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The Pursuit of the Holy

Simon Ponsonby

In this book extract, Simon Ponsonby explores the concept and outworking of holiness, drawing on the Bible and Christian thinkers through the ages.   Simon Ponsonby affirms that because of God’s gracious love and desire for communion with us, he has done what is possible for us not only to pursue holiness, but to achieve it.

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

We are about to take a journey. This will be no abstract theological study, nor a simple push for personal pietism, for that would be to set our sights too low. No, my longing is to see the church transformed so that we might transform society. I have written this book to offer pointers to the way and the what of that transformation.

My longing is to see the church transformed so that we might transform society.

In the late nineteenth century, there was a groundswell of long- ing for a deeper and more effective Christian life in the churches. In 1874, the Oxford Conference was organized by Canon Christopher, the famous rector of St Aldates, around the theme of “The Promotion of Scriptural Holiness,” with an emphasis on the Spirit-filled life.

Fifteen hundred Christian leaders and theologians attended. The following year, another conference, the Keswick Convention, was held to teach further on the themes of the Spirit-filled life and sanctification. This became the great boiler house for evangelicalism in the twentieth century—influencing the Welsh Revival and Pentecostal beginnings in America as well as revivals in East Africa. Sparks that were fanned into a blaze began with a commitment to holiness. J. C. Ryle was caught up in this movement and produced his famous book Holiness in 1877.

As we look to the future, we will also need to look into the past.

Now, as we look to the future, we will also need to look into the past. Just as Isaac redug the wells of Abraham, which the Philistines had blocked up (Gen. 26:18), so we must explore wells of holiness that have been dug and then filled throughout the church’s history. Here in the twenty-first century, it is time to open up those deep, old wells of holiness.


“The darkness is deepening.” So said Gandalf in Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And so it is for us. Faced with an unconvincing church, society is looking to alternatives.

Secularism has sold us a society without God, where material things are worshipped. We are also seeing the advance of fundamentalist atheism bent on the exorcism of theism. How can this be? Because the church has often lived as if God were dead. Yet concur- rent with this, we are witnessing the rapid rise of a radical Islam that appeals to many who long for religious certainties and conviction, especially after finding in the church little more than a divided house or pious platitudes.

Secularism has sold us a society without God, where material things are worshipped

After years of greed on greed, the money markets have destabilized and banks themselves are bankrupt, while fat-cat bankers have retired early and buried their heads in their fat pay pensions. We have experienced an acute loss of confidence in the democratic political office, where spin has replaced conviction and pragmatism has eviscerated idealism. And we are seeing a moral meltdown, with prisons at breaking point, crime uncontrollable, families fatherless, morality a myth, and many of our streets filled with terror at feral gangs ready to knife to death innocents who do no more than look at them the wrong way.

You cannot be surprised when sinners act sinfully

And yet, while sinners are certainly responsible for their own sin, I don’t entirely blame the world. They merely do what is in line with their natures: They sin. You cannot be surprised when sinners act sinfully—they have no power to purify themselves. Can a god- less society be expected to be godly without seeing what godliness is? While the church may speak prophetically to the world about justice and righteousness, I don’t think we can entirely blame the world for its unrighteousness. The church has all too often blended in with the world rather than revealed Christ and his ways to the world. We have failed to be that shining light, that salting influence. And so, as we fail to conform to Christ and the gospel we profess, the church has at times hindered, rather than helped, the world in coming to Christ. In fact, in some areas, the world appears to be ahead of the church, provoking her to action, especially in issues relating to social justice and the poor.


So if the world is a mess, the church must shoulder some blame. Darkness cannot dispel itself. The demonic won’t exorcise itself—Jesus said Satan cannot cast out Satan (Matt. 12:26). The darkness flees when a light is lit. But the church has often hidden the light by failing to preach the gospel or pietistically pursuing holiness by withdraw- ing from society. Sometimes she has even failed to have a light to lift by not truly believing the gospel. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten our vocation—to be “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). Jesus said it is part of the church’s role, through conforming to him and conveying him to the world, to be a sanctifying, salting influence in society (Matt. 5:13–16).

