The Right Way: Gospel-driven Pursuit of Holiness
In distinction to a legal method of salvation, the gospel gives a completely contrary means to holiness. Whereas the law says, “Do and live,” the gospel says, “Live, now do.”
Lamentably, the doctrine of the gospel is so little understood and the holiness of it is considered a strange thing. This, however, is nothing new, though it is sad. When Christ preached the gospel in all of its freedom, He was slandered as a glutton and drunkard. He was called a friend of tax collectors and sinners (cf., Matt. 11:9; Lk. 7:34). When Paul preached the gospel, he was falsely accused of opening a door for a licentious life (cf., Rom. 3:8; 6:1).
Yet, in a gospel-driven pursuit of holiness, the believer understands that God encourages him to live a holy life because of the grace he has been given (e.g., Rom. 6:11, 14; 8:9, 11; 1 Cor. 6:15, 19; 2 Cor. 5:21; 6:18; 7:1; Eph. 4:32; 5:1-2, 8; Col. 3:1, 4; Heb. 13:5). Paul, in Philippians 3:12 writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
“The Scriptures encourage believers to live holy lives because of the grace (i.e., God’s favor on account of Christ) they have already been given.”
In other words, imperatives always follow indicatives. Or, the gospel not law drives the believer to obey. Paul always proclaimed the gospel before he exhorted believers to obedience (e.g., Eph. 1-3 “therefore,” Eph. 4-6; Rom. 1-11 “therefore” Rom. 12-16). The Scriptures encourage believers to live holy lives because of the grace (i.e,. God’s favor on account of Christ) they have already been given (e.g., Eph. 5:1, “be imitators of God, as beloved children).
Walter Marshall cautions believers about blindly rushing out and trying to live a holy life, before they first understand the place of holy living in the order of salvation. He writes,
“If you are a wise Christian, you will seek holiness of life only in the order God has given…Oh how I wish that people would see the place that holy living fits into the mystery of salvation!” (p. 111, p. 112).
Though holiness and obedience are a necessary part of one’s salvation, obedience must be pursued in the proper order. Unless believers learn to first seek obedience in a gospel driven manner, they will fail in their attempts.
“…if you rush out and try to keep the law, without having Christ’s righteousness and Christ’s Spirit in you, you will have both the wind and tide against you! Your guilty conscience, and your dead corrupt nature, will frustrate and defeat all your attempts to love and serve God. The only thing you will do in this case is stir up your sinful lusts. You will not stir yourself up to true obedience. At best, you will attain the hypocritical performance of a slave,” (p. 112).
The pursuit of holiness does not precede faith. The pursuit of holiness flows from it! The promise of life, salvation and holiness are in the gospel. All the blessings of salvation (e.g., justification, sanctification, adoption, etc…) are what empower a believer to pursue holiness (i.e., obey God’s law).
The gospel is the catalyst for the Christian life.
Note Marshall’s point carefully,
“I have already said a great deal about how God enables you to keep His moral law. In short, he unites you to Christ through faith, as a branch on the vine, that you might bring forth much fruit (John 15:4-5). He first cleanses your consciences from dead works by justification, that you may serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14). He makes you to live in the Spirit, and then to walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:25). This is the gospel’s order. The gospel is the power of God for salvation. In the gospel, God first makes you alive, and then he enables you to obey Him. The gospel says, “You live. Now do this,” (p. 111).
In comparison to the law, Marshall demonstrates how the gospel gives a far better order of things in the pursuit of holiness. Through the gospel, believers have a great number of advantages and benefits for living a holy life.
The first advantage a believer has in the gospel for pursuing a holy life is that he understands and knows the love God has manifested to him (Marshall, p. 112).
