If you are anything like me, you struggle with holy living. (If you are not anything like me, please let me know how you are doing it!) As a minister of the Gospel, the reason I don’t mind confessing that I am far less than perfect is because another minister of the Gospel, who was far, far more sanctified than I, confessed the very same thing. Here the apostle Paul sets forth the ongoing experience of every Christian:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
(Romans 7:15, 18-19)
There are lots of books written and sermons preached that outline a plethora of “things-to-do” and “how-to’s” for living a holy life. They range from trying to get us to do more, pray better, serve smarter, or try harder. The problem with all of this advice is found in the focus: that focus is on ourselves!
When we focus on ourselves and our need/desire to get better, we are looking to the wrong place for strength. We focus on getting better; perhaps we do for a while. But before long, we mess it up again and begin to doubt ourselves and despair of succeeding at holy living. And this is precisely the dreary district where the devil wants every Christian to be living: at the intersection of doubt and despair.
The best way to get better is to quit focusing on getting better and fix our eyes instead on the One who has already made us perfect in the eyes of God. That’s when we will actually start getting better . . . sometimes! Here’s how Charles Spurgeon, known to many as “the prince of preachers,” profoundly explained it more than a century ago:
When believers say, “I cannot grow in grace as I would, and therefore I doubt,” do you see what they do? It is as though they said, “Here is a plant that will not grow and therefore it shall not have any water.” It is impossible for any one of us—for you—to get sanctification through doubts! Your doubting takes away the water which alone can nourish the roots of your sanctity. If, in the teeth of all your sins, you still believe in Christ—believe over the head of all your shortcomings and your negligence—then your belief will breed love and admiration! And then your love of Christ and your admiration of Him will breed imitation—and so there will come holy living to the glory of God. Love is the forceful mainspring of a gracious life, but doubt makes it grow limp and feeble. Doubt snaps the string of your bow, takes off the edge of your sword, makes you languid and powerless and causes all your Divine Graces to flag. Therefore, keep to it, Christian, keep to it and let not the devil himself drag you from it!
Living a holy life never happens because we are pursuing holy living. It only happens when we understand that Jesus is in hot pursuit of us. It is His love for us, not our living for Him, that produces holy living. When we keep our focus on what He has done for us, we can begin to live the life He has called us to live without fear of messing it up. The more we focus on the truths of the Gospel, the more the Holy Spirit will fill our hearts with admiration for Jesus. And, as Spurgeon explained, it is this admiration that will ultimately lead to imitation.
His love for us, not our love for Him, grows us up in our faith. When we confuse these two, doubt will have its way with us. It is only when we keep the love of Christ before us—whether we are in seasons of plenty or want or health or sickness—that doubt will depart and holiness will begin to appear.
In his new book, Three Free Sins, my good friend Steve Brown writes, “Christians, by and large, are neurotic about purity, obedience, and holiness. It is probably the main reason we’re not very pure, obedient, and holy. And in order to maintain our witness, we have learned to fake it.” WOW! Or perhaps I would do better to say OUCH! That’s a pretty piercing observation!
Sure, we all want to get better. None of us are happy with the way we are. But the way to getting better and living a holy life is not to focus on getting better and living a holy life. It is to focus completely on Christ.
- On the perfect life of Christ
- On the sacrificial death of Christ
- On the supernatural resurrection of Christ
- On the miraculous Ascension of Christ
- On the promised return of Christ
The more we focus on Him, the less we focus on ourselves; and the less we focus on ourselves, the more we begin to imitate Him. You see, God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too much just to leave you there!
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!