My last few posts have been examining the topic of holiness – how we can live lives of perfect love or (to put it another way) how we can live like Jesus. So far I’ve focused on the ‘what’ of holiness.
- ‘what’ is the foundation of holiness?
- ‘what’ is the character of holiness?
- ‘what’ does holiness look like in a human life?
The theme that runs throughout all of those questions is the presence and the grace of God.
- The foundation of holiness is not a moral law or a series of regulations but God himself.
- The character of holiness is characterised by a relationship with God, expressed in his grace and love for others.
- Human holiness look like a heart given over completely to God and to others.
I have been trying to show that holiness, the transformation of our lives and characters, is not mainly about a moral law that we try and follow but a person we come to know.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. At the centre of the good news of Jesus Christ is the astonishing claim that when we could not find God, he came to find us. This is what we call grace.
Now I want to move a step further and think about how this can become a reality in our lives. Having got the ‘what’ straight, at some point we need to move on to the ‘how’ or the ‘so what’.
This is where information becomes transformation. To put it another way, to live without asking ‘so what’ is like forever looking at a beautiful feast but never actually tasting it or being fed by it.
There are a couple of passages from Paul’s letters that deal with this question particularly.
In Galatians 3:1-6 St Paul wrote that:
‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”’
In the same way in Romans 8:1-4 and 12-16 he wrote:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit…
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.’
Holiness Comes By Grace, Through Faith
The first thing to remember when we start to think ‘how’ is that we are talking about a relationship. It is God’s presence with us and in us that makes us holy and that holiness becomes increasingly real as our relationship with him becomes deeper and affects more of our lives.
When we are asking how we become more holy, more like Jesus, more characterised by perfect love for God and for others, we are really asking: how do we come to know God more deeply and more personally?
This is not something that happens through making a set of rules and then trying our best to keep them.
The Ballad of Frank and Grace
When we give it any thought, this is obvious. Let me illustrate it with the story of Frank.
One day Frank walked into a bar, and saw a girl. We’ll call her Grace. Frank couldn’t seem to find his way to Grace and in any case she was way out of his league.
Frank had just started to despair when he looked up from his drink and saw Grace coming towards him. Unbelievably Grace said she saw him across the room and, despite him apparently having nothing to offer her, she asked him out.
Now our hero knew that he liked Grace and he wanted a deeper relationship with her so the next day he went to her friends and wrote a list of things Grace does and does not like.
Frank tried to stick to his list rigidly.
- Grace does not like toothbrushes left out, so Frank put his away.
- Grace does not like corduroy trousers so Frank wore jeans.
- Grace does not like smokers so Frank stopped smoking.
- Grace likes jazz music so Frank bought some new CDs.
At the end of two months Frank had been living exactly as Grace would like a boyfriend to live, as best as he could. Yet his relationship to her was growing more distant by the day.
Why, you ask? He had not spent any time with her, had not spoken to her, had not listened to her, and had not trusted her with anything of himself for two months.
It is possible for us to do exactly the same thing with God. This is the first risk in pursuing the path of holiness: though we begin our relationship with God by grace, through faith, we try to become like him by keeping rules.
This is part of what Paul was talking about in the readings we heard and he says this approach is wrong. We begin a relationship with God as a result of his gift (that is what we mean by ‘grace’) and by trusting him (that is what we mean by ‘faith’) and that relationship is deepened in the same way – by grace, through faith.
We become like God by learning to trust him more and responding to what he wants and shows us.
Let’s think again about Frank.
After wasting two months trying to keep the law he developed, he goes back.
- First he says sorry to Grace that he hasn’t spoken to her for two months.
- This time Frank spends time with Grace, he learns what she likes by being with her, he trusts her and responds when she speaks.
- Over time he finds that he is spending more and more time with her and their relationship is becoming deeper and deeper.
We are accepted by God by trusting in Christ and we grow in God by trusting in Christ. As that relationship deepens it will affect what we do. We cannot claim to be growing in love for God, for his presence to be more and more evident in our lives, and yet ignore what he says. But those changes to our behaviour will flow from God’s grace and our relationship with him.
With that said, there are practical steps we can take to enable that deeper relationship with God. These are not magic spells. Rather they are means that God has given by which our relationship with him can grow and we can receive his grace.
The best place to look is to the example of the earliest churches in Acts 2:41-47. In this short description of the first church, we find several principles that can help us.
They devoted themselves to Scripture.
It sounds simple but reading the Bible is one of the most effective ways of seeing more of God in our lives. It doesn’t need to be enormous chunks. Reading a chapter of Scripture a day will take a few minutes but could have an enormous effect on the depth of our relationship with God.
It is spending time close to Jesus, reading what he did, what he said, letting God speak for himself.
They devoted themselves to fellowship or community.
We grow in holiness together. As we meet together to talk about our lives, to discuss faith, to challenge and encourage each other, even to correct each other and hold each other accountable, we meet with God. In our church we do this mainly through our homegroups.
Tied to that, they were baptised and devoted themselves to breaking bread.
God has put in place physical ways that we can meet with him, physical things he has commanded us to do that he promises will bring us closer to him. If you haven’t been baptised and you want to draw closer to God, then get baptised. It is both a command and a promise – in baptism we receive washing and cleansing and begin a new life with God.
Moreover, we take communion regularly, persistently. We hold bread and wine in our hands, we taste them and swallow them, and as we do in some sense we are holding, tasting and taking into ourselves Christ. It is a physical thing with a spiritual effect and it brings us closer to him.
They devoted themselves to prayer.
Regular prayer together and alone is one of the most effective and vital elements of growth in holiness. It doesn’t need to be big – it’s best to start small and get into a regular pattern of prayer. But we need to pray together and on our own if we are to grow closer to God.
Favour of Others
Finally, we should be a blessing to others – we should seek out and pursue ways of demonstrating God’s love in practice. As we do we will find that it is not just others who gain, we will grow closer to God.
If you want to read more and see the books I’ve used in my own reading, you can click here.