Category Archives: Holiness

Working Out What God Works In

Philippians 2:12–13:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans, 1955), pp. 148-149:

God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result.

God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and not the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing…. The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God.

Greg Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, as quoted in the pre-pub manuscript:

True saints should be psychologically motivated to fulfill God’s precepts because they know that God has given them the power to do so. … This kind of motivation is comparable to my neighbor’s desire to remove snow from his driveway. He has a fine snow-blower and gets his driveway cleaned off quickly. On the other hand, I do not own a snow-blower but have only a rusty snow shovel. When it snows a few inches, I have no desire to go out and shovel the snow. After it keeps on snowing and I still don’t go out to clear it off, my wife gives me a polite implied command by way of questioning, ‘when are you going to shovel the driveway?’ But I have no desire to respond positively to her command. I continue to let the snow build up until after the snow has finished falling, and then I go out rather reluctantly to shovel. I don’t have the motivation to clear off the snow because I don’t have the power to do it effectively. On the other hand, my neighbor has all the desire in the world because he has the power to remove the snow effectively. When one has the power to do something, the motivation for doing it follows.

Daily Progress to Perfect Holiness

We often imagine personal holiness is a ladder climb through this life, each day we take one more step heavenward. The reality is that for most of us it doesn’t work this way. Sanctification is played out in the fierce struggle between flesh and spirit, requiring all our Spirit-given exertion just to stand firm in one place without falling. Not to mention, on top of this, our ultimate glorification is tied to our faithful endurance during personal suffering (Rom. 8:17, 2 Cor. 1:5, Phil. 3:10).

Sanctification is no simple topic. And the most carefully balanced study of personal renewal (or progressive sanctification) that I have read is David Peterson’s Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (IVP, 1995). In it he firmly roots his study of progressive sanctification in the finished work of the Savior and in our union with Christ. Notice the carefulness with which he explains the path of personal renewal in its various forms.

He writes on pages 91–92:

The challenges to holiness examined in this chapter convey both warning and encouragement. No Christian should doubt the need to give practical, everyday expression to the holiness that is our status and calling in Christ. Only those who trust in his sanctifying work on the cross, and take seriously the warning to ‘pursue holiness’, will ‘see the Lord.’ …

On the other hand, it is possible to be so zealous for ‘progress’ that one’s attention shifts from God’s grace to human effort. Moral growth and development will be God’s gift to us at different stages of our lives, but spiritually must not be measured in terms of the rate of change. We are to go on exhibiting what we know of God’s character and will, motivated by the certainty of his acceptance, cleansing and enabling in Christ, together with the promise of entire sanctification when we meet him, face to face. Progress may be seen as we exercise ourselves in that godly devotion which issues from a true knowledge of God in Jesus Christ.

These gospel perspectives on the Christian life must not be obscured by the uncertainty of a moralisic perfectionism. Scripture emphasizes that holiness is a divine gift – a share in the life and character of God. In practical, everyday terms it means being dedicated to God and separated from all that is sinful. This condition need to be renewed and re-expressed every day, especially when testing comes or fresh challenges to please God confront us.

And then later, in the conclusion to the book, he writes this on page 136:

Although the language of glorification may be used to speak of the Spirit’s present work in our lives (e.g. 2 Cor. 3:18), the New Testament offers no simple picture of daily progress to future glory. Flesh and Spirit are locked in a conflict that does not always see victory going to the one side. We are presently being conformed to Christ’s sufferings so that we might share with him in the ultimate transformation of resurrection. (136)

Those are wise and balanced words from a book to help a pilgrim like me who struggles to understand that sometimes merely standing firm and enduring is itself supernatural progress along the path to glorification.

The Beauty of God’s Holiness

What is beauty?

This is an important question and one that Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) addresses in his classic book Religious Affections. There in his third point on the nature of holy affections he argues that personal delight in God’s holiness is the evidence of God’s active grace. This point, and how it connects to beauty, is one that needs to be unpacked.

To set up this point Edwards contrasts God’s natural attributes and his moral attributes. God’s (so called) natural attributes are his grandeur, strength, and power. It is entirely possible, Edwards writes, to stand amazed by these natural attributes and yet remain unconverted. “’Tis possible that those who are wholly without grace, should have a clear sight, and a very great and affecting sense of God’s greatness, his mighty power, and awful majesty; for this is what the devils have … [yet] they are perfectly destitute of any sense of relish of that kind of [his] beauty.”

He continues.

A sight of the awful greatness of God, may overpower men’s strength, and be more than they can endure; but if the moral beauty of God be hid, the enmity of the heart will remain in its full strength, no love will be enkindled, all will not be effectual to gain the will … whereas the first glimpse of the moral and spiritual glory of God shining into the heart, produces all these effects, as it were with omnipotent power, which nothing can withstand (2:264­–265).

For Edwards, genuine conversion is marked by something deeper than reverence for God’s natural attributes. A believer will actually find what no non-believer will find—delight in God’s moral attributes, namely his perfect holiness.

God’s holy beauty is where all genuine and saving Theology begins.

Edwards further develops his argument by revealing how holiness and beauty are inseparable. For example:

  • The Savior is altogether lovely because he is altogether holy (Rev. 3:7). “All the spiritual beauty of his human nature, consisting in his meekness, lowliness, patience, heavenliness, love to God, love to men, condescension to the mean and vile, and compassion to the miserable, etc. all is summed up in his holiness.”
  • Heaven is sweet because it is the holy Jerusalem where the holiness of Christ is celebrated (Isa. 63:15, Rev. 4:8, 21:2, 10–11).
  • God’s word is sweet because the doctrines are holy doctrines. This explains the Psalmist’s delight (Pss. 19:7-10; 119:140).
  • The gospel is a sweet because it is a holy gospel.

These themes merge even closer in three Old Testament passages that highlight the beauty, splendor, and attractiveness of God’s holiness (1 Chr. 16:29, Pss 29:2, 96:9):

Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness

These passages seem to rest at the core of Edwards’ argument. Divine holiness is the very definition of supreme beauty. And once the heart is given a sweet taste of God’s moral perfections, the redeemed heart cannot but be attracted to the beauty of God’s holiness.

As Gerald R. McDermott writes [Reformation and Revival, vol. 6:1, 109-10]:

This is what sets the saint apart from all others. Others may also see divine things, but they don’t see their beauty or glory. … The unregenerate may see or know divine things (some don’t ever see divine things at all) but they never see their beauty—which is the beauty of holiness. According to Edwards, this is the glory that the Bible says is the central thing that makes God and His ways attractive—that lures humans in love to Him. This is the light that makes the person of Jesus so ravishingly beautiful, that has drawn the hearts of millions to Himself for the last two millennia. This is the brightness that all saints see in comparison to which their own hearts appear filthy.

In our visually-driven world, where beauty is measured by a worldly fad or by some subjective visual response, these theological ideas carry enormous consequences.

For example, we learn that standards of aesthetic beauty in art and literature cannot ever be divorced from God’s moral holiness: holiness is beautiful. Sin cannot be anything other than ugliness. Or consider personal renewal. What we so often mistake as drudgery when we think about battling sin is actually our personal participation in God’s own striking holiness (1 Pet. 1:16). Which is why it’s not surprising that feminine beauty is shaped and defined by God’s holiness (1 Pet. 3:1–6). The implications to this beauty-holiness connection are nearly endless.

At its root, the point Jonathan Edwards makes in Religious Affections is an important one: the splendor of God’s holiness is the pinnacle of all beauty. And it is a beauty that should tug at the strings of our affections.

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