So I’m saved. I’ve put my trust in Christ. I’ve repented and asked him into my life. I’m a Christian. But even as a Christian sin is still a problem in my life. It harms, it hurts, and it has consequences. It is poison.
I’m not the man I should be. I’m not on fire for God as I might be. I’m sick and tired of failing to be who God wants me to be. I feel distant from God and unworthy of him. And I do want this to change.
What is the answer?
The preacher tells me that now I’m saved my life should be a quest for holiness.
I’ve got to choose once and for all to pursue holiness and to leave my sin behind. I’ve got to identify the sin and root it out piece by piece. I’ve got to “man up” and ask myself “how serious a Christian am I?” “What is my spiritual temperature, really?”
I’m going to call this “the quest for holiness approach”. The quest for holiness approach often centres on themes such as discipline, will power, and moral character, which of course are all good and desirable. But is the quest for each of these things the answer to the problem of indwelling sin?
I’m not so sure.
I wonder if the answer to our problems might actually lie in changing the goal of our quest?
A lot of teaching, when you boil it down (when you really boil it down) points us to characteristics, qualities, disciplines, as means to obtain and maintain favour with God. This teaching often doesn’t mean to do this. But when you boil it down it does.
Could the real solution to the problem of sin in my life, and the most effective means by which I become more holy, be a Person?
In Numbers 21 the Israelites have snake poison in their veins and are facing death. But at God’s command Moses lifts up the bronze snake and those Israelites who look on the snake are healed and live.
8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
This is a clear picture of Jesus being lifted up on the cross that we might look on him, crucified for us, and be saved. It might seem like a stretch to say that this is a picture of the cross in the Old Testament if it were not for the fact that Jesus himself tells us that’s what it is.
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
One thing I note in Numbers 21 is that Moses does not simply tell the Israelites that they have poison in their bodies, that poison is dangerous, and that it shouldn’t be there.
Another thing Moses does not do is make the bronze snake and then turn to the Israelites with a command to do likewise. He does not say “this is the example, now follow it as best you can — make your own snake, look upon it, and be saved”.
No, the snake that Moses has already made and that has already been lifted up is the answer for each and every snake-bitten, and dying Israelite. The Israelites are commanded to look primarily upon what has been done. They are not called primarily to do themselves.
The Israelites looked outward and away from themselves — to the bronze serpent — to be healed. They did not look at themselves to suck the poison out, or to search for other remedies, though such courses of action might have seemed far more “practical” and would have been much more intuitive.
So this was not a call for the Israelites to do something to deal with the poison that ran deep in their veins. It was a proclamation of good news. “Look, here is your salvation.” It was gospel (which, of course, literally means “good news” in Greek).
The gospel we have been given is the “good news” of what God has done through Christ, and what God is doing through Christ.
The gospel (of course preached against the backdrop of my awful sin and ugliness before God) directs me to the Person of Jesus Christ, and what he has done on the cross. The gospel also points me to what Christ is currently doing in my life — the gospel reminds me that it is God who is the author and perfecter of my faith. It reminds me that
“it is God who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
The gospel is not the terrible burdensome news that God sees everything that’s wrong with me, that he commands me to fix it all, that I am consistently failing to fix it, and that as a result he wants me to look in at myself and work on “x”, “y”, or “z” this week.
It seems to me that a lot of “quest for holiness” preaching does this. It seeks to bring an awareness of sin so we can become more holy. But what lies behind such teaching is the belief that merely being aware of our sin will naturally lead to it being dealt with.
As a Christian I’m generally aware of the characteristics I should be exhibiting, and the flaws I should be shedding, but pushing those characteristics and those flaws in my face every Sunday won’t help me one iota. Showing me my inadequacy and the ugliness of my sin will never be enough to effect real heart change. I’m simply not able to change, no matter how guilty or heavy I feel. Preaching that succeeds only in turning me in on myself is dead-end preaching.
Many pastors recognize this, and so they couple their calls for us to exhibit godly characteristics with a few brief comments like this: “of course we can’t do this on our own — we know we need God’s help.”
This reminds me of high school when one kid would say “I’m not being rude but Greg is a total idiot”. The words “I’m not being rude” do not keep the statement that follows them from being rude. In the same way the well-intentioned words “of course we we can’t do this on our own — we know we need God’s help” don’t stop the pastor’s essential message being “go out and do this in your own strength”.
The preacher is still sending the Christian out to try to change himself (again) — he is just adding instructions for the Christian to ask God to give him the will-power, the discipline, the character, to change himself.
If this isn’t the answer what is?
What about the cross? What does the cross really mean for the Christian who is struggling against sin?
What goes unsaid in too many churches is that God has already given us all of the characteristics we prize so highly in His Son (and much, much more).
God does not separate the Church from her Bridegroom, Jesus. God the Father does not say “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased, but what about you? What measure of holiness can you offer me?” No! We are one with Christ. That’s what it is to be a Christian. What does this mean? There is a marriage bond. “They are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” We cannot be separated from him and what is his is ours.
I think one of the biggest challenges of the Christian life is remembering who I already am in Christ. That’s the job of the preacher. To help me know what is already true of me because of Christ. To say “Believer, are you in Christ? Then you are righteous; you are holy; you are pure; God the Father loves you as his own son and is well pleased with you.”
I think it must be with that knowledge in place that the Christian must press on to live the Christian life. The more the Holy Spirit convinces me of God’s love for me in Christ; of Christ’s worthiness; of my union with Him; of who I already am in Him, the more my heart will be conformed to His.
Since I am in Christ, sin in my life is a totally alien presence. It has nothing to do with who I now am — a new creation. The more the gospel drops from my head down into my heart, the more I will get that — and the more my mind and heart will fall into line. Sin will become increasingly ugly and foreign. Yes, I will struggle with it until I die or Jesus returns, but I will do so from a position of absolute security, knowing that I’m clothed in the righteousness of Christ, not my own threadbare garments. Whenever I fail, I will endeavour to look to, and revel in, the Person of Christ and what he has done. Whenever I succeed I will endeavour to look to and revel in the Person of Christ.
This way Christ is the goal of my quest, not holiness, or humility, or purity, or anything else. He is the Living Vine into whom I am grafted. Fruit will surely come.
Heart change/victory over sin/the works of love we’re called to all flow from prior belovedness. And the good news/the gospel is that we are already beloved.
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Let’s continue to remind each other of the truth of the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Let’s pray Paul’s prayer for ourselves; for each other; for the Church.
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.