In Hebrews 12:14, the author writes, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
To be sure, holiness and the pursuit of holiness is an essential part of salvation. Believers are under obligation to obey God’s moral law. God calls His people to holiness (1 Peter 1:14-16). What is a holy life? It is one’s whole life conformed to all of God’s moral law.
The question is how? How does a believer pursue holiness? How does God enable a believer to obey His moral law?
The answer: the Gospel!
There is a right way and a wrong way to pursue holiness.
The Wrong Way: Law-driven Pursuit of Holiness
The law gives its method and order of salvation.
The law makes holiness a means to an end.
The law makes good works (i.e., holiness) the means of salvation. The law says, “Do and live.” The law says, “Keep God’s commands and then you will be holy.” The law promises no life, comfort, peace, favor, blessing, happiness or salvation until one has completely and perfectly kept it (Lk. 18:18-27).
If God’s law were not enough, Evangelicals have come up with their own methods (will worship) and laws for spiritual growth in holiness. As a result, the sharp, cutting edge of God’s law is blunted and the gospel has lost its joyful news.
It has become commonplace (really sacrosanct) for Evangelicals to offer “practical tips” to new believers. Here is a common scenario.
The question is asked, “Now that you are a new believer, what is next? What should you do next as a new Christian?” Without fail, new believers are given spiritual “To Do” lists, which are considered to be “practical, relevant tips” to help get new believers off to a good start for living their new Christian lives.
Here are some examples:
There is nothing wrong with reading one’s Bible, praying, memorizing Scripture, being baptized (for sure!), etc… However, the problem with these kinds of spiritual “To Do” lists is that it that they lead believers to think that the blessings of the Christian life depend upon their own works (i.e., performance). “You are in. But, if you want to grow you must start obeying so that you can be safe and happy before God.”
The problem with this kind of approach to Christian growth and discipleship is that it puts the gospel on the shelf.
Believers are sent forth to try and keep laws/rules without understanding the necessity and centrality of the gospel for their Christian life. Rules, not Christ, become the focus of the believer’s life. Christ’s death is only thought of as applying to the penalty of sin (i.e., what most Evangelicals commonly think of as being “saved,”). The Bible comes to be viewed largely as a rulebook to follow in regards to one’s sanctification.
Once an unbeliever is inside the kingdom’s door, it is assumed, now as believers, they simply need to hear how to live the Christian life and be challenged to go do it. And so the gospel gets put on the shelf and the Christian life becomes a reflection of the philosophy in the popular Nike slogan, “Just do it.” This common misconception is based on a misunderstanding of both the gospel and of the discipling process.
It is critical for Evangelicals today to understand that the Bible is more than a set of practical moral principles for learning how to “follow Jesus.”
For, if the Bible is nothing more than a code of moral principles for Christian living and principles on how to follow Jesus, it is no different than the Koran!
Rules, practical steps, etc… are law and law only points out one’s duty and condemns. Law has no power to change! The Bible is primarily the message of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ.
Newly converted believers (as well as older believers) must not to think that the forgiveness that was conferred upon them for past sin, which they received in the gospel, has no application for them in their present daily life. So that for newly committed sins into which they fall they seek out new remedies of forgiveness in some other way!
In other words, new believers need to understand that it is not Jesus dying for sins and then the Christian life, “Me trying real hard.” Rather, it is Jesus from start to finish!
But, tragically, it is not just new believers who are given “practical tips” for Christian growth. “Practical, relevant tips” have become the steady diet for large numbers of believers in Evangelical churches these days.
Here are some additional examples of man-made blunted laws being taught in the church today:
Now you can experience the New York Times #1 besteller, Your Best Life Now, at home. In this game you will learn to climb the mountain so you can live life at your full potential. How? Simply follow the “laws” (i.e., game cards):
Enlarge your vision
Develop a healthy self image
Discover the power of your thoughts and words
Let go of the past
Find strength through adversity
Choose to be happy
And of course, My Miracle card…
“Each new plateau represents a challenge and a chance to open up and experience these steps (laws, J.F.) first hand as you learn to live Your Best Life Now.”
Here are a few more examples:
Whew! 101 ways! I am exhausted just reading the title! To all of these false and inadequate methods of sanctification, one can hear the apostle Paul asking many Evangelical pastors and churches today, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh,” (Gal. 3:3). “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace,” (Gal. 5:4).
This is why we point these things out. We don’t want people severed from Christ! It is in Him that we find life (John 1:4; 3:16, 36; 6:35, 63, 68; 10:10, 28; 17:3). The believer’s help is not in law(s) but in laying hold of Christ! Through the gospel we receive faith and through faith, our entire conversion to God, justification, sanctification (this is where obedience/holiness fits) and salvation, for through faith we receive Christ, with all his benefits!
In comparison to these instructions given today for Christian growth, consider carefully the following words by Walter Marshall,
“Read through the Scriptures, and you will see, with delight, that this theme runs completely through them: the gospel is what encourages you to obey God…Now, some people might object to this and say, “Look, the apostles said this when they wrote to Christians who already were obeying God. The apostles said this only to them, to help them obey God even more.” My answer is this: if more mature Christians need this kind of encouragement, how much more do new Christians need this kind of encouragement! New Christians find the work of obedience even more difficult, and they need even more encouragement to obey! I want people to lay hold of the comfort of God’s grace right at the beginning of their Christian lives,” (The Gospel Mystery, p. 120).
The gospel is what encourages you to obey God!
Oh, that more pastors and churches today would serve their people and teach them like Marshall, “The gospel is what encourages you to obey God!” “We want you to lay hold of the comfort of God’s grace right at the beginning of your Christian life! And we want to serve you by helping you to stand firm in the gospel for the rest of your Christian life!” “It is Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ,” (Col. 1:28)!
To be sure, believers are to grow and pursue holiness. But, growth in holiness will not come about through legal means.
What newly converted believers (all believers) need to learn from the start is the gospel, not rules!
Christians need to be instructed in a deeper understanding of the gospel and how it alone establishes them in every good work (2 Thess. 2:17). Believers need to be taught how to live holy lives because of the great gospel privileges they have received (e.g., Eph. 1-3 and then Eph. 4-6; or Romans 1-11 and then Romans 12-16).
Believers need to learn and understand that they cannot keep God’s law, no matter how many practical tips they receive. They also need to be taught that they are under no obligation to follow any of man’s self-imposed blunted laws!
No matter how “practical” or “relevant” tips, advice, steps, etc… may seem, works of any kind do not bring about holiness. All law, whether God’s law or man-made law, becomes a letter that kills. Good works are the fruit of salvation. Obedience, repentance, humility, service, etc… are all fruits of saving faith not the root. To make obedience (i.e., holiness) the root of salvation is to reverse the order of the gospel and to establish a conditional gospel and destroy the true means for authentic holiness.
To be continued…