For the past couple of weeks, I have been reading J. C. Ryles’ book Holiness. It is a short read, at least my version is as it is only 200 pages, but when you take the intro and preface out of it, it comes down 10 pages to 190. Having spent many years in Church’s that espoused holiness as a way of life, many times I found myself leaning to legalism and legalistic attitudes. That has caused its own set of problems in my own life and in my relationships with others. But over the last 4 years or so, I’ve learned a lot about grace, and that has changed me – in some ways, but in other ways, not so much. With that last statement, an explanation might be in order.
How has my understanding of grace changed me? Well, in a lot of ways, even though I still struggle, it has allowed me to see that just because I don’t feel it is right for me to do something does not make it wrong for someone else. We all have to start somewhere in our walk, right?
On the other hand, there is an area I just can’t seem to get away from and that is what I call personal holiness. I am only 15 pages into Ryle’s book and I am amazed at how authoritative he is in his definition of holiness. In some ways it is almost like what we read about in the Gospel accounts when “the people were amazed at his teaching because he taught as one who had authority.” From sermons I have listened to, it appears that the religious leaders of that day like to quote sources for their authority. There were massive volumes written to explain the Torah, today we have commentaries written by various men. But the religious leaders of that day would teach out of the popular commentaries of their day instead of being faithful to the actual scripture. Jesus, on the other hand, WAS the authority on the scripture and that is why I think people were amazed.
But back to personal holiness. It seems that this is an issue that is not in vogue in the present church climate. Just a few weeks ago I was listening to a sermon over James 1:22-27 and the issue of personal holiness was brought up, yet there was absolutely no word on what it looked like, just that we needed to practice it. I guess that is what started me thinking more about it. So, what does personal holiness look like and why is it talked about so little today?
Lets start with why it is talked about so little first. Here is an excerpt from Douglas Wilson that I found a couple of weeks ago. He is talking about pornography in particular, but any habitual sin could be substituted in the minister of God:
“…what will a secret porn problem do to the preaching and teaching? The minister who has a radical inconsistency between his enactment of Christ in his private life and his enactment of Christ in his official capacity is aware (as others are not) of the inconsistency. But people are not built to live with such inconsistencies. We don’t like walking with rocks in our shoes. So the two ways to remove the inconsistency would be 1. to repent of the porn use and deal with it appropriately or, 2. begin to teach and preach in ways that create more and more wiggle room for everybody.
But when men preach wiggle room they often find that other men will frequently like the look of that wiggle room. If a man comes preaching wine and beer, he would be just the spokesman for this people! (Micah 2:11). This creates a cycle — the minister is being pushed to compromise from within, and once he begins preaching more tolerant (and therefore more tolerable) sermons, he begins to be pulled. He has presented handles to those who would pull him. And so the lie about Jesus that he has allowed to take root in his heart is a lie that works its way into his manuscript. And from there into other hearts.”
When a preacher or teacher hold on to a secret sin, or, refuses to grow in the grace, knowledge and sanctification of the Word of God (because, to stand still is to actually go backward), I think Douglas Wilson is spot-on in his assessment. A lie works its way into his heart and that in turn bears fruit in the group he is teaching, pulling them both down into a spiral of spiritual bondage and lethargy. What is really bad about this is that it is a lot like the adage that an object in motion tends to stay in motion; it is hard to pull out of this downward spiral because the hole just keeps getting deeper and deeper until the sin is exposed and then it doesn’t go well for anyone involved.
Now, what does personal holiness look like? The word holiness comes from hagios which means “separated or set apart.” God is set apart from everything. He is above creation and unique in that respect and nothing can measure up or compare to Him. This is something that we cannot grasp because we cannot find anything in creation to compare this concept too. But the issue at hand is that at our regeneration, God set us apart from the world, in a spiritual sense, like He is set apart. We are not supposed to walk like the world, talk like the world or be anything like the world (1 John 2:15-17). This is not something we can do in our own power. It is only in clinging to the Cross of Christ, wholly leaning on Christ, trusting him in faith that we can do this. We must realize that we are weaker than we imagine and we:
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
But I do want to go back to what Wilson calls “wiggle room?” What do we do with it? We have to KILL it. We will stand before God one day and give an accounting of our lives and there will be no “wiggle room” in that court of holy justice. God will measure and judge us by His holy, righteous, just standard. As John Owen so eloquently put it, “Be killing sin, or sin be killing you.” Again, I reiterate that we must cling to the Cross. The picture I’m trying to paint is that this clinging must be like when a drowning man clings to his rescuer in such desperation that both of them perish. I realize that the analogy breaks down, but not if you realize that Jesus is much stronger and more able than any human rescuer. Our desperation for holiness must be such that we wrap our trust totally in Christ, realizing that He is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21). In our clinging desperately to Him, He works in our lives and gets the glory. Cling Desperately!