We are to Pursue Holy Living and Good Works (Duh!)
Overheard today…something our Lutheran Confessions, not to mention, the Bible, clearly assert! Something that some Christians and yes, even some Lutherans get all “twitchy” about when discussed.
If I wake up in the morning, give myself a holiness score of 6, and then commit myself to get to 6.5 by the end of the day, that would be disastrous and silly. But what if I am struggling with lust and pray for God’s help that I might fight the urge to click where I shouldn’t click, and embrace my identity in Christ as chosen and beloved, and believe God’s promises about the pure in heart—is that also the “worst way” to go about holiness? I never describe holiness as a scorecard. In fact, though Galli says I provide no definition of holiness, I describe it chiefly as the pursuit of Christ himself. Is it really a dreadful thing for Christians to be intentional about wanting to be more like Jesus? I know that’s not where the gospel starts, but haven’t a myriad of Christians through the ages considered that at the heart of discipleship?
The language of inevitability also strikes me as misplaced. Is it really the case that everyone who has ever aspired to holiness ends up suffering from spiritual pride? To be sure, we all continue to sin, and pride is one of the ways we do. But Galli seems to be saying more than this. To simply point out that those who pursue holiness still have pride is a truism. We all still suffer from pride. Galli suggests, however, that pride is most prevalent in those who most consciously pursue holiness. Really? Is this always the case? Every Methodist, every pietist, everyone from the Dutch Second Reformation, everyone in every religious order, everyone in our churches deliberately trying to kill sin in their lives—all of them are essentially self-righteous hypocrites? Galli must be thinking of the pursuit of holiness in the worst possible caricature. Are Jerry Bridges and J. I. Packer—two men who have written extensively about the pursuit of holiness—especially judgmental and arrogant? The men and women at my church who strive each day to wage war against the flesh and grow in grace do not fit Galli’s description.
And the Puritans? Galli’s comment is either overstated or unfair. Besides the historical presumption of making such a sweeping claim against “the Puritans” (as if their theology and behaviors were monolithic), it is terrifically uncharitable to suggest, without naming a single example, that as a group they were especially marked by censoriousness. As in any church or any tradition, some who went by the name Puritan were no doubt arrogant and proud. But some lived lives of which the world is not worthy. We do ourselves no favors when we tear down all our heroes because they walked the earth on clay feet.
Most damaging to Galli’s thesis is the record of Scripture itself. If the call to pursue holiness is best forgotten, why does the Bible remind us of it so often? What do we do with Hebrews 12:14 and its language of “striving” for holiness? What do we do with Paul’s language of “fighting” and “toiling” and “pressing on”, or Peter’s language of “making every effort,” or Jesus’ language of “striving” to enter the narrow gate? And what about the exhortation in Philippians 4 to “think about these things” and “practice these things”? None of these descriptions envision a morbid navel-gazing. But they all envision that the Christian life involves the conscious and purposeful putting off of sin and putting on of holiness. Of course, we never achieve this perfectly or without the presence of indwelling sin, but that doesn’t lead the biblical writers to reject the conscious pursuit of holiness or the possibility of living a holy life pleasing to God and worthy of emulation.
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus assumes that asking for forgiveness would be a daily occurrence, as would praying that we might be delivered from evil and led not into temptation. The mystery of the Christian life is that Christ expects us flee sin and the devil, but does not expect us to rid ourselves of either on this side of glory. Repentance is a way of life and so is the pursuit of godliness. I wish every Christian could be reminded of these two things. And I wish they were less controversial than they have become in our day.