“The bottom line, the chief goal of the Christian life, is righteousness.”R.C. Sproul
Wow — that’s a pretty bold assertion, with which some may beg to differ! What about loving God, glorifying God, or making disciples of all nations? I’m sure the case can be made for those, nevertheless, there are plenty of verses to back this one up as well: (Romans 8:28-29; 2 Corinthians 5:21, 7:1; Philippians 1:6; Hebrews 12:14; Titus 2:14; Matthew 5:48; Ephesians 5:25-27; etc.)
From the time I was a young believer, I have been overwhelmed by the number of books out there offering scores of strategies, secrets, and keys to sanctification (i.e. growth in practical righteousness, holiness, or Christ-likeness). Most of them are good and biblical, but why does it have to be so complicated? And after ingesting countless numbers of them myself, why do I still struggle with sin so much? Well, part of it is because the more mature we get, the more sensitive we become to subtler sins. In other words, we should be far more conscious of our sinfulness after a lifetime of sanctification, than we were the day we got saved.
Many people get saved by grace, only to become ensnared in a self-improvement trap. Whole churches, such as in Galatians 3, can find themselves on this treadmill. But for the humble believer who truly wants to grow by grace through reliance upon the Holy Spirit, it can still be discouraging and incredibly slow.
Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” There are a myriad of spiritual disciplines that are beneficial for renewing our minds, (such as Bible study, prayer, fasting, giving, etc.) but without a love for God and humble dependence on his Spirit, we still simply have no power. As Romans 8:13 says,
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
OK, so how does that work? Jesus instructed his sleepy disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” This is the antithesis of personal willpower. Rather, it is humble dependence, deliberately expressed through prayer. I believe this is the “way of escape” promised us in 1 Corinthians 10:30. Sadly, our fleshly inclination is to circumvent this dependence and rest on our laurels.
As Kevin DeYoung says in his book, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap Between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness:
We must always remember that in seeking after holiness we are not so much seeking after a thing as we are seeking a person. The blessings of the gospel — election, justification, sanctification, glorification, and all the rest — have been deposited in no other treasury but Christ.
We don’t just want holiness. We want the Holy One in whom we have been counted holy and are now being made holy. To run hard after holiness is another way of running hard after God. Just as a once-for-all, objective justification leads to a slow-growth, subjective sanctification, so our unchanging union with Christ leads to an ever-increasing communion with Christ.
For me, the clearer I apprehend God in all his moral perfection, majesty, wisdom, power, and self-sacrificing love, the more desirous I am to emulate him. My motive of duty is banished. It is replaced by a longing delight. Just as the stars in the sky disappear when the sun comes out, so my most cherished sins lose their appeal when they are eclipsed by the blazing brightness of his glory. Thomas Chalmers called this, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” John Piper called it “Christian Hedonism.” And C.S. Lewis put it this way:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Though I still have far, far to go on this journey of sanctification, and will never arrive until I see the Lord, this principle has by far, been the most helpful I have found. Its simplicity is found in the greatest command:
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.Deuteronomy 6:5
Do you approach this verse with a duty mentality or a privilege mentality? The new birth has enabled us to find our soul’s greatest possible joy and satisfaction in our newfound ability to actually do this. And as a by-product, our slavery to sin is broken. In other words, if we focus on not sinning, we will invariably sin. But if we focus on the excellencies of Jesus Christ, our regenerated hearts will naturally gravitate toward, and prefer him. It’s a beauty contest that Christ will always win.
Sanctification is a process of the Holy Spirit’s reorientation of our affections that takes a lifetime. But eventually, we will say with Puritan author, Thomas Merton,
There is only one happiness: to please Him. Only one sorrow, to be displeasing to Him.
So what is the secret to holiness? It is not discipline, effort, willpower, commitment, confession, accountability, or strength of desire. It is relationship. It is the fruit of the quality and intimacy of relationship that I have with a holy God, who is using everything in my life — including my failures — to conform me to his image, according to his promise that he will unfailingly complete the work that he began in me (Philippians 1:6).