• peterfoxwell


Here are my notes for teaching at the Cornerstone on August 4, 2019.

Ephesians 4:17-24


My yard has been overtaken by weeds. All the rain we got earlier in the summer multiplied the weeds and kept me from weeding. And now I'm overwhelmed, so I've given up. My landscaping has returned to nature. Who says weeds are bad anyway?

The weed invasion is a great picture of what happens to our lives when we do not pay attention to our hearts. Sins take over. Bad attitudes. Godless thinking. Selfish desires. Negative words. You know what I'm talking about. If I don't take care, my heart for God gets choked by weeds, so to speak.

Today, we need to talk about combatting the weeds of sin by cultivating practical holiness. It's a priority because holiness is our calling, purpose, and destiny. Our holiness is why Jesus lived and died and rose again. Our practical holiness is God's revealed will for our lives. At the end of today's teaching, I'm going to ask you to renew your commitment to practical holiness.

But first, I need to answer three questions:

  1. Is practical holiness optional? Can we really live holy lives?

  2. Is practical holiness possible? Is it going to cost me something?

  3. Is practical holiness practical? Will it benefit my life?

Let's read Ephesians 4:17-24. That's where we'll find the answers to our questions about practical holiness.


I suspect that holiness is not a front-burner issue for many of us. Holiness has gone out of style in the church. And possibly that's because we don't believe it's important, necessary, or even possible to live a holy life. Maybe some super-saints are called to live holy, but the rest of us are just limping along. We love to talk about salvation, but we're not about to talk sanctification. Maybe we think that living holy is the same as being weird and unpopular.

If you're thinking that way, I want to change your mind today. You need to know this: Holiness is not optional. It's what God expects. It's why Jesus died. We must not ignore holiness. And the very good news is that it is possible to live holy lives because God makes it possible. He wants us to succeed at holy living:

24: "Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness."

Who created our new self? And who created that new self to be like God? And who created that new self to be like God in holiness? God did. God created us to be new and holy - like himself. So, we are commanded, "put on the new self." That's not optional. That's an obligation. That is what it means to live under the rule of King Jesus.

Verse 24 has both kinds of holiness in mind. This new self is holy in two ways. First, it IS positionally holy. Then, it is BECOMING practically holy. The first is a done deal, the second is still in process. Let's explore this further.

Positional holiness is our standing before God and it is a gift. It's not based on anything we have done to become holy. God made us positionally holy IN Christ without any help from us. Positional holiness is described in many biblical passages. For example:

(Ephesians 1:1) Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to God's holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus.
(Ephesians 1:4) God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
(1 Corinthians 6:11) You were washed, you were sanctified (made positionally holy), you were justified (declared righteous before God) in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
(1 Corinthians 1:30) It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
(Hebrews 10:10) We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
(Hebrews 13:12) And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.

Taken together, these passages teach us that, in Christ, we are positionally holy in God's eyes, which makes us acceptable to God. That happened when we trusted in Jesus as our God and Savior. God "made" us holy. He cleansed us in the sacrificial blood of Christ - washing away, as it were, our guilt before him. Then, the Holy Spirit joined us to Jesus and clothed us with his perfect holiness before God. Our positional holiness is a pure gift received by faith.

Let's talk about our practical holiness. It's really important to understand that our practical day-to-day holy living - practical holiness - flows out of our positional holiness. It's the overflow, the result of grace and the Holy Spirit at work in us. In other words, if we were never made positionally holy, we could never take any steps towards practical holiness. Several Bible passages teach this connection:

(Titus 2:13-14) ... our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify (positional holiness) for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good (practical holiness).
(1 Peter 1:2) "... chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit (positional holiness), to be obedient to Jesus Christ (practical holiness) and sprinkled with his blood (sealed in covenant with him) ..."
(Hebrews 10:14) For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever (positional holiness) those who are being made holy (practical holiness).

Romans 6 doesn't use the same language as these passages, but the concepts are the same:

(Romans 6:11-13) ... count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus (positional holiness). 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires (practical holiness). Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God (practical holiness) as those who have been brought from death to life (positional holiness); and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness (practical holiness).

If we survey these passages on practical holiness, we see that it is a life offered to God and dedicated to him. Practical holiness is obedience to Jesus. It is a fight to do good. It is daily, ongoing, real life that combats its sins in order to live for righteousness.

Because of this connection and overflow from positional holiness to practical holiness, we are urged or commanded to live holy lives. In other words personal, practical holiness is not optional. This is clearly taught in many New Testament passages.

(1 John 2:29) If you know that God is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.
(1 John 3:6) No one who lives in God keeps on sinning (habitually, with indifference). No one who continues to sin has either seen God or known him.
(1 John 3:8-9) The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work. 9 No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.
(Romans 6:19) Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness.
(2 Corinthians 7:1) Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
(1 Thessalonians 3:13) May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
(1 Thessalonians 4:3-7) It is God's will that you should be sanctified (practical holiness): that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy (practical holiness) ... 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life (practical holiness).
(Hebrews 12:14) Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
(1 Peter 1:15-16) But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
(2 Peter 3:11-12) You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.

