The Violent, Tenacious, Active Fight for Holiness

Christians are commanded to redeem the time (Eph. 5:16), be instant to always preach the Gospel (2 Tim. 4:2), continually work to take every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) and pursue peace and holiness (Heb. 12:4). Far from being a calling to laziness, the Christian is called by Christ to continually be at work towards holiness. In fact, the command to pursue holiness is exactly like the command to “be holy as I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). It is a command for active obedience in the life of the Christian. While this should never be understood as a prerequisite for salvation, nor as a requirement to keep salvation, the truth is that the one who loves Christ will keep His commandments (John 15:14) as evidence of the salvation that has been experienced. As Hebrews 12:4 also says, without holiness, no one will see the Lord. Thus, the Christian is both shown to rest in the positional holiness of Christ and encouraged to pursue practical holiness by the power of the Holy Spirit.[1] This also means the Christian must actively fight for holiness by constantly putting sin to death.

Many have heard it said that, “the devil will find work for idle hands to do.” The Puritans understood this, and the language they used reflected this. There was a reason why John Owen famously said that Christians must, “be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” Actively pursuing holiness necessitates the need for the Christian to do holy violence to sin. Tenacity is needed in this effort. The Christian who becomes lackadaisical in his apprehension of holiness and fails to mortify the flesh will soon find temptation creeping in the shadows, ready to pounce.

This certainly appears to have been the case with King David in 2 Samuel 11. When it was time for war, David sent his army off to do battle without him. He stayed behind at the palace and one evening, rising from his bed, he discovered Bathsheba bathing on her roof. Temptation found the king idle, and the idle king found nothing better to do than to give in and sin.

As the text states,

“And it came to pass, after the year was expired, at the time when kings go forth to battle, that David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel; and they destroyed the children of Ammon, and besieged Rabbah. But David tarried still at Jerusalem. And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.”

That she was beautiful to look upon may mean that David’s eyes lingered where they should not have. He then sends for her, even knowing that she is the wife of Uriah the Hittite—a man who was fighting in David’s army while he was idle—and he commits adultery. When he finds she is pregnant, his idleness allows him time to dwell on the sin to try and find a way to cover it. Idleness ironically turns into planning to hide from its consequences, planning turns to actively sinning, and David has Uriah murdered.

This account provides many lessons (and points the reader to the need for a King who will not give into temptation, which we find in Jesus); one of many is that idleness often leads to temptation and temptation gives way to sin.

Thomas Watson was very aware of the need to actively pursue holiness and violently kill sin, citing Matthew 11:12: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” For Watson, this violence was a good thing and when he considered texts like those above from the Old Testament, in conjunction with Matthew 11:12, his conclusion was that the Christian must wage holy war and do violence to his own sin nature to pursue the holiness befitting of a Christian.

Watson explains:

This violence concerns men as Christians. Though heaven is given us freely—yet we must contend for it, Eccles. 9:10: “What your hand finds to do, do it with your might.” Our work is great, our time short, our Master urgent. We have need therefore to summon together all the powers of our souls and strive as in a matter of life and death, that we may arrive at the kingdom above. We must not only put forth diligence—but violence.[2]

The word violence is not typically employed in Christian circles today to refer to the strenuous work of pursuing holiness, but it is a helpful word for Christians to use in understanding how important this battle is. This is not to say that the Christian is supposed to be sufficient in himself, or strive in his own strength. On the contrary, the Apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 1:29, “Whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.” The violent laboring and striving we do is all by the strength of God’s Spirit that is working within us by His grace.

Watson knew the importance of recognizing the Lordship of Christ in this holy violence. He writes,

“The earth is inherited by the meek (Matt. 5:5). Heaven is inherited by the violent. Our life is military. Christ is our Captain, the gospel is the banner, the graces are our spiritual artillery, and heaven is only taken in a forcible way.”[3]

Such strong language is common to Puritans and foreign to our modern ears only because we do not take holiness as seriously as they did and we should.[4]

The result of our own laziness in pursing holiness and doing violence to sin has meant that our idle hands have found much sinning to do. We entertain ourselves to death through various outlets, amusing ourselves with children’s playthings. We fail to be holy but regularly give into tempting sins. Rather than storming towards Heaven, doing spiritual battle and warring against wickedness through proclamation of the Gospel, we have adopted a reclined posture. Yet, if only we would stand, gird ourselves with the armor of God, and actively fight for holiness with violent tenacity, what benefits would we enjoy!

