Without Which No Man Shall See the Lord

by Glenn Conjurske

“Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:14). This seems to be plain enough that it should not be mistaken, yet in spite of its plainness the verse has been made subservient to great errors on both the right hand and the left. On the one side there are some who contend that nothing is meant here but perfect holiness, and the verse is pressed to prove that there is no other alternative but perfection in this world, or damnation in the next. No proof is so much as attempted that “holiness” must mean perfect holiness. This is merely assumed by those who are so taken up with the doctrine of perfection that they see it everywhere in the Bible. A little reflection would certainly lead them to another conclusion. To take one example only, do they honestly suppose the dying thief on the cross was perfected before he died? Yet he had the assurance, in response to his first call upon the name of the Lord, that he would be with him in paradise—-which is undoubtedly what is meant by seeing the Lord in the text before us. I say no more about this error on the right hand, not because it is not a dangerous one, but because there are few who hold it in our day. It is dangerous enough, for it must lead honest souls to despair. But on the other side is a worse error, widely held in our day, which confirms the careless and ungodly in presumption.

This plain text of Scripture stands directly against the antinomian gospel which is commonly preached in our day. As a consequence, it must be ignored or wrested by the preachers of that gospel. Many simply ignore it. They have no doubt read it many times, but seem nevertheless to be unaware of its existence—-for alas, there are many who read the Bible not so much to find out what is there, as to find whatever they may use to support their own doctrines and practices.

I well remember a discussion I had with a number of people quite a few years ago, after a Sunday evening meeting at a Bible church. This discussion concerned the terms of the gospel, and lasted long into the early morning hours. At length one of the men who was present, a student at a good Fundamentalist Bible institute, turned to me and informed me that I was not of God, but was a heretic, and that he could have no more fellowship with me. Suiting his actions to his words, he got up and made for the door. While he was traversing the short distance to the door, I said, “The only thing I am contending for is that without holiness no man shall see the Lord, as the Bible says.” To this he replied, “That’s not in the Bible.” Said I, “Yes, it is in the Bible.” By this time his hand was on the door knob, but he responded with, “Then it’s in the Old Testament.” I said, “It’s in the book of Hebrews.” But he walked out without responding.

Others, well enough aware of the existence of the text, must twist and wrest it to conform it to their doctrinal system. In recent years I have heard an evangelical Baptist preacher quote the verse as “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord in your life”—-with the obvious meaning that if you are not holy, your testimony will be spoiled. But this is too far-fetched to need an answer, and though it speaks well for the ingenuity of modern evangelicalism, it says little for its intellectual honesty.

Others, with little more show of reason, contend that the verse speaks of imputed holiness. But to this I answer:

1.The Bible says not one word about imputed holiness. Righteousness is said to be imputed, but never holiness.

2.Even if the Scriptures recognized such a thing as imputed holiness, it could not be something we were exhorted to “follow after,” along with “peace with all men.” This must refer to a matter of practical attainment.

3.The context necessitates a reference to practical holiness, not only in the fact that it is to be followed after, but also in the words immediately following: “looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected.” This is all practical, as is the immediately preceding context: “And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed.” This is all practical, and who would dream of thrusting in anything imputed here? Surely none would, but that their erroneous doctrine requires it of them.

Where can such explanations be found in all the history of the church, except in the modern preachers of this antinomian gospel, which does not make men holy, but leaves them in their sins, and promises them heaven too? Not even Augustus M. Toplady—-strong and bigoted Calvinist though he was—-could endure such doctrine, and when John Wesley charged him with preaching doctrines which necessitated that “the elect shall be saved, do what they will,” Toplady responded with, “The point of enquiry, then, is, Whether the elect themselves can be ultimately saved, without being previously sanctified by inherent grace, and (if adult) without evidencing that sanctification (according as ability and opportunity are given), by walking in the way of God’s commandments? I affirm, with scripture, that they cannot be saved without sanctification and obedience.” Toplady, of course, immediately goes on to add, “Yet is not their salvation at all precarious: for, that very decree of election, by which they were nominated and ordained to eternal life, ordained their intermediate renewal after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness.” In exactly the same vein he writes further on the same page, “The elect could no more be saved, without personal holiness, than they could be saved without personal existence. And why? Because God’s own decree secures the means as well as the end, and accomplishes the end by the means. The same gratuitous predestination, which ordained the existence of the elect, as men; ordained their purification, as saints: and they were ordained to both, in order to their being finally and completely saved in Jesus Christ with eternal glory.”

