A Little Rant Against Trying Hard to Be Holy
Yesterday I said that our "all" is not enough. It was not enough to save us, and it is not enough to sanctify us. We do not fail because we have given less than our all. As long as we keep thinking that the battle against sin is dependent on our giving more of ourselves to God, we merely commit ourselves to a spiritual treadmill, expending much energy while making no progress. Each time we fall, we have a ready explanation. We just didn't try hard enough! So again and again we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and determine that next time we truly will give all.
The church is plagued with this mindset that implies that we can finish by our own effort what God has begun by his power and through his Spirit. The Galatians, famously, had essentially this same problem. Paul said, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel." [ESV] It was a new gospel--though not really a gospel at all, for it certainly was not good news--that set aside the grace of God, replacing it with the work, the effort, the good intentions of our own will.
We do that daily. In so far as we continue to rely on our own strength, that is exactly how far we have stepped outside the grace of God. But James Montgomery Boice wrote from a different point of view: "If God has saved us through the death of Christ (through faith in his atonement), he will certainly save us by our being in him."
That little phrase, "in him," recurs frequently in Paul's writing, especially in Ephesians. Theologians describe it as a "mystical union." In Ephesians 2 Paul talks of our being seated with Christ in the highest place, actually sharing in his reign. In Romans 6:4 he talks about our dying with him in our baptism, and then rising to new life in him. It is this "in-him-ness" that makes our sin such an affront. Romans 12:1 says that our lives are to be a living sacrifice, but if we try to do this by self-will and self-effort, well, that's like bringing unholy fire into the holy place.
And it's also underestimating the sheer resilience of sin in our own flesh. So the big question is: what then can we do about sin? I think the answer is in the words of Jesus: "Abide in me." He would be going to his cross very soon, and this is his last opportunity to teach his disciples as a group. In our New Testament, it is the longest sustained teaching of Jesus--four whole chapters of nothing but red letters. And what is the core of all that he teaches here? Does he talk of being strong, standing firm, fighting the good fight? No. He says this:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.John 15:4-5I will quote Boice again here: "True holiness is the product of the Christian's new nature and is produced by his or her love for Christ." Catch that? It is love that produces righteousness. Boice again: "It is by love that God has chosen to lead us onward in the Christian life."
Friends, this is what standing in grace is all about! Receiving grace, accepting our absolute helplessness without it, and loving Christ in response, this is the whole agenda. This is how we stand. Not by promising God to be good, but by loving God for not requiring a kept promise. Not now. Not ever.
Our reaction? gratitude & hoopla, of course!
I have no illusions that I have said the last word on holiness here. Indeed, I have not even spoken of the central importance of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification. That's for another time. But I believe I am touching on something fundamental here. Romans 8 says, "Keep in step with the Spirit," but that we will not do if we have not first accepted that all is by grace, and our own efforts avail us nothing. In our conversion God was perhaps our last resort, when all else had failed. But I pray that this not be the pattern for our sanctification. I pray that God will be your first and only resort.