Darkness cannot dispel itself. The demonic won’t exorcise itself

No one will listen to our gospel if we aren’t living it. We cannot influence or infect society with something that has not yet infected us. A saltless salt cannot savour and flavour. The church cannot light a fire if she is not on fire. And so, faced with a society in crisis, in wickedness, it is time for judgment, repentance, holiness to begin in the family of God (1 Peter 4:17). We need a reformation, a revival—and holiness will be at the heart of it. The church must again find and follow Jesus—not as a doctrine to be believed but as a Lord to be served and a life to be lived. Only then can we speak with integrity and expect to be heard.

A holy church can influence an unholy world.

A holy church can influence an unholy world. Where Christ is seen, he is attractive, wooing and winning people to himself. I am not saying that everyone would turn to Christ if the church attained a great level of holiness, for the demonic and self-willed will always resist God. In fact, a holy church is more likely to be a persecuted church. But as the church lives for God, she will undoubtedly attract others to him. That is why C. S. Lewis could say,

How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing … it is irresistible.

And as Paul said, “Through us [God] spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him” (2 Cor. 2:14).


Many years ago, when I arrived in the city of Oxford as a chaplain, I asked a graduate how I should best conduct myself. He replied, “Oxford hates the pseudo,” implying that the university can spot a fake quickly. Well, my experience has since challenged that graduate’s belief … but one thing is for sure: The church cannot afford to be pseudo. There must be no pretense at piety because people can quite quickly distinguish the authentic from the imitation. They know a holy Christian when they see one, and they know a hollow one too. Old Testament theologian John Oswalt offered this stinging observation:

The world looks on hateful, self-serving, undisciplined, greedy, impure people who nevertheless claim to be the people of God and says, “You lie.” 

It is not as if we are addressing a marginal issue here—it is central. In the latest celebrated “revival” in the West, a feted evangelist suddenly walked off the stage and walked out on his wife. Claims of numerous extraordinary miracles could not be substantiated—not even one. I attended churches and watched ministers manipulate money out of church members for the promise of miracles. Pretence, fabrication, and nonsense were rife. Nothing new here, of course, but I groaned along with many others in the church: Where was the bride of Christ, making herself ready for Christ (Rev. 21:2)?

There must be no pretence at piety because people can quite quickly distinguish the authentic from the imitation.


Recently I had my porch rebuilt and repainted. It was about a decade overdue, so I apologised to the painters and carpenters for the state it was in—including the mature cobwebs large enough to function as a windbreak. One of the builders replied, “No worries—I clean other people’s gutters, but you should see the mess in my own house.”

He is not the only one to neglect his own house, of course. The prophet Isaiah found himself in a similar position, metaphorically. Isaiah spoke more about holiness than any other prophet. It was part of his ministry to call the nations to holiness. Assuming the chapters of his book are in chronological order, it would appear that, although he was already established in his ministry of exposing wickedness and preaching warning and rebuke to God’s people (chapters 1—5), he subsequently had a vision of God in the temple (chapter 6) that left him completely undone. In his vision, he saw angels cry- ing, “Holy, holy, holy.” As he stood before God, he knew it was not the nation of Judah that he must first target but himself, Isaiah the prophet: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5 ESV). The prophet had preached the nations’ guilt only to see his own.

When we see God, we see the superlative of holy.

When we see God, we see the superlative of holy. When we see the Holy One, we see ourselves as we are—sinful. We ought not preach against the sinfulness of society if we aren’t also preaching against the sinfulness of the church. And lest we be hypocrites, we ought not do that before we have applied the message to the sinful- ness of our own hearts (Matt. 7:1–5).

And so in this book, I want to broadcast an encouragement to gain a vision of God in his holiness and to see ourselves truly as we are. But of course we won’t stop there. We must go on to know, as Isaiah knew, a deep cleansing from God’s fire and a commissioning for his service. I do not believe that Isaiah had been a hypocrite— he had said what he saw in the world and what he heard from God; but lest he fall, thinking he stood tall, God also showed him himself. Now his message could be tempered by self-awareness, a much-needed humility in the face of burning-coal grace for the sinner.

