Strive for Holiness

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If grace is free, shouldn’t holiness be free too? Why should I have to exert effort to live a disciplined, righteous life? Won’t God just give me sinless behavior, no self-control required?

Some people think so.

The Problem with Passive Transformation

When I mentioned the topic of self-control on social media, one friend took exception. “Self-control is the wrong concept,” he wrote. “I can never control myself. I can only surrender control to a higher power, but I will never have control over myself. Not in this life.”

I could dismiss his opinion as extreme, but I’ve heard similar sentiments from many others. In fact there have been whole movements in church history defined by their belief that we progress in the Christian life only as passive recipients.[1] And the legacy of these movements is alive and well today. The key to rising above temptation isn’t to resist or struggle, they say. All you have to do is “let go and let God!” In fact, if you’re struggling, that’s proof-positive you’re doing something wrong. It means you must be trying too hard.

By striving for holiness, we honor the gift of grace.

Obviously, I disagree with this idea. But I have to admit, passive transformation sounds wonderful to me. It’s probably just because I’m naturally lazy. I’m always looking for a shortcut or cheat sheet, especially when it comes to doing hard things. I’d love to progress in my spiritual life without exerting effort. Throw up my feet, put on some good music, and let the changing begin. Jesus, take the wheel!

Sadly, for lazy me, I don’t find this idea in Scripture. Instead I see exhortations to resist temptation, die to sin, deny self, fight the good fight, and strive for godliness. The Greek word in our Bibles that we translate as “strive” is agonizomai, implying an intense, purposeful struggle. It comes from agónia (the lexical root of “agony”). It’s the same word the gospel writers use to describe Jesus’ inner turmoil on the eve of His crucifixion. That hardly sounds like passivity to me.

Strive for Your Spirituality

Listen to these words from a sermon Billy Graham preached in 1957:

The Christian is likened to a boxer, who masters his own body and practices self-restraint, and all the way through the New Testament you’ll read words like this, describing the Christian life: Fight, wrestle, run, work, suffer, endure, resist, agonize, persevere. All of these are New Testament words describing the Christian life. It is to be a disciplined life.[2]

I find such descriptions of the Christian life jarring, probably because I’ve grown so accustomed to equating spirituality with passivity. But there’s no getting around it: they’re thoroughly biblical. And taking them seriously will mean resetting my expectations. I can’t expect my life to be a pleasure cruise toward holiness. I’ll have to come to peace with the difficult truth that growth won’t always feel good. In fact, like an athlete pushing his body to the breaking point, I’m learning that progress can feel a lot like pain.

If this teaching is so clear in Scripture, why do we shy away from it? Part of it is just laziness. I know my reluctance is largely a smokescreen, a way of avoiding the humbling, hard work of seeking to change. But there is another reason why we’re uneasy with the idea of striving, and it comes from a good place. We want to protect grace.

Justification and Sanctification

The Christian experience can be divided into two major categories: justification and sanctification. Justification means we’re made right before God. This is what happens when God saves us. When we put our trust in Christ, we cross from death to life and become members of God’s family. This astonishing event happens purely by the grace of God. We don’t deserve it. We can’t earn it. We can’t start delivering pizzas at night to pay God back. It happens instantaneously, even if we can’t recall exactly when it occurred. God, in His infinite mercy, reaches down and saves us. We’re justified.

Sanctification is different. It refers to the spiritual growth that happens after you’re saved. It’s about becoming more and more like Jesus. Like justification, it is initiated and empowered by God. But unlike justification, it happens gradually, over a lifetime. It’s a process. And it demands human effort. As my friend Matt Capps says, “Salvation is surrender. Sanctification is war.”

The problem is that we tend to conflate these categories. We want to protect the beautiful truth that we’re saved by grace alone and not by anything we’ve done. So we carry that truth over and apply it to sanctification. When we do that, we assume sanctification should happen like salvation: instantaneously and without effort. But in our attempt to protect one biblical truth, we distort another. We end up believing sanctification is a passive enterprise in which God transforms us unilaterally. But as we’ve seen, this isn’t a biblical idea, and it hampers our spiritual progress. As pastor Kevin DeYoung writes, “Some Christians are stalled out in their sanctification for simple lack of effort.”[3]

Furthermore, viewing sanctification in this way does nothing to protect our understanding of justification as a gift from God. Again DeYoung writes, “Stressing the necessity of personal holiness should not undermine in any way our confidence in justification by faith alone.”[4] In fact if you try to eliminate the need for holiness, you wind up with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” an unbiblical view of the gospel that embraces Christ’s message but refuses the hard work of following Him. Such an approach devalues grace and cripples our spiritual growth. But by striving for holiness, we honor the gift of grace.

[1] Andrew Naselli, Let Go and Let God?: A Survey and Analysis of Keswick Theology (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017).

[2] Billy Graham, 1957, New York Crusade, embedded video, Justin Taylor, “60 Years Ago: Billy Graham’s Madison Square Garden Crusade—An Interview with Grant Wacker,” The Gospel Coalition, May 15, 2017, https://www.the -garden-campaign-60-years-later/.

[3] Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap Between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 90.

[4] Ibid., 28

For Further Reading:

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