Watson noted this when he wrote:

This blessed violence in piety, would be preventive of much sin. While men are idle in the vineyard, they are a prey to every temptation. Satan sows most of his seed of temptation in hearts which lie fallow. When he sees people unemployed, he will find work for them to do; he will stir them up to one sin or other. “While everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat” (Matthew 13:25). When Satan finds men in a drowsy condition, their sleeping time is his tempting time! But by holy violence, we prevent the Devil's design; we are so busy with salvation that we have no leisure to listen to temptation. Jerome advised his friend to be always well employed, that when Satan came with a temptation he might find him working in the vineyard. When the bird is flying, it is safe; when it sits still on the bough, it is in danger of being shot! When a Christian sits still and is inactive, then the Devil shoots him with his “fiery darts.”

“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation!” (Matthew 26:41).[5]

Watson believed that one must proactively seek to fight against sin. Just as the army that only knows how to rest will only suffer defeat, so the Christian that does not actively pursue righteousness will continually find himself in great despair because of sin.

However, Watson was aware of the tendency in man to fight for the wrong things. Man, in his depravity, is faster to fight for the world and the things within it than he is to fight for holiness in Heaven. For this very reason, man must discipline himself in the act of holy violence:

Consider the folly of such as are violent for the world—but not for the glorious kingdom of heaven! Alas, how insipid are all these things that we lay out our sweat for and our violence upon! They will not make us happy. King Solomon distilled the quintessence out of all earthly things, and said, “behold, all is vanity,”  (Eccles. 2:8).[6]

On the one hand, the world, and all it has to offer, is not worth fighting for. It is vanity; like a bubble that bursts, it will all one day be destroyed. But on the other hand, Heaven is a glorious Kingdom.

The Christian has already had his entrance into the majestic courts of Heaven secured through the finished work of Jesus, but he should still desire to grow in sanctification and holiness. As the Apostle Paul once said, it is the duty of the Christian to work out salvation with fear and trembling, for it is truly the Lord who is at work in him through the Holy Spirit, bringing the work of salvation that He has begun to completion (Phil. 2:12-13, 1:6, Rom. 8:28-30). It is vital, then, for the Christian to cultivate holiness through the contrasting of the earth and its goods with the riches of Christ in Heaven:

1). These earthly things that we toil so hard for, are uncertain, (1 Tim. 6:17). It is uncertain whether we shall get them. All that are suitors to a virgin do not succeed. All that come to a lottery have not won a prize.

  1. These earthly things that we toil so hard for, are unsatisfactory. Could men heap up silver as dust; had they as much as the Devil promised Christ, “All the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;” yet they can no more fill the heart, than a drop of water can fill a cistern. Eccles. 5:16: “What profit has he that has labored for the wind?”
  2. These earthly things that we toil so hard for, are transient; death feeds at the root. All worldly possessions are like a castle of snow in the sun; or like a posy of flowers, which withers while we are smelling them. Oh, folly is it to put forth all one's violence for the world, which is but “for a season,” and not for Christ and grace. As if a condemned man being earnest to get his dinner—but not concerned with getting his pardon.[7]

Christians must seek the eternal riches of Christ in heaven and cultivate holy violence within their being so that, as good soldiers, they can pursue holiness by God’s strength, put idleness to death, and violently kill sin.

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Mt. Bethel Church of McClure in Central Pennsylvania. He has spent time as a reporter, journalist, and editor, and has written for various Christian websites. He and his wife, Kayla, have one son, Josiah. He is currently completing his M.Div. through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Related Links

"Watson’s Wisdom on Prayer" by Donald McKim

"The Hole in our Holiness," review by Blair Smith

"Fear and the Lord’s Amazing Grace" by Christina Fox

"Nisbet on Motivations for Holiness" by Danny Hyde

Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson

Everyday Prayer with the Puritans by Donald McKim

[1] A distinction that is often described as “definitive sanctification” and “progressive sanctification”.

[2] Thomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm: Showing the Holy Violence a Christian is to Put Forth in the Pursuit After Glory, 6-7.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Nor do we take sin as seriously as the Puritans did—though we should.

[5] Ibid., 69-70.

[6] Ibid., 70.

[7] Ibid.

Jacob Tanner