Can We Be As Holy As We Want to Be?
Growth in the Christian life is a cooperative effort:
I realise that the question I ask here can open a rather large can of theological worms. But my intention is not to get into yet another intellectual debate. It is much more practical than that. I simply ask: Is it proper to speak in terms of being as close to God as we desire to be – about being as holy and Christlike as we want to be?
There are of course some theological arguments that can be offered both pro and con here. But I will not dwell on them overly much in this piece. As to those who answer the question in the affirmative, often they are those who are more well known for speaking and writing about the deeper life, about the pressing need for holiness, and the like.
A classic case in point would be Leonard Ravenhill. He once said this: “Each of us are as godly as we want to be.” Another obvious candidate would be A. W. Tozer – he often spoke in a similar fashion. Just one quote of his – of many – can be offered on this:
It may be set down as an axiom that our spiritual state perfectly corresponds to the intensity of our desire. Each of us enjoys as much grace as he actually wants. Where there seems to be a discrepancy between what we possess and what we desire to possess, we may safely conclude that our desire is not as great as we had supposed. We want God, it is true, but we want something else more. And we get what we want most.
I recently posted that quote online, and one American Christian replied: “Can’t agree with this one.” I wrote back a brief response:
Thanks ****. You need not. But given the hundreds of imperatives in the NT alone, the general principle that we can be as holy or Christlike as we desire to be does not seem all that amiss nor unbiblical. Sure, sanctification is ultimately by God’s grace, but it IS always a team effort. We cooperate with God. We have so much to do by way of Christian growth, and surely Tozer is right to say that most believers are quite content where they are at, and do not have a burning desire to put Christ first in everything. But if you and Tozer wanna box this one out, go for it! Bless ya.
To which he replied: “I like the thrust of the quote. We are too easily pleased, as Lewis said. We need ardor, yes. But our effort does not merit or assure us of what we desire, even in sanctification.” And the reply from me was this:
Thanks again. Not to belabour all this, but I would not claim that our efforts ‘merit’ anything, nor, I believe, would Tozer. Nor do I claim that this ‘assures’ us of anything either. What we would argue – I think rightly and biblically – is that the numerous biblical commands stress repeatedly the need for our willingness to do things, to strive, to pursue, to actively seek, to persevere, to work for, and so on. Yes, that ALONE would not suffice. But neither ALONE would the idea of some believers that we are to just ‘let go and let God.’ Everywhere in the NT we see how this growth in grace is a collaborative effort that we must put some effort into. God will do his part for sure, but we must do our part. And given that the great bulk of Western believers can likely use plenty of encouragement in this regard, I think Tozer is quite right to keep emphasizing it. But hopefully we are more or less on the same page!
Here I want to take all this just a bit further. I have often discussed this idea of sanctification as something that both God and the believer cooperate in. See some of these articles for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/22/sanctification-cooperating-with-god/
But I still find there is some real truth in this notion that we can be as spiritual or godly or holy as we want to be. Not all believers want to grow in Christ, to renounce self, to crucify the flesh, to put off the old man, to be more holy, to be as close to God as we can be. But we must not forget the many verses that speak to this. Simply consider a few passages that urge us on in this regard:
Matthew 6:33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Matthew 7:7-8 Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
1 Corinthians 14:1 Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.
2 Corinthians 7:1 Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
Colossians 3:23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.
1 Timothy 4:7-8 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
1 Timothy 4:15–16 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
1 Timothy 6:11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.
2 Timothy 2:22 So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.
Hebrews 11:6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
Hebrews 12:14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
James 4:8 Come near to God and he will come near to you.
There are a lot of verbs being used there: seek, pursue, practice, strive, etc. We have a role to play. We have things to do. Sure, ultimately, we keep our eyes on Christ. As we focus on him and what he has done for us, the other things should much more easily come into play.
