and as we do this by power and strength of his Holy Spirit he transforms us into the likeness of his Son (Romans 8:29).

How does God do this? There is a fighting against and a fighting for.  

Like Joseph, who fled from Potiphar’s wife, we must flee and fight against what is corrupt and sinful.  “Flee from sexual immorality!” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:18. And in 1 Timothy 6:11-12, “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith.” The Greek word for fight is ἀγωνιζομαι (agonizomai), a word used to describe athletic contests: struggling, striving, and straining every nerve.  

And we fight for holiness. This means taking hold of the “means of grace,” the tools that Jesus has lovingly given us to sanctify us. In Clash of the Titans the gods gave Perseus special gifts that they knew he would need in order to survive his ordeals, and to rescue Andromeda from the Kraken. They gave him a sharp sword, a polished shield that could be used as a mirror, a helmet to make him invisible, and Pegasus to fly him swiftly from place to place. 

The living God has given us the gifts of his word, prayer, fellowship, and the sacraments.

We fight for holiness, for this leads to true peace and joy. 

You can tell those Christians who are fighting for holiness. They are systematically and greedily devouring God’s word. They have calluses on their knees. Wild horses could not keep them from meeting with God’s people. They often remind themselves that they are baptized: not the event itself, but the fact of their baptism, an outward sign and pledge that Christ has cleansed them with his blood. And they treasure the Lord’s Supper, that regular tangible seizing of the body and blood of the sacrificed Jesus, without which we have no life.

There is nothing passive about the Christian walk. We trust and rest entirely on the grace of God for our salvation, and from there we struggle and fight for holiness with “might and main.”

We fight for holiness, for this leads to real peace and joy. We fight for holiness, “for without holiness no one will see the LORD” (Heb. 12:14). We fight for holiness, because our Father, whom we love, is holy and he wants us to be like him. “Be holy, because I the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).  

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:23).

May the blood and the water that poured from Jesus’ side do its work in you as you strive for holiness.

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Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.