The Tightrope of Separation: Separated Unto God

From Voice, Mar/Apr 2014. Used by permission.

Recently I read an article which began with these words:

Some time ago a man said to me, “I drink beer in the pub in my spare time. Some guys I know go out chasing women. So what’s the difference? Your hobby is Christianity.” To think that a man could look at me and say that Christianity was just a pleasant spare time occupation like collecting stamps or yachting. Is that my definition of Christianity? Do I put it second, or do I put it first?

This quotation points out the fact that if our faith does not change our lives, even the world questions the genuineness of our profession.

Separation, fuzziness and fear

We want to consider in this article the subject of biblical separation, particularly the thought of being wholly dedicated unto God. No issues become more clouded than those that surround the doctrine of separation. And I believe the fuzziness and fear that surround this subject are brought about by Satan for at least four reasons.

First, God in His program, by His very nature, is calling men and women out of the world, out of darkness and sin and guilt, into the Kingdom of God’s dear Son which is the kingdom of light and holiness and blessing. That is separation. This is the work of God; therefore, Satan hates it.

Second, the whole program of Satan revolves around confusion, mixture, syncretism. Every plan of Satan involves mixing evil with good. The way he puts people in bondage is by means of this unholy mixture.

Third, Satan seeks to convince the Christian that there is a realm of satisfaction and happiness out there in the world. He seeks to glamorize the world system controlled by Satan and to make Christians feel they are missing much unless they get involved in his system.

Fourth, Satan seeks to convince the Christian of the lie that if they yield themselves to God, it will mean frustration and unhappiness rather than freedom, blessing, and joy.

Three keywords to understand

There are three words that must come into focus when considering this subject. The first is the word “holiness,” a crucial word that seems to frighten some believers. God is a holy God, a God of perfect righteousness. He says, “Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). It is God’s aim and ambition to conform us to the image of Himself, to make us like Himself. Holiness is God’s directive for us.

The second word is “world,” or a similar form of the word, “worldliness.” This embraces all that Satan offers, the whole enticement of the devil to keep us from holiness. So on the one hand we have holiness, on the other hand we have that which is contrary to it: the world’s system, the devil’s program to keep men from being what God wants them to be.

The third word, which falls in between, is “separation.” This word portrays the concept that God urges us to be separate unto Himself and to be separate from Satan’s kingdom. Separation is always unto God first (Romans 12:1, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice.”) That is positive and must be done first. 1 Thessalonians 1:9 expresses it beautifully: “and how you turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God.” Notice that movement. They did not turn from idols first. They first turned to God to receive Jesus Christ, to give their lives to Him. That automatically cut them off from idols and idolatry and idol worship. Separation is not merely turning away from something; it is also turning to Someone, and that One is God.

Caution: avoid extremes

People have gone to extremes on the subject of separation. By extreme I mean that people tend to go beyond Scripture, or stress one phase while ignoring another. It is just as harmful to go beyond what God says as it is to fall short.

There are people who believe concerning this subject that the harshest attitude is always the best one. But that is not always true. The disciples James and John, seeing some opposition to our Lord, said in Luke 9:54, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, even as Elijah did?” In other words, “Lord, these people are opposed to you. Would it not be good that they should be destroyed by fire immediately?” The Lord’s answer indicated that their extreme position was out of keeping with the spirit of Jesus (Luke 9:55-56): “But he turned and rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’”

On the other extreme, there are some who feel that the attitude of extreme toleration of sin is the correct attitude for Christians. But note that the Corinthian church was rebuked by the apostle Paul for a failure to deal with sin. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:2 concerning sin that was in their midst, “And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that has done this deed might be taken away from among you.” The apostle ordered that the offender be separated from them.

The balance is perfectly demonstrated in the life of Jesus. The Bible says concerning Jesus that He was full of grace and truth (John 1:14); grace representing tenderness, mercy, love; truth representing righteousness, severity, firmness. These qualities do not contradict one another but must be kept in perfect balance. They were in perfect balance in the person Jesus Christ, our Lord. So it must be for us as we draw conclusions on separation. We must keep a perfect balance as to what the Scriptures say.

