The writer of Hebrews is telling us to take seriously the necessity of personal, practical holiness. When the Holy Spirit comes into our lives at our salvation, He comes to make us holy in practice. If there is not, then, at least a yearning in our hearts to live a holy life pleasing to God, we need to seriously question whether our faith in Christ is genuine.
Just what do these words, “without holiness no one will see the Lord” actually mean? Does our salvation in the final analysis depend to some degree on our attaining some level of personal holiness?
On this question the Scripture is clear on two points. First, the best Christians can never in themselves merit salvation through their personal holiness. Our righteous deeds are like filthy garments in the light of God’s holy law (Isaiah 64:6). Our best works are stained and polluted with imperfection and sin. As one of the saints of several centuries ago put it, “Even our tears of repentance need to be washed in the blood of the lamb.”
Second, Scripture repeatedly refers to the obedience and righteousness of Christ on our behalf. “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). These two passages teach a twofold aspect of Christ’s work on our behalf. They are often referred to as His active and His passive obedience.
Active obedience means Christ’s sinless life here on earth, His perfect obedience and absolute holiness. This perfect life is credited to those who trust in Him for their salvation. His passive obedience refers to His death on the cross through which He fully paid the penalty for our sins and placated the wrath of God toward us. In Hebrews 10:5–9 we read that Christ came to do the will of the Father. Then the writer said, “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10, emphasis added). So we see that our holiness before God depends entirely on the work of Jesus Christ for us, by God’s will.
Does Hebrews 12:14 refer then to this holiness which we have in Christ? No, for at this point the writer speaks of a holiness which we are to strive after; we are to “make every effort…to be holy.” And without this holiness, the writer says, no one will see the Lord.
Scripture speaks of both a holiness which we have in Christ before God, and a holiness which we are to strive after. These two aspects of holiness complement one another, for our salvation is a salvation to holiness: “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life” (1 Thessalonians 4:7). To the Corinthians Paul wrote: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (1 Corinthians 1:2, emphasis added). The word sanctified here means “made holy.” That is, we are through Christ made holy in our standing before God, and called to be holy in our daily lives.
So the writer of Hebrews is telling us to take seriously the necessity of personal, practical holiness. When the Holy Spirit comes into our lives at our salvation, He comes to make us holy in practice. If there is not, then, at least a yearning in our hearts to live a holy life pleasing to God, we need to seriously question whether our faith in Christ is genuine.
Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1978), 32–33.