As my soul heals the shame
I will grow through this pain
Lord I’m doin’ all I can
To be a better man
I wonder whether everyone deep down wants to be better.
I have a sneaking suspicion that they do. I have yet to meet the person who when they lose their temper with their kids, or gossip at work, or shout at the person cutting them up thinks: ‘Yes. This is what I was created to be like.’ I think that given the chance we would all want to grow and change and journey towards being better.
This idea is central to the Christian life. The earliest followers of Jesus weren’t called ‘Christians’ – that came later as bemused observers tried to belittle them as ‘little Christs’. The name they referred to themselves by was followers of the Way. It’s a revealing name. Their understanding of a life of faith, of what it meant to follow Jesus, was dynamic – it was going somewhere. Faith wasn’t something they began and stopped or got and then kept but a path they walked along.
What is the journey we are on and where does it lead us? I’m going to reflect on this over the course of my next few blogs.
Walking on the Way
Jesus wasn’t someone who pulled his punches. One of his earliest followers, Matthew, tells a story of how Jesus taught the people who had come to him what their lives should be like.
‘Be perfect,’ he said, ‘as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
You can imagine them standing around and thinking ‘Well that’s OK, then. If we want to follow Jesus, we just need to be perfect. I was worried for a moment that he would say something difficult. Wait a moment…did he say perfect? Perfect?’
Jesus is picking up on an ancient idea. Perfect didn’t mean that there was nowhere to go – you were Superman (without, presumably, the kryptonite). It was much closer to the idea of becoming everything you were designed to be in each situation. There was an idea of movement in it. We can think of it this way: everyone was welcome to come to Jesus irrespective of who they had been. His friends included prostitutes, politicians, tax collectors, would be revolutionaries, fishermen and everything in between. They all came as they were.
Yet none of them could remain as they were. They came to begin a journey in their souls, to be changed and refined.
This is a theme that was picked up by Jesus’ friends and followers as they taught people what it meant to walk on the Way. This is how one of Jesus’ closest friends, Peter, put it:
‘[Jesus] has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.’
In other words, Jesus isn’t just collecting followers. He is remaking us, shaping us, and uniting us to himself, changing us to share the same nature as Jesus.
One way to think of this is to think of diamonds. When I bought my wife’s engagement ring I went to Hatton Garden and there, on the side, were rows of diamonds all gleaming away. But that isn’t how diamonds come naturally. When find a diamond, it is a rock like any other pebble. When you mine for diamonds you collects the raw, unfinished, often grubby stones and work on them and shape them until they become beautiful like diamonds.
This is what we mean by holiness – it is the desire and destiny of the human heart to become what it was created to be; to be worked on by a master craftsman until all the blemishes are removed and it gleams. It is to become like Jesus, the epitome of what it means to be a human being. That’s what I want to be like.
What Does it Mean to be Holy?
So what do we mean by holiness? What does it mean to share in Christ’s nature, to be united with him?
We can have all sorts of images in our minds. Perhaps one thinks of a Miss Marple type, very prim and proper, attending communion every day. Or perhaps Mother Theresa, living among the poor. Or perhaps it is a negative idea of someone judging others, being ‘holier-than-thou.’
I think the best place to start is with love.
To be holy is to be completely loving in every situation.
God’s nature is love and that’s what he wants us to be: perfect in love.
Paul talks about this idea in his letter to the Galatians. In Galatians 5:14 Paul says that ‘the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’ In this he echoes Jesus’s great command that we should love God and love others (Paul doesn’t need to tell the Galatians that they should love God – that was a given).
To be holy, to share the character of Christ, is to have every thought, action, instinct governed by love.
We could stop there. But there is a risk in that. Love means very different things to different people. Love, for Jesus and his followers after him, is not an empty idea. He isn’t saying: ‘whatever you mean by love, do that’. It means saying ‘yes’ to some things and ‘no’ to others. Paul gives some concrete examples of what we need to say no to, and what we need to pursue. We’ll be looking in more detail at these later in our series. For now, it is enough to note that perfect love rejects the bad and positively pursues a different way, a way of self-giving, self-sacrificial love that seeks the good of the other even at its own cost
Yes But How?