One of the problems we confront in discussing separation is the temptation to lose an objective stance and to begin thinking in terms of personalities or organizations. Often proponents of names and movements and organizations assail other Christians and say, “Unless you take my position and associate with me and with my movement, you are a worldly brother and are not separated unto God.” At times their tone sounds a bit like that of John in Luke 9:49 when he said, “Master, we saw one casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him, because he does not follow with us.” By His answer Jesus indicated there is a difference between following Christ and following us. Not everyone who follows Christ follows you or me. The important thing is that we follow Christ, obey the Scriptures, do the will of God. I am not concerned about movements or names. I am not concerned with judging you or with you judging me. I am concerned that all of us understand what the Bible says about separation that we might be wholly given over to almighty God.

Too often some preacher, wildly acclaiming ecclesiastical separation, has run off with another man’s wife or been caught embezzling church funds. His separation was only a facade. On the other hand, many preachers shun liquor and tobacco and certain amusements but enter gladly into worship with a Bible rejecting, Christ-denying liberal who is the enemy of God. His separation is non-existent. May God help us to be Scriptural and to be free from hypocrisy and false motives while at the same time pursuing biblical separation unto God.

(Next, “Worldliness” defined.)

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There are 14 Comments

dmyers's picture

"Is that my definition of Christianity? Do I put it second, or do I put it first?"  The question is wrong.  Christianity is not one of many competing priorities that can be ranked in order of importance.  Christianity is a change in status and a change in nature (which in their manifestation will change a lot of priorities).

I'm troubled by the article's exclusive focus on external agents/obstacles -- the world and Satan.  Isn't my own depravity the biggest obstacle to holiness?  I'm concerned that an overemphasis or exclusive emphasis on external obstacles results in an overemphasis on external evidences of "separation."

dmyers's picture

To put it another way, isn't there a tension, if not a contradiction, between this article and the recently-linked Mohler article, "Moralism Is Not the Gospel"?

Aaron Blumer's picture


Yes, agree that the question is not where Christianity fits on a list. My reaction to that was similar... Christianity replaces the heading on the list--replaces the list with an entirely different one, really.

As for moralism, this is a different matter. There is no tension at all between understanding the gospel is grace and understanding that obedience is required of Christians. It's unfortunate that so many have bread confusion on that point in the last several years. 

Mohler's piece:

Haven't read it yet. I hope it doesn't add to the problem.

But again, any portrayal of the gospel and Christian living that suggests a tension between gospel and obedience is profoundly wrong.  The grace of God teaches us to live obedient, distinctive lives.  Titus 2:11-13

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Aaron Blumer's picture


I don't Mohler is talking about Christian living in his post. A key portion

Just as parents rightly teach their children to obey moral instruction, the church also bears responsibility to teach its own the moral commands of God and to bear witness to the larger society of what God has declared to be right and good for His human creatures.

But these impulses, right and necessary as they are, are not the Gospel. Indeed, one of the most insidious false gospels is a moralism that promises the favor of God and the satisfaction of God’s righteousness to sinners if they will only behave and commit themselves to moral improvement.

The moralist impulse in the church reduces the Bible to a codebook for human behavior and substitutes moral instruction for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Far too many evangelical pulpits are given over to moralistic messages rather than the preaching of the Gospel.

He's got it right that morals matter and we must preach them. The problem arises when we get the idea that we are justified by behaving better. This is a false gospel. So in brief:

  • We are justified, reconciled to God, etc. by behaving better  -- false gospel
  • We who are already justified, reconciled to God, etc. must behave better -- not a false gospel

The gospel does not reduce or remove obligation to obey; it puts that obligation in the context of a completely different relationship.

My only beef w/Mohler's article is the subtitle "many Christians think it is." I don't really know where he is hearing this kind of preaching or seeing "Christians" who think we are justified by works. As I understand the NT, if you believe that, you have embraced a false gospel, therefore not a Christian at all. And the word for people who preach this is apostate.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Chip Van Emmerik's picture


I think the problem is more in professing believer's pursuit of sanctification. Now that may indicate a root problem with the Gospel as well, but not necessarily. I think it's the same problem Paul addresses in Gal 3 of believers who recognized their complete inability to save themselves, but then turned and tried to make their daily walk before God more acceptably in their own strength. It is an easy line to cross over among those who believe that the Christian walk is to be marked by ever increasing holiness of life.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Aaron Blumer's picture


Thanks, Chip. I'd like to explore this phrase a bit though. I hear/see it alot over the years... "more acceptably in their own strength." What does this mean to you?

  • a. a state of mind in which we think we're sufficient on our own
  • b. actually attempting to use ability that really is our own
  • c. discipline and strenuous effort
  • d. something else?


Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

I think "doing things in your own strength" simply means living as a practical atheist. It means doing whatever you are doing without making a conscious decision to rely on the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and failing to recognize your own utter inability and helplessness. I also think it is frequently the default position we take without realizing it.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Aaron Blumer's picture


I agree that there is a state of mind that is inadequately aware of Who it is all about and how helpless we are without Him. We do have passages such as 2 Cor. 1:9 and John 15:5, after all.

The truth is that nobody on the planet even inhales in "their own" strength. It is impossible. (Acts 17:28, Col. 1:17)

But are there no dangers in overstating the corrective? Just how "helpless" are we? On this topic, there often seems to be an overlooked category:

  • A. Ability we possess and depend on that we think of (incorrectly) as our own ability
  • B. Ability we do not yet possess, but must intentionally seek from God day by day, hour by hour
  • C. The overlooked category: ability God has given us and already made a part of who we are--which we must use not in a "seeking" way, but a thankful way

It's the third category that seems to be omitted. People approach the question of self-reliance vs. depending on God w/the assumption that there are only two kinds of ability: the kind we must seek (and by implication wait for), and the purely natural fleshly ability any unbeliever can tap to live a more disciplined/virtuous life. But these are not all that is on the table.

If we are obedient to Romans 12:2, does it not follow that some transformation occurs as we live our Christian lives?  Doesn't transformation mean "I am different than I was"? Doesn't "grow in grace" (2 Pet. 3:18) mean that actual improvement occurs in my being, in my character?

So, to return to dmyers' question from a few posts ago (and turn it around) -- given enough time, is it even possible that our own depravity is the "biggest" threat to holy living? Unless the NT is holding out false promises of growth and transformation, that particular threat must shrink as sanctification progresses. It never goes away, but it does shrink. I see no way around it if "grow" and "be transformed" have any meaning. 

(I would add that apart from the the question of what the "biggest" threat is, it doesn't follow that lesser threats/obstacles are therefore not important.)

As one example of support for my "third category," note the verb tenses in this passage:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, (ESV, 2 Peter 1:3)  

Sadly, what I've found in discussions on this topic is the anti-ability folks tend to not interact at all with the passages I list and quote.

But there are three categories: what we have naturally, what we dynamically seek and wait for, and what already have been graciously given. It's insulting to keep asking God for what He has already heaped on the plate (and then, sadly, often use the lake of "more" as an excuse to sin) when we ought to gratefully make use of what is already there.

(Probably I need to write a longer 'article' type post on this since I've got a bit much to say for comments!)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

dmyers's picture

Aaron, I'll look forward to your article-type post.  I'm always interested in the discussion of our role versus God's role in our sanctification.

But I didn't really mean to direct the discussion of the John Miles article in that direction.  My issue with the OP is that it ignores the flesh entirely as an issue in discussing separation/holiness, which seems to me to be a glaring omission.  I don't/didn't know Miles or his general theology; all I have to go on is this article.  And this article, standing alone, gives the (erroneous) impression that the only obstacles (or, at least, the largest obstacles) to our separation/holiness are the world and Satan.  The necessary result of that teaching/belief is that our personal separation/holiness can be measured -- by us and by others -- by our adherence to a "list" that is heavy on externals -- movies, music, clothing, alcohol, associations with certain people or types of people, etc.  When in fact, trying to measure our separation/holiness is a whole lot messier than that, because my flesh has more (and more subtle) influence on me than the world and Satan.

Along that line, and as long as I'm here, I'll go ahead and address your question whether "given enough time, is it even possible that our own depravity is the 'biggest' threat to holy living?"  My answer is absolutely affirmative -- I think our personal depravity remains the biggest threat to holy living regardless of how long we've been a Christian, how much personal effort we've expended, or how well we've taken advantage of the resources God has already given or will give as we go.  I am NOT saying that we will not or cannot grow in Christlikeness.  But I am saying that, at best, the difference between our maximum growth (by whatever means, for however long) and full Christlikeness will always be huge.  (Part of the reason the gap will never be less than huge is our endless ability to see ourselves as better than we are.)  The least Christ-like Christian is at the southernmost tip of Florida.  The most Christ-like Christian, on his/her deathbed, is at the northernmost point in Florida.  But full Christlikeness is the North Pole.  Is there a difference?  Yes.  Is the difference worth something?  Yes.  Is the difference due to the presence or absence of effort and is it greater or less if the Christian is motivated by a list?  That's for your article.  

