Cultivating a Heart for Holiness

In a sinful world, how is it possible to live a life of personal holiness? The journey calls for the reshaping of our affections.

by Cheryl Bridges Johns

A holy person is beautiful. Such a person seems to have an inner light that radiates through her countenance. She has a power of attraction, drawing others into the presence of God and magnifying the beauty of holiness.

At the same time holy people reflect an otherness that can be somewhat disconcerting. By their nature they expose the profane as a contrast to the holy. Their light reveals the ugliness of the darkness that permeates a sinful world.

I know such people. They come from a variety of callings and traditions: a missionary to the Arabs in the Middle East, a Franciscan monk, prayer warriors in my church, my mother-in-law known for her healing prayers. We do not reserve this type of enchanted life, however, for a few saints or superhero Christians. Scripture is clear that holiness is normative for all Christians, for without holiness “no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

In spite of the biblical admonitions toward holiness, much of Protestant theology, with its overemphasis upon forensic justification and imputed righteousness, has created a Christian culture of sinful people. This arises from failure to see the full gospel — one that brings about actual transformation. Such failure causes many Christians — even Spirit-filled ones — to believe that holiness is not necessary. They are content to remain sinners saved by grace but not transformed by that grace. The popular bumper sticker: “Christians are not perfect; just forgiven,” sums up this concept.

Because of this truncated understanding of salvation, too many believers do not see a life of holiness as necessary for their Christian journey. They are content to live in the shadowlands of a profane culture, making excuses for besetting sins. As a consequence, their witness is weak and a lack of power marks their journey.

Profane Christians are not beautiful. Their bumper stickers do not attract others to the light of God. Rather, they hinder the message that Jesus came to save, heal, and deliver all creation from its bondage to sin.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus made it possible for humankind to be rejoined in fellowship with the Creator. Moreover, by His grace, God is at work reclaiming all creation. This work of reclamation is not merely glossing over sin, but it involves transformation to the extent that there is deliverance and healing. Jesus came to deliver us from evil not merely to give us a “get out of hell card.” In other words, salvation is the healing of broken creation. That which sin marred can once again flourish. Lives broken by addictions can become beautiful vessels of holy presence. Such is the power of the gospel.

But, in a sinful world, how is it possible to live a life of personal holiness? How do we cultivate such a life? Be fair warned: the journey into holiness is not easy. It calls for the reshaping of our affections. This reshaping involves a continual dialectic of crisis and development that takes us from grace into ever-deepening grace. There is great joy in holiness. There is wonder and beauty.

The Core of Holiness: the Affections

Affections are the core of who we are. They express the disposition of the heart, which, in the words of Steven Land “order all the powers of emotion, perception, will, and understanding.”1 The affections thus involve our mind as well as our emotions. They are deep and abiding dispositions that determine the direction of our lives. Through our affections we express our desires. Through our affections we show who and what we love. Our affections reveal the nature of our heart.

The journey into holiness is thus a journey of our affections. It is our journey into desiring God. Through this journey we learn to love as God loves and to desire what is holy. The more we abide in and with a holy God the more we are transformed into the likeness of God. Bottom line: holiness is a love relationship. It is about having a heart on fire with godly love.

Cultivating Holiness: Crisis

The heart is not easily set on fire with godly love because the affections of our heart are deceitful. Indeed, sin has wounded the core of our being. As a consequence, we often desire those things that are contrary to the kingdom of God. These things wound our affections, distorting them toward the profane. Our wounded desire must be healed and restored toward godly love and this restoration requires costly grace. It requires a death.

Jesus, in His discipleship of the Twelve, made it clear that life in the Kingdom involved death, not only His death, but the death of His followers. The journey into personal holiness begins with death of self. It involves purging our claims to self-gratification, self-glory, and self-direction. Crisis, then, is the necessary starting point for cultivating a life of holiness. It involves what John Wesley called the “circumcision of the heart,” cutting away those affections that are not godly. Crisis both begins the journey into holiness and is an ongoing part of the journey.