This is the most beautiful idea in the world but it does not come naturally. It isn’t easy. Indeed, without the grace of God it is impossible.
At its most fundamental level, this transformation is a work of God’s grace through his Spirit. The Eastern Orthodox theologian, Kallistos Ware, summarises the process as us becoming through grace what Christ is like in his nature. True transformation of character, to become truly loving, is God’s gift and it can only be given by him.
Yet we are called to cooperate with that grace. In Paul’s words to learn to be ‘led by the Spirit’ and ‘keep in step with the Spirit’, that is to understand what God is doing and work with him in it.
And it can only happen in the context of community. You can’t pursue holiness, you can’t pursue love, on your own. As my great hero, John Wesley, observed: ‘The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.’
We need each other because we will all stumble and fail and we need to be picked and restored. That means we need to be part of a community which is firm but gentle, which does not hide our falls or mistakes but is quick to pick us up and help us walk again.
We need each other because sometimes the burdens of walking are too great to bear alone. We need a community that is willing to walk the journey with us, friends around us who are also pursuing holiness and are quick to examine themselves and slow to judge us. As Paul puts it in Galatians 6:3-4:
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions.
Finally, we need opportunities to show love and to receive it and so we need a community that is willing to seek our good and let us seek theirs. More than that, we need co-workers who will work with us to show love to the world around us.
So What For Me?
What does all of this actually mean for our lives now? If you are right at the start of the journey we have described, if you feel the call to a different way of life – to a life of perfect love – then begin by acknowledging God, accepting your need of him and telling him of your desire for a new life and a new heart. Perhaps you’ve begun the journey but you’re finding it heavy going. I suggest finding a group you can journey with – most churches have them. Then set off together.
You can find a book of 9 reflections covering the material I’ll be sharing in these posts by clicking here that can be worked through as part of a small group or on your own. You can also check out our website to hear talks on the same subject.
If you’re interested in reading more, here are some of the resources I have found particularly helpful and which I have used to prepare these articles.
- John Oswalt’s book, Called to Be Holy, is a very helpful study of what holiness means beginning at the start of the Bible and working all the way through to practical questions.
- Tom Oden’s Classic Christianity is huge both in its significance (hint: it should be on every pastor’s bookshelf) and weight (it’s massive). Oden tries to present consensual Christian teaching as broadly and clearly as he can. His section on ancient views of sanctification is very helpful.
- Allan Coppedge’s textbook, Portraits of God: A Biblical Theology of Holiness, is heavy going but has some brilliant insights.
- Let’s Start with Jesus: A New Way of Doing Theology by Dennis Kinlaw is a short and very readable book that has a (correct) emphasis on Jesus as the starting point for everything we know about God.
- Finally, Tom Oden’s John Wesley’s Teachings, Volume 2: Christ and Salvation is an excellent introduction to Wesley and his approach.
 ‘Better Man’, Robbie Williams / Guy Chambers© 2001, EMI.
 See, for example, Acts 22:4.
 Matthew 5:48
 2 Pet. 1:4-5
 Galatians 5:16-18.
 Wesley, John, Humns and Sacred Poems (1789)
 John N. Oswalt, Called to be Holy (Nappanee, IN: FAP, 1999)
 Oden, Thomas C.. Classic Christianity: Systematic Theology (HarperCollins Kindle Edition, 2009)
 Coppedge, Allan, Portraits of God: A Biblical Theology of Holiness (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2001)
 Kinlaw, Dennis F, Let’s Start with Jesus: A New Way of Doing Theology (Zondervan Kindle Edition, 2005)
 Oden, Thomas C.. John Wesley’s Teachings, Volume 2: Christ and Salvation (Zondervan Kindle Edition, 2012)