If you read the writings or sermons of the early church fathers, one of the things you notice is a concern for holiness. They are consistent in their zeal to stand out from those around them, not because they’re making a raucous in town or trying to look and act generally odd in their society, but because they were living holy lives. They were so intent on living distinctly holy lives that when Christianity became the dominant religion under Constantine, the monastic movement also took off because believers wanted to show themselves to be those who lived differently from the world.
Now, this is not to say that the monastic movement or the practices in the monasteries were necessarily the ideal practice, but it is reflective of the heart in these early believers to live holy, undefiled, upright lives. And it did indeed make an impact.
Pliny was a governor of Binthynia, and he had carried out his due diligence of persecuting Christians. However, after a while, he grew a bit concerned, or at least confused, as to what to do with them. After all, he wasn’t executing simply a small group of individuals, only made up of one sex, or only from one class of society. As he noted, believers were of “every age, every rank, and also of both sexes . . . [as the faith] has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms.”
Now, he knew in his own mind that they should be punished. After all, he said that they were obstinate and stubborn – no doubt in reference to their refusal to turn from worshiping Jesus Christ as Lord. So, he punished them, tortured them, and inquired into what they were doing. Those who would not renounce Jesus as Lord were executed. Yet, some did renounce the faith and were spared. So, now the opportunity was ripe. Pliny wanted to know what these no-good Christians were up to, meeting on a fixed day of the week before dawn. Surely they had to be up to no good. And now, some who were willing to renounce the faith were going to tell him exactly what they had been doing as they secretly met together.
He writes, “They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition [by which he means a faith that he did not understand].”1
What a testimony that is. Even those who renounced their faith and were ready to incriminate others could only say that these believers met together and vowed with one another not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, and even encouraged each other to obey the emperor when it would not be sin to do so. What a testimony that even their enemies could only bear witness of their commitment to holiness and lives that accorded with that commitment.
And it’s a good reminder to us, isn’t it? There has always been a temptation in every age to try to figure out what might make the Christian faith more palatable or fitting to the culture in which we find ourselves. What did the Israelites do when they were surrounded by cultures who fashioned their own gods? They took their gold, fashioned a calf, and said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” During the age of the Enlightenment when reason was elevated so highly, Immanuel Kant produced a work titled, “Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone.” And we could look at many other points in history and see how the people of God have tried to make the faith more palatable, more inviting, more attractive to those outside of it in their own culture.
But what Pliny’s letter reminds us of and what has always been true is that the way in which God’s people draw the sincere attention of the world is by walking in holiness. This was true in Kant’s day. It was true in the early church. And it was true in ancient Israel, which is why the Lord told his people that when they came into the land he was giving them and wanted a king like all the nations surrounding them, they could indeed have a kind. However, he had to write for himself a copy of God’s law, and as the Lord noted, “it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statures, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel” (Deut. 17:19-20).
Therefore, when David found himself at a point in his life as Israel’s king, where he didn’t necessarily understand what to do next or why certain things were happening as they were, he always knew that it was the Lord’s will for him to pursue holiness. And that kind of mindset seems to be reflected in Psalm 101.
The psalm itself gives us very little in terms of background. The superscript simply tells us that it is a psalm of David. And we read in verse 2 David asking of the Lord, “Oh when will you come to me?” So, we know that David wrote this when he felt the Lord was somewhat distant from him, or withholding his blessing on David. What then does David do? Again, as we’ve noted, he focuses himself on a commitment to holiness. After all, he knew this was God’s will for him. We see the flow of this in verses 1-4. David declares that he will sing of God’s steadfast love and justice. He will make music to the Lord. And as he reflects on God’s goodness and holiness, in the midst of wondering when God might come to him, he determines that he will mirror God’s holiness in his life. He will walk in integrity and know nothing of evil. In the midst of his confusion and questioning, he focuses on something he knows God wills for him – holiness.
In the same way, perhaps you are here this morning with all kinds of confusion or doubts in your mind as to what exactly you should be doing. And you are pleading to know God’s will. Well, following David’s lead, we can say that we all certainly know God’s revealed will for us. He wants us to be holiness, to pursue holiness with great zeal, and to (consequently) distinguish ourselves in the midst of a world that does not know God. Your pursuit of holiness is God’s constant will for your life. Therefore, it does us good this morning to be reminded of this and to commit ourselves to a greater, more zealous pursuit of holiness. And I believe Psalm 101 serves as a good and helpful guide in helping us understand what a pursuit of holiness looks like. Therefore, this morning, I want to look in the text at what David said and did in his pursuit of holiness and then apply that to us.
The first of these things that we can learn from David is that . . .
We must fully devote ourselves to holiness
Note how many times David notes in the text that he will do something. He says, “I will sing of steadfast love and justice . . . I will make music . . . I will ponder the way that is blameless . . . I will walk with integrity of heart . . . I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless . . . I will know nothing of evil.” And that’s just the first four verses. He continues on throughout the whole psalm in this way.
