Understanding Holiness

Many Christians attempt to be holy by watching out for temptation and trying not to sin. These are good lofty goals. But this is not how the Bible describes holiness. This might just be sheer willpower and legalism.

Because so many people define holiness in different ways, it’s hard to know if we’re hitting the mark. God commands us to be holy as he is holy (Leviticus 11:44; 1 Peter 1:15-16) and come out from among those in the world (2 Corinthians 6:17). But how do we accomplish this goal?

More than that, there is more to holiness than just avoiding temptation and not sinning against God. We spend so much of our energy and time focused on the first that we often neglect the second. Doing one helps with accomplishing the other.

James teaches against worldliness, and the solution to honoring God happens in both negative and positive holiness. We still must do both, resisting the devil and submitting to God.

More Than We Thought

Holiness encompasses much more than most Christians understand. I call negative holiness any of the “don’ts” we see in Scripture and attempt to obey and follow. Positive holiness is those things we should be doing to further our relationship with God.

James, the great preacher of the New Testament, has choice words for his flock. They are by far not easy to listen to, and I can imagine everyone in his congregation cringing throughout the passage. But these are words we must hear today more than ever before.

The culture and society around us becomes more and more militant, less and less willing to compromise, drawing a line in the sand. Some Christians feel as though they must tiptoe between answers to this issue and that hot button political football.

James calls us to stand firm and not mix with the world. Sometimes worldliness creeps into the church without us realizing it. We may even be guilty of allowing it to creep into our lives. But James doesn’t allow us a pass.

If we give an inch to worldliness, it will consume us like leaven through a batch of dough. So you can see why James is so hard on us. But not to fret. He also offers a solution to the problem of worldliness infiltrating the Church.

In James 4:7-8 he tells us that holiness is like a double-sided coin. On the one side, we resist the devil and all of his advances. But on the other side we devote ourselves to God, submitting to him in all areas of our lives.

Friends and Frenemies

To fully understand and apply what James says about these two sides of holiness, we must first set the stage. James 4 is one of the strongest chapters on worldliness. Worldliness is doing what the world wants us to do instead of what God wants us to do.

Worldliness is the sneaky snake that winds itself around our minds, making us think it’s okay to do some of what the world does and some of what God does. This may be why James eventually tells the Christians in his congregation to not be “double minded” (James 4:8).

A double minded person cannot choose between right and wrong. When two choices are placed before a double minded person, he or she waffles between the choices and is paralyzed by indecision.

In the same way, we’re double minded if we think we can do worldly and currently things together. Purity demands that worldliness be scratched out of our lives. We can’t do both. God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of this world are diametrically opposed.

The Christians in James’ church experience the results of the double life. They ask God for things, just as Jesus told us to ask anything in his name (John 14:14). And yet because their motives are wrong and they ask because of their own desires, they don’t see any results (James 4:1-3).

If you think the fire and brimstone preachers of today make you cringe, they got it from James. In James 4:4, he calls his congregation (don’t forget these are Christians) an adulterous people. He sounds like the prophets of Old who said these things about Israel.

If you think he’s laying it on too thick, worldliness is the most dangerous foe Christians face. Because of peer pressure and wanting to be accepted in the world, we are much more susceptible to allowing the world to infiltrate us rather than influence it.

The Shepherd of the congregation must not only sooth the sheep, feeding and healing them, but protect against the wolves and bears. It requires that we listen to the Shepherd instead of challenging what he or she says.

James lays out the reason he is being so harsh. Friendship with the world makes Christians an enemy of God. We cannot have it both ways. We must live for God despite our culture and society. Although we live in the world, we must not become worldly.

We must commit to live for God and walk with him no matter what happens to us. After all, he sees everything coming before we do. He has us in the palm of his hand.

We must be friends of God because we carry the name of Jesus (James 4:4). As we walk with him, he guides us into his character and truth. But we deceive ourselves if we think we can get away with living two separate lives.

Resisting the Devil

After laying it on pretty hard and calling his people to fully commit to God’s way, James presents two sides to holiness. Most Christians understand the first side very well. We spend many of our days fighting the devil.

We look for every possible temptation and take every thought captive to Jesus (2 Corinthians 10:5). If we are tempted, we look for the way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13). We study the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) over and over looking for new nuggets that will help us in our fight.

We put on the full Armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20) daily. When we go to church, it’s more likely the pastor will wax eloquent on how to avoid temptation and what happens when Christians sin against God.

None of these are bad measures. But they’re not the whole story. God doesn’t only want us to be on the offensive without practicing the positive side of holiness. This is why James introduces holiness two ways, both equally important.

In James 4:7, he tells us to resist the devil. But he also says what happens when we do. The devil flees from us. This is not a fight of our own ability. Got fights for and with us. And he has already been the Victor.

Jesus won our salvation on the cross. We fight for something that Jesus has already won. What would happen if we relied on the name of Jesus and reminded the devil that he is a defeated foe?

Let’s not forget the power of Jesus in our lives as Christians. We merely need to call on Jesus’ name and we know that the power of the Spirit dwelling within us is more than enough for the devil to handle. He who is in us is greater than he used in the world (1 John 4:4).

So stand on the promise James gives. When you are threatened by the devil or temptation or your flesh you crucified long ago, stand on the fact that when you resist the devil, he will flee from you. You don’t have to do an exorcism. Just stand against him.

We study a lot about the devil and demons. But aside from knowing the enemy and his tactics, we give him way too much credit. We make them sound larger-than-life. But God is greater in the devil, always has been, and always will be.

Submitting to God

In the same breath that James tells us to resist the devil, he tells us also to submit to God (James 4:7). He continues to clarify that when we draw near to God he will draw near to us (James 4:8). To get rid of any worldliness we find in us we must cleanse our hands and purify our hearts.

James further describes the attitude of the repentant person. We must not treat Worldliness and sin in our lives lightly, the double mindedness we are susceptible to. The truly repentant sinner weeps and mourns over worldliness (James 4:9).

To defeat worldliness first submit to God, then draw near to him, and finally humble yourself before the Lord. Once you have gotten right with God, become his friend again instead of the friend of the world,

Throughout the Old Testament, God talks about being jealous for his people. It’s no surprise then that James mentions God’s jealousy, or desire for intimacy, to be the only God in our lives, again.

After laying out the principle of being either a friend of the world or a friend of God, James backs it up with Scripture (James 4:5-6). God yearns with jealousy, eagerly desiring us because his Spirit dwells in us. God has placed his image in us.

We just spoke of resisting the devil, and James points out that God resists the proud. If we want to be submitted to God and part of his family, we must not be prideful. This is why we must humble ourselves before him.

Submitting to God, and continuing to submit to him, yields a life completely different than what most Christians experience. Instead of constantly warding off temptation and being on constant alert against temptation and the flesh, we focus on living for God.

We concentrate on being salt and light. As one of the great songs we used to sing says, “The world behind me the cross before me.” We notice the things of this world less when we are focused on Jesus.


We must live and work as his humble servants in the world. We must become the influencers rather than those who are influenced by the world. Let us never forget that we can’t give one inch to the world or it will take everything.

Before we know it, we will be living like the world and not like children of God. We won’t be working for his kingdom because we’ll be enjoying the pleasures of our past life in the world. This is why James comes out so strongly against worldliness. And we must also.

To live holy before the Lord, we must both resist the devil and submit to God. When we live a submitted life to God, we are resisting the devil and his world. Leave a comment and describe how you submit to God and keep focused on Jesus.

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