Audio of this session here.
Kevin’s next book will be The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness (Crossway, August 2012). [Not sure how long this will last, but Amazon has it on pre-sale for 53% off.]
I could be wrong, but in general, I believe that for all the good that we see in the Young, Restless, Reformed movement (or the New Calvinism, or the Reformed Resurgence, or whatever you want to call it)—for all the good that I see (and there is much), I believe that there are critical elements of Christian discipleship that we are not yet known for.
We are, I believe, known for
- our commitment to the Scriptures,
- our commitment to expositional preaching,
- our commitment to the doctrines of grace,
- our commitment to biblical manhood and womanhood,
- our commitment to the uniqueness of Christ,
- our commitment to penal substitutionary atonement,
- our commitment to justification by faith alone, and above all
- our commitment to the centrality of the gospel.
All of this is to be celebrated and commended.
But there are two critical areas in which I think we need to grow: (1) a commitment to global missions and (2) a commitment to personal holiness. David Platt will speak on the former; I want to take this time to talk to you about the latter.
Hebrews 12:14 tells us to “strive for . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
The writer is talking about progressive sanctification not our positional holiness in Christ. That’s why he says “strive for holiness.” Without it, we won’t see the Lord.
As we celebrate what Christ has saved us from, we must also give thought to and make effort concerning all that Christ has saved us to.
Those most passionate about the gospel of God’s free grace should also be those most dedicated to the pursuit of godliness.
This talk is not about why we must be holy, but how we can grow in holiness.
Thousands of people in the church feel “not very holy” and they want to move into the category of “more holy.”
What will you do and say? How will you help them get there? How will you get there?
- Will you give them legalism?
- Will you give them license?
- Will you give them platitudes?
- Will you ignore the topic altogether we are gospel people and gospel people don’t talk about personal holiness?
- How do Christians grow in godliness?
That’s the question of this message. And here is my answer: Spirit-powered, gospel-driven, faith-fueled effort.
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Paul says that he is last (v. 8) and least (v. 9), but, v. 10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Paul is not saying, “don’t judge, God made me this way.” He’s saying, “I’m an apostle by the grace of God. I may be one untimely born. I may be completely undeserving. I may not have the history that the other apostles have. But I am still an apostle by God’s grace.”
Paul says he is “working hard,” and he also says “that’s the grace of God at work within me.”
Our work is not only a response to grace, but an effect of grace.”
Two things you need to understand about the pursuit of holiness: (1) You need to work hard, and (2) God’s grace needs to work in you.
Growth in godliness requires (1) Spirit-powered, (2) gospel-driven, (3) faith-fueled (4) effort.
Sometimes we speak in generalities; good phrases—even biblical—but they can become meaningless (like sports inteviews).
“Just look to Jesus.” “Just bathe it in prayer.” “Just be soaked in the Spirit.” “Just be washed in the word.” Sure sounds clean!
So we need to unpack what ” Spirit-powered, gospel-driven, faith-fueled effort” means.
1 Peter 1:2: “sanctification of the Spirit.”
Biblical image 1: Spirit as power, not a weak little spirit (Eph. 3:16; Rom. 8:9-13)
Biblical image 2: Spirit as light, revealing sin (John 16:7-11), revealing truth, revealing glory (John 16:14; 2 Cor. 3:18).
The Spirit sanctifies by revealing sin, revealing truth, and revealing glory.
When we close our eyes to this light, the Bible calls it resisting the Spirit (Acts 7:51), or quenching (1 Thess. 5:19) or grieving the Spirit (Eph. 4:30)—situations where we do not accept the Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives.
The Spirit keeps flipping the light on, but do you keep running into another dark room?
Everyone agrees that the pursuit of holiness must flow from the gospel.
But how exactly do good deeds grow out of good news? How does the flow work? We need to connect the dots for our people.
(1) The gospel drives us to godliness out of a sense of gratitude (Rom. 12:1—”in view of God’s mercies, present yourself”). A fitting response to grace. Piper: Humility + happiness from thankfulness tend to crowd out what is coarse, ugly, or mean. If you have anger problems or bitterness problems, you can be sure you have a gratitude problem.
(2) The gospel drives us to godliness by telling us the truth about who we are.
Certain sins become more difficult when we understand our new position in Christ.
- If we are heirs to the whole word, why should we envy?
- If we are God’s treasured possession, why be jealous?
- If God is our Father, why be afraid?
- If we are dead to sin, why live in it?
- If we’ve been raised with Christ, why continue in our old sinful ways?
- If we are seated in the heavenly places, why act like the devil of hell?
- If we are loved with an everlasting love, why are we trying to prove our worth to the world?
- If Christ is all in all, why am I so preoccupied with myself?
We need to do spiritual warfare with the sword of the Spirit.
- Remember that there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).
- Remember that the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you (Rom. 8:11).
- Remember that you are a child of God, and if a child then an heir (Rom. 8:16-17).
- Remember that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39).
Understand your identity. Embrace your identity. Be your identity.
Lady Gaga’s “born this way”—it resonates, it’s a half-truth, and it conceals a damnable lie. We resonate with the idea that “we cannot be something that we are not.” You are absolutely right—but you can be born again a different way.
We are justified by faith, and, in a different sense, we are sanctified through faith.
“Sanctification by faith.” This can be a true statement, but we should be cautious about using it because we have to mean something different by the word “by” than we do with “justification by faith.” The two phrases only both work when you mean something very different by them.
In justification faith is passive (to receive and rest). In sanctification faith is active (to will and work).
We need to be so careful here!
Better to say: the pursuit of holiness is the fight of faith—fueled by belief in God’s word to us.
