Holiness Unto the Lord. Part One: The Beauty of Holiness


Since the late 1980’s I’ve taught a two-hour course entitled “The Biblical Basis for Christian Holiness.” From the beginning, this course has been designed to provide a holistic understanding of the Bible’s teaching on this subject in order that God might use this truth to confront us and make us holy. The person who has probably taken and audited more seminary-level courses than anyone I know told me that it was one of the two most significant courses he had experienced. Developing this course has been a rich experience for me that has clarified my thinking and shaped my walk with God.

We begin this course by describing the holiness of the believer as “walking in fellowship with God and reflecting His character.” In this blog I want to highlight what the Gospel of Mark can teach us about a deeper life of holiness. In Mark 1:16-20 we see the first disciples respond to Jesus’ call, followed in 2:15-17 by Levi the tax collector. It is clear that, as Jesus announced in 1:14-15, following him begins with repentance, with a turning away from the old sinful way of life. Only those who recognize the depth of their sin and the urgency of their need will be able to receive the salvation that He brings. If repentance is one side of the Gospel coin, then “believing the Gospel” is the other. This “believing” is clearly expressed by the way in which these first disciples embraced Jesus by following Him.

From the choice of the twelve in Mark 3:13-20 through Peter’s confession in 8:27-30 and the following journey to Jerusalem, Jesus focuses on those who have followed Him. By His actions and teaching He is revealing His identity to them as the God-Man, the one who, like the God of the Old Testament, can still the storm with a word, can feed a multitude in the wilderness, can drive out a legion of demons and restore a man’s sanity, indeed, who can forgive sin. Peter’ confession of Jesus as “the Christ” near Caesarea Phillipi shows that the disciples have begun to grasp this truth. They are followers. They are committed.

When they have thus committed themselves, Jesus announces that He is going to Jerusalem to suffer at the hands of the rulers, be crucified, and rise again (Mark 8:31-33). Then he announces that anyone who would come after Him “must deny himself, take up his cross” and follow Jesus (8:34-37). We who have followed Jesus are, along with these disciples, confronted with this same choice—turn back from following Him or deny ourselves and take up our cross in order to follow Him and go where He goes.

The long road from Caesarea Phillipi to Jerusalem and crucifixion stretches from Peter’s rebuke of Jesus (Mark 8:32) to James and John’s request for preeminence in 10:35-45. The disciples’ struggles on this road to crucifixion help us understand the meaning of “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me.” This is a denial of oneself that leads to death. It is not, however, death to self-interest. God appeals to our self-interest when He offers us eternal glory. Our self-interest is not to be destroyed, but to be extended to our neighbor, whom we are to love as ourselves. The experience of the disciples on this road shows us, however, that Jesus is referring to the death of self-centeredness, self-promotion, and self-aggrandizement; to that competitive spirit that finds satisfaction in being honored above others, controlling others, having more than others. Notice how this section highlights the disciples arguing over who among them will be the greatest (Mark 9:33-37; 10:35-45). Observe their pride of group when they want Jesus to silence others who cast out evil spirits in his name (9:38-41), and their hubris in driving the children from Him (10:13-16). They are shocked at the all but insurmountable barrier presented by greed (10:17-27), and at the sexual purity required of the disciple (10:2-12). Like the blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-27), they see that Jesus is the Christ, but they have blurry vision. They have not yet become like Bartemaeus (8:46-52), who sees clearly, abandons all, and follows Jesus the Messiah “on the way” to the cross. This death to self-centeredness to which we are called is, of course, only possible through the work of Christ applied by the Spirit with whom Christ baptizes the people of God (Mark 10:45, 1:8).

What would characterize the community life of a people who had died to their own self-centeredness? Paul gives an appropriate description in the fourth chapter of Ephesians: “I implore you, then, I who am a prisoner in the Lord, walk worth of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with longsuffering, putting up with one another in love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). Or again at the end of this chapter, “be then kind, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (4:32 NASB). In such a community Jesus’ words would find fulfillment: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other” (John 13:35).

When you look around at the churches you know, do you see this kind of life? I’m thinking particularly of churches in the Wesleyan or Holiness movement who claim as a distinctive “holiness of heart and life.” If the answer is no, then, what has gone wrong? That is the question we will address in next week’s blog, entitled, “Holiness Unto the Lord. Part Two: The Marred Beauty of the Church.”  Look for it next Thursday, Feb 22, 2018.

