Hebrews 12:14 - Holiness or Hell?

Hebrews 12:14 says, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” Some have concluded that this verse teaches one must be entirely sanctified to make it to heaven (e.g., Creffield, Godbey).

There are several things to consider in determinin what this passage is teaching: (1) the relationship between the word “holiness” in Hebrews 12:14 and NT Greek; (2) what the words “holiness” and “sanctification” mean in the NT; and (3) the relationship between regeneration and sanctification.

The Greek word translated “holiness” in Hebrew 12:14 is hagiasmos (ha-gee-oz-móss). This word occurs ten times in the NT (Rom. 6:19, 22; 1 Cor. 1:30; 1 Thess. 4:3, 4, 7; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Tim. 2:15; Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 1:2). Hagiasmos normally means “the condition of moral purity that results from being or living separated unto God from all that is sinful.” In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and 1 Peter 1:2 it means “the act of separating someone unto God from all that is sinful with the result that they are morally pure.” Hagiasmos is translated in the KJV five times as “holiness” and five times as “sanctification.” Since these two words are translated from the same word, we shouldn't assume they have different meanings unless the context requires it.

That brings up the question: “What do holiness and sanctification mean in the NT?” This question is much broader since there are at least four Greek word-groups that are translated variously “holy,” “holiness,” “sanctify,” or “sanctification.” However, the bottom line is still the same. In the NT, the words “holiness” and “sanctification” never refer specifically to entire sanctification unless they are modified by terms like “entire, complete, perfect, wholly, etc.,” as in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. As John Wesley said: “The term sanctified is continually applied by St. Paul to all that were justified…. By this term alone, he rarely, if ever, means ‘saved from all sin.’ …Consequently, it is not proper to use it in that sense, without adding the word wholly, entirely, or the like.”

The deeper issue is this: the words “holiness” and “sanctification” are regularly used in the Holiness Movement as synonyms for entire sanctification. This is a major problem for at least three reasons.

First, this is not how the NT uses these terms. When our use of NT terms doesn't match their NT meaning, we undermine our theological credibility. 

Second, using the terms this way leads us to misread the NT. For example, 1 Thessalonians 4:3–7 and Hebrews 12:14 have often been misused as texts for entire sanctification. In neither case is the author talking specifically about entire sanctification. 

Third and tragically, our non-New Testament use of these terms often hinders our efforts to “spread Scriptural holiness.” Why? Because Christians who hear us equating “holiness” and “sanctification” with “entire sanctification” go read their Bibles and can’t see what we’re talking about. As a result, believers who are sincere students of God’s word wrongly conclude that since we use holiness and sanctification in ways the NT does not, our doctrine of entire sanctification must not be a NT doctrine. In other words, we mislead our listeners and hinder the spread of Scriptural holiness (which includes but is not limited to entire sanctification) when we refer to entire sanctification as “sanctification” or “holiness.” 

In conclusion,Hebrews 12:14 does not teach that a believer will go to hell if he/she is not entirely sanctified. The word “holiness” in this verse does not mean or refer to “entire sanctification.” On the other hand, Hebrews 12:14 does teach us that we must be holy to see the Lord. “The holiness essential for seeing the Lord (Heb 12:14),” Richard S. Taylor rightly explains, “is a state of rightness with God right now.” In other words, anyone who is saved and walking in the light is holy and ready to see the Lord.

Are you pursuing peace with all men and holiness without which no one shall see the Lord?


Anonymous said…
Mr. Brown, as I remember you from third semester Greek, could this verse be referring to our testimony in the world? We are commanded to pursue peace and righteousness. It is our positional righteousness that allows us to see God. It is our practical righteousness that allows others to see Christ in us. Could this not be a matter of testimony to the lost. I say this because of the change in the objects of the sentences, no man vs. us. In v 15 we know that God's grace does not fail us; it is we who fail to avail ourselves of God's grace (4:16). These are my thoughts from having recently preached through this passage. I welcome your critique.
Philip Brown said…
Hello, Former Student! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

The preceding context of Hebrews 12:14 (vv. 5-14) focuses on God's use of discipline to help us grow in holiness (12:10). Commentators are divided regarding whether this holiness (12:10, 14) is the ultimate sanctification of glorification (e.g., Bruce, Lane) or a present increased participation in the life and character of God (e.g., Guthrie, Cockerill). My reading of the passage is closer to Guthrie and Cockerill. I would argue that growth in holiness includes, but is not limited to or identical with, growth in righteousness (12:11). The peaceable fruit of righteousness, whether genitive of source (Cockerill) or genitive of apposition (me), describes the behavioral consequence of divine discipline. The holiness we pursue is a characteral conformity to the character of God.

I may be misunderstanding you, but your comment seems to conflate holiness and righteousness, and my survey of the Hebrew authors' use of these terms does not indicate that he uses them interchangeably. While I agree with you that our positional righteousness through union with Christ is the grounds of our acceptance with God, the Hebrew author's point seems to be that in running with our eyes fixed on Jesus (12:1-2) we should expect to encounter difficulties in our battle against sin (12:3-4). These difficulties are used by God to make us more like Jesus (12:5-10), the ultimate revelation of holiness in human form. Therefore, we should anticipate the righteousness (conformity to God's will) that will come from such discipline, strengthen one another in the race, and pursue right relations with others (peace with all men) and conformity to God's character.

I see v. 15 picking up the danger of weak hands and feeble knees (12:12) and warning against failing to make use of the grace of God--probably the grace extended in the discipline just discussed.
Nathan Brown said…
Hebrews 12:11 and 12:14 needs to be read against the backdrop of Hebrews 12:1 and 12:15–17 and 12:25. Righteousness and holiness are being mentioned in the context of present obedience and right behavior. Lay aside every weight, lay aside entangling sin, don’t come short of God’s grace, don’t let a root of bitterness spring up, don’t be godless and profane, don’t cast away your faith like Esau cast away his birthright for a single meal, don’t refuse to hear and obey the One who is speaking.

Instead, listen and obey, be grateful for the future kingdom you are receiving, offer God acceptable service in reverence and awe, for that is holiness and righteousness.

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