Again, in more detail now, note what he says in verses 2-4. He writes, “I will ponder the way that is blameless. . . . I will walk with integrity of heart within my house; I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless. . . . A perverse heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil.”
There are two elements here: full devotion (David saying , I will do) and totality (David saying, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless. . . . I will know nothing of evil.” Do you see that in David’s words? He isn’t saying, “I’m going to give some effort to this, and if I fail, oh well, pretty good is not all that bad.” Nor is he saying, “Holiness in ten percent of my life is fine.” I’ve joked sometime if I do something where I’ve only achieved seventy-five percent of what I’ve wanted that seventy-five percent is a lot of pie to eat. So, you make a seventy-five on a test, you’re feeling all down on yourself, and then you ask, “Would it be impressive if I were able to eat seventy-five percent of a pie?” You better believe it would be impressive. Then, you feel better about yourself.
However, you could quickly counter that by finding another comparison. After all, if I were to go to the store this afternoon with all of my kids but only come home with three of the four, I doubt anyone would think my accomplishment worthy of great applause. And holiness is more in the category of bringing your kids home after a trip to the store than eating a pie. In other words, it’s nothing that you should pursue, thinking, “Well, seventy-five percent would be pretty good.” That’s not what David is doing here. He is fully and completely devoting himself to the task of holiness.
Now, let’s just think of ourselves and ask ourselves how devoted we are to holiness. I know how easy it is to grow to accept certain sins. I know what it’s like to have a standard of holiness, and then after a while, you begin to accept something far less than complete devotion to holiness. For example, think of a group of guys getting together to fight lust. And they’ve really been giving in to it. Then, one week a guy shows up and says, “I only looked at one pornographic image on my computer this week,” and the other guys say, “Great job.” And say that repeats itself week after week. What’s going on there is a group of guys saying, “Holiness in the area of lust not our aim. We like to leave room for a decent bit of sin in this area.” But that’s not David’s commitment, and it shouldn’t be ours either. We could run that same illustration with sin after sin, couldn’t we? Do you think a group of believers would applaud if someone really struggling with gossip got together and said, “Hey, I’ve had a pretty good week. I only spoke ill of one of you on one occasion behind your back this week”? I would guess not. And the reason we wouldn’t is because we understand that that is simply not an acceptable action in the Christian life.
I’ve begun to apply something to myself in terms of accountability and have encouraged others in the same way. I recently told a brother, “If I ever confess to you that I’ve intentionally pursued sin in this way, I need you to sit down with me and pray that the Lord will severely discipline me.” And the reason I asked that is because God’s severe discipline terrifies me. And it should. And one reason I’d been hesitant before making this request of my brother to make sure a request – if I am honest with myself – is because I was quite content to make consistent but somewhat limited failure my goal. I was fine with saying, “I’ll sin in this area only ten percent of the time and be fine with that.”
So, let us ask ourselves, “How much do we really want to make war on our sin? How much do we really want holiness?” We are right to acknowledge that when Jesus said it would be better to pluck out our eye or cut off our hand than to go to hell with two hands and two eyes, that he wasn’t literally encouraging us to pluck out our eye or cut off our hand if we ever sin with them. However, sometimes we say that and allow ourselves to escape the full force of what Jesus is saying there. And what he’s saying is that we need to be willing to go to radical and extreme ends in order to fight sin in our lives.
So again, consider the sin that seems to keeping coming up in your life. Let us commit to make war against our sin and to devote ourselves fully and completely to holiness.
Yet, holiness is also a corporate commitment, isn’t it? And this is reflected in the psalm as well, which reminds us that a pursuit of holiness means that . . .
We must love others enough to fight against sin in their lives
Now, it should be admitted that the way David manifests this is by his intent to destroy those who are not committed to the Lord but who are committed to evil. So, we read in verse 3, for example, “I hate the work of those who fall away,” and we think, “That sounds great. It’s good to hate evil.” But then we read, “Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy. Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not endure. No one who practices deceit shall dwell in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue before my eyes. Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all evildoers from the city of the LORD” (vv. 5-6, 7).
Now, it does sound weird to think about destroying people, doesn’t it? Clearly there is a difference between the covenant and setting in which we find ourselves and the covenant and setting in which David found himself. Thus, it would be wrong to say, “If killing people who sin was good enough for David, then it’s good enough for me.” So, let’s make sure we understand David’s position first.
The Lord’s people in the Old Covenant were a nation, a state, or a kingdom. There was no government that was separate from the church, for example. They were one in the same. So, David bore the requirement to exercise sword. And the law was the law that God had handed down through Moses. This meant that David was to exercise the Lord’s justice against those who violated God’s law, and often that justice required death. This means that a commitment from David to honor God’s law necessarily included his commitment to bring justice to the evildoer in his kingdom – even when that justice meant exercising the death penalty.
We, on the other hand, find ourselves under the new covenant in a much different situation. We have not been given the sword. The people of God are not a geo-political people but exist all over the world. And under the new covenant, the tribal element whereby all would suffer because of one person’s sin has fallen away so that, as Jeremiah says, “In those days they shall no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone shall die for his own sin. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29-30).
So, there is much different with us. However, I do think that one principle that carries over is that just as David was to have concern for the kingdom as a whole, so we are to have concern for the holiness of the church as a whole. And one point that suggests this, I think, is the fact that love is constantly noted as the premier mark of holiness. The first fruit of the Spirit mentioned is love. The greatest commandment is that we love our God. The second greatest commandment is that we love our neighbor. So, when you consider holiness, you cannot claim to pursue holiness without pursuing and exercising love.
This means that a devotion to holiness necessarily involves a devotion to love your brothers and sisters in Christ enough to fight with them for their holiness. And sometimes this will mean correcting them, rebuking them, or simply helping them to fight against their sin when they’ve lost the will to fight.
Now, there is something I want to make clear in saying this. The idea here is not that we pursue holiness on the congregational level by trying to see if there is possibly any area in anyone’s life where we might speak rebuke. There’s something wrong in your heart if that is how you are bent. Rather, the idea is that we must love one another enough to say, “I will not let you keep going down that road.” That is, holiness means that when a brother or sister in Christ is bent on sinning, you meet with them, plead with them, point them to the Scripture, and exhort them to walk in holiness.
You see, there are two wrong ways you can go. What if, for example, you had a brother who said he was struggling with homosexuality? You could respond by ignoring that indulging oneself in homosexuality is sin, but that would just be wrong. The Bible clearly condemns it. Or, you could say, “Well, this is going to be a tough fight. And I just don’t know that I have commitment, time, and energy to labor alongside this brother in his fight against this sin.” And that is equally wrong. The call of holiness says that we say, “I will not let you give yourself over to that but will fight with you, hold you accountable, pray for you, rebuke you when your heart and mind grow weak and you want to give in, etc.”
Again, that’s time-consuming, but is the call to holiness anything less. I don’t think it is. Holiness involves our commitment to fight for the growth and good of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
However, fighting for others’ holiness doesn’t simply involve fighting against that which they are doing or are tempted to do. It also means that we encourage them as they are walking in righteousness. This means that . . .
We must encourage others as they are walking in righteousness
Do you see this in the psalm? It’s true that most of the verses have to do with David destroying the evildoer or making sure that one doesn’t minister in his house. But there’s also a supportive, encouraging note here as well. David says in verse 6, “I will look with favor on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me; he would walks in the way that is blameless shall minister to me.”
David is not only going to rid the kingdom of evil, but when he finds a man who is faithful, he’s going to bring him into the king’s palace. In other words, David is not only seeking to drive evil away from his people but to encourage them in their good.
This, too, is a key element in fighting for corporate holiness. And it is a challenging one. There can be a tendency only to give our time and effort to those who are struggling. If someone has a struggle in their marriage, we gravitate toward helping them. That is good. That’s the note we just looked at in the last point. But the downside is that sometimes we might miss the individual or individuals who might be walking well. A brother involves himself in gross sin, we run to him. A brother walks in faithfulness, we ignore him.
That’s not David’s approach, and it shouldn’t be ours either. Rather, we should make it a focused effort to notice faithfulness in others, point it out, and encourage them in it. That has as much of a role in encouraging a brother to fight sin as does a needed rebuke. So, we must commit to it.
And there’s one final note I want to add, and it is this: the gospel must be front and center in all of these tasks. Concerning our own devotion to holiness, we must begin with the understanding that we are justified before God not because of our own righteousness but completely because of Christ’s, which is ours through faith. Realizing that, we pursue holiness from the vantage point of already being justified, not in order to attain justification but to honor the one who has already credited us with the righteousness of Christ.
Second, when we aid others in fighting sin, we do so by pointing them again and again to the gospel. Why is there hope for them if they’ve fallen into sin? It’s because of the gospel. How will they find strength to fight when they’ve fallen so many times already? It’s because the God who did not spare his own Son will surely and graciously give them all things needed to persevere. We will tell them to turn from their sin first to the gospel and only then to a pursuit of righteousness.
Third, we will encourage our brothers and sisters by noting that the gospel is bearing fruit in their lives and that it gives clear evidence to the fact that their faith is resting in the crucified and risen Christ. Simply put, the gospel will saturate all things in our zealous pursuit of holiness. Therefore, as we pursue our own holiness, fight for the holiness of others, and encourage others in their pursuit of holiness, may we do so while resting on the finished work of Christ and constantly meditating on the good news of what he has done for us. May we even know consider his work for us as we come to the table. Amen.