Recently, I decided to add a new test to my error detection system: if anyone ever says or implies holiness can be easy then they are flat out, automatically, without fail, speaking complete and utter rubbish. Thus does Keller's "if only we could be self-forgetful" and the other one "you just need to surrender to Jesus" fall by the way side, welcome victims to the keen blade of truth!
To be completely honest, I want holiness to be easy, in fact, often I like to think that increasing in holiness is some sort of magic trick - I say a prayer to God asking to be more holy and abracadabra, holiness is mine. Oh what foolishness my mind comes up with!
Fortunately, the Bible is very clear with us about holiness - "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," (Philippians 2v12) Notice the use of the word: "work." I looked up this word in the dictionary and it told me: "Activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result." It made me a little glum because in my head I like to translate the verse: "Do very little and hope that things will come together for your own salvation with fear and trembling."
A couple of months ago I was reading a Puritan, maybe Ryle, and the author was talking about how holiness is hard work and he pointed out that what good thing in life isn't hard work? His point struck home, if I want to have a good meal then it involves effort, if I want to have good friendships, they involve effort, if I want to become good at a musical instrument or skill then I must work. Why then should holiness be any different? Why do we expect it to be so?
Such a message I fear is not currently in vogue, at a recent CU talk, for example, the speaker talked about Psalm 15 and how we did not match the standard the Psalm set (correct), how Jesus lived the perfect live and did meet the standard (correct), how his righteousness is now ours (correct) and then I expected a fourth point, one which never came, and that point being: so now we work at meeting this very standard.
Christians can get very angsty over the use of the word "work", mainly, and I speak from my own experience because we feel guilty because we know we're not striving as we should. But to pre-empt criticism: I am not saying we justify ourselves by ours works! As mentioned above, we're sinners, we need Christ, we need his righteousness, and it is by faith alone that we are saved.
But what then? Having been saved do we now live a life of comfortable laziness, happy in our Christian bubble, content at a low level of spiritual maturity and feeling that while we're not the best Christians in the world, we're not the worst, we're doing ok, so let's all give ourselves a pat on the back!
Well, yes, that's exactly what we do, this is our default position in the Christian life. And if you don't think I'm talking about you as well at this point then you're probably the worst offender. While we may be happy with this spiritual laziness, God is not and in his grace then having saved us he will see us made more holy.
The second part of Philippians says exactly that: "For it is God who works in you all, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." The part I want to emphasis here is that our holiness is God's work and his good pleasure! Jesus said: "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" and seeing his people conform to this is God's good pleasure. Surely then, it beholds us as his children, to act in accordance with his good pleasure and really work at our holiness. We need to hold both truths in front of us. For if I work and forget that it all comes from God then I will become self righteous and proud. But, and this is more common today, if I believe that it is God who works in me, but then do nothing myself, I am really despising the work of God.
To put it even more bluntly: if you do not work for holiness you will not become more holy.
I'm sure that I'm not saying anything you haven't already experienced, we all know, deep down, that holiness is hard work, we know the coldness of our heart, we have felt the anguish of Paul when he writes: "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." (Romans 7v19) And most of us will have felt the pangs of conscience, the guilt when we neglect the hard work of spiritual duties: prayer, bible reading, love, service, hospitality, giving, patience, all these. We know as well that intentions to be more holy are never good enough, prayer, that is a good start but at some point then you will have to act! Yes, action, a deed, a change, something, holiness isn't going to creep up on you all or a sudden, it will come with toil and labour!
The battle, for the Christian life is often described as a war, is a tough one. But what battle is ever not? Today, it can be all too easy to live in denial about the spiritual warfare we find ourselves in. It will become harder, especially as persecution is looking more likely. For the other thing about holiness is that it is most often found on the front lines, were the battle is hardest, in the furnace, in pain, sorrow, suffering, anguish, it is through the hardships of life that God will often work out holiness, and it will be his good pleasure to do so for God knows what is best for us, and that is holiness, for it is worth the pain of many days and the weeping of many tears.
I encourage you: pray for holiness. But I must be honest with you and that means saying that an answer to your prayers could well carry a cost, for we are stubborn and often the only way to learn is way through pain.
John Newton wrote the following hymn which speaks so much truth about the Christian walk and the struggle for holiness:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”