Preaching Holiness

When preaching on holiness, there are four specific topics we must consider.

by George O. Wood

This fall, my older grandson, Jacob, returns to junior high school, while my younger grandson, Reese, begins preschool. I am proud of both boys and look forward to seeing them become men of God. But I have deep concerns for them as well.

The secular worldview and culture of this age differ radically from biblical faith and practice, and even oppose them. This worldview admits of no ultimate truth about reality: no God-created beginning or God-controlled ending of history, no inherent meaning or purpose to life. The culture is relativistic: anything goes as long as everyone agrees and no one gets hurt.

The cultural consequences of this worldview are devastating. Sin and its effects permeate our culture: sexual immorality and family breakdown, materialistic greed and indifference to the poor, complacency in the face of injustice, and violence as entertainment. When anything goes, someone always gets hurt.

How can Jacob and Reese become men of God in the midst of this age? How can they become holy — knowing that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14)? Holiness in thought, word, deed, and relationship is my greatest hope and deepest concern for my grandsons.

As pastors, you and I have the same hope and concern for our church members. How can they become increasingly holy? And what can we do to help them? Romans 12:1,2 answers both questions: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”1

With our concern and Paul’s words in mind, let us look at four specific topics we need to consider when preaching holiness.

Tone and Demeanor

First, when you preach about holiness, pay attention to your tone of voice and demeanor — both in and out of the pulpit.

In Greek, the first word of Romans 12:1 is parakalō, which the NIV translates here as “urge” but elsewhere as “appeal” (1 Corinthians 1:10), “comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:4), “encourage” (12:8), “plead” (Philippians 4:2), and “exhort” (1 Timothy 5:1). The word is not a technical term for preaching, although it appears in preaching contexts. For example, in Acts 2:40, Peter “pleaded” [parakálei], “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” And in 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul wrote, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage [parakáleson] — with great patience and careful instruction.”

English verbs have three moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. The indicative states facts, the imperative issues commands, and the subjunctive expresses wishes or makes requests. These moods correspond to three modes of preaching.

Growing up in Assemblies of God churches, I often heard preaching in an imperative — even imperial — mode. Pastors operated with a command-and-control model of leadership that carried over into the pulpit. They thundered forth the Word of God in a high, loud, and fast tone of voice. They left no time for questions and made no space for nuance. When they finished their sermons, all they wanted was a yes or no answer from the congregation.

Early on in my pastoral career, perhaps as a reaction to imperative-mode preaching, I preached in the indicative mode. I downloaded information on members of my congregation with a professional tone of voice. My sermons were long, complex, and nuanced.

There is a place for both imperative- and indicative-mode preaching. Sometimes, pastors must exercise their authority as leaders of their churches. At all times, they must teach — through word and personal example — what Christians believe and how they behave. But as I matured as a pastor, I came to realize that most preaching occurs in the subjunctive mode. It expresses fond wishes and makes heartfelt requests. It urges, appeals, comforts, encourages, pleads, and exhorts more than it commands and as often as it informs.

Both imperative- and indicative-mode preaching assume that pastors exist over the members of their congregations. In the former, pastors have authority over others, which is why they issue commands. In the latter, pastors have a level of knowledge over that of their members, which is why they teach them. But in subjunctive-mode preaching, pastors exist alongside members of their congregation. Paul addressed the Romans as adelphoí, literally, “brothers [and sisters].”

Popular commentaries point out that the verb parakaléo comes from two words meaning “to call” (kaléo) “alongside” (para). Whether that is the word’s proper etymology, “to call alongside” is a good description of preaching specifically and pastoring generally. When you preach, does your tone of voice call people alongside you, or does it distance them from you? What about your demeanor in the pulpit? Does it draw church members in or push them away? Outside of the pulpit, can church members approach you as an elder brother or sister for biblical counsel? Or does dealing with you cause them fear and anxiety?

Our preaching tone and our personal demeanor — in the pulpit and out of it — must call people alongside us in a relationship of mutual respect and trust. Without that relationship, we cannot lead people toward the holiness God seeks from them. For, as has often been said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Theology of Grace-Based Change

Second, when preaching holiness, articulate a theology of grace-based change.

