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Responding Appropriately to Chastisement (2): Following Peace and Holiness

Responding Appropriately to Chastisement (2): Following Peace and Holiness

Responding Appropriately to Chastisement (Hebrews 12:1217)  

Find the first part in this series here.


Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14)


This chapter of God’s word is written to God’s people under chastisement. Chastisement must be distinguished from punishment. Punishment is vengeance of the judge upon the wicked aimed at their destruction. Chastisement is the correction of a father to his child, aimed at his improvement. In verses 56, the writer to the Hebrews reminds his readers of what they had forgotten: “And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him; for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” They had forgotten that chastisement is a token of God’s love. And because they had forgotten that, they had begun to do two things: to despise God’s chastening, as when a child is defiant before a father’s correction; and to faint, as when a child becomes discouraged by chastisement. 

It appears that the readers were especially prone to the second response: they fainted; they became discouraged; they were tempted to give up under the difficulties of life. That comes out in verse 12. The writer gives an exhortation: “Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees.” One whose hands hang down and whose knees are feeble is discouraged: he finds it very difficult to keep running the race, which is the Christian life. Do not be discouraged, then: but more positively, run. And as you run, follow after peace and holiness. 

Peace and Holiness 

Before we can follow peace, we must identify it. Peace is a state of tranquility or harmony, a state of well-being or safety, and the absence of enmity, hostility, or warfare. Fundamental to any peace that we follow with others is peace with God. Romans 5:1 states, “Therefore being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” When we have peace with God, everything is in harmony between the Creator and us: he has nothing against us, and we have nothing against him. Positively, we live in, and enjoy, a harmonious relationship with God: he is our Father who loves and blesses us; we are his children who love him. 

That wonderful blessing of peace is not natural to us, for we are sinners. God cannot live in peace with sinners, for sinners are at war with him. Therefore, God, who loves us, created peace by sending his Son Jesus Christ to remove our sins, so that we could enjoy peace with him: “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace who hath made both one and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us” (Eph. 2:1314). The Hebrew Christians knew and experienced this. When, therefore, they are called to follow peace, the meaning is not, “Follow peace with God.” They did not need to follow peace with God because they already had peace with God. 

The peace in view here is peace with men: “Follow peace with all men” (v. 14). The context would lead us to begin with peace with other believers. We could paraphrase it thus: “Follow peace with all those who are running with you in the straight paths that you have made for your feet” (v. 13). If you spend your time squabbling with your fellow runners to heaven, you will make little progress; if you live in enmity against the other saints, you will cause their hands to hang down and you will weaken their knees. Your bickering and arguing will drain your energy and weaken you spiritually. But we can also widen the application, for the text refers to “all men.” Romans 12:18 exhorts us: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” Galatians 6:10 urges: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” The apostle writes: “Speak evil of no man, be no brawlers, but gentle, showing all meekness unto all men” (Tit. 3:2). A Christian should seek to live in peace with all. And if he cannot live in peace, the fault should be the enmity and hostility, or the sinful attitude and behavior, of the unbeliever, not the unreasonable, unwise, obnoxious, objectionable behavior of the Christian. 

As with peace, before we can follow holiness, we must identify it. Holiness is a state or condition in which we are devoted to God, and, therefore, separated from every form of defilement. Or holiness is a process of growth by which we are increasingly devoted to God, and, therefore, increasingly separated from sin. God is the holy God; one of his great attributes is holiness. We often think of holiness as belonging to certain things or activities. But a thing or an activity is only holy in relation to God—if it is devoted to God, or if it helps us in our devotion to God, then it is holy. God’s holiness is his perfect self-consecration, his devotion to himself, to his own name, and to his own glory; when we are holy, we are devoted to him, to his name, and to his glory. Anything less than that is not holiness. It might appear holy to others; it might win praise from others, but it is not holy. 

The Bible uses two words interchangeably—holiness and sanctification. One example is found in 1 Thessalonians 4. “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification [holiness], that ye should abstain from fornication” (v. 3); “that everyone of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification [holiness] and honor” (v. 4); “for God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness [sanctification]” (v. 7). If we wanted to make a distinction between holiness and sanctification in English, it would be this—holiness is a state or a present possession, while sanctification is a process or something we have not yet fully received. 

Holiness is one of God’s great works in us and one of his great gifts to us. It is wise to make a distinction between righteousness and holiness—righteousness belongs to justification, for God declares us righteous when he imputes to us the perfect righteousness of Christ; holiness belongs to sanctification, for God makes us holy when he cleanses us from sin and works holiness in us. 

Holiness, therefore, is not our work: we cannot make ourselves holy. God makes us holy: he does so by the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives. The source of the holiness that God works in us is the cross of Jesus: at the cross he cleansed us; and at the cross he purchased for us the power to be sanctified or made holy. “For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). “Christ gave himself for [the church] that he might sanctify and cleanse it” (Eph. 5:26); “[he] gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:14). 