Now, though Toplady’s doctrine may really overturn human responsibility, and cut the nerves of human endeavor, yet the fact remains that he insisted that none could be saved without personal, practical holiness.

The Greek word here translated “holiness” is generally defined by lexicons as “consecration, sanctification.” Thayer’s lexicon defines it first as “consecration, purification,” and then as “the effect of consecration: sanctification of heart and life.” Cremer’s lexicon says, “not…the attribute holiness, but the state of being sanctified, sanctification.”

To this agree the best commentators. “^AgiasmoVn,” says Bloomfield, “must not, with many Expositors, ancient and modern, be taken in a limited sense, but be understood in its most extended acceptation, to denote a pious and holy life.” The “limited sense” in which many have taken the word is that of chastity, based upon its usage in I Thes. 4:3, 4, & 7. But it should be remarked that even those who thus mistakenly limit the word are entirely on the side of practical sanctification, for chastity certainly falls into that category.

Adam Clarke calls this holiness “that state of continual sanctification, that life of purity, and detachment from the world and all its lusts; without which detachment and sanctity, no man shall see the Lord: shall ever enjoy His presence in the world of blessedness.”

It is not necessary to multiply testimonies of this sort. The real fact is, this has been the understanding of the whole church of God, with the exception of the modern antinomians whose gospel undermines holiness instead of establishing it. They, of course, are well aware that this scripture as it stands must undermine their doctrine, and therefore they are driven by necessity to find some shift by which to evade the plain sense of the text.

To this I shall only add the following appeal of C. H. Spurgeon, from a sermon on Heb. 12:14. He says, “One feels most happy when blowing the trumpet of jubilee, proclaiming peace to broken hearts, freedom to the captives, and the opening of the prisons to them that are bound. But God’s watchman has another trumpet, which he must sometimes blow; for thus saith the Lord unto him:—-`Sound an alarm in Zion, sound an alarm in my holy mountain.’ Times there are when we must ring the tocsin; men must be startled from their sleep; they must be roused up to inquire:—-`What are we? Where are we? Whither are we going?’ Nor is it altogether amiss for the wisest virgins to look to the oil in their vessels, and for the soundest Christians to be sometimes constrained to examine the foundations of their hope, to trace back their evidences to the beginning, and make an impartial survey of their state before God. Partly for this reason, but with a further view to the awakening and stirring up of those who are destitute of all holiness, I have selected for our topic, `Holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.’

“There has been a desperate attempt made by certain Antinomians to get rid of the injunction which the Holy Spirit here means to enforce. They have said this is the imputed holiness of Christ. Do they not know, when they so speak, that, by an open perversion, they utter that which is false? I do not suppose that any man in his senses can apply that interpretation to the verse, `Follow peace with all men, and holiness.’ Now, the holiness meant is evidently one that can be followed like peace; and it must be transparent to any ingenuous man that it is something which is the act and duty of the person who follows it. We are to follow peace; this is practical peace, not the peace made for us, but `the fruit of righteousness which is sown in peace of them that make peace.’ We are to follow holiness—-this must be practical holiness too; the opposite of impurity, as it is written, `God hath not called us to uncleanness, but to holiness.’ The holiness of Christ is not a thing to follow; I mean if we look at it imputatively. That we have at once; it is given to us the moment we believe. The righteousness of Christ is not to be followed; it is bestowed upon the soul in the instant when it lays hold of Christ Jesus. This is another kind of holiness. It is, in fact, as every one can see who chooses to read the connection, practical, vital holiness which is the purport of this admonition. It is conformity to the will of God, and obedience to the Lord’s command. It is, in fine, the Spirit’s work in the soul, by which a man is made like God, and becomes a partaker of the divine nature, being delivered from the corruption which is in the world through lust. No straining, no hacking at the text can alter it. There it stands, whether men like it or not. There are some who, for especial reasons best known to themselves, do not like it; just as no thieves ever like policemen or gaols—-yet there it stands, and it means no other than what it says: `Without holiness’—-practical, personal, active, vital holiness—-`no man shall see the Lord.”’

Glenn Conjurske