The fact is that we fail consistently to live up to the standard that we preach, teach, and exhort in others.

I have often found that the most difficult aspect of being a minister is feeling a hypocrite. Many of us are ordained and given the title Reverend—we are to be revered as those set apart by God to minister on his behalf, to teach and lead people to him, and in prayer to represent him to the people and the people before him. What a privilege! What a burden! The fact is that we fail consistently to live up to the standard that we preach, teach, and exhort in others. Like Paul, sometimes “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15 ESV). This made Paul feel wretched, and I know that feeling—although sometimes, I confess, I resign myself to the presence of sin and weakness rather than feeling wretched or wrestling against it.


It is instructive to think for a moment about the various terms in the English language surrounding holiness. Our word holy derives from the Old English halig, which itself came from the German heilig, referring to “health, happiness, wholeness.”4 The English language also employs words from the Latin sanctus (holy) in words like saint, saintly, and sanctification.

Holiness, then, is one of the most central concepts in biblical theology.

In the Old Testament, words based on qds, the Hebrew word for holy, appear over 850 times. Holiness, then, is one of the most central concepts in biblical theology. The semantic origins of holiness relate to the word cut and have to do with distinction—standing out or being apart. It is preeminently the nature of God’s own being and is then a derived characteristic of people and things as they exist in right relation to God. In the Old Testament, the word is applied to priests and their clothing, Israelites, Nazirites, Levites, firstborn human beings, prophets, offerings, the sanctuary and its furniture, inherited land and property, dedicated money and precious objects, the avoidance of certain mixtures (there were to be no garments made of both linen and wool, no crossbreeding of animals, no plow- ing with both an ox and an ass), the law, oil for anointing, incense in the sanctuary, water flowing from the temple or in a laver, places where God revealed himself, the land of Israel, Jerusalem, heaven, the Sabbath and feasts, Jubilee, covenant, and even, on occasion, war.

In the New Testament, hagios, which is Greek for “holy” or “saint,” occurs over 150 times together with its associated words. Hagios means to be separate, dedicated, or consecrated to God. Originally, it was a religious concept of “the quality possessed by things and persons that could approach a divinity,” that which was reserved for God and his service. It contained the sense of “perfect, pure and worthy of God.”6 The New Testament follows the Old in applying the word first to God and secondly to things and people. The first sense is located in terms of God; his Spirit; and his Son, Jesus, the Holy One of God. The second describes the people of God, the “saints” who are “holy ones.”

God is holy. Holiness is his nature and character. It is not an attribute; it is who he is.

God is holy. Holiness is his nature and character. It is not an attribute; it is who he is. He is the one who exists in holiness—perfection, beauty, purity, otherness. People and things are said to be holy by their relation to God, as they are offered by him or to him or before him. Days of rest, days of feasting, prophets and priests, gifts to God or from him, covenants and scriptures, angels and servants, temples and land, covenants and commandments, hands lifted in worship, lips offered in kisses to the brethren, the marriage bed, and mountains of revelation—all these can be holy by association with him. Holiness is infused into things or people that come close to God or exist for him.

One useful way to approach the meaning of holiness is to see how other words are placed in relation to it, often interpreting or applying it. In Scripture, the idea of holiness is found alongside cleanliness (Isa. 35:8); purity (1 Thess. 4:7); blamelessness (1 Thess. 3:13); glory (Ezek. 28:22); righteousness (Eph. 4:24); godliness (2 Peter 3:11); honor (1 Thess. 4:4); goodness (Ps. 65:4); truthfulness (Ps. 89:35); trustworthiness (Ps. 93:5); and awe (Ps. 111:9).7 All of these help us understand what holy is and looks like. Holiness is a way of behaving that is determined by the being of God. David Peterson calls it a life “possessed by God”—a life that becomes like the God who possesses holiness.


