Book Review: The Pursuit of Holiness

The Pursuit of HolinessThe Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fantastic book on Christian holiness. Avoids both being too general to be any good and being so specific that it becomes legalism. Bridges book is quite the contrast to much current teaching on sanctification. He is clear and plain and therefore hits the target, unlike many today whose teaching is like a soft nerf bullet. He does not qualify things to death constantly saying things like, “Well I don’t mean that.” He says simply we must be holy. We must lead righteous lives. He does not talk about brokenness, weakness, defeat, etc. He talks about disobedience. The sappy sentimentality of evangelical Christianity is missing. The constant focus on grace to the exclusion of faithful, consistent obedience is also missing. He talks about obeying God with our whole self, body, mind, emotions, and will. He talks about how we make excuses for our sins and give up too easily. The book was convicting in a way I did not expect. Bridges recently died. We need more men like him.

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Love & Obedience in John’s Writings

Gospel of John.jpg

The relationship between love and obedience has a checkered history in the life of God’s people. On one side are those curmudgeons who furrow their brow and yell “Obedience.” On the other side are those soft men who whimper, “All we need is love.” In between are most Christians who spend their days bouncing between love and obedience. They ask questions like, am I really loving God? Am I obeying enough? Am I being a legalist? In this post I want to show how John weaves together love and obedience. This post will not answer all questions, but I hope it will clarify the relationship between love and obedience. At the end I will draw some conclusions from these texts.

This post is focused on passages in John’s gospel and his three letters where he uses the word “command/commandments,” which is ἐντολή in the Greek.

We begin with the obedience of our Lord. Jesus obeyed the commands of the Father because he loved the Father.  In John 10:17-18 Jesus says that he lays down his life according to the Father’s command (charge in the ESV). Because he lays down his life the Father loves him.  In John 12:44-50 Jesus says he speaks whatever the Father commands him to speak. He also says that the Father’s command is “everlasting life.” Finally in John 15:10, Jesus says that he has kept the commandments of the Father and therefore he abides in the Father’s love. Continue reading

Do Not Confuse Morality with Righteousness

Good Clean Living

I John is heavy on obedience. Frequently John tells us that if we claim to know God and believe in Christ then we must obey God’s commandments (I John 2:4, 3:22, 5:3).  When we read these verses we often think of being moral. We think of not getting drunk, refusing to cuss, not fornicating, or being generally a nice person.

But John has a different idea in mind. For him righteousness, obeying the commandments of God, means conformity to Jesus Christ. We see this specifically in two places, but it is woven throughout the epistle. In I John 2:6 John says that anyone who says he abides in God must walk as he walked. Anyone who claims to be a Christian must walk as Jesus walked. In John 3:7 he says that he who practices righteousness is righteous just as he is righteous. Righteousness is defined by Jesus.  This is important for us because there are many good people in the world. There are Muslims, Mormons, and atheists who all live clean, moral lives. They are faithful to their wives. They do good in the community. They are hard workers. So if we define “righteousness” as good clean living then there are a lot of pagans who fit.  The Bible however defines righteousness as Jesus. There will be some overlap of course. There are many things good people will do or not do that correspond with righteous living.  But there is a world of difference between being moral and being righteous.

A Righteous Man Worships God

Perhaps most important is that righteousness is about worshiping God. Being righteous means we obey the first four commandments.  We have no other gods, except Yahweh. We do not worship idols. We do not take his name in vain. We rest so that we might worship him. It is impossible to be righteous without worshiping God. Perhaps this is why I John ends the way it does (I John 5:21).

A Righteous Man Believes in Jesus Christ

In I John 3:23 John commands us to believe on the name of Jesus Christ. A man can be good in some sense without trusting in Jesus, but he cannot be righteous. He cannot be obedient to God if he does not believe in Jesus Christ. Belief in Jesus Christ is the foundation of a righteous life. Without faith in Christ a man is not righteous. By the way, this also means that a righteous man calls upon others to believe in Christ.