This is precisely what Paul prays for in Ephesians 1:15-23 and 3:14-21. The believer, Marshall writes has the advantage,
“of the love of God manifested toward you, in forgiving your sins, receiving you into favor, and giving you the spirit of adoption, and the hope of glory, freely, through Christ, to persuade and constrain you, by sweet allurements, to love God again, who has so dearly loved you, and to love others for His sake, and to give up yourselves to the obedience of all His commands out of hearty love to Him,” (p. 57, original, p. 112, update).
Believers, just as much as unbelievers, are bound to obey all of God’s moral law. But, the difference lies in the fact that believers are in union with Christ. Thus, they are delivered from the curse of the law by Christ, their Redeemer (Gal. 3:10-13). This, and only this, is the way in which believers give any acceptable obedience to God’s law (1 Tim. 1:5).
The Gospel, then, is the root of all true obedience to God (cf., Rom. 1:5; 16:26). The gospel is the means the Holy Spirit uses to produce obedience and faith and to sustain faith in a believer’s heart (1 Pet. 1:23-25; HC, Q. 65). Thomas Boston writes,
“Deliverance from wrath is the most powerful motive to obedience,” (Works of Thomas Boston, vol. 11, p. 323).
This is why the gospel, not rules, steps, practical tips, (any law) must be the central focus of the believer’s daily life.
The second advantage the believer has in the pursuit of holiness is that they have the indwelling presence and help of the Holy Spirit.
It is the Holy Spirit who gives believers the desire and power to obey (Ezek. 36:27). The Holy Spirit empowers believers to bring forth fruit unto God (Gal. 5:22-23). As Marshall writes,
“Through the gospel, you have both the wind and the tide pushing you forward in your attempt to live a holy life.”
Remember this: Man is wired for law-keeping not gospel trusting. Man is addicted to a legal method of salvation. Men desire to be under the law rather than Christ. Such a desire is engrained in the hearts of all men naturally.
This legal spirit is present even in the most mature saint.
Even believers, who are united to Christ, continue to struggle with a legal spirit.
How easily it is for Christians to run back to a broken covenant of works as the source of their acceptance before God. Listen again to Marshall,
“By nature, you are completely addicted to this legal method of salvation. Even after you become a Christian by believing the gospel, your heart is still addicted to salvation by works. In your heart you still want to make the duties of the law come before the comforts of the gospel. Even if you have become assured that your salvation does not depend upon your own works, you will still tend to make all of the comforts and blessings of the gospel depend upon your own works. You will find it hard to believe that you should get any blessing before you work for it. You will think this is as unreasonable as an employee getting a paycheck before he works, or a farmer getting crops before he plants and reaps!” (Marshall, p. 117)
Guard against a legal spirit by immersing yourself in Christ as given freely to you in the gospel! Nothing less than the omnipotent power of free grace is able to deliver a man from a legal spirit (1 Cor. 1:23-24).
Believers must pursue holiness. They must obey God’s law. However, this pursuit must be according to gospel not legal means.
Believers must know and be continually reminded that they are no longer under the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13). Believers are no longer under any condemnation (Rom. 8:1).
There is no curse in the gospel.
In the gospel, the curse (Gal. 2:17; Gal. 3:10) has been removed (Gal. 3:13).
Through the gospel, the believer, on account of Christ’s imputed righteousness, is declared to be in a right standing with God at the beginning of his Christian life. Thus, every day the believer’s sin stained and imperfect obedience and repentance are covered, forgiven and acceptable to God through Christ (1 Peter 2:5). Believers, who once were dead in trespasses and sins are now dead to the law by virtue of their union with Christ in order that they might bear fruit for God (Rom. 7:4).
Paul, in Ephesians 2:1-3 tells us that we were once dead in trespasses and sins (v. 1). We all once were dead men walking in our sin, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience,” (v. 2). We all “once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind,” (v. 3).
“But God….!” Hallelujah!
“4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
It is through these comforts of the gospel that believers are driven with gratitude to obey God’s law! Thomas Boston is correct:
“Deliverance from wrath is the most powerful motive to obedience.”