Since this all began with a quote from Tozer, perhaps I can finish with a larger quote from Tozer. In the book We Travel an Appointed Way, there is a short chapter titled “Success is Costly”. It first appeared as an editorial in Alliance Life and is worth sharing in full:
Success in any field is costly, but the man who will pay the price can have it.
The concert pianist must become a slave to his instrument; four hours, five hours each day he must sit at the keyboard. The scientist must live for his work. The philosopher must devote himself to thought, the scholar to his books. The price may seem excessively heavy, but there are some who consider the reward worthwhile.
The laws of success operate also in the higher field of the soul—spiritual greatness has its price. Eminence in the things of the Spirit demands a devotion to these things more complete than most of us are willing to give. But the law cannot be escaped. If we would be holy we know the way; the law of holy living is before us. The prophets of the Old Testament, the apostles of the New and, more than all, the sublime teachings of Christ are there to tell us how to succeed.
Through a misunderstanding of the doctrine of grace, some shy away from the idea that the laws of God operate in the kingdom of heaven. They make a radical cleavage of things natural from things spiritual and refuse to allow any relation between them. To do this, they must overlook the fact that the Bible writers in all their teachings drew copiously from the wells of common life. For them, all nature spoke God’s message—from the homely blade of grass beside the path to the sun and the stars in the heavens above. Kings and farmers offered light on the ways of God; the ant and the sparrow had their contribution to make; the dullard was there as a horrible example, and the sluggard sitting in his ruined house or walking between the rows of his scrubby corn served as a melancholy example of what laziness could do to the man who would not conquer it. The householder who began to build without having figured the cost, the king who started war without knowing that he could win it, the farmer who put his hand to the plow and then changed his mind and looked back—all these are in the Bible, and they all say the same thing: that spirituality has a solid core of intelligence in it, that success in the life of faith requires common sense, hard work and wise cooperation with the law of cause and effect.
The amount of loafing practiced by the average Christian in spiritual things would ruin a concert pianist if he allowed himself to do the same thing in the field of music. The idle puttering around that we see in church circles would end the career of a big league pitcher in one week. No scientist could solve his exacting problem if he took as little interest in it as the rank and file of Christians take in the art of being holy. The nation whose soldiers were as soft and undisciplined as the soldiers of the churches would be conquered by the first enemy that attacked it. Triumphs are not won by men in easy chairs. Success is costly.
If we would progress spiritually, we must separate ourselves unto the things of God and concentrate upon them to the exclusion of a thousand things the worldly man considers important. We must cultivate God in the solitudes and the silence; we must make the kingdom of God the sphere of our activity and labor in it like a farmer in his field, like a miner in the earth.
So, can we determine how godly or holy or spiritual we are? In some ways I think the answer is clearly yes. Of course at the end of the day God gets all the credit and all the glory for what happens in our life. But we are commanded to do certain things, so we better do them!
4 Replies to “Can We Be As Holy As We Want to Be?”
Not to disagree, but on the other side of the argument is that great lament of Paul’s in Romans 7, that (perhaps) no matter how much effort he put in he kept finding himself doing the opposite of the holy living he desired. It’s a struggle I certainly identify with, sadly.
Thanks Marion. Yes, both Tozer and I would deny perfection of any kind being reached in this life. And one real sign of Christian growth is an ever-increasing awareness of how bad we are and what a long way we have left to go. As Tozer said elsewhere:
“It has been the unanimous testimony of the greatest Christian souls that the nearer they drew to God the more acute became their consciousness of sin and their sense of personal unworthiness. The purest souls never knew how pure they were and the greatest saints never guessed that they were great. The very thought that they were good or great would have been rejected by them as a temptation of the devil.”
You move freely among eternally interesting and God-fearing people.
Last week I lent a Ravenhill book to a guy – in his thirties – who was hungry for Ravenhill’s texts in particular…..
Keith Green had Ravenhill as a mentor, therefore I understand that Green’s was of “the kind” he was….