By Kevin McClure
I was recently listening to a sermon entitled, “Counterfeit Grace,” and I thought, “Hmmm…something needs to be said about counterfeit holiness.” So, this is my effort to address that subject.
Holiness is a word that describes the character and nature of God. Among other things, it refers to the idea that God is incomprehensibly pure. To be holy means that we are experiencing the very life of the God who is pure. But in order to more clearly understand and therefore, experience holiness, we must understand what holiness is not. Some people have a performance-based holiness, a holiness that is based on the checklist approach to life. They list the things they should avoid and the things they should do. This is a Pharisaic approach, and it does not lead us to true holiness. What is the motivation behind this? It is fear and a desire for control. Walking with God sabotages our ability to be in control-not that we can actually succeed at being in control. Control is a delusion. Only God can, in the ultimate sense, be in control. Our desire for control reveals that we struggle with idolatry and the same unholy ambition that found its way into Lucifer’s heart and motivated him to attempt mutiny against God.
We want to be holy. This is good. But when we do not surrender our own attempts at achieving it, this is bad. We try and try and try, only to see our repeated and sincere efforts met with defeat. Where does our defeat lead us? It will either lead us to the cross or it will lead us to rules. Rules are man’s substitute for true holiness. Paul warns us against man-made rules in his letter to the Colossians: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility, and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Colossians 2:20-23).
We know, for instance, that God wants us to live in purity. So to insure purity, we may find ourselves making up a rule such as, “I will no longer go to an R-rated movie.” Will this insure purity in your life, and will it make you judgmental of Christians who choose to go to an R-rated movie? Does this rule really help? You may find that there are some exceptionally good R-rated movies, and some incredibly bad PG or PG-13 movies. Instead of making a rule, why not ask the Spirit to guide you? Why not cultivate a lifestyle of keeping your mind on things that are above? (See Colossians 3:2 and Philippians 4:8.) Why not ask the Spirit to help you to “set no worthless thing before your eyes” (Psalm 119:37)? How about living a life, in which you follow the advice of the Psalmist, who wrote, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word…I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9,11).
How about this rule: “Because I am a Christian, I will no longer drink.” Do you have a special vulnerability to abuse alcohol? Then you are wise to abstain. But do not say that you will abstain because you are a Christian-do it because of your vulnerability. After all, there are many non-Christians who make this choice also. Is it possible to be a Christian and use alcohol appropriately? Yes, there is no place in God’s Word where moderate use of alcohol is either forbidden or commanded.
Do rules give you a greater sense of security? Then I would ask you to consider whether you are trusting a rule to sanctify you, or Jesus? You might create a rule for yourself that has to do with how much you will pray or read on a daily basis. Certainly, praying and reading are good Biblical things to do. But remember that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did these things, too. In fact, one of the most sobering things Jesus said to them is that even though they diligently studied the Scriptures, His Word did not abide in them and therefore they didn’t recognize Him as their Messiah (see John 5:37-43). Yes, read God’s Word, because it is the single most important thing that you can do for your own spiritual growth. But ask the Spirit to show you how much you should read (and pray). You will find that He will lead you through seasons when you will approach prayer and Bible reading with great discipline and regimen, and other seasons when He will lead you to approach these things with greater flexibility and spontaneity.
Beware of creating a formula for your spiritual success. God, it seems, despises formulas because we tend to rely more on them than on Him. Remember that your repeated failures at achieving true holiness are signals that you are trying to accomplish it on your own energy. Only God can make a person holy. All of the resolutions and efforts in the world can not do it. Go back to the cross. Lie there before Jesus, the Perfector of true holiness. Confess your weakness, your sin, your repeated efforts and failures. Confess your dependence on man-made rules, and ask the Spirit to forgive you for placing trust in rules. Ask Him to help you to depend on Him. Daily stand before Him in a position of full surrender and trust because holiness is not something you’re going to achieve, it’s something you’re going to receive. Remember the Christian life isn’t about trying harder; it’s about receiving more.
Having said all of this, is it wrong to conclude that there is no striving or effort in holiness? Consider the words of Paul in Colossians 1:28-29: “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all His energy, which so powerfully works in me (emphasis added).
As we draw closer to Jesus, His Spirit will give us the fuel for “holy striving.” The author of Hebrews talks about a “struggle against sin.” There is a struggle when you have committed yourself to obedience to God. Before I was a Christian I struggled very little. I pretty much did as I pleased. My conscience was dull, my heart cold. Now as a Christian, however, my heart has been changed. I do not wish to sin and so there is a battle. Intimacy with Jesus fuels me with energy to fight the good fight and wage the good warfare. It provides both an internal motive (pleasing Jesus) and a power to resist, both which were previously absent from my life.
Therefore as we consider a life of holiness, let us avoid the counterfeit approach which emphasizes rules, and let us also avoid counterfeit grace which causes us to justify and excuse sinful behavior. After all, Titus 2:11, 12 tells us, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age…”. The true grace of God will not lead us to rationalize sinful behavior. As one man said, “You spell rationalize: RATIONAL-LIES.” True holiness and true grace are Siamese twins and in order to receive both, one must experience on-going intimacy with Jesus.