Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Hard Work of Holiness



I was face down on the floor in front of the altar of our small church. Two brothers lay beside me praying. We were seeking holiness, and we were wrestling with God that he might bless us with it. We had been wrestling every Saturday morning for months. And I do not know if any one of us could have witnessed to having received that “second blessing.”

After an hour or so, we would get up from our places of prayer head out to our Saturday. My Saturday was the evening shift at a gas station. 

During off hours when I was not working on college classes or lubing cars, I would read the books of the old holiness preachers. I had a library of them. I would ask why it was that if God desired my sanctification he did not bless me with it. It was not that I did not want to be sanctified. But how?

That was fifty years ago. I belonged to a denomination that described itself as Holiness. Sanctification (just another name for holiness) was the theme of many of the messages we heard both in church on Sunday and in the various special meetings throughout the year, and of course in the camp meetings during the summer.

I remember forceful men at those meeting proclaiming that God not only desired our holiness, he provided for it, if we would ask. If.  But I was asking. It still seemed elusive. 

I was told to wait upon the Lord. The example of the disciples waiting for the Holy Spirit was often evoked. I waited. But except for brief moments when I thought God had given me sanctification, I waited in vain. Was the problem me? 

Holiness was one of the major planks of our theology as a Wesleyan Holiness church. In its extreme form the doctrine was that God would remove all sin from our lives if we would believe him for it. It was called total eradication. In more moderate versions, it was that God would enable us to live holy lives free from sin. Interestingly sanctification was often conceived of as moral holiness rather than the practical holiness that Peter writes on in 1st Peter. We could enter that place of blessing and remain in it by faith. 

I continued to read the books of those who had gotten the blessing, trying to understand. I read, too, the other takes on sanctification. Yes, there were others. In particular there was the version called progressive sanctification. I hear it spoken of in some Reformed circles today, and it is a plank in the theology of most baptistic churches.  In those days progressive sanctification sounded like sanctification by works rather than by God, and I had tried that without any more success than I was experiencing. 

Years passed.  One day sometime in my forties I picked up a little book by Watchman Nee called Sit, Walk, Stand. It it as meditation on the book of Ephesians. In it Nee develops the truth that we all are seated with Christ. We are the beneficiaries of every blessing God has for us. They are our now. We do not need to wait for them. 

But we must stand by faith in those blessing. They are not automatically imparted to us. We must grasp them by faith. Finally, Nee goes on to say that we then are able to walk in the blessings. They can become real in the daily of life.

It was a life changing insight. I recommend the book. But there was more to learn.

And I did learn. In particular I found myself returning again and again to the book of Colossians where Paul says we are dead to the world’s influence and the power of sin that dominates the world (2:12) and we are alive in Christ with a new life in which we have been brought to “fullness” (2:10). Without parsing the word fullness in detail that means completion. I am complete in Christ. That means I am sanctified. It does not mean I can be if I believe it or that I will be if I work at it but that I am.
For those who must have grammatical support, the critical verbs are in the aorist tense, having the force of something that is done and is a fact. 

In Reformed theology that would be described as my position in Christ. But all too often that becomes an excuse for not quite experiencing it in practical living as a pump jockey in a gas station or for gradually implementing it in practical living. I was uncomfortable with that. It seemed too much my work and not God’s. 

And that does not seem to be what Paul means. He goes on to say in chapter 3 that we should therefore, because of the fact of our being dead in Christ to the old and alive in him to the new,  put off the things of the old life and put on the things of the new life. Those words put off and put on are also aorist. That implies we may do so now, not by gradual steps of improvement but by walking in the truth of our standing by faith. 

That study in Colossians was life changing for me. It provided biblical, theological support for what Watchman Nee wrote. And it reinforced the truth that the first work of sanctification was faith. That may be the hardest work of all. It requires that I believe in the fact of my standing in Christ and all it provides today, tomorrow, and every tomorrow. It is not a one time “faith.” It is a continuing faith. It is the work of faith. And that is what was missing in my earlier search for holiness. But there is more.
I have been recently reading in Hebrews. The reason for writing the letter was to encourage Christian Jews not to return to their old traditions and hope in the works of the Jewish religion but to hold firmly to what God had done and was doing for them in Christ. The last few verses in chapter 5 caught my eye. 

These Jewish Christians were finding those traditions easier and less demanding than pushing on to real righteousness (v. 13). Ah! How like me, I thought. How like us. But what is real righteousness?
I thought about that. Righteousness simplified is right living. It may be described as holiness. It is the application of my life to relationship with God and the practical living out of God’s pattern for life in loving and serving.  

Those words need to be fleshed out, of course. And that is part of the hard work of holiness. As I understand more and more truly what God’s pattern for my life is, a pattern that is both common to all believers and specific to me, I apply faith in my standing in Christ to live it. And I practice it. (The NIV in verse 14 says “train” myself.) 

That word reminds me of the training necessary for every athlete. It is hard work. 

So how do I train myself in holiness? The first thing I do is understand the coach’s directions; I read the Word. 

The next is that I work at putting those directions into actions. In faith. 

Working at developing a skill that I don’t have is really hard work but doable. If I do not have the physical capacity it is impossible. If I need to run 100 yards in 10 seconds and do not have the physical capacity for that - if I have no legs - it is futile to try and build myself up to achieve that goal. I may drag myself along and crawl the 100 in a minute, but that is the best I can do. That is what so many truly dedicated Christians try to do. They try to crawl.

Biblically it is impossible work to create holiness by such effort. It leads to failure and sometimes to giving up. But if I have the capacity and just lack the skill, the goal is possible. So I train myself.
Success is not instant. There are many directions for holy living. They need to be tackled one at a time. That is part of the hard work of holiness. But they are possible because God has given me the capacity, my standing in Christ as a new person. 

What is the result? It is described in Hebrews 5:14 as maturity. 

That is really what I was desiring those many years ago. I was just wanting it NOW without the hard work of holiness, the daily faith and training.

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