You know the expression, "be true to yourself?" That applies here. Be true to yourself. You are holy positionally, so live holy practically. A daily, personal, lifestyle of holiness should be our ambition. It's not perfection, but it is the direction of our hearts: to reject our former lives of godless thinking and living in order to live a Godward life and to please him in all we do. This is God's will for your life.


I believe practical holiness is very difficult and it can seem impossible. Why? Two reasons. First, because our old life was based on deception and it's the nature of deception to keep us from seeing the truth. Verse 22 tells us:

Put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.

We think (because our old self is filled with deceitful desires) that our old ways make us happy or safe or successful. We're deceived, so we see no need to change our lifestyle and if we see no reason to change, we won't.

The other reason practical holiness seems impossible is because changes in outward behavior are not enough. Verse 22 tells us to "put off your old self" and the old self is described in verses 17-19. It is futile thinking, darkened understanding, hardened hearts, calloused insensitivity to God and goodness that results in godless behavior.

Life happens from the inside out. We can't have any hope of changed behavior until we change our hardened hearts that lead us into futile thinking. And that is impossible. I have no idea how to change my heart. So, at first glance, it seems that practical holiness is impossible. But I have good news for you. Look at verse 23:

Be made new in the attitude of your minds;

The "mind" is a synonym for heart. The verse says change your heart, which we've already said is impossible. But hold on! The verse is not asking US to change our hearts. The Greek grammar is in the passive mood, so it's telling us to let someone else do it. Who? I know of only one heart-changer. It is the Holy Spirit (Jeremiah 24:7; Ezekiel 36:26). Paul describes the process in Ephesians 3 and 5:

(Ephesians 3:16-17) I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,
(Ephesians 5:18) Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, (this is passive and ongoing in the Greek grammar, "let the Spirit fill you, over and over).

We can't do it, but the Spirit can. He specializes in internal changes. And he will do it over and over, every day, in every situation that you yield to his heart-changing work in your life. The key to practical holiness is the Holy Spirit at work in our minds and hearts. He opens our hearts to the truth, and fills us with God-centered values, loves, desires, and goals.

Practical holiness is difficult and there will be struggles along the way and even setbacks and failures. But, if you welcome the Holy Spirit to work with you, it is doable.

(Galatians 5:25) Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Keep in step with the Spirit. Go in his direction. Allow him to lead you where he wants you to go. How? Listen to the Spirit's promptings as he guides you away from sins and into right living. Let him speak to you as you read the Bible. Receive the godly counsel of wise, Spirit-filled, friends. And pray. Yield. Surrender to the Spirit. Pray, "Holy Spirit, you are welcome in my life. Soften my heart to love what you love. Fill me with strong desires to follow you away from sins and into holy living."


Practical holiness is really practical, with many benefits. Jesus was holy and his life was beautiful and he pleased God. Verse 20 tells us to learn holiness from Jesus. I've used the Message paraphrase to bring out the meaning:

You learned Christ! My assumption is that you have paid careful attention to him, been well instructed in the truth precisely as we have it in Jesus. (The Message)

Practical holiness looks like Christ himself - his heart, his lifestyle of love and compassion, his commitment to obey and please God. Practical holiness is also based on Jesus' teachings (the truth, verse 20). Practical holiness is following Jesus as our model and our teacher.

If we look carefully at the context of our passage and move on to verse 25, we can see examples of practical holiness in everyday life. The link is the word "therefore" in verse 25. Everything that follows in chapters four, five, and six is the application of verse 24. A quick scan tells us that practical holiness involves living all of life in a Godward direction. It's everything shaped by our commitment to follow Jesus and to yield to the Holy Spirit:

  • Healthy relationships

  • Generosity

  • Positive speech

  • Living in love

  • Sexual purity

  • Priorities and time management

  • Clear separation from deeds of darkness

  • Family

And on and on. Every part of life is covered. God wants you to live this way. It's not only helpful direction for living and it is so much more than a list of suggestions: Holiness is God's will for every inch of your life. We don't get to pick and choose the bits we like and to ignore the bits that are inconvenient.

I have some homework for you. This week, study Ephesians 4-6. Read through it slowly and ask the Holy Spirit to prod you into a life of practical holiness.


There can be no doubt that God has called us to live a holy life. Practical holiness is not optional since it flows from our positional holiness, which Jesus bought for us at the cross. God would hardly have sacrificed his Son for something that doesn't matter much. J.C. Ryle wrote the classic book on practical holiness. It's called (you guessed it) Holiness. In it, he wrote:

"We must be holy, because this is the one grand end and purpose for which Christ came into the world ... Jesus is a complete Savior. He does not merely take away the guilt of a believer's sin, he does more - he breaks its power." Holiness, 2011, page 49.

My biggest fear is that we hear this teaching and then we ignore it. Our lives are too busy already and the last thing we want is another demand on our time and energy. I get that. But if we are too busy to live a holy life, we are too busy and something needs to give.

I am urging you now, in the name of Jesus, make a commitment to practical holiness. Tell the Lord you are ready to make changes in the power of the Holy Spirit. This will please God and he will help you.

Let's be a people who are committed to holy living because we love Jesus, and we want to please God, and because it matches our identity as his holy people (1 Peter 2:9).


Want to study holiness in more depth. Try this suggested resource: The Hole in Our Holiness, by Kevin DeYoung.

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