The famous anthropologist Émile Durkheim made the startling claim that you don’t need to have a notion of “god” to have a notion of holiness. He suggested holiness is more about social cohesion than religious devotion. From his observations of pagan tribes, he maintained that religion is not about a deity but the distinction between the “profane” and the “sacred”—a distinction expressed in a system of beliefs and practices that make certain objects and acts sacred, while others become mundane or profane. In a similar vein, Nobel Prize–winning Swedish archbishop Nathan Söderblom asserted that “holiness is the great word in religion—it is even more essential than the notion of God,” and like Durkheim, he believed religion was all about this distinction between the sacred and the profane.

You don’t need to have a notion of “god” to have a notion of holiness.

What might this non-divine notion of holiness look like? Think about a game of soccer. There is no mention of a God, but it clearly exhibits all the signs of liturgy and sacrament for those who attend a holy event. The people gather together at their cathedral (the stadium) and, wearing their Sunday best (team colors, scarves and shirts), already feel involved in something bigger than the sum of its parts. They sit together and sing their worship (soccer chants). Then comes the moment of awe as the religious drama begins: The priests (players) gather on the Holy of Holies (field), and the liturgy of sacrifice begins at the referee’s whistle. The offering (ball) is manoeuvred to the altar (net) with the anticipation of a sacrifice (goal), at which the religious ecstasy of the crowd explodes in cheers. And the opposing team and their fans would presumably be the profane. Clearly, for many who attend, the match follows a very religious structure between sacred and profane, and for those involved, it has the sense of being a holy time without any sense of the divine!

Holiness is more likely to generate unease or even fear in people.

What are believers to make of this? Rather than agree that a soccer game is a sense of the holy without a need for the divine, I would suggest we are looking here at a search for the divine and the holy that has gone astray and been misplaced in the secular. While a view of a soccer game as a spiritual event may be a helpful insight into how societies structure themselves in what may be seen as religious acts, this view really doesn’t get to the heart of biblical holiness. Holiness is more likely to generate unease or even fear in people, as Rudolf Otto famously explored in his 1923 book, The Idea of the Holy.


It isn’t only the notion of the holy that makes people uneasy. Holy people do too. Holy living is countercultural. When we go beyond private piety, we adopt an alternative lifestyle that becomes a public, political, and prophetic challenge. Nevertheless, some will always rise to the challenge and be attracted to authentic holiness.

When we go beyond private piety, we adopt an alternative lifestyle that becomes a public, political, and prophetic challenge.

So why do we not see more people attracted to the holy? Surely many reject the notion of holiness because they can’t see any evidence of it in those who talk most about it—the church! In his major study on holiness, Stephen Barton said that

the language and practices of holiness have atrophied under the impact of modernity and secularisation. 

Certainly we live in an age when many have rejected God and have no interest in imitating his holy character or obeying his com- mands to be holy. Barton also suggests that some who might be interested in holiness are put off by fear of receiving the snub “holier than thou.”

As if hypocrisy or a holier-than-thou attitude in the church aren’t bad enough, I think we do even more harm when we lay down the law but fail to offer any clues about how to actually be holy—when we point the finger but don’t lift a finger to help people be holy. Gene Edwards wrote about the burdens placed on people in the name of holiness:

Dear reader, virtually all of this counsel, all of those books, and every one of those sermons, is setting you up for failure, for guilt, and for a lifetime of frustration.

He believes church has failed to show and offer the world the way to be conformed to holiness. That way is made possible only by Christ living in me and I in him (John 15:4), as I follow him not in a bubble of personal piety but as a member of the church, where we support and encourage each other toward that goal.


We have already noted that the word holiness is related to the idea of wholeness. Holiness is not a negative word but supremely positive. It is a concept that points to perfection. To be holy is to be like God, in whom there is no imperfection, no blemish, not the slightest attribute or action that is anything less than the best.

Holiness is not a negative word but supremely positive. It is a concept that points to perfection.

If holiness is a primary reflection of the being of God, then our call and invitation to be holy is a call to be with God and like God. Sinfulness, though universal, is not natural to humankind—it entered with the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Ever since then, we have acted just like them: We have sinned and rejected God’s way and been expelled from God’s presence. But God’s long- ing for us to be holy, his longing to make us holy, is driven by his longing to restore us into his likeness, to bring us into his presence. Stephen Barton rightly said:

To attend to holiness … is to attend to a matter that lies at the very heart of what it means to be and become fully human.

