As I wrestle sin and fight for faith, I sometimes wish the pursuit of holiness came with some kind of equation.
([X minutes of Bible reading] + [Y minutes of prayer]) x [Z days a week] = holiness
If we wanted to be even holier, we could add in some regular accountability, small-group participation, evangelism, and fasting. Either way, this would be clear and predictable. This would make holiness manageable. This would give us control.
“We can become experts in the Christian life without growing any closer to Christ.”
Then I remember a man who came to Jesus with a desire not so different from my own: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). The man’s equation was nearly complete: no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no lying (Mark 10:19–20). What variable was he missing? Then comes the answer that scatters every dream of a predictable pursuit of holiness: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
Come, leave predictable behind and follow me. Be near me. Commune with me. Live to see my glory.
This is unpredictable. This cannot be managed or controlled. And this is the only path to holiness.
The pull I feel with regard to holiness is really just one version of a common temptation: to try to live the Christian life without Christ. To replace discipleship with technique, worship with emotional hype, communion with a list of rules or spiritual practices. It is a startling fact that we can become experts in the Christian life without growing any closer to Christ.
The religiously minded have always been drawn to such Christless “holiness.” We see it in the Pharisees, those walking tombs of men, washed white on the outside while the bones of the dead rattled within (Matthew 23:27). We see it in the false teachers at Colossae, who boasted of “self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body” while their flesh enjoyed a feast (Colossians 2:23). And many of us see traces of it in ourselves.
My own proneness to pursue Christless “holiness” was exposed recently as I asked myself (through the guidance of a wise saint), “How many books have you read about holiness and the Christian life?” And then, as I was still counting on my mental fingers, “How many books have you read about Jesus himself?” Now, to be sure, the best books on holiness and the Christian life say a lot about Jesus. But the comparison raises a question worth pausing over: Are we most fascinated by the practices of the Christian life, or by the Person of the Christian life?
Futility of Self-Sanctification
Of course, holiness based on mere tactics and discipline is no holiness at all, no matter how shiny it looks on the outside. Self-sanctification is a better name for this pursuit, and for those whose spiritual nerve endings have not been fried, it is as miserable as it is futile.
Much of the time, self-sanctifiers simply fall into the same old pits over and again. Powerless as a branch apart from the vine (John 15:4–5), they cannot withstand the allure of the second glance, the third episode, the fourth drink. They are paralytics commanding themselves to walk. Many of us can still feel the ache from the repeated falls and bruised resolves. In fact, there’s only one thing worse than failing at self-sanctification: succeeding.
“The only people who can truly kill their sin are those who are preoccupied with Jesus.”
Paul gives us one of the most vivid portraits of “successful” self-sanctifiers in Colossians 2:16–23. With an iron will, they carefully keep their list of regulations, most of them self-imposed: “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (Colossians 2:21). They deal harshly with their own bodies in order to whip their lusts into submission (Colossians 2:23). They seem spiritual, even mystical, talking of angels and “going on in detail about visions” (Colossians 2:18).
But then comes the devastating assessment: all of their discipline and self-control is “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23). Self-sanctification merely trades outward sins for inward sins: pornography for pride, gluttony for greed, angry outbursts for quiet contempt.
And why? Because in all their fervor for moral purity, self-sanctifiers nevertheless refuse to “[hold] fast to the Head” — that is, they refuse to trust and love Jesus (Colossians 2:19). The makeup of outward virtue hides the ugly truth: self-sanctifiers are lifeless as a severed limb.
When we separate holiness from Christ himself, the pursuit of holiness inevitably becomes mechanical or individualistic — the solution to a spiritual equation or the effect of my brute will. But genuine holiness is neither mechanical nor individualistic: it is, in the first place, relational.
And so, when Paul turns the corner from Colossians 2 to Colossians 3, he shifts our eyes from the futility of self-sanctification to Sanctity himself:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. . . . For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1, 3)
Your life — your true life — is hidden with Christ, the Holy One. Your union with him now makes you holy (Colossians 3:12). But in order to live out that holiness here, you must “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (Colossians 3:1). In other words, holiness is the flower of our union with Christ, and it unfolds through our communion with Christ.
Then, and only then, does Paul command the Colossians to put specific sins to death (Colossians 3:5–11), suggesting that the only people who can truly kill their sin (and not just replace one with another) are those who are preoccupied with Jesus. We are lepers who become clean only as he lays his hand upon us, paralytics who rise only as he gives the command, blind men who see only as he touches our eyes.
J.I. Packer draws out the conclusion: “The holiest Christians are not those most concerned about holiness as such, but those whose minds and hearts and goals and purposes and love and hope are most fully focused on our Lord Jesus Christ” (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 134).
How, then, do we prevent the pursuit of holiness from becoming a clever shield that keeps us from Christ? Ultimately, we are in desperate need of the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us in order to daily draw us to Christ (John 16:14). Yet consider one modest proposal for welcoming his ongoing ministry to that end: when you sit down to read, pray, or hear God’s word, do not settle for anything less than communion with the living Christ.
Robert Murray McCheyne may help us here. Rather than call these activities spiritual disciplines or means of grace (which are both helpful in their own way), he liked to call them trysting times. A tryst, of course, is a meeting between lovers. So, McCheyne writes,
In the daily reading of the Word, Christ pays daily visits to the soul. In daily prayer, Christ reveals himself to his own in that other way than he doth to the world. In the house of God Christ comes to his own, and says: “Peace be unto you!” And in the sacrament he makes himself known in the breaking of the bread, and they cry out: “It is the Lord!” These are all trysting times, when the Savior comes to visit his own. (A Communion of Love)
There is no equation here. Only something far better: A Savior who is always ready to visit with us, commune with us, and show us his glory. And, in doing so, to make us holy as he is holy.