Question: "Is being holy even possible, since only God is holy?"
Answer: Holiness is not only a possibility for the Christian; holiness is a requirement. “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). The difference between God and us is that He is inherently holy while we, on the other hand, only become holy in relationship to Christ and we only increase in practical holiness as we mature spiritually. The New Testament emphasizes the pursuit of holiness in this world and the final attainment of holiness in the world to come.
To be “holy” means that we are, first of all, “set apart for honorable use.” Whereas we were “once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures . . . God our Savior . . . saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:3-5; cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11). The Lord took the initiative to pull us out of our former lifestyles. He saved us, cleansed us, and set us apart for righteousness. If we have believed in Christ for salvation, we have been washed by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit and set apart from the world for godliness (see Romans 12:2).
However, the pursuit of holiness does not end when we come to Christ. In fact, it just begins! There is a positional holiness that we inherit at regeneration and a practical holiness which we must actively pursue. God expects us to cultivate a lifestyle of holiness (1 Peter 1:14-16) and commands us to “cleanse ourselves of all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1 NASB). Bringing holiness to “perfection” means that we should be increasing in spiritual fruitfulness every day. We are to consider ourselves “dead to sin” (Romans 6:11), refusing to revert back to our former lifestyles. In this way we “cleanse [ourselves] from what is dishonorable,” becoming vessels for “honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master . . . for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). Holiness is the mark of every true Christian (1 John 3:9-10).
Cultivating a lifestyle of holiness does not mean that we must draft a list of do’s and don’ts to live by. We are free from the letter of the law which kills (2 Corinthians 3:6) and now live according to the dictates of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16-18).
We are told, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). In this verse, we see cooperation between God and His children in sanctification. We “work out” what God “works in” us, because God has a timeline for the virtues that He wishes to cultivate in our lives. Our responsibility is to yield to His wishes, “working out” with focused attention and great care those things that He is causing to grow in us. Holiness will not be brought to completion in our lives with no effort on our part. We are invited to participate in God’s work in us. We will not be “carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease,” as the old hymn says.
This is, perhaps, the most important lesson that we can learn as Christians. God’s ultimate desire for His people is that we be holy—conformed into the image of His Son, Jesus (Romans 8:29; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4). Holiness is the will of God for our lives.
Of course, the flesh is weak (Mark 14:38). None of us will reach sinless perfection in this world, but God has made provision for our sin. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Our pursuit of holiness in this world includes daily confessing and forsaking sin (see Hebrews 12:1-3).
God helps us in our weakness by giving us His Holy Spirit who reveals the mind of Christ to us and enables us to carry out His will (1 Corinthians 2:14-16; Philippians 2:13). When we yield to the Spirit, we become fruit-bearing Christians, yielding a harvest with which God is well pleased (Galatians 5:22-23). On the other hand, when we suppress the work of the Holy Spirit by rebelling against His will for us, we stifle the design of God, sabotage our own spiritual growth, and grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30).
If God was gracious enough to redeem us from sin and death and give us new life in Christ, the very least that we can do is offer our lives back to Him in complete surrender and holiness, which is for our benefit (cf. Deuteronomy 10:13). Because of God’s mercies, we should be living sacrifices, “holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1; cf. Deuteronomy 10:13). One day, in heaven, we will be free from sin and all its effects. Until then, we “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” and keep running our race (Hebrews 12:2).