We distinguish: First, Christ separates us or sets us apart for God (that is a finished work). Second, Christ begins the process by which he more and more separates us from sin and devotes us to God (an ongoing work). In other words, there is a sense in which we are already holy, and there is a sense in which we are becoming holy. That second sense is in view in the text. 

We know that the second sense is in view because we are called to follow holiness. Just as you do not follow peace with God (you already have it), so you do not follow “initial sanctification” (you already have it). Therefore, when the text says, “Follow holiness,” it means, “Follow after a holy life.” It means, “Seek to devote yourself more and more to God.” It means, “Seek to be separated more and more from the defilement of sin.” The emphasis is on the ongoing, progressive holiness of life and behavior. 

The holiness we are called to follow, therefore, is our activity; it is something that we must do and it is something that we can do by the power of God’s grace. To follow holiness is to follow a life of devotion and consecration to God, a life in which we seek above all things to please him and not ourselves. To follow holiness is to follow a life of separation from, and opposition to, everything that defiles us, so that we avoid everything that displeases God. To follow holiness simply means this: to love God and to keep his commandments. Every Christian can do that, must do that, and does do that. We do it imperfectly and inconsistently, but we certainly do it. 

Notice finally in this connection we are called to follow both: follow peace and holiness; follow holiness and peace. Some people attempt for the sake of peace to compromise the strictness of the holiness of their life, but we must not commit sin in order to please others. Others attempt to be very strict with their doctrine and life, but they do so in a quarrelsome, obnoxious manner: be holy and peaceful. 

Often, it should be possible to follow peace and holiness; where it is not possible, choose holiness. You are not responsible for the reaction of others to your sincere, holy walk. If they rage against your holiness, be holy still! 

Following Peace and Holiness 

The word “follow” in the text is the common word for “persecute.” To persecute is to follow after, to chase, or to pursue someone. When the persecutor targets the Christian, his aim is to catch him. Obviously, therefore, the following of the persecutor is hostile. But the activity in the text is basically the same: the persecutor follows in order to seize, harm, and even kill; the pursuer of peace and holiness chases after peace and holiness in order to obtain and to maintain them. In other words, we could paraphrase the text: “Run after peace and holiness, or hunt after peace and holiness, or eagerly seek after peace and holiness.” 

This fits with the context, which is the exhortation is to run a race, but what is the goal of the race? What are you seeking to obtain by running the race? Why lift up the hands that hang down? Why should you make straight paths for your feet? The answer: so that we might obtain peace and holiness. The race of Hebrews 12, therefore, is not a casual, gentle walk in the park, but a long distance, endurance marathon, the aim of which is peace and holiness. At the end of the pursuit of peace and holiness is the sight of the Lord

The point, therefore, is this—make every effort to obtain, and maintain, peace and holiness. The verb “follow” requires such effort. We all have goals: a good marriage, a happy home, a comfortable lifestyle. I dare say that, if those are your goals, you make an effort to obtain them. You work hard at living as a faithful and loving spouse; you work hard at raising your children; you work hard at developing your career; you plan for the future, planning your spending, saving, and retirement years. Those are legitimate goals in life; however, they are not the goal. You must be prepared to sacrifice your other goals in order to obtain the peace and holiness of the text; you must be prepared to make those other goals serve the peace and holiness of the text. You must seek peace and holiness in your marriage, in your family, in your career, and in every aspect of our life. If you have attained all your other goals, but you do not have peace, and especially holiness, you have achieved nothing. You will not see the Lord. 

Other texts will help bring out the meaning of the exhortation of verse 14. Paul uses the verb rendered “follow” in this text in Philippians 3:14 to describe his strenuous effort in the race of faith: “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” Translate the text: “Press toward peace with all men and holiness” (Heb. 12:14). Paul writes in Romans 12:14, “Let us therefore follow after [pursue after, press toward, hunt, seek to obtain] the things that make for peace, and things therewith one may edify one another.” Are you doing that? Are peace and holiness your priorities in life? Do you seek them above and before all other things that you seek? Do you do so because you want to see the Lord? 

What, then, does this pursuit of peace and holiness look like? We should apply the principles of the pursuit to these two things, to peace and holiness. We begin with peace: how do we pursue, or press toward, or hunt after, peace? First, we make every effort not to give any occasion of offense. Offenses in this case are those things that annoy, irritate or upset other people. If we follow peace, we avoid those things that would cause or prolong quarrels. Irritations can often be something minor or petty; we make every effort to avoid petty squabbles; we are very careful not to provoke others to anger. This requires humility, so that we are prepared, for the sake of peace, not to insist on our rights; we do not insist on our own way; we give up our position and privilege for harmony in the church, home, and family. “Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be like minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (Phil. 2:2-3). 