A Righteous Man Confesses His Sins

John begins his letter, which is so heavy on obeying, with a reminder that we are sinners and we need to confess our sins (I John 1:8-2:3). Confession of sin is essential to righteous living. A righteous man wants to be more like Christ. When he isn’t he repents of his sins and flees to the Advocate (I John 2:1). Here again is a great dividing line between good, moral living and being righteous. Moral men do not confess their sins. They may admit they made mistakes and did something wrong, but they do not confess that they have sinned. Righteous men do.

A Righteous Man is Concerned about His Heart, Not Just His Actions

Morality is concerned primarily about outward behavior. We must be careful here, a righteous man will be concerned about outward behavior. Learning to be more like Christ and confessing our sins when we aren’t will result in concrete action. We cannot just be righteous in our hearts. This is clear throughout the whole Bible. Even if we only look at Ephesians 4:25-5:7 we see that we shouldn’t lie, steal, fornicate, sin in our anger, etc. Anyone who defines righteousness as primarily internal is going against God’s Word. But when we define righteousness as primarily external then we sin the other direction. We are equating morality with righteousness. A righteous man knows that failing to love is like murder (I John 3:14-15). Murder is murder, but so is hate, which is internal. A righteous man knows that lust is adultery (Matthew 5:28). Adultery is adultery, but so is lust. A righteous man knows that coveting is idolatry (Ephesians 5:5). Idolatry is idolatry, but so is coveting. The righteous man understands that who he is on the inside matters as much as what he does on the outside.  A moral man does not understand this.

Taking all of these together we  can see that righteousness, as defined by the Bible, cannot be equated with good, clean living or being moral. There will be some overlap between the two, especially in certain outward actions. But righteousness is vertical.  It requires worship and belief in  God and His Son Jesus Christ. Righteousness is conformity to Christ. It requires confession when conformity is lacking. Righteousness is internal. It requires an inner spiritual life that focuses on movement of the heart and mind toward God, as well as what we do with our hands, feet, eyes, and mouth.

Morality is not righteousness. When John tells us that we need to obey the commandments of God we need to see a picture of Jesus, not a picture of a good, upstanding, moral citizen.

Psalm 119:2-4~Running Full Speed After Obedience

Christians know that God’s Word is to be the center of their lives. We know that obedience is part of the call to follow Christ. We are not his disciples if we are not obeying his Word. But obedience is often stale for us. It is like a plate of vegetables we do not like. We know we are supposed to eat it, but we are not excited about it. What is striking about the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119, is not that all one-hundred and seventy-six verses are about Scripture. The most striking thing is how much David loves Scripture. David loves God’s Word, delights in God’s Word, rejoices in God’s Word more than heaps of gold, and longs for God’s Word. For David knowledge of and obedience to God’s Word is the greatest pursuit. 

The first few verses, Psalm 119:1-4, are not a call to reluctant obedience or a casual part-time pursuit of the Word. But it is a call to have our entire lives, thoughts, emotions, interpretation of events, fears, and desires shaped by the judgments, statutes, precepts, commandments, and laws found in the Word. 

First, we are told to seek God with our whole heart (vs. 2).  There is parallelism between the two lines in verse 2.  Parallelism is where two lines of Hebrew poetry compare, expand, or contrast with each other. Here parallelism is used to compare two ideas and show that they are similar, if not exactly the same. 

Blessed are those who keep his testimonies

who seek him with their whole heart

“Those who keep his testimonies” and “who seek Him with the whole heart” are the same people. These two lines are saying the same basic message. We cannot seek God with our whole heart if we are not keeping His testimonies.  The one who keeps His testimonies is the one who is seeking him with their whole heart. Obedience to God and loving him with our whole heart are synonyms.  

Later in verse 4 the psalmist says that God has commanded us to “keep Your precepts diligently.” The word “diligently” means to keep with abundance or with much force. The word is used in Genesis 1:31 where God says all that he made was very good. It is used in Genesis 15:1 where God is Abram’s exceedingly great reward. In II Samuel 2:17 it is translated by the ESV as “fierce” in describing a battle.  One might paraphrase Psalm 119:4 as “You have commanded us to try with all our might and with full intensity to keep your commandments.” 