So holiness is about becoming more human, as we are restored into the image of God. Holiness is becoming like God—Peter spoke of being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4 ESV).

So holiness is about becoming more human, as we are restored into the image of God.

God the Holy One is the source of life; sinfulness separates us from holiness and so separates us from life. Holiness is a return to Eden’s ideal and a taste of paradise. The holy life is a foretaste of heaven on earth. It is not God’s burden for us but God’s best for us.

H. L. Mencken scorned the pious attitude of the Puritan who feared that “someone somewhere may be enjoying themselves.” But those who fit that so-called Puritan depiction know nothing of true holiness. Here’s an indicator to shatter one’s theological categories: The Bible tells us that the marriage bed needs to be kept holy (Heb. 13:4).

Somehow sex points beyond itself to the eternal

Though not his main point, the writer of Hebrews shows that the marriage bed (sexual union between husband and wife) is itself holy and pure. Sex between husband and wife is holy! Somehow sex points beyond itself to the eternal, self-giving, reciprocal relations within the Godhead, where the desire of the other is served rather than the self gratified. So all that joy, pleasure, excitement, fun, release, wholeness, and fulfillment in sex between marriage partners is a holy thing. Once we acknowledge that even something so joyful and releasing as sex, within God’s ordained parameters, is holy, then we rightly challenge those assumptions that holiness is a stern and sour concept. Medieval spirituality spoke of the “three ways” in the spiritual journey: purgation, illumination, and union.

Laughter is carbonated holiness.

Purifying and pursuing holiness through the Christian disciplines bring illumination, a revelation of God and ourselves that leads to more disciplines and a further response. But always the goal of the path to holiness is deeper union—intimate, personal, passionate languishing in love with God. The psalmist said that in God’s presence there is fullness of joy, or as Anne Lamott put it, “Laughter is carbonated holiness.”

Any form of holiness that leads to someone looking like they just drank a gallon of vinegar is not biblical holiness; it is more likely Pharisaism. The church has lost something of this notion of holiness as happiness. We need to look at the Jews celebrating Sabbath, their holiest of times. Men gather in the streets, linking arms and dancing. Home is turned into a place of wonder, mystery, and glory as families welcome the Sabbath. How much more should the church now celebrate holiness joyfully, knowing that the Messiah Jesus has come and, in one day, by his death for us at Golgotha, taken away all our sin?

Sadly, delighting in holiness is not often the hallmark of modern Christianity. Jesus himself said that he wanted our joy to be complete and that this completion would come through “abiding in love.” Abiding in love would come through obedience to his commandments (John 15:9–11 ESV). Clearly, then, we are presented with a divine set of equations that connects holiness with joy:

obedience = abiding in love = joy
disobedience = dislocation = dissatisfaction

All this we shall explore in the pages that follow.

There is hope. Despite all the church’s failure to model holiness … despite her all too often pointing judgmental fingers or laying heavy guilt trips on the world … despite her own tendency to a holier- than-thou attitude, there is in society a wide awareness of sinfulness and a desire for holiness. Many long to be other than they are. The religious impulse can itself be a longing that is responding to the promptings of a holy God.

We all know what it is to feel dirty on the inside, and anyone can be made to feel dirty. The most unholy of places, the most God-forsaken, defiled, and profane, was that hell on earth at Auschwitz. There the demonized Nazis made every attempt to “desanitize” and dehumanize the Jews. The women had one tap for fourteen thousand worker inmates, and they were forbidden to wash. Their faces, caked in mud, baked by the sun, became covered in sores and scabs, crawling with lice and fleas. This treatment made it easier to regard the Jews as vermin and kill them as such. The Nazis worked hard to completely obliterate every trace of dignity and purity—turning the religious men’s prayer shawls into women’s underpants so that what once symbolized purity and devotion to God would be defiled by bodily discharges.

There is hope. Despite all the church’s failure to model holiness.