People do not easily receive this message, for everywhere we turn we hear that it is all about us. Our culture of narcissism tells us we are the center of our lives and we deserve only the best life has to offer. Even Christians have bought this message, thinking that the beautiful life offered by the world is the same as the wondrous beauty of a sanctified life.

One clear message of the Azusa Street Revival was that the power of the Holy Spirit came only to those who were willing to die to self. In the course of seeking the baptism in the Holy Spirit many came into the fires of sanctification. Consider the testimony of Adolph Rosa, an evangelist from the Cape Verde Islands who came to Azusa Street: “The power of God came upon me until I dropped to the floor. I was under the power of God for about an hour and a half, and it was there that all pride, and self, and conceit disappeared, and I was really dead to the world, for I had Christ within in His fullness (sic).”2

The type of crisis experience described above is not the end point of holiness. Rather, it is the beginning of a journey characterized by both crisis and development. Crisis breaks things open so the Holy Spirit can show us our true selves, the world, and God in a new way. By the power of God’s in-breaking grace we are able to receive both the judging and healing aspects of grace. We can say then that crisis is necessary and good for us.

Cultivating Holiness: Development

While crisis is necessary toward sanctification, there is the need to weave crisis experiences into a patterned and disciplined life. The development of holiness takes shape by abiding in Scripture, living in Christian community, and practicing Christian disciplines. Each component: Scripture, community, and the disciplines serve to create in us holiness.

Abiding in Scripture: One important component toward cultivating a heart for holiness is Bible study. The reason some Christians neglect this practice today is that they have not placed the Bible at the center of their affections. Eugene Peterson observes that that “text” of the “sovereign self” is the one most read by Americans. This “text” is ruled by what he calls a “new trinity” of “needs, wants, and feelings,” and it competes with the biblical text for authorial power in the lives of Christians. This new trinity produces the fruit of consumption and acquisition.3 Moreover, we might safely say that this new text eschews the idea of holiness. More and more Christians live by this text, and as a consequence, cheap substitutes replace holiness.

But the Bible takes us into another realm. It reveals the life of a Triune God who makes known His presence through His Word. When this Word becomes the center of our affections, it transforms us into the nature of the divine life. We cannot separate God’s Word from God’s presence for the most basic metaphysical reality of the Bible is that of Spirit-Word. God’s Spirit is present in God’s Word and is active, alive, and powerful.

To read the Bible is to enter into sacred space where God speaks with authority. In this space it convicts, comforts, and transforms. Here we are to abide. Abiding in the Word means we live in the Word, taking it unto ourselves, making it our food for daily living. As we eat this Word, it transforms us. We begin to radiate its message not merely apply its message.

Christian Community: Holiness is not a solitary experience. It is forged within the grace of community. Many only attend a worship service once a week. A weekly worship service does not provide enough visible expressions of grace necessary for our ongoing transformation. We need to form connections with believers who will love us, hold us accountable, pray for us, and journey with us into deeper holiness.

John Wesley understood the need for discipleship that helped transformed lives move into their journey of grace. Because of his concern that many of his converts “grew cold, and gave way to the sins which had long easily beset them,” he created class meetings, bands, and other forms of discipleship.4 These groups enabled believers to bear one another’s burdens, exhort one another, and hold each other accountable. They were means wherein the grace of God would flow in and through the church. The more we are together, the stronger we become both individually and communally.

Practicing the Disciplines: The disciplines are structured means whereby we pattern transformation into our daily lives. They make real the profession of our faith. The disciplines in themselves do not make us holy. But, as Richard Foster observes, the disciplines put us where God can “work within us and transform us. … They are means of God’s grace.”5 Foster describes several disciplined means of grace: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. Each discipline serves as a unique avenue for ongoing transformation.