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24 ESV).


Tust and Obey2

Not long ago I was surprised to read that we are saved by “faith, not by obedience.” How easily the writer had identified “obedience” with Paul’s “works of the law” in Romans 3:28, ESV: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” This error was in material written for the lay person. Sometimes, however, such confusion occurs in scholarly work.

A brief comparison between Paul’s “works of the law” (Romans 3, Galatians 3) and James’ “works” (James 2:14-16) will be instructive. On the surface, James seems to contradict Romans 3:28, quoted above, when he says: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24 ESV).

In Paul’s discussion, faith verses works. Faith is reliance on God for our salvation. “Works,” in Paul’s usage, refers to things we do in order to put God in our debt or obtain merit from God. (This statement is true whether Paul is referring to Jewish practices such as circumcision and dietary laws or to the broader demands of the Old Testament law.) We do these “works” in order to earn our salvation as a matter of wages. Understood in this way, “faith” and “works” are opposite and incompatible. Either we trust in God and receive salvation as a gift through the work of Christ or we vainly try to earn that salvation by what we do. To attempt to earn our salvation in this way is, indeed, disobedience because it is diametrically opposed to the word of God.

In James, however, “faith” and “works” are close allies, not enemies. Here “works” or “deeds” refers to the things we do that flow from our reliance upon God for our salvation. These works are the fruit of faith. We cannot possibly depend on them as earning merit because they flow from dependence on our gracious God for salvation. It is common to say that such works are “evidence” of our faith. We may be saved by “faith alone” but that faith, if it is true living faith, is “never alone” but always attested by “works.” Does this way of describing the relationship between “faith” and “works” do justice to James straightforward statement, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”? I don’t think so. James is asserting a more intimate relationship between the two. Let’s look carefully at several of the things that he says.

He begins by implying that a claimed “faith” without corresponding “works” is invisible—that is, unsubstantiated (James 2:14-16). So, “works” are the “evidence” of faith. But what about his next assertion, that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17 ESV). He goes on to say that “as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (2:26 ESV). “Works,” understood as trusting obedience, are not merely the “evidence” of faith, they are what makes faith alive. They are the animating principle of faith. James doesn’t liken faith to the life-giving spirit and works to the body, but faith to the body and works to the life-giving spirit. Finally, note what James 2:22 says about Abraham’s obedient offering of his son Isaac. By this “work” of obedience Abraham’s faith was “completed” or “made perfect,” brought to fulfillment. His faith became real in this act of obedience. God did not command Abraham to offer Isaac just to see if Abraham had faith, he commanded him to make this sacrifice so that, by Abraham’s obedience, that faith would become a concrete reality in his life. Let’s use the word “obedience” for “works” that flow from trusting in God. We might almost say that “faith” and “obedience” are two sides of the same coin, two ways of looking at the same reality.

This understanding of “faith and obedience” is confirmed when we turn to the book of Hebrews. On the basis of Heb 11:1-7 we can define faith as “living like God’s promise for the future is sure and his power in the present is real” (see Cockerill, Hebrews NICNT, Eerdmans, 2012: 520-21, 530-31). According to this definition, faith involves action. Thus, Hebrews can speak of faith and obedience, or, perhaps more often, of unbelief and disobedience, as virtually the same thing. For too long we have, gnostic-like, restricted “faith” to a mental act or inward disposition, rather than acknowledging that it refers to a way of life. The statement that we are saved “by faith, not obedience,” is not only Biblically inaccurate, but dangerous because it suggests the irrelevance of obedience so long as we have something that we call “faith.”

Thinking About God and Obeying God

ETS Panel5

Drs. Daryl McCarthy, Carey Vinzant, and Gareth Cockerill

On November 15, 2017 I heard two interesting papers: “John Wesley and His Reformational Worldview (by Daryl McCarthy) and “Compassionate Service in Spiritual Formation”(by Matt Friedeman). These papers were given in the Wesleyan Study Group during the annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society. (The above picture is a panel discussion that was held as part of the same study group.) What particularly got my attention was the unplanned agreement between the two papers.

“Compassionate Service in Spiritual Formation” highlighted John Wesley’s urgent concern for acts of mercy and justice. According to Wesley, all believers must be personally involved on a regular basis in such things a feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick, and visiting those in prison, if they are to grow in grace. The presenter affirmed that the Wesleyan tradition had a “bias for action.”

McCarthy’s paper confirmed this understanding of Wesley. He argued that Wesley had a Reformational or Christian World and Life view on the basis of what Wesley did, not on the basis of what Wesley said or wrote. In addition to evangelism and discipleship, Wesley was involved in all sorts of social ministries (bettering the poor, visiting prisoners, improving the conditions of working people) and interested in virtually all branches of learning (medicine, agriculture, economics, etc.) and their practical application. His actions showed that he believed Christ was the Lord of all of life.

These two papers bear witness to the strength of the Wesleyan Movement—a commitment to action. But, as is so often true, this strength is also a weakness, for, as McCarthy’s paper indirectly testifies and Friedeman’s confirms, this emphasis on action has been accompanied by a corresponding lack of concern for theological thinking. The Wesleyan Movement has produced no worldview proponent comparable to Abraham Kuyper. Almost no contemporary, broadly influential theological writings reflect a Wesleyan viewpoint. Right thinking about God, however, is crucial to right action, as well as to proper spiritual formation and effective presentation of the faith to unbelievers.

Furthermore, this emphasis on action can easily subvert the God-centered orientation essential to the Christian life because it focuses on what we do. Too often the result of this self-focused orientation has been sterile legalism accompanied by unbiblical authoritarianism and the un-Christianizing of people who don’t follow our man-made rules (i.e. “do what we tell them to do”). Paul tells us that all of our “action” is meaningless without love. Furthermore, “Labor that does not spring out of worship is futile and can only be wood, hay, and stubble in the day that shall try every man’s work” (A. W. Tozer)

Intimate knowledge of God and true God-oriented worship are dependent, not on speculation, but on humble, right thinking about God based on divine revelation. A missionary friend of mine told me about an experience he had when he was a student at Fuller Seminary. Geoffrey Bromley was his advisor. One day in conversation with Bromley my friend said that he wasn’t interested in theology. Bromley’s shocked response went something like this: “Not interested in theology? Theology is the study of God. You’re not interested in God?” Proper theological thinking is crucial because God is God and is worthy of the best grace-aided thinking that we can offer Him. He is to be intelligently worshipped. Careful meditation on God’s self-revelation is a necessary safeguard against idolatry. We are to love God not only with all our “strength” but with all our “mind.”

Let’s change the self-oriented word “action” to the God-oriented word “obedience.” We are talking about the study of God (theology, “theo” = God, “ology”= “study) and obeying God. The object of both is to worship God truly and come to know Him intimately.  

We worship God and come to know Him both by doing our best to understand Him through studying His self-revelation and by obeying Him. The two work together. We study about God. Then we put the insight we have gained into practice through obedience. This obedience brings us closer to the Word of God and thus facilitates our understanding. Understanding leads to obedience. Obedience facilitates understanding. Modern Biblical interpreters call this intersection of understanding and obedience “the hermeneutical spiral.” Jesus articulated it when he said, “If anyone wants to do God’s will, he will know whether my teaching is from God” (John 7:17, Phillips).

Neglecting theology while focusing on action, then, runs the risk of dishonoring God, misdirecting our intended obedience, and focusing on ourselves and what we do rather than on God. It can easily degenerate into legalistic bondage. All of our thinking and our obedience is subservient to our knowing and loving him—which is the purpose of our lives! It is only within this interaction between thinking about God and obeying God in the context of Worship that theology and obedience function effectively in spiritual formation as God intended.

Check out “The Grumpy Theologian”

“The Grumpy Theologian” is a fitting name for my colleague who has begun writing a blog by this title (http://grumpytheologian.blogspot.com/). “Grumpy” in the best way–he is “grumpy” with anything superficial or self-serving. You will be rewarded if you check out his post entitled “What makes good theology.” Here are several quotes to whet your appetite:

Good theology is theology that is good for the soul.  In other words, theology that points us to the God of the Bible, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is good theology.”

“Every so often someone comes along who claims to have figured out everything and rendered the concept of mystery irrelevant by hiding it behind highly technical but thoroughly mundane-sounding terminology.”

Good theology “drives me to think seriously and carefully about my own ideas, and to be vigilant in seeking to meet God as He is rather than some fiction of Him as I would like Him to be.”

Good theology “drives me to ask for God’s help in speaking well about Him to my neighbor because I want my words most of all to be good for my neighbor’s soul.”

The Grumpy Theologian ends this essay most appropriately with:  “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.”