Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
Do you recall the last time you came to God in prayer in deep conviction of your sin? Perhaps one or two special occasions stands out in your memory, when you wept before the Lord under the conviction of the Spirit and like Isaiah you felt the forgiving touch of God on that particular part of you that was most closely connected with that sin. You were utterly helpless to do anything to be forgiven except to plead your guilt and trust in God’s provision, but that was all that God wanted you to do and, as He promised He would, He cleansed you from sin.
You stood up off your knees in full assurance of His forgiveness and of His acceptance of you through your faith in Christ. The same Spirit of God that brought deep conviction also brought knowledge of His forgiveness, inward knowledge that came to your soul as deeply as the conviction had come. God never digs a hole to expose our sin except that He also, as we repent and confess, fills it back in and covers up our shame with His grace. As helpless as we felt to gain God’s forgiveness, we also feel that helpless to live in holiness.
When we see such verses as the one above, where God commands and urges us to pursue peace and holiness, we ask ourselves, Does He know who I am? Does He realize how selfish my heart is? How easily I am drawn aside to lust and pride? He might as well command a pig to fly as to command me to be holy! Honest questions like these are good to begin with, but we must also have something more than just honesty. We need the help and power of God in our life, changing our desires.
The good news is that Christ is doing exactly that, He is working within us both “to will and to do His good pleasure” (Phil. 2.13). He who created our heart, our emotional and spiritual center of our life, also knows how it works. He tells us that we are to work with the Spirit, that we are to make every effort to work with Him, realizing that the central part of this matter only God can do. Just like a farmer plants and then waits on the miracle of life to germinate in the seed he plants, and the rain to fall from the skies, so we are utterly dependent on God to do His work in our souls. Yet He also commands us not to sit idly by, but to pursue this life of peace and holiness.
I am not sure that we are ever satisfied with how we say it, this mystery of God’s work and our work. Certainly salvation and transformation is God’s work first and foremost, and whatever part we play in our own salvation is relegated to a minor role of receiving, trusting, and following. It is the paradoxical balance of the two that challenges us, and we come, like Paul did, to say things such as, “By the grace of God I am what I am … yet I labored … yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
In a restaurant I watched a father tenderly attend to his son who was stricken with a paralytic condition. The son could do very little for himself, so the father picked the boy up, placed him in his chair, helped him eat, wiped and washed his face. The only thing the son could do was to cooperate with his father, which he did with all his heart. The love and affection of the father for the boy had won him over entirely. This was not mere dependence, that the boy had no choice in the matter was clear, but that he loved and trusted his father shown brighter than his handicap. Though I knew it was otherwise, as I watched them it seemed to me that the boy’s responses to the father were exaggerated, that the slightest movement of his body that seemed in anyway cooperative in nature was as though he was almost feeding himself. This must be something of what it means about us, that by the grace of God we are what we are, but we labor and respond to His love and tenderness, and that response is really Him working within us.
Two things in Hebrews 12:14 God urged us to do with our whole heart: live in peace with all men and be holy. These two are connected. It requires a new understanding and a reprioritizing of our minds to pursue these. To live at peace with all men requires that I let go of my prejudices, my hurts, my offenses, and my desires for vengeance and vindication. It normally means to let the insult someone paid me hang in the air without seeking to make it right or to strike back. This is turning the other cheek, and the only time that we may react to the insult is when innocent people are caught in the crossfire or the name of Christ is being dragged through the dirt. This means to leave vengeance in the hands of God, not just taking no action but entertaining no thought about taking action. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Holiness requires me to release every thought that interferes with the work of God’s spirit in my life, even pet sins. The emphasis is not on outward appearances but on inward realities. Holiness is more that mere avoidance of sin, it is the character of God, His love, His peace, His joy, His wisdom, and all that is considered part of His nature. In a time such as Lent, our overriding concern through all of our fasting is to confess our utter weakness in spiritual matters, to deal with sin seriously, and not just sin, thinking that we can just stop it and that will be enough. We are also to be concerned with holiness, the spiritual characteristics of God that are also to be the traits of His people. As Paul wrote, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
Our holiness comes not from our own works but as the grace of God through the righteousness of Christ. We are, however to pursue this holiness, to work with the Spirit, to release grievances and addictions to unholy behavior, and to put on the character of God. The words, “without holiness no one will see the Lord,” should remind us of how serious a matter this is. The only hope we have of heaven is the righteousness of Christ that is bestowed upon us by the mercy of God, and since this allows us who would otherwise be condemned sinners to enter into the presence of God, we should treasure the possibility of this being the reality in our life today, to think God’s thoughts and to be filled with Him by His Spirit. Dr Albert Barnes explained the matter in more clarity:
Heaven and earth will pass away, but God will not admit one unrepenting and unpardoned sinner to heaven. It was the importance and the certainty of this principle which made the apostle insist on it here with so much earnestness. Amidst all their trials, when exposed to persecution, and when everything might tempt them to the indulgence of feelings which were the opposite of holiness, they were to make it their great object to be like God. For this they were to seek, to strive, to labour, to pray. This with us, in all our trials, should also be the great aim of life. How deeply affecting, then, is the inquiry, whether we have that holiness which is indispensable to salvation! Let us not deceive ourselves. We may have many things else—many things which are in themselves desirable, but without this one thing we shall never see the Lord in peace. We may have wealth, genius, learning, beauty, accomplishments, houses, lands, books, friends—but without religion they will be all in vain. Never can we see God in peace without a holy heart; never call we be admitted into heaven without that religion which will identify us with the angels around the throne!
Lord, You are holy and you call us also to be holy. We cannot become such in your eyes without the blood of Christ purging every sin in our past. Neither can be experience holiness as our spiritual reality in this world without being remade into His spiritual image. We submit that we are powerless to be holy apart from You and we ask for wisdom, insight, and divine energy to surrender every thought of our heart to You. Amen.
 Albert Barnes, Barnes‘ New Testament Notes