Monday, July 23, 2012

Striving after Holiness: A Warning

Make every effort [Strive] to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. - Hebrews 12:14

"Holiness" is perhaps a misunderstood concept today. In the world's imagination it might conjure up images of arcane religious rituals, "holier than thou" judging Christians, or for the more theologically literate, the "holiness laws" of the Old Testament. Of course holiness is quite a bit more than these simplifications. The first thing Christians believe about holiness is that God is the epitome of it; we are exhorted to worship the Lord "in the splendor of His holiness" (Psalm 29:2, 96:5), the part of the Jewish temple where God's Spirit dwelled was the "Most Holy Place" (Leviticus 16:2).

The second thing about holiness is that where God is holy, we are not. Holiness is the concept of purity or separation from anything false or evil; it is the essence of God's "other-ness" to us. So God warned His people that only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place once a year and with the greatest possible precautions, or he would die (Leviticus 16:2). Likewise when God descends on Mount Sinai to give the law, the Israelites don't want to go up to meet Him or even hear His voice; they are literally scared to death. (Exodus 20:19) It's from God's holiness, His perfection, that we get the "fear of God". Sin separates us from God because it makes us decidedly un-holy, and God's perfect holiness means that He can have no communion with darkness. (1 John 1:5)

But the good news about holiness is that God can make us holy! He commands us to be holy on the basis of His own holiness (Leviticus 19:2), and those who know Him (nevermind the "before the creation of the world" part for now) were chosen to be holy. (Ephesians 1:4) God's ability to do this comes from Jesus, who died for our sins so that He could make His future bride (the church) holy. (Ephesians 5:24) And, in fact, those who believe in Jesus get the Holy Spirit to dwell in them (Romans 8:9) like it did in the temple of the Old Testament (1 Corinthians 6:19) to make us holy.

Believe it or not, that surprisingly well-referenced gospel presentation was completely accidental and I just wrote it as an introduction to what I was getting at. I like listening sermons from The Village Church in Texas at work, especially the preaching of Matt Chandler, who is one of the most gospel-loving men I know of and who has made a mission of trying to awaken a generation of apathetic Bible-belt Christians to authentic faith. this month he's been doing a quick sermon series on holiness which I just listened to today.

Maybe it's a bad sign that the first time I really write about Matt Chandler's preaching is when I disagree with it. Most of his latest sermon was great as always, but he may he been a bit careless when dealing with the "how" of pursuing holiness. It's hard to blame him, as he was very conscious about denying the perception of holiness as "cleaning yourself up for God", "you're forgiven in Christ so now work to prove it", or simply "working out your salvation with fear and trembling, hoping you make the cut". The concept of somehow "earning" your salvation by doing good deeds, known in Christianity as "legalism" and which Chandler has called "karma", is common to many religions but antithetical to Christianity and the gospel. (And is the main purpose of Galatians) Sola fide!

While I couldn't agree more with his passion for shaking people out of legalism, he goes a little too far in the other direction, particularly in his preaching through Ephesians 2:1-10. He adopts the Calvinistic view that being "dead in our trespasses" (v. 5) really means being completely helpless, lifeless, even lacking agency. And, he says, even our faith is a gift from God (v. 8-9) so we can't even claim that as our work.* Now, of course, we are unable to make ourselves righteous or holy without Jesus (John 15:5), but an imbalanced focus on "beholding Jesus", the "author and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:1-2) can lead to viewing holiness as a passive process that happens to us as we watch Jesus do it. And nothing could be further from the truth.

I would be way, way out on a limb here if I hadn't lived this misconception. For years I struggled to understand the relationship between God's work in us by the Spirit and our own responsibility. (And somewhat still do, a motivation for my ongoing project on God's providence and predetermination) Reassured by preaching like this, I turned the pursuit of holiness into an inward journey to keep "increasing my faith" in God so He would make me holy--after all, if holiness is a matter of fixing our eyes on Jesus, if it's not working we aren't looking hard enough, right?

Not exactly. It's true that holiness is impossible without the power of God, but at the same time we can't expect to attain it just sitting on our thumbs waiting for God to do it. Hebrews 12:14 uses the word "strive" to describe our responsibility to holiness, and my favorite verse on the subject is Philippians 2:12-13: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good purpose." If you just take the first half of this verse it completely sounds like legalism, like we're saving ourselves, but the second half makes the picture complete: it is God who works in you.

Yes, on our own we can't become righteous, but with God it becomes not only possible but certain. It is one of the great mysteries of the gospel that God can do His work in us through our own faith and obedience. How does this work? I'm still figuring it out. Heck, I think part of the point is that we don't know the whole story of what God is doing through our working, so that we can't take any of the credit. I hope to shed some more light on the subject in the coming weeks/months/maybe years.

If you are already following Christ, know that holiness isn't something that just happens to us (though it can seem that way in retrospect) but something to be actively pursued through faith and obedience reinforcing each other. If you aren't (in which case I congratulate you for making it through this), I have one question: what if true moral perfection really existed, and not just as an abstraction but embodied in a Person?

* It should be noted that "And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" in verse 9 is referring to salvation by grace through faith, not faith itself; I don't agree with all of Norman Geisler's conclusions in Chosen But Free, but I trust his ability to translate Biblical Greek)

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