Pursuing holiness and forsaking legalism can feel a lot like tightrope walking. How do you find the balance between accepting your responsibility to live righteously without treating personal holiness like a quest to earn God’s approval? How can Christians communicate God’s loving and just nature to those outside of the faith without leaning to one extreme? Today we’ll discuss how to avoid a one-sided pursuit of holiness by actively partnering with God in spiritual growth.
THE DREADED GROUP PROJECT
If you want to dismantle the sanity of a straight-A-student give her a group project. Why do teachers torture the nerds by placing their grades in the hands of their peers? I just don’t get it. Maybe you’ve had better experiences than me, but as a student I absolutely hated group projects. The only thing I ever learned in a group project was: “You can’t count on your teammates to do their share of the work.” The worst part is the teacher is almost always passive when you share your concerns and is vague about how each member of the group will be graded. The project is never simple either. It requires the work of every individual. Most times it’s the work of the faithful few that carry the project to completion.
The pursuit of holiness is kind of like a group project between you and God. God the Father drew you to Himself (John 6:44), Jesus paid for your redemption (Ephesians 1:7), you placed your faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-22), and upon your belief and repentance the Holy Spirit applied Christ’s work of salvation to your life (Ephesians 1:13-14). But it didn’t end there. You have been perfected, are being perfected, and will be perfected through the present work of sanctification in your life (2 Corinthians 3:18). Sanctification is the Spirit’s work of making you holy like Jesus. However, believers are called to actively partner with the Holy Spirit in the pursuit of Holiness. The problem is: not all Christians are aware of their role in this process. This is why extremes like hyper-grace and legalism occur.
Think back on your own group project experiences. Did you ever have a member that passively allowed the rest of the group to execute the planning and completion of your project? This uninvolved student expected you to do all of the work, and planned to accept the full credit for it later. Christians lean to the extreme of hyper-grace when we passively expect the Holy Spirit to do all of the work of pursuing holiness on our behalf. We say to ourselves, “I don’t have to work for holiness. The Holy Spirit will do it for me.” We confuse making spiritual effort with legalism and works-based righteousness.
Yes, it’s true that the Holy Spirit sanctifies us, but does that mean that Christians are disengaged from the pursuit of holiness? What do the scriptures have to say? In 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, Paul is reminding the Corinthians that God has made the body of the believer His temple. God has graciously chosen to dwell among us, and adopt us as His sons and daughters. “Since we have these promises, beloved,” Paul declares, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 7:1, ESV).” [Emphasis mine]
This is not the first imperative that Paul gives Christians to be active in pursuing holiness. On another occasion Paul reminded the Ephesians to “put off [the] old self, which belongs to [the] former manner of life,” “to be renewed in the spirit,” and “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24, ESV).” Those verses are not suggestions. They are commandments to seize holiness alongside the Holy Spirit by actively choosing to train our bodies to say “no” to sin.
Seize holiness alongside the Holy Spirit by actively choosing to train your body to say “no” to sin.
Let’s return to our discussion on group projects. Passive members are bad, but members with over-achiever-syndrome are problematic as well. On one occasion, I had the pleasure of being paired with the most arrogant, self-centered boy in my class. He treated our group project as if it were a one-man-show, put on to display how awesome he was to us all. His domineering tendencies made the rest of us feel incompetent, and stagnated our group’s efforts. In the same way, if we view the pursuit of holiness as an opportunity to make much of ourselves rather than an opportunity to please God we fall into legalism.
Legalism makes sin less about offending God and more about not adding to our growing list of mistakes. Our focus is turned to the law, rather than the One who fulfilled the law on our behalf. In our personal quest to achieve religious perfection we discount the Holy Spirit and strive to present a shallow appearance of holiness with our misguided efforts.
“Well aren’t we supposed to be actively pursuing righteousness? What distinguishes a healthy pursuit of holiness from legalism?” Legalism views righteousness as something we work up in order to earn God’s approval, while a healthy pursuit of holiness views righteousness as a product of our God-given holiness in Christ Jesus. Paul expounds on our credited righteousness in Romans 3:21-24:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (ESV).”
Pursuing holiness is a matter of bringing your actions, attitude, and heart in line with the righteousness imputed to you through faith in Christ. You don’t please God to be holy. You please God, because you are holy in Christ Jesus. @Lifeb4Eternity
Maintaining Our Balance
So how do we walk the fine line between hyper-grace and legalism in our efforts to pursue holiness? Have you ever noticed the long pole that tightrope walkers carry during their routines? It weighs nearly 31 pounds and is about 39 feet long. There are weighed tips on each end of the pole. Without this long, balancing pole the performer wouldn’t make it across the half-inch metal wire. Carrying the pole lowers the performer’s center of gravity, and gives him or her more time to make adjustments as he or she steps forward.
Think of the Holy Spirit as your balancing pole. The Holy Spirit enables and equips you to take steps forward in personal holiness. @Lifeb4Eternity When you are off balance spiritually, He reveals the appropriate truth about your identity and salvation in Christ to help you maintain balance so you can keep moving forward. When you are leaning over into hyper-grace, the Spirit may remind you that without holiness we will not see God (Hebrews 12:14), or that if we love Christ we will obey His commandments (John 14:15).
When you’re in danger of falling into legalism, He may remind you that your salvation is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9) or that our best deeds are like filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). Pursuing holiness and forsaking legalism is all about knowing your role, fulfilling your responsibility, leaving room for God’s grace when you make mistakes, and following the Spirit’s leading.
Notice that it’s not enough to simply have the balancing pole. If the performer doesn’t take steps forward, it is only a matter of time before he or she tumbles to the ground below. Having the Holy Spirit alone is not enough to pursue holiness. You must exercise your own will in concert with the Spirit in pursuing that goal. You must make the decision to take the next step forward, or it is only a matter of time before you will fall into sin. If you fall God’s grace will be there to dust you off, but your commitment to partnering with the Spirit in a living holy life will propel you forward.
Ready to take the next steps forward in your walk with God? Check out my free, Live Christ Out Loud Bootcamp.