Pentecostals have found that prayer, fasting, service, and worship are especially efficacious in cultivating a heart of holiness. Prayer takes believers into the presence of God. It is the means of developing intimate communion with Him. Holy people are people of prayer. Foster observes that prayer “is the central avenue God uses to transform us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.”6

Forms of prayer include: adoration, intercession, thanksgiving, healing, and confession, to name a few. Whatever form, prayer shapes the affections toward godly love. Each form of prayer uniquely transforms our affections. Confessional prayer keeps believers in a posture of ongoing repentance and submission. To live a life of penitent prayer is to live with the door of our affections always open to hearing and responding to the Word of God.

Fasting is a powerful discipline. Fasting exposes the inner desires of our heart. These desires are often hidden and through fasting we are able to see more clearly. We can see how much we crave food, things, pleasures of this world, and how little we hunger for those things that are eternal.

While fasting from food is the most common practice there are other types of fasts. During Lent (the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter) I try, as much as possible, to fast from media. This journey into Lenten silence calls me to give up TV, radio, Facebook, etc. I try to go deeper into the stillness of God’s presence. I am addicted to the sights and sounds of technology. But, as the days go by, I find delight in free space created by unplugging. There is rest from the tyranny of technology and here I find rest in the presence of God.

Service is a necessary discipline toward a life of holiness. We cannot be holy and not serve others. Foster contrasts what he calls “self-righteous service” with “true service.” He notes that true service is a lifestyle that does not seek self-glory. It is fueled by the grace of humility. As we live in the grace of humility “deep change occurs in our spirit.”7 Serving others transforms inordinate desires and affections. Becoming a true servant means we learn to put aside our desires and agendas for the good of others. William Law, whose life and writings greatly impacted 18th-century England, wrote in his book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, a beautiful description of true service: “condescend to all the weaknesses and infirmities of your fellow-creatures, cover their frailties, love their excellencies, encourage their virtues, relieve their wants, rejoice in their prosperities, compassionate their distress, receive their friendship, overlook their unkindness, forgive their malice, be a servant of servants, and condescend to do the lowest offices to the lowest of mankind.”8

Self-righteous service, on the other hand, promotes pride. In this type of service there is a focus on honor and external rewards. Ministers are especially prone to the temptation toward self-righteous service. Frequently, people praise their good works. If they are not diligent, they begin to believe the reports of others. Egos become inflated and the good works that are done become counter productive toward a heart of holiness. Cultivating a life of holiness means that laity and ministers alike serve out of hearts aflame with godly love. Holy affections produce a missional heart.

The discipline of worship has been central to Pentecostal spirituality. It has shaped our affections with passion for the Kingdom. Land observes that in Spirit-filled worship “praise and proclamation, the presence of Jesus and the Spirit, and the affections in Christ and the power of the Spirit are all fused in a call to Christian character and vocation.”9 This unique fusion transcends time and space, bringing worshipers into the presence of God. True worship exalts the beauty of holiness. It images the nature of the coming Kingdom. As believers participate in this sacred space, they taste the wonder and beauty of the age to come. They are transformed more into the likeness of this glory. They are filled with passion for the Kingdom.

Conclusion: A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

The postmodern world is hungry for the authentic and real. People long to see a profoundly beautiful life that images the genuine over against the fake. Such lives are possible if we are willing to pay the price. We pay that price in the fires of death to self. We cultivate it through the practices of abiding in Scripture and living faithfully in community. We further shape it through the disciplines of prayer, fasting, worship, and service. This is the life that is to come when the glory of the Lord shall fill the whole earth. We are now in the ready room for that time. Let us allow the Holy Spirit to dress us as the beautiful bride so when our Lord appears we will not be found wanting.


1. Steven J. Land, Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 133.

2. Cecil M. Roebeck, Jr., The Azusa Street Mission and Revival (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2006), 178.

3. Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 32.

4. See Howard Snyder, The Radical Wesley & Patterns for Church Renewal (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1980).

5. Richard Foster, The Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), 6.

6. Ibid., 30.

7. Ibid., 113.

8. William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (Nashville: The Upper Room Press, 1952), 26. Quoted in Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 114.

9. Land, 129.