“I’m the biggest sinner I know. No one will ever reach complete holiness this side of heaven, so why spend so much time discussing it? By emphasizing the need to be holy and sanctified we’re de-emphasizing the grace and forgiveness of Christ. It would be misleading to a seeker if you told him he needed to behave a certain way in order to be a good Christian.”
I sincerely believe my friend means well in desiring to emphasize the grace and forgiveness Jesus Christ offers. However, it is as though he has completely neglected the supernatural aspect of salvation, the doctrine of sanctification, and the importance of the pursuit of holiness, among other things. When one comes to Christ he has not simply “made a decision” to change his worldview; a supernatural change has taken place in which he has been made spiritually alive and therefore has the ability to lead a Christ-like life through the same power of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11). Through the work of Christ, a follower of Christ is not merely a sinner saved by grace; he is ultimately a saint who has been freed from the bondage of sin to live a life empowered by the One who has overcome the world (John 16:33; I John 5:4). As saints, we have been called to a life of non-conformity, as set apart for the work of Christ. My friend was quite uncomfortable with the term “saint,” mostly because in our cultural context it is characterized as a position that must be earned. However, we know Scripture refers to those who have been redeemed by Christ as saints solely because of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our accounts, not because we have performed enough good works to obtain the title. It is also true that “When we read the epistles of Paul, we are struck by the fact that he addresses the people as saints and then goes on to rebuke them for their foolish and sinful behavior.(1)” Obviously, no Christian has achieved nor will achieve complete holiness in this world, but by the same token we should seriously ask if it possible for a Christian to live life without a single evidence that he has been transformed. Doesn’t salvation necessarily lead to a changed life and a desire for holiness? If a supposed conversion doesn’t produce a renewed mind and a changed heart can it actually be considered a genuine conversion?
To answer these questions, Scripture teaches that saving grace is also sanctifying grace, meaning that the same grace that saved you also produces within you the ability to lead a life that does not give rise to sin. Christians still sin, but sin no longer reigns in the life of the believer; there is a difference. I believe that if we downplay our Christian duties to non-believers and preach grace and forgiveness without placing the doctrine of the fruit of the Spirit right alongside them, then we are cheapening the grace of God and opening the door for anti-nomianism. “Instead of our standard being the Word of God, our standard is whatever appeals, attracts, and draws people into our churches. We will never impact the world for Jesus with a relativized, wimpy, fear-driven, people-pleasing ‘gospel.(2)’” To overemphasize forgiveness and de-emphasize the believer’s necessary quest for holiness is to breed a church of apathetic, nominal Christians who will inevitably bear little fruit. “It has become common to teach that one can receive the gift of salvation without experiencing any sort of personal or moral change. After all, Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven, right?(3)” But Scripture teaches that Christ’s work on the cross was to “redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people of His own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14); therefore, it is appropriate that those who are redeemed by Christ’s work on the cross should thereby live changed lives since this was the reason for His work on the cross.
As I mentioned earlier, the pursuit of holiness is not easy, and is indeed a lifelong pursuit. But Scripture does lay out for us in simple terms what a life of holiness should look like in Galatians 5, in which it lists the fruit of the Spirit. Instead of adopting a mindset that looks at this list and absent-mindedly and automatically responds with “God’s grace will cover me when I fall short.” We would be wise to study this list and entreat the Spirit of God to cultivate such traits within us that we may honor the One who makes it possible for us to grow in the beauty of His holiness.
1 The Holiness of God, R.C. Sproul, p. 157.
2 “Shutting up the Kingdom: The Tragic Consequences of Hypocrisy” by Richard Ganz,
Tabletalk Magazine (October 2009), p. 16.
3 “The Grace that Sanctifies” by Tom Ascol, Tabletalk Magazine (October 2009), p.26.