As for 2 Peter 1:3, I agree that it supports your third category of "ability."  But it's entirely consistent with, or even affirmatively teaches, the view that there will be more genuine progress in Christlikeness for the one who lives in the knowledge of God's grace  and gifting than the one who lives in the knowledge of God's standards.  So I don't see it as offering much support for your view that Christians will grow more if they are taught that their growth is an obligation.

Aaron Blumer's picture


The OP is part one of a four part series. I think it might be interesting though to do a study of NT language about holiness and see if it's even possible to characterize any particular sphere as "biggest." Jesus speaks of the things that corrupt as coming from within, yet James speaks of being unspotted from the world, and Paul speaks of physical as well as spiritual discipline. 

But you can probably see that in part 2, there is more attention to attitudes... and I think it may be fair to say that trend continues in the series.

We probably don't really differ much on this. What we emphasize tends to reflect what we've experienced. I used to be very heavily tilted in the "internal, not external" direction, but over the years have come to see the dynamic more holistically. Discipline affects the heart. Though it is ultimately what's in the heart that comes out and defiles, Jesus does not deny that what our hearts move us to "let in" does, in turn, feed our hearts and then defile us further.

So I think we need--especially in our times--to be careful to neglect neither reflection/meditation nor outward discipline, and also not be afraid of do's and donts. Attention to them has been handled so badly in so many places, to be sure, but the solution is not to eschew discipline or separation from harmful influences and practices around us.  (There's a difference between a bad idea vs. poor implementation of a good one.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Anne Sokol's picture

I am at the place where I think these conversations trying to define man's effort and God's work in sanctification are endlessly impossible

because it is impossible to shred apart where man's power and God's power come into play here

because God's power is inside of us, so it is part of us.

I think it is easier to notice where one errs on one side or another than to actually state what the true "balance" is.

And I think one comes to a place in spiritual understanding when you have to say, no matter what you are doing to discipline yourself: It is all of God.

Example: Yesterday was a long, nice, day outside. But I was also left with the kids for an hour or two--V went to do another activity. And I was really tempted to get grumpy and complain in myself about how I was hot, pregnant, tired, yada yada.... But the Lord has been working on me with attitudes like that, and *I* decided not to go down the road of those thoughts and give thanks instead. So I did. And when it was all over, I just said, "Thank You, God." Because He did it.

It was not the power of Anne doing it, it was the power of God.

Where I made choices, where did I have the power to make choices ... I am OK, at this point, for leaving that undefined all the while accepting that I am fully guilty for all my sins and it is not any lack on God's part.

Counseling someone else requires more explanation, but getting into that ... well, here I tend to bow out and leave the talking to Vitaliy Wink

stevo5o's picture

A former pastor of mine, who is now an evangelist, once told me when I asked him about this subject that I should find out what pleases God and strive to do those things. Then I should find out what doesn't please God and strive to not do those things. How I find these things out is by reading His word and praying. Being saved and being moral are two sides of the same coin. Shouldn't Christians strive to be moral? Not to be justified, but to live as Godly as we can in our present sinful bodies. Look how Paul himself struggled with this in Romans chapter 7.

Where we get into trouble is compromising with others things we know are sinful behaviors. This has allowed the world to slowly creep into the church. I know there's a fine line where it could seem to be judgmental on the part of some, but we have to be careful. The book of Jude talks about this very plainly. I know it's tough but this is very important, especially in this day and age where even homosexuality is gaining a foot hold through "tolerance and compromise" in some bible believing churches.

I'm of the Vance Havner and Lester Roloff school of's better to err slightly on the side of legalism than on the side of license. I highlighted the word slightly because it's a daily struggle to strive to be holy and righteous. We don't strive to be more 'holier than though", we strive to be holy and righteous to please God, not man. Yes, it's wrong to believe you can be saved and sanctified by following rules and regulations, but it is more wrong to use our freedom or liberty in Christ as a license to sin. Like I said, it's a very fine line.

Biblical separation is scriptural because, borrowing another line from Vance Havner... "it's better to be scared into heaven than lulled into hell".

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