The traditional places for the Jewish woman to articulate holiness were in her home and in her diet, making a distinction between the sacred and the profane, offering her life and work as worship to God. But how could she be holy? How could she resist the literal and moral filth of Auschwitz? How could she still offer something to God? The women held on to the Jewish notion that the face is a powerful illustration of God turning to his people and the people turning to God. The face was a symbol of that sacramental communion. And so, though it was strictly forbidden, they would find precious water, even soap, and wash one another’s faces. They would wash the faces of those going to the gas chambers, or even of those who had already been murdered.

This was an act of protest against immorality and evil; it was a no to the profane and impure. It was a small but massive act of saying to God in this apparent hellhole that we are for you, we want you, we want to be holy, the darkness will not cover us. Even here, we are for you, and we make space for you. Even in this filth, we choose to be holy, we need to be holy, we will be holy. Here, in this insane, inhuman, dehumanizing cesspit, we bear the image of God. Let our faces shine for you; and yours, O God, on us.

I was struck recently by a little incident told to me by a retired prison chaplain. She explained that when entering the prison, everyone had to take off their coats and bags, be searched, and pass through airport- style scanners so that they could be checked for any drugs and other illicit things that might be smuggled to the prisoners. One day, after passing through, she got to her room and realized she had left her coat back at the check-in. She walked back only to find the guards all trying on her coat. When they saw her, they took it off and handed it back to her, looking very embarrassed. One of them apologized, explaining, “We were just seeing what it would be like to be holy.”

He wasn’t joking. They had recognized and accepted that this dear priest was a holy person. They knew she was very different— not just from the prisoners, but from themselves. And somehow, her clothing connected in their minds to the holiness they saw in her. They really did want to see what that holiness might feel like, and so they put on the holy chaplain’s holy jacket just in case something holy might be transmitted to them!

God does not wish to accuse, condemn, or embarrass us

When a British bishop is invited to stay with the Queen, he receives a formal letter stating what clothes he must bring and wear on what occasion: first, a sports jacket and corduroys for an informal country stroll; second, a clerical outfit for more formal meetings; and third, a dinner jacket for evening supper. You have to dress right for the Queen of England!

Holiness is about having the right clothing to be with the King of Kings (Matt. 22:11–12).

Of course, whatever our best efforts, we probably won’t get it right! But we need not fear: The prophet Zechariah tells us about the time God invited Joshua the high priest, the most revered religious person in the nation of Israel, to stay (Zech. 3). The high priest was recognized by the fact that he wore the holiest of garments, designed just for his solo holy office (Ex. 28). He was regarded as the holiest of men in Israel, the one who offered sacrifices for the sins of the whole nation to God—the only one in Israel who could enter the Holy of Holies and look upon God’s glory, on just one day of the year. The high priest was the icon of holiness to this holy people, yet Zechariah tells us that the Devil stood at his side accusing him of his sin and guilt.

He wants to remove our uncleanness, he wants to dress us in divine clothes so that we are fit to stand in his presence.

Well, whatever the Devil’s accusations were, they were immediately silenced by God’s rebuke. Even so, the angel, seeing the stained clothes of the high priest, commanded them to be removed. Now, no Israelite could possibly conceive that this holy man, who wore the finest vestments symbolising his holy office, could dress unworthily. But God sees right through us. The good news, however, is in what happened next. At God’s command, the angel removed the filthy clothes from the high priest and declared, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you” (Zech. 3:4). And they placed new clean clothes on him and a new turban on his head.

If the holy high priest’s garments were filthy in God’s sight, what hope is there for us? Every hope! The Devil can find some sin and stain to accuse the best of us—but the good news is that God does not wish to accuse, condemn, or embarrass us. He wants to rebuke the accuser, he wants to remove our uncleanness, he wants to dress us in divine clothes so that we are fit to stand in his presence.

In the chapters that follow, we shall explore holiness in its many facets—its foundation, its absence, its beckoning, its counterfeit, its provision, its perfection, its practicalities, and its potential for the future of our world. Let the journey begin.

You can read the rest of this book, by buying it from Vineyard Records UK by clicking here.

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