How we preach matters, but so does what we preach. Indeed, substance matters more than style. Good theology shines through even bad preaching, but no amount of good preaching can shine up bad theology.

Have you read Charles Sheldon’s classic novel, In His Steps? It tells the story of Reverend Henry Maxwell, who leads a spiritual revival in his congregation by asking a simple question: “What would Jesus do?” Many pastors ask a variation on that question every Sunday morning: What would Jesus do … to overcome an addiction, to reconcile a relationship, to raise a child, to end poverty, to establish justice? These questions address aspects of holiness, so they are good questions. The Bible provides good answers to them. We pastors should preach both the questions and the answers.

But before we preach them, we must also ask, “What has Jesus done?” It makes little sense to try to pull Christ out of people’s lives if God has not put Him there in the first place. In His Steps does not ask or answer this prior question. The failure to do so is the great theological weakness of an otherwise profitable ethical book.

The apostle Paul did not make the same mistake in Romans. Instead, he laid a grace-based theological foundation on which he built a house of spiritual and moral change. Let’s look at how he did this.

Romans 1:17 states the theme of the entire letter: “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ ”

Romans 1:18–11:36 outlines how God made us righteous. We can summarize this in four indicative statements: First, we cannot become righteous by our own works (1:18–3:20): “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (3:20). Second, God made us righteous by faith in Jesus Christ (3:21–5:21). “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (3:22). Third, because of our faith in Jesus Christ, God liberated us from sin and death, for righteousness and life through the Holy Spirit (6:1–8:39): “Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (8:2). Fourth, God made us righteous because He is merciful. Though Romans 9:1–11:36 may seem to us like a detour in Paul’s argument, it isn’t. The first generation of Christians wrestled with this question: “Why do Jews reject their own Messiah while Gentiles accept Him?” Paul provided an answer: “God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (11:32). God’s mercy explains His actions, not only with regard to first-century Jews and Gentiles, but with regard to us as well.

In Romans 12:1–15:13, the mood switches from indicative to imperative. In 12:1,2, Paul transitions from what God has done for us to what we should do for Him. “Therefore, … in view of God’s mercy,” he wrote, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice. Do not conform to the pattern of this world,” and “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:1,2). The specific ethical teachings of chapters 12–15 expand on these three basic imperatives.

Whenever you see the word “therefore” in Scripture, you should ask “what is it there for.” In Romans 12:1, “therefore” connects the indicative and the imperative as cause and effect. God’s mercy or grace makes our obedience possible. Indicative, therefore imperative. Foundation, then house. What has Jesus done? Then, what would Jesus do?

In a desire to be practical, too many pastors skip the indicative and go straight for the imperative. When they do this, their sermons become self-help, how-to, do-it-yourself messages with Bible verses and stories thrown in almost as an afterthought. In effect, they preach works, not grace and faith. Their preaching becomes legalistic and moralistic. And it undermines the gospel. If we only preach works, then we have not learned the first lesson of Romans: “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (3:20).

If we want to see people make progress in holiness, our preaching must lay a grace-based, not works-based, theological foundation.

Action, Motivation, and Result

Third, when preaching holiness, address action, motivation, and result.

For years, I carried a membership card in my wallet for a health club. I’m embarrassed to say, however, that I never entered the facilities. I desired physical fitness, but I never presented my body for exercise at the gym.

What is true for physical fitness is true for holiness. We must do more than intend to become holy. We must heed Paul’s words: “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1).

Everything we do as human beings involves our bodies. You and your body are one; you cannot do anything without it. You cannot send your spirit to work. It cannot do household chores. Your spirit cannot talk with a family member or friend. Even our so-called spiritual activities require our bodies. Your spirit cannot attend church while your body sleeps in late on Sunday. Your spirit cannot evangelize your neighbor unless your body walks next door and rings the doorbell. When the Good Samaritan helped the victim on the side of the rode, he used his body to help that man’s body. Holiness involves what we do with our bodies.

Because it is possible to perform the right action with the wrong motivation, holiness also requires the purification of our motives. For example, in 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul wrote, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” In this passage, the right action is giving, and the right motivation involves a combination of willingness, freedom, and cheerfulness.