These two verses tell us that knowing God’s Word is not sufficient. Even trying at times, occasionally to obey is not enough. Ours should not be the obedience of a casual religious observer or Sunday only believer nor an obedience that reluctantly listens and after much persuasion obeys nor the obedience of a dog being drug on a leash or a child whipped into submission. We are to obey with our whole heart.  We are to search the horizon for ways to obey. Obedience is a treasure. Obedience is glory. We are to run after it full speed. 

We sell ourselves short in our sanctification. Maybe we do not want to look like legalists.  Maybe we don’t think we can see victory over the sins which besiege us. Maybe we just love our sin too much.Whatever the reason, it is wrong. God has not called us to sluggishly obey his commands when we feel like. But rather he has called us to obey all his commands with a heart fully devoted to him. This was David’s desire in Psalm 119 and should be the desire of all who follow after the One who is greater than David. 

Obedience is the Door to Joy

Reformation begins with a Spirit-given desire to submit fully and completely to the Scriptures. It does not matter whether this reformation begins in the home or the church or in the community. Sitting humbly under the Word is an essential ingredient.

In my home one of the ways I have worked towards reformation is by getting my children to obey me. This is not easy in our culture where both authority and submission are despised. By getting my children to obey, I am learning to obey. But as with any good thing there are dangers. One of the great dangers of teaching my children to obey is to view their obedience as the goal instead of the means to a greater goal. The Westminster Shorter Catechism very succinctly names the goal we should have in life:

Question: What is the chief end of man?

Answer: The chief  end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. 

In a delightful phrase that I, unfortunately, just found, The Belgic Confession says that God is the “overflowing fountain of all good.” (Article I) The goal is enjoying God, not obeying him. Now, you cannot have joy without obedience. But it is possible to have a type of obedience that does not lead to joy. It is possible to teach our children to obey without ever leading them through the door to joy.

Do we teach them to obey so they might enjoy the goodness of God? Do we view obedience as a door to a mansion where all the rooms are filled with the wonders of God or do we view it as the last stop on the train? Is teaching our children to obey a way setting them free or a way controlling them? Let me use the dinner table and bedtime as examples of what I mean.

At our table we have rules. These are not written in the Bible, but they are “house rules” that my wife and I have set up for our table. If I was going to use a Bible verse to justify these rules it would be Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another.” Manners at the table are a way of being kind. Some of these rules are: wait until mom and sisters are seated before the men sit, chew quietly, do not interrupt, do not eat with your fingers (with exceptions for pizza, fried chicken, and PB&J), etc. The point of having and enforcing these rules is not just to keep our children under control. These rules make our table a place of joy. (Needless to say it does not always work out this way.) We sing at the table. We tell jokes and puns. We tell stories. We listen to stories, even from the littlest ones. We ask questions. We discuss world events and events in our homes. We learn what our children are thinking and what they care about. None of this is possible without obedience. But obedience is not the goal. The goal is joy around the table.

Bedtime is the same way. I do not make my children obey at bedtime so I can simply say, “Bedtime” and they all snap to it. I teach  my children to obey at bedtime so we can pray together, talk a bit, maybe sing. In other words I teach them to obey so we can end the day enjoying God and each other.

The goal in all of life is to find great joy in God, his people, and his world. Obedience is a door to this goal, but it is not the goal itself. To stop and sit in the door of a great house would be an insult to the master of the house.

Here are three questions to consider:

First, are you teaching your children to obey? Do you know that by allowing them to disobey you are keeping them from enjoying God and this world? Disobedience brings bondage.

Second, you parents who are trying to get your children to obey are you leading your children to joy through obedience or are you sitting in the door examining the hinges? Is your house filled with joyless obedience? If you have obedient children, but no joy then neither you nor your children are being obedient, no matter how well they listen.

Third, parents how do you view your own obedience? Do you view obedience as a means to enjoying God? Or do you view obedience as the end, the goal itself?