Second, we make every effort not to take offense. If someone annoys us, we are ready to forgive, ready to put up with it for the sake of peace, slow to anger, and quick to cover a multitude of sins. If it is not a serious transgression of God’s law, we do not make a big deal about it. For the sake of peace, we are willing to interpret the actions and motives of others in a most favorable manner; we give others the benefit of the doubt; we do not twist the words or actions of another to make them worse than they are. The New Testament is full of such exhortations to peace: “I, therefore, as the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love” (Eph. 4:12); “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another: if any man have a quarrel against any, even as Christ forgave, so also do ye” (Col. 3:1213). 

If there must be a quarrel—if there must be disharmony—let it be said of you, “I made every effort to reach and maintain peace”! 

How do we pursue, or press toward, or hunt after, holiness? First, we devote ourselves wholeheartedly to God. Holiness, remember, is separation unto, and devotedness to, God. We follow holiness by seeking after those things where he reveals himself to our souls—we follow holiness through prayer; we follow holiness through attention to his word, both the word read and the word preached. When we remain close to God, we will be holy, for holiness is the presence of God; holiness is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; holiness is cleansing in Christ’s blood. Increasingly, wholeheartedly, we seek God, for we cannot be holy without God; holiness is never an abstract concept apart from God. 

Second, we diligently seek to be separate from, and to avoid, everything that would defile us, and thus everything that would displease or offend God. If we follow holiness, we are very careful about how we live, for we know that there are all kinds of wicked influences in the world; we avoid them. We apply this to all of the commandments of God: a holy Christian follows after holiness by avoiding idolatry, blasphemy, Sabbath desecration, disobedience to authority, murder, adultery, lies, and covetousness. A holy Christian is devoted body and soul to God; and he hates sin. We only have a small beginning of holiness, but we are holy. Christian reader, do not let anyone tell you otherwise. 

Why We Follow Peace and Holiness 

We follow peace and holiness, especially holiness, because we desire to see the Lord. The text sets forth the great hope of “seeing the Lord.” In a certain sense, everyone shall see the Lord: the ungodly shall see the Lord on the Day of Judgment when he comes in vengeance against all impenitent sinners. But the meaning here is to see the Lord with a view to enjoying his perfect fellowship, and with a view to dwelling with him forever in glory. In that sense, we shall see the Lord, that is, we who follow peace with all men, and especially we who are holy shall see the Lord. 

Consider some of the precious promises of the word of God in this connection. Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Who shall see God?—not the unholy, not the profane and ungodly, but the pure in heart! “Beloved now are we the sons of God and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Who shall see the Lord?—those who are like him: that is, those who are holy, with his holiness worked in them and practiced by them! “And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it and his servants shall serve him. And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads” (Rev. 22:34). Who shall see the Lord?—not those who have taken the mark of the beast in the foreheads, but those who have God’s name in their foreheads, because they belong to him, and are devoted to him! 

The text is clear—only the holy shall see him: “And holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (v. 14). (The word “which” refers back to the word “holiness”: without holiness, real, spiritual, inner holiness, no man shall see the Lord). That makes sense, for if God is holy, he will only dwell with those who are holy. We can never enter heaven to see the Lord in our own sins; to enter heaven we must have perfect righteousness and we must also have holiness, perfect holiness. Listen to the warning of Revelation 21:27, “And there shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” If God admitted unholy people into heaven—impenitent thieves, murderers, liars, adulterers, or idolaters—they would defile that holy place; therefore, holiness is necessary for heaven. 

But do not think that holiness begins with heaven: if someone is not already holy in this life, he will not be holy on the Last Day. If he remains unholy in this life, he will be unholy at the point of death. What an incentive to pursue holiness! Canons 5:12, This certainty of perseverance…should serve as an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works, as appears from the testimonies of Scripture, and the examples of the saints.” 

Does this make salvation conditional—conditional on our holy performance? Not at all. God gives us this holiness: he works holiness in us at regeneration, he purifies our hearts by faith, he gives us the Holy Spirit, and he causes us to follow peace and holiness all the days of our lives, so that we are certain to see him. The basis of our holiness is the blood of Jesus. Jesus suffered and died for us to cleanse us from sin; our pursuit of holiness is the fruit of the cross. That is encouragement: when it seems as if there is no point in pursuing peace and holiness because the holy children of God suffer chastisement in this life to make them partakers of his holiness (v. 10), remember the goal. Those who pursue peace and holiness, because God has worked holiness in them by the cross and Holy Spirit, shall see the Lord. We shall see the Lord. Let us press on in peace and holiness! 


Return to the RFPA blog in the next few weeks for the next part in this series, Responding Appropriately to Chastisement (Hebrews 12:12–17).


Martyn McGeown is a pastor in the Protestant Reformed Churches. He is also the editor of the RFPA blog and the author of multiple RFPA publications.

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