Somehow, there’s a disconnect. Somewhere along the way, focus is lost and distractions dominate. What’s significant loses its luster because of the effort that it requires. As fallen mankind, we lack the necessary consideration and wherewithal obligated by such a decree. Our contentment is thin and our attention short. What motivates us isn’t a divine wellspring of love, rather, a destitute thirst for more. We deprive ourselves of the truth, and yet, expect and presume upon grace, thereby making us unfit for it.
The decree that I’m speaking of, is, the divine mandate for holiness — and the issue at hand is our manifestation of this holiness. Countless honest believers have been divided and at odds over this directive, especially in the manner in which it expressed by those who’ve been redeemed by grace.
As with anything else, what once was good has been tarnished by sin and perverted by the devil. He takes that which is honest and true and corrupts it into machinations of deceit and lust. The prince of the power of the air has even take that which God called “very good” and influenced it and, yes, subjected it to his darkness. Now, what was before bright and holy and righteous, is now dark and desperate and depraved. Such is what Satan has done with God’s expectation of holiness. What God has administered to man for his heavenly good, the evil one has mixed with begrudgery and loathing. What the sovereign Godhead had formed for the beneficence man has been brought down by man through the influx of sin. We’re now blind to purposes of the Trinity and can no longer see his goodness to us. Now, what was “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12), is only seen as hard, irritating, and tiresome. What was meant for our flourishing is now what we deem keeps us from experiencing freedom.
Such is the blindness and tarnishing of sin. This serves as the backdrop for many debates regarding the purpose and intent of the law, and what its significance is for us, 21st century humans. And while the purposes of it remain the same, as they originate from an immutably holy God, the manner in which we manifest the law of holiness have been radically altered because of the gospel. If we stick with our sin-ingrained postulation of reciprocity and reward, the law will always be severe and inflexible. However, the good news of great grace enables the law of holiness to be a law of flourishing once again. What Jesus accomplished was the establishment of the “law of liberty” (James 1:25) and the “law of the Spirit of life.” (Rom. 8:2) Where sin and death once reigned, grace and truth now flourish. Freedom is restored and love rules the day.
Reader, your religious law-keeping mustn’t be viewed as the spawn of favor and approval from God. Redemption can’t be secured by rigorous rule-following. Salvation, asserts Sir Walter Marshall, “is not a privilege procured by our sincere obedience and holiness, as some may imagine, or a reward of good works reserved for us in another world; but a privilege bestowed upon believers in their very first entrance into a holy state, on which all ability to do good works depends, and all sincere obedience to the law follow after it, as fruit produced by it.” (55)
Just as you’re justified wholly apart from yourself, the directive to holiness is kept wholly outside of yourself as well, in the perfect performance of Christ. This holy law-keeping by the Son enables sinners to embark on the pursuit of God. Without this glorious gospel of substitution, we’re nowhere, left with nothing, crushed under the weight of the law of holiness. Apart from this good news, the onus is put squarely on our shoulders, the impetus for righteousness is seen as reward. But these notions are categorically eradicated by Jesus’s grace.
Justification and sanctification are equally divine works of grace, barring nothing on our part, save our confession of guilt. We’re made righteous by Christ. “We receive our holiness out of his fulness by fellowship with him,” continues Marshall. (56) Or, as Martin Luther has said, “A man is made a Christian not by working but by knowing.” It is our remembering our sin and reveling in Jesus’s gracious atonement that we’re made like him. The gospel asks, not for your competence, only your confession — only your trust and belief. “It is our believing, then, that forms the connection between us and Christ, not our working,” writes Bonar. (#26)
Holiness by Grace
Therefore, engaging in Christ’s work isn’t for the receiving of some righteous reward, but springs out of love. “True service of God must not proceed at all from hope of reward, or fear of punishment, but only from love,” says Marshall. (42) Christian reader, as you “do” the work of Christ in and among fellow-believers and unregenerate alike, be sure the motivation behind such works isn’t a notion of recompense, but only of proof — proving and demonstrating the remarkable work of grace wrought in you by the Savior King, Jesus. You must know and see and remember, that because of the gospel, you are, right now, “complete in his completeness, righteous in his righteousness, comely in his comeliness, perfect in his perfection.” (Bonar, #26) “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:16) The delight of God is for us to lose ourselves in him. He desires us to be so enraptured by his grace and love that we can’t help but show mercy and compassion to others.
The more good and beneficial we apprehend God to us to all eternity, doubtless the more lovely God will be to us, and our affections will be the more inflamed towards him. (Marshall, 44–45)
Make this your work; align all your efforts to this end: to be in perpetual remembrance of the cross where the matchless grace of God was poured out for the whole world, igniting the way of faith for the sinner to endeavor unto holiness by grace!
Horatius Bonar, Kelso Tracts (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1851).
Walter Marshall, The Gospel-Mystery of Sanctification (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1859).