About a week ago I observed an usual event. While driving a coyote crossed the road directly in front of my vehicle. The place in the road that he crossed had been carved out of a small hill so that on the side he was striding towards there was a wall of dirt about ten feet high. I was amazed to see the apparent ease by which he scaled this dirt wall (about an 80 degree angle). It appeared to me that he made little effort beyond that needed to run along a flat surface.
Observing this prompted me to reflect. This coyote displayed a characteristic that was natural to it—it was free to scale a steep incline because it was fitted for this action. It had come to know and utilize it’s God-given agility, speed and strength to survive in the environment in which it lives. I think that this example is instructive for human life and holiness. Let me explain.
Unlike this coyote, holiness is not a natural capacity for humans because of sin and its effects. We may well have some sense of the need for holiness (or at least some measure of right living) but to pursue holiness in the way Scripture prescribes is truly foreign. The desire for holiness is evidence of God’s work (in the inner self of a person) to renew his own image in us. The ability to sincerely give ourselves to God is the expression of “an honest and good heart” (Luke 8:15, NASBU)
Thanks be to God for revealing his mind, standards and desire for us! “The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but he loves the one who pursues righteousness.” (Proverbs 15:9) The inner sense of moral compulsion to do the right thing or to avoid doing the wrong action are gifts of God (conscience). The ability to be wise and to purse righteousness is learned and requires the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the reality that divides the redeemed from the worldling.
In the best case scenario, the worldling (religious or not) responds to the voice of conscience by laboring to manage behavior so as to avoid negative outcomes. Some people are remarkably adept at this and they can appear to others as a morally praiseworthy persons. But God sees the heart and knows each persons’ actual motives, thoughts and actions. In the context of the Christian church this is manifested by the teaching and modeling of “sin management”:
“Once we understand the disconnection between the current message [taught in churches] and ordinary life, the failures just noted at least make a certain sense. They should be expected. When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual’s sins. On the left it is removal of social or structural evils. The current gospel then becomes a ‘gospel of sin management.’ Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message. Moment-to moment human reality in its depths is not the arena of faith and eternal living. . . . A Christian is either one who is ready to die and face the judgment of God or one who has an identifiable commitment to love and justice in society. That’s it.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p.41; italics in original.)
Sin management is not the hope of the Gospel. It is a pathetic attempt by people (so many of them well meaning) to meet God’s just requirements. Yet this is not God’s way of holiness. True holiness is rooted in the identity of the redeemed—that the life of God indwelling us, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, is the power to live in the way that is pleasing to God.
And this life of holiness is not lived in isolation but rather in authenticity, fellowship and accountability with other believers. The New Testament writers assume authentic community among believers when exhorting people to holy living. For example, Peter says,
“Dearly beloved, I beg you as aliens and exiles to keep on abstaining from the evil desires of your lower nature [Literal Greek: flesh], because they are always at war with the soul. Keep on living upright lives among the heathen, so that, when they slander you as evil-doers, by what they see of your good deeds they may come to praise God on the Judgment day.” (1 Peter 2:11-12, The New Testament: A Translation in the Language of the People [Moody Press: 1950], Charles Williams)
What is the source of the power to do what Peter exhorts us to do? It is nothing less than the life of Christ himself. The Lord consecrated himself to God to do his will and in the process his humanity was “perfected” (see Hebrews 5:1-10). And he is the only One able to make his redeemed holy (see Hebrews 10:5-14). For he is the Holy One and if we sincerely consecrate ourselves then the power of his life will be manifested in us so that we can genuinely love and exhort each other to keep the faith.
We relate to the Triune God individually yet to pursue true holiness requires that we not live in isolation from each other. For we need each other to speak the truth, demonstrate God’s love and walk with each other when we falter. The onslaught of the enemy is fiercest against those who genuinely seek be holy in the Way of Christ. And God has given us his Spirit and the redeemed community to help us stand and fight the good fight of faith till the time our exile on earth ends. May God grant us the ability to perceive and practice the truth of the Gospel together.