- the gospel
- what God says about our identity in Christ
- the word of God against the lies of the devil
- God’s promises
You can see this illustrates in the faith-fueled promises of the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:5, 8; 6:1, 4; 7:13.
The holy life is always a life of faith, (1) believing not just in our justification but (2) believing with all our hearts all that God has promised to us now and in the future, and then (3) acting as if it were really true.
- we do it in our own strength,
- we do it to make ourselves right with God,
- we get justified by faith and then it’s nothing but work as we get sanctified.
The call of Christian preaching is never to make effort at godliness apart from the power of the Spirit, the truths of the gospel, or the centrality of faith.
But neither do the realities of Spirit, gospel, and faith eliminate the need for human effort.
“Effort” should not be a four-letter word in your theological vocabulary.
Romans 8:13 says by the Spirit we must put to death the deeds of the flesh.
Ephesians 4:22-24 instructs us to put off the old self and put on the new.
Colossians 3:5 commands us to put to death what is earthly in us.
1 Timothy 6:12 urges us to fight the good fight.
Luke 13:24 exhorts us to strive to enter the narrow gate.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 speaks of running a race and beating the body.
Philippians 3:12-14 talks of pressing on and straining forward.
2 Peter 1:5 flat out commands us to “make every effort!”
Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus says the reward of eternal life goes to those who conquer and overcome.
As gospel Christians, we should not be afraid of striving, fighting, and working.
Ryle: “The child of God has two great marks about him: he is known for his inner warfare and his inner peace.”
Calvin: “As it is an arduous work and of immense labor to put off the corruption which is in us, he bids us to strive and make every effort for this purpose. He intimates that no place is to be given in this case to sloth, and that we ought to obey God calling us, not slowly or carelessly, but that there is need of alacrity; as though he had said, ‘Put forth every effort, and make your exertions manifest to all.’”
Hodge: “In the work of regeneration, the soul is passive. It cannot cooperate in the communication of spiritual life. But in conversion, repentance, faith, and growth in grace, all its powers are called into exercise. As, however, the effects produced transcend the efficiency of our fallen nature, and are due to the agency of the Spirit, sanctification does not cease to be supernatural, or a work of grace, because the soul is active and cooperating in the process.”
Monergism v. synergism is not the right debate for sanctification. That has to do with regeneration.
Bavinck: “Granted, in the first place [sanctification] is a work and gift of God (Phil 1:5; 1 Thess. 5:23), a process in which humans are passive just as they are in regeneration, of which it is the continuation. But based on this work of God in humans, it acquires, in the second place, an active meaning, and people themselves are called and equipped to sanctify themselves and devote their whole life to God. . . .”
We don’t just say “get more gripped by the gospel.” We also need to work. We don’t hold to Keswick’s “let go and let God.” Sanctification is not by surrender but by divinely enabled toil and effort.
V. Applying this to ourselves and to our people.
Being a pastor is hard work.
Colossians 1:28-29: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
People should see in us an example of faithful toil.
What about workaholics? Family neglect? Lack of sleep? We can’t work too hard (just like you can’t be too gospel-centered or too focused on grace). But we can work in the wrong way (just like we can be gospel obliterating or have a one-dimensional view of grace). We can work in an imbalanced way (or not work hard at resting or turning away from emails or saying no to requests).
No one is in danger of working too hard—but we can be working very foolishly. You need to work hard at resting, at not being distracted, at being present when you come home in the evening, to guard your day off. Working 80 hours a week as a pastor is not hard work—working 60 is. It’s easy to be a lazy workaholic.
To our people.
I think many of us are getting scared to tell people to do some stuff—and not do some stuff. The Bible is full of lots of texts telling God’s people to do things (Great Commission—teaching them to obey the commands of Jesus!).
I don’t meet any hardcore antinomianisms (against the law). But plaguing some of our churches could be nomophobia (afraid of the third use of the law). But law came after gospel. Ten commandments after deliverance.
If you preach on David and Bathsheba and never say anything about great David’s greater Son who succeed for David failed, then you aren’t connecting the dots.
But if you preach on David and Bathsheba and don’t say anything about adultery and sexual sin and how the thing David had done displeased the Lord, then you aren’t preaching the text. It ends: “the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”
Luke 18: the parable is told so that they won’t stop praying and will not lose heart. There’s a legalistic way to lay into people about this—it’s easy to do. Everyone feels guilty for everything you’re talking about. But as an alternative, the climax of a sermon on prayerlessness ends with forgiveness. There are lots of things to motivate us in the text (elect, God as father, faith).
Preach not just the content, but the mood of the text.
You cannot assume that everyone in your church needs a kick in the pants—or a hug. Preach the text!
Making an effort to be holy is not somehow sub-gospel.
The gospel is the good news about salvation. And salvation is in three tenses—it’s about God saving you
- from wrath
- unto holiness
- for glory.
Don’t give people half a Savior—half of the grace of God. When we get to obedience we are still talking about grace—the grace that will change you.
Benediction from Hebrews 13:20-21:
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Rock of Ages:
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
save from wrath and make me pure.
With faith in the gospel, the power of the Spirit, and the grace of God at work within us, we will be teaching pigs to fly.
But without the biblical exhortation to effort we’ll be confused, wondering why sanctification isn’t automatically flowing from a heartfelt commitment to gospel-drenched justification. We’ll be waiting around for enough faith to really “get the gospel” when God wants us to get up and get to work (Phil 2:11-12).
When it comes to sanctification, we need to understand two points: (1) holiness does not happen apart from trusting, and (2) trusting does not put an end to trying.