Scripture is explicit when it says we should make every effort to be holy, for without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). With so much at stake it’s a wonder we Christians are so muddy in our thinking about holiness. But this need not be the case. Do we really believe God is such a poor, even evil, Father that He would call His children to such heights without giving us a ladder?
I’ve begun reading Jerry Bridges’ classic, The Pursuit of Holiness, and was struck early on by the three reasons he gives for our lackluster appearance on the grand stage (Holiness) to which God has called us.
1. Our attitude toward sin is more self-centered than God-centered.
We are more concerned about our own “victory” over sin than we are about the fact that our sins grieve the heart of God. We cannot tolerate failure in our struggle with sin chiefly because we are success-oriented, not because we know it is offensive to God.
How true! I recall my many years of trying to overcome my addiction to lust and pornography. I was consumed with a desire to be victorious over my sin primarily because it was messing up my life and the lives of others around me. In this way I was only experiencing worldly sorrow over my sin rather than godly sorrow. Paul says the former leads to death, while the latter will lead to true repentance, and life (2 Cor. 7:10).
It was not until I saw my actions as offenses against a holy God that I was able to break free from those chains. My view of sin changed from being about me and how it hurt me or others to being about God and how it grieved Him. Bridges goes on to say,
God wants us to walk in obedience – not victory. Obedience is oriented toward God; victory is oriented toward self. This may seem to be merely splitting hairs over semantics, but there is a subtle, self-centered attitude at the root of many of our difficulties with sin. Until we face this attitude and deal with it, we will not consistently walk in holiness.
I can testify to the truth of this and that learning to walk in obedience – in holiness – has with it the blessed by-product of victory over even the most besetting of sins.
2. We have misunderstood “living by faith.”
Walking in holiness is still a walk. While God has graciously given us a ladder we must do our part and climb it. Much of our confusion over holiness is that we are lazy, and have conveniently made “living by faith” completely God’s responsibility. It’s as if we think a magic wand will wave and just make us holy.
Bridges gives a helpful illustration in his preface of the co-operation necessary if we are to achieve holiness in our lives. Farming, he writes, is a joint venture between God and man. The farmer knows that without sunlight and rain – forces totally outside his control – his garden will never grow. But also true is that unless the farmer tills the soil, plants the seed, fertilizes and cultivates he will not have a garden, regardless of how much sun and rain come. Cooperation between God and man is necessary in farming, and in our pursuit of holiness.
We must face the fact that we have a personal responsibility for our walk of holiness. One Sunday our pastor in his sermon said words to this effect: “You can put away that habit that has mastered you if you truly desire to do so.” The Holy Spirit said to me, “And you can put away the sinful habits that plague you if you will accept your personal responsibility for them.” Acknowledging that I did have this responsibility turned out to be a milestone for me in my own pursuit of holiness.
3. We do not take some sin seriously.
Because we do not see God as the offended party over our sin we trivialize our own. We fall prey to the game of justifying some sin as less egregious than others, making allowance for our own shortcomings because compared to others we think we are doing pretty well. Would we act this way if we meditated often on how much God hates sin – all sin – all the time?
Scripture says it’s “the little foxes that ruin the vineyards” (Song of Songs 2:15). Jesus raised the bar exceptionally higher when he said that even the intent of lust was the same as adultery, or even anger towards another was the same as murder (Matt. 5:28). Yet how often do we go through a day harboring anger, resentment, lust, envy, and greed towards one another, all the while justifying it because we think God doesn’t care that much or will let it slide once He hears our good excuse?
On commenting on the more minute Old Testament dietary laws God gave Israel, Andrew Bonar said,
It is not the importance of the thing, but the majesty of the Lawgiver, that is to be the standard of obedience…Some, indeed, might reckon such minute and arbitrary rules as these as trifling. But the principle involved in obedience or disobedience was none other than the same principle which was tried in Eden at the foot of the forbidden tree. It is really this: Is the Lord to be obeyed in all things whatsoever He commands? Is He a holy Lawgiver? Are His creatures bound to give implicit assent to His will?
Are we willing to call sin, “sin,” not because it is big or little, or even because of the harm we reason it may or may not do to self or others, but solely and supremely because God’s law forbids it and we would rather die than disobey?
I believe if we rightly understood these three things we would have a far better grasp on what it means to pursue holiness. I’m looking forward to the rest of this book where Bridges promises to flesh more of this out.