There's a famous short piece by JC Ryle called "Suppose an Unholy Man Went to Heaven." It's only about a thousand words but it's had a wide influence. I've heard it quoted approvingly a number of times.
Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself and by whose side would you sit? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes are not your tastes, their character not your character. How could you possibly be happy, if you had not been holy on earth?
The bishop then spells out the heavenly life in stark contrast to earthly pleasures. Therefore...
heaven would be a miserable place to an unholy man. It cannot be otherwise. People may say, in a vague way, they "hope to go to heaven", but they do not consider what they say... We must be heavenly-minded, and have heavenly tastes, in the life that now is, or else we shall never find ourselves in heaven, in the life to come.
If all this sounds like salvation by works, Ryle has a verse: "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14).
He repeats the verse again and again - it seems pretty much the foundation of his case. But he ignores the way holiness (or "sanctification" - same word) is used throughout Hebrews - 2:11; 9:13; 10:10; 10:14; 10:29; 13:12. In virtually every case it's a declared status, won through the sanctifying sacrifice of Christ (e.g. "we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (Heb 10:10)).
In only one of the verses cited above is sanctification mentioned as an ongoing process - but even then the process is anchored to a definitive salvation:
By one sacrifice Christ has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14)
It's true we must be holy to see the Lord. It's also true - and the whole book of Hebrews proclaims it - that Christ's sacrifice alone gives us that holiness. Yet Ryle seems to want to locate this saving quality within us.
He understands that folks might protest at this. So he addresses the objection we all feel...
You may say, it is impossible to be so holy and to do our duty in this life at the same time: the thing cannot be done. I answer, "You are mistaken." It can be done. With Christ on your side nothing is impossible.
Did somebody say infused grace? And make no mistake, the thing to be achieved here is heaven itself. If anyone complains at this achievement of glory, Ryle reminds us...
It is in religion as it is in other things, there are no gains without pains. That which costs nothing is worth nothing.
There it is - no pain, no gain. And finally the whole thing is unmasked - it's actually a very worldly way of considering holiness! Religion is like all other things, a costly, painful achievement which we make on our way to heaven. Surely Ryle is not being heavenly-minded enough! Surely he's not considering spiritual things spiritually. In the end, doesn't he prop up the whole enterprise on a carnal foundation? Holiness is like everything else, the achievement of hard work.
It seems to me that Ryle isn't being spiritual enough. Now it's true that Ryle says more in his book "Holiness." And there he stresses that holiness comes in Christ alone and he counsels us to seek it in Christ. But there's also all this stuff as well which, if you ask me, seriously undermines the 'Christ alone' teaching he wants to uphold.
Where does it go wrong?
Well fundamentally, in these teachings, everything important about holiness gets located in us and not in Jesus. And from that foundational error flows a characteristic problem with Ryle's presentation. For Ryle the "holy" trajectory for everything seems to be in and up and later. 'Come in out of the world, lift yourself up into heaven so that later you'll enjoy salvation.' All godly travel is coming in from the nasty world and up into glory, white-knuckling it now because later it'll be worth it.
But if Jesus Christ - the Holy One of Israel - defines holiness for us, we get a very different picture. Because we are so carnal and unable to work up a holiness of our own, therefore Christ descends with His sanctifying love that reaches outwards and downwards, to be felt now. Holiness is Jesus-shaped. It means being met in our filth now, cleansed, and then swept along with Jesus to extend ourselves out into an unclean world, stooping down to the gutters of this world and in this way experiencing now the life of heaven.
It's really not about preparing ourselves for heaven later - it's about living the heavenly life now: the life of self-forgetful, neighbour-loving, cheek-turning, enemy-forgiving love. That's holiness. It's Christ's own life which He has given us in the gospel. It's ours to live now - not as some qualification for heaven later.
So then, be holy! But define holiness Christianly - i.e. according to Christ.
Be holy! But let Christ's holiness thrust you outside the camp (Heb 13:12-13)
Be holy! But realise it's Christ's gift, once for all, not your continual achievement.
Be holy! But know that the point is to live Christ's life now, not to earn His blessing later.
Be holy! But don't be so carnal as to think it's the ladder to heaven.
Be holy! But make sure it's Spiritual holiness - the gift of Christ's Spirit to you - the very life of heaven to be enjoyed here and now on earth.
Be holy because Jesus your Lord is holy. And right now you're in Him.