When a known liar makes a promise, few take notice. We’re even skeptical when a trusted friend assures us of something that seems too good to be true. But when the God who cannot lie (cf. Heb. 6:18) puts his word on the line and stakes his reputation on the fulfillment of his declared purpose, take it to the bank.
2 Corinthians 7:1 is a call to holiness based on the rock-solid, infallible, blood-bought promises of God. “Since we have these promises,” says Paul, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
He is undoubtedly referring to those precious promises noted at the close of chapter six: God’s assurance to us that he will make his dwelling in our midst, that he will walk among us and be our God, and that we shall forever be his people (v. 16; cf. Lev. 26:11-12; Jer. 24:7; 30:22; 31:33; 32:38; Ezek. 37:27); that he will welcome us to himself (v. 17) and will be our Father, even as we are his sons and daughters (v. 18; cf. Isa. 43:6; ).
Now, if ever there were good grounds for heeding an exhortation to live out in practical and experiential reality what is already true by virtue of sovereign, saving grace, that’s it! We have been consecrated and set apart unto him who redeemed us and are already that holy temple in which the Spirit abides (2 Cor. 6:16).
Paul’s appeal that one “cleanse” himself from all “defilement” had an obvious point of reference for the Corinthians in the first century that is no longer applicable today (or, at least not for the majority of us). He is undoubtedly thinking of their participation in a variety of ritualistic sexual activities and other illicit behavior associated with pagan temple worship. But the principle that undergirds and gives force to his exhortation is as relevant for us today as it was then for them.
The focus here is two-fold, first on the what and then on the how. What, precisely, are we being told to do? The answer to this first question is itself two-fold: (1) we are to cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and (2) we are to bring holiness to completion. Let’s take each in turn.
Defilement is an ugly word. A variety of distasteful images come to mind, which you will be relieved to know I will not describe. One immediately thinks of a stain on an otherwise clean garment or of a moral blemish that sullies and soils. Of course, it’s important to remember that not everyone believes there is such a thing as defilement, simply because the word assumes an absolute moral standard from which deviation is possible, resulting in a deficiency of character or a spiritual disfigurement that is deserving of judgment.
It may be something you see or say or in which you participate, but in every case it is unworthy of someone in whom the Spirit of God dwells, who claims God as his Father and Christ as his brother. There’s no need for me to be any more specific than that, for each of us knows both from Scripture and conscience, not to mention experience and common sense, what defiles and what doesn’t.
Anything, says Paul, that casts a shadow on Christian purity must be renounced. This isn’t legalism but a diligent determination to display the character of Christ in word and deed. Its reach is pervasive: both “body and spirit” must be kept clean.
The word translated “body” in the ESV is literally sarx, the common NT word for “flesh”. If that seems odd, Murray Harris reminds us that “there is evidence in Paul’s letters of a non-pejorative use of sarx where it is synonymous with soma [“body”] and of a popular, non-theological use of sarx and pneuma [“spirit”] where they refer, in a complementary not antithetical way, to the outward and inward aspects of the person” (512). Thus, combined with pneuma or “spirit”, the reference is to the whole person, both physically (sarx) and spiritually (pneuma), both outwardly and inwardly.
If one should ask how this is done, the idea here is “by keeping clear of” or “by distancing ourselves from” anything that defiles. Contrary to popular thought, this is possible without separating ourselves entirely from the world or its inhabitants. Daniel and his friends managed quite well to thrive amidst the corruption and paganism of ancient Babylon without being spiritually defiled. Paul similarly expected the Philippians to live “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation,” among whom they were to “shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15).
This also entails a grace-empowered effort to bring “holiness to completion,” a process that he anticipated would only be consummated at the second coming of Christ (see 1 Thess. 3:13; cf. also Phil. 3:12-14 and 1 John 3:1-3).
Finally, if that is the what of our sanctification, we must also take note of the how. Bring holiness to completion, says Paul, “in the fear of God” (v. 1b).
What does Paul mean by this? Is it “because” we fear God or “out of reverence” for him that we strive, by his grace, to live as those in whom he himself lives? Or is it “while reverencing God” or, as someone has said, “in an atmosphere of reverential fear” that we are to pursue holiness? Others say it is “by reverence” for God or “by means of fearing” him that we are to live in purity. Surely there is a sense in which all of these are true.
We earlier saw that a robust, reverential fear of God was one of the primary factors that motivated Paul to preach and persuade others to believe the gospel. Knowing that he, and all men, would one day appear before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10) was sufficient to energize his efforts in making known the good news (2 Cor. 5:11).
Some folks cringe at such a thought. The very word “holiness” conjures up an image of the colorless and grumpy killjoy who lives obsessed with what not to do and where not to go and how not to speak and when not to participate. Being a Christian is reduced to an all-pervasive negative. Following Jesus is perverted into a posture of abstinence and avoidance of virtually everything, rather than an increasingly joyful conformity to how he thinks and a deepening delight in what he loves, together with a healthy aversion to whatever might threaten our complete satisfaction in him.
Holiness, then, is a good and glorious thing because it makes possible our beholding the beauty of God (Heb. 12:14)! It is the “pure in heart” who ultimately “see” and enjoy and revel in him (Matt. 5:8).
If all this seems terribly difficult and demanding, let me close simply by reminding you again of the basis on which such a life is to be pursued. God dwells among us! He is our God! We are his people! He has welcomed us! He is our Father. We are his children! Since, then, we have these promises . . ., well, you should be able to quote the verse by now.
– Sam Storms