written by Stephen Smith
At the closing of the Fall Quarter, our beloved Shepherd Chris Gee gave an assessment of GOC that has weighed heavily on my heart and I pray it has weighed on yours as well. He stated that Grace on Campus has not pursued personal holiness with the same vigor and passion as in the past. I hope the sentiment of seriousness cast that night has not been lost. Considering that your sanctification is God’s explicit will for your life (1 Thess. 4:3), this is a very grave analysis. From someone we all respect, this concern is worthy of much prayer and meditation.
There has been so much written and spoken on the subject of sanctification and personal holiness, and I do not dare claim to be novel. Yet, it is my hope that, as a fellow UCLA student and a brother in Christ struggling in the war against sin, I can, in any slight way by the grace of God, ignite a passion in our fellowship for radical obedience to Christ to exult in his worth. A few weeks ago, Dr. Lawson provided a post on this blog entitled, “Heart Aflame: You Just Need to Obey.” I somberly read those words and wished it were just that easy. I feel like Paul as he exclaims the depth of his struggle in the fight against sin in Romans 7, as the results of moral and spiritual failure can often be overwhelming. I do not believe that I am alone. Where does the strength to pick up your cross come from? How do we resist the roaring lion, namely the Devil, as we are commanded to do in 1 Peter? How do we fight the temptations and the snares of life that so easily entangle us? To compound the issue, how do we do it when we are exhausted? What about when we “just don’t feel like it”? Finally, what about when it just seems like obedience to Christ doesn’t feel “worth it”? That last question is a grave summary of the others: how do we battle unbelief in the fight against sin and in the pursuit of personal holiness?
It is very easy to respond to a sermon such as the one Chris gave with a desire to do more. Maybe you throw yourself into doing more ministry or dedicate more time to the particular ministry you are already involved with. Maybe, like I am prone to, you dedicate yourself to committing as much will power as you can muster to strive after external acts of moral uprightness in the hope that somehow this will indicate a desire in your life for godliness. I plead with you to be wary and to guard your souls to prevent this from being the case! Romans 14:23 provides a scathing reply to such a “holiness”-pursuing paradigm, namely, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (emphasis added). People all over the world strive for moral correction apart from faith in God and all that he is for us in Christ. Asceticism and moral programs of all forms abound, yet they mean nothing without love for Christ. There is only “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)! Christians abide in the vine! For “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5; emphasis added). God promises terrible things to those who do not delight in Him with their obedience, such as his threat to Israel, “Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything” (Deuteronomy 28:47-48; emphasis added). Any pursuit of morality or spirituality without a conscious looking to, abiding in, and desiring of Christ and the glorification of God in him is sinful. How then do we fight the fight of faith? If it is not by our own will power, are we exempt from fighting?
The basis of my burden for our fellowship is Romans 8:12-14, the passage which inspired John Owen’s exposition, The Mortification of Sin, with an explicit allusion to this focus: “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). There is a relationship between killing sin and living! This is an absolutely stunning claim from Paul in a letter that explicitly adorns the doctrines of justification by faith alone by grace alone apart from works of the Law. Yet, there it is. A call to MAKE WAR! We cannot be ambivalent to fighting sin. “Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26) is the battle cry of the renewed mind fighting passionately against sin. This is the call, but not the means. We are to kill our sin, make aggressive war on it, “by the Spirit.” This is the holiness-pursuing, Christ-exalting, and God-glorifying way to fight sin. How are we to do this? Romans 8:5 gives us a clue, namely, that living according to the Spirit comes from setting our minds on the “things of the Spirit.” The things of the Spirit can be clarified by 1 Corinthians 2:13-14, describing the things of the Spirit as the words given to us by the apostles. The only offensive weapon in the arsenal of the Christian is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). So which is it? Do we fight by the Spirit or do we fight by the Word of God? The glory of Christ in the battle against sin is most magnified when we, by the grace of God, engage the Spirit by hearing the Word and receiving it with faith (Galatians 3:5). This is AMAZING! I appeal to you to meditate with wonder on the grace that is displayed here and I pray this moves in your heart to provide new passions for being in the Word and praying for the Spirit to help you glorify Christ in your bodies.
It is a natural question to wonder what are the dynamics behind this. How exactly can words translate into Spirit-filled obedience to Christ? I encourage you to seek for the connection; I assure you it will be time well spent. I humbly offer the following meditation to give a taste of a morsel from the lavish feast of the Word of God. Peter’s reminder of the command for us to be holy is fixed on the display of the holiness of the Holy One. The transcendent purity of God is the measure we pursue, even in our finitude. This reality has been displayed decisively in the person of Jesus Christ for us all to see. We must see Christ for our holiness! We have to look at him! The means of sanctification is made amazingly clear in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Far too often we look back on the glory of the cross and take an ethic of gratitude or indebtedness to move us toward sanctification. I plead with you not to do so out of this spirit, but rather to explore the riches of justification to boost your faith in the future grace of God, the hope that is within us. I do not believe it an accident that Peter extols the riches of our election and justification before reissuing Christ’s command to display his holiness in ourselves. In the same way, let us throw ourselves into the trampoline of justification and the glorious merit of Christ’s atonement to spring us Godward in our affections, which will be the power for our holiness. When the inevitability of the gravity of the cares of the World pull us back down, we can fall into its riches once again, our faith strengthened by the magnificence of God’s grace and the experience of it in our fight against sin. It is our faith in the promise of the awesome treasure of Christ offered freely in the Gospel, and the fullest experience of pleasure in the presence of God, that will be explosive in its power for fighting sin. Thomas Chalmers writes:
“There are two ways in which a practical moralist may attempt to displace from the human heart its love of the world—either by a demonstration of the world’s vanity, so that the heart shall be prevailed upon simply to withdraw its regards from an object that is not worthy of it; or, by setting for another object, even God, as more worthy of its attachment, so that the heart shall be prevailed upon not to resign an old affection, which shall have nothing to succeed it, but to exchange an old affection for a new one.”
We come to the Word of God expecting glory, expecting to see a wondrous Christ, expecting the expulsion of our fleshly desires in exchange for our desire for satisfaction in Christ. This is what he calls us to do (John 7:37-38)! Come to Christ to be satisfied, look at his penal substitutionary atonement (Hebrews 12:2), read a little further into John 3 to see how, from the far reaches of the Old Testament in Numbers 21, to Christ, progressive revelation has revealed the glory of looking to Christ and its essential connection to the new birth. Make your life a passionate memorial to the glory of God in the ultimate problem of the universe solved at the cross, summed up by Luther as God being “Simul Justus et Peccator,” being just and the justifier of the ungodly. Fill your cup with the glory of God to explode the power of sin in your life! Reach into the unreachable depths of justification to strengthen your faith to slay your sin!
I do want to encourage you, dear Christian, that your holiness will reach its grace-empowered goal. The unbreakable, glorious chain of Romans 8:30 doesn’t break with you. Philippians 1:6 still applies to you. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). We will conquer through Christ and Christ alone! “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24-25).
The fight is undoubtedly hard. As a matter of fact, it’s impossible. Yet, we praise a God of the impossible. We must inextricably tie our pleas “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24) with “Help me to see Christ.” Let us glorify Christ by being most satisfied in him, and by looking to him let’s slay sin together. We don’t say this around here in Westwood, but for the sake of Christian unity and as an encouragement to us in our daily fight against sin, “Fight on.”
I will slay my sin by grace and grace alone…