Sometimes, performing the right action with the right motivation comes easily to us. Other times, it does not. Notice that Paul taught us to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Jesus Christ exemplified the sacrificial life on the Cross when He “loved [you] and gave himself for [you]” (Galatians 2:20). Even before the Cross, however, Jesus exemplified the sacrificial life by subordinating His will to God’s. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to His Father, “Yes not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). The essence of Christian prayer is similar: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

In such times when choosing God’s will over our own proves difficult, we must remember the result of sacrificial living. Think again of physical fitness. Eating right and exercising is not always easy. Among other things, it means regularly saying no to sugary desserts and yes to exercise that can temporarily fatigue and cramp the muscles. But these short-term losses and stresses pale in comparison to the benefits of physical health. Just so, a life of holiness involves sacrifice. If Jesus endured the Cross for “the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2), surely we can endure our own smaller sacrifices for the same reason.

Members of our churches will be more likely to practice holiness if they have a clear understanding of what holiness entails. So preach about action, motivation, and the long-term result of surrendering to God’s will.

Change of Mind

Fourth, when preaching holiness, aim for change of mind.

In Romans 12:2, Paul issued two contrasting imperatives: “Do not conform” and “be transformed.” The Greek root words underlying these imperatives are schēma and morphē, respectively. Schēma pertains to outward appearance, while morphē pertains to essential being. The former changes, but the latter endures. For example, my morphē is male, but my schēma has changed as I have aged.

Holiness begins with schēma-level, surface change. We resist the behaviors of the world whenever they contradict gospel standards. J.B. Phillips translates verse 2 this way: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.” Instead, we mold our behavior after the model of Jesus Christ’s way of life.

But holiness pushes beyond schēma-level change. The Pharisees’ holiness was schēma-deep, and Jesus critiqued them for their hypocrisy. “You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin,” He told them. “But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). He concluded, “You appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (23:28).

True holiness involves morphē-level, deep change — change of essential being, change of spiritual and moral character. According to Paul, depth-change requires “the renewing of your mind.”

In Romans 1:28, Paul wrote of unbelievers: “They did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.” In 7:23, he wrote that the struggle for holiness takes place as “the law of my mind” struggles against “the law of sin at work within me.” In 14:5, regarding believers and matters of Christian freedom, he wrote, “Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” As you can see from these verses, the mind plays a crucial role in holiness. Our thoughts either lead us astray or lead us to God. They help us “test and approve what God’s will is” (12:2).

Preaching holiness therefore requires ministering to the intellect and understanding of our church members. This is especially important in a pluralistic society such as ours, where numerous worldviews and cultures compete for attention in the marketplace of ideas. As pastors, we must prepare our church members to be discerning consumers within this marketplace, knowing how to look past the slick marketing and fancy packaging of ideas to see whether the intellectual product itself is God-honoring, true, and good.

We teach such discernment by preaching the what and the why of holiness. The what refers to the content of biblical teaching, while the why refers to its reasons. For example, preaching holiness means preaching biblical standards of sexual morality (e.g., Exodus 20:14; Matthew 5:27–32; 1 Corinthians 6:12–20). Many within our culture — and sometimes, unfortunately, within our churches — disregard those standards, and even dispute them. So, as preachers we must further explain why these standards are both true and good.

In other words, in a pluralistic culture, preaching holiness requires preaching doctrine — both theological and ethical — and apologetics. Our church members will not continue to behave according to biblical standards if their thought lives ignore, misunderstand, or willfully repudiate them. We must aim for changing people’s minds.


Sometimes when I survey the sin that permeates and deforms our culture, I cry for my grandsons, knowing the temptations that await them. They are becoming men of God in an age that disregards holiness, even dishonors it. As a pastor, I have cried for parishioners and staff members who have harmed themselves and others by falling to sin. Perhaps you have cried too.

But after the tears, as I look back on my own life and ministry, I also realize that God has made it possible for us to make progress in holiness. In 1 Corinthians 6:8–11, Paul lists a variety of sins. Then he says, in some of the most hopeful words in Scripture: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (verse 11).

In our preaching, let us speak to this end: that our church members, our family members, and we ourselves might increasingly worship God in “the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:2, KJV) — through our thoughts, words, deeds, and relationships.


1. Scripture quotations are from HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984, 2010 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved worldwide.