A Balanced Path to Holiness

Christianity is full of tensions or paradoxes between seeming opposites: Jesus Christ being both fully God and fully human; the “already” and “not yet” of God’s kingdom arrival; salvation by faith vs. works; a God of love and judgment; and many more. Orthodox Christian doctrine attempts to hold these paradoxes in balance. Emphasizing one side or the other of the tension could lead to a distortion of our Christian faith — even to heresy. (Thanks to Morgan Guyton for reminding me of this recently.)

The call to holiness, which is central to Christianity and to our United Methodist heritage, has been suffering from imbalance lately. The tension here has to do with the role of law in producing holiness of heart and life.

At times in church history, holiness has been reduced to following a set of rules — usually having to do with forbidding certain activities common to society at the time. “I don’t drink, and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls who do” is one version. Another is “no card playing, no dancing, and no movies.”

A reaction to this shallow, reductionist approach to holiness has more recently emphasized that “we are no longer under law, but under grace.” The idea is that we can ignore law altogether because, if we are living in Christ, we will naturally live holy lives.

The risk of this second approach is that it makes each person a law unto themselves. In other words, as individuals, we get to define what holy living is. If I decide that, living in Christ, I am still allowed to get drunk on the weekend, no one can call me to account because I am no longer under law. Or if I believe that cheating on my income tax or putting down a coworker through gossip is consistent with holy living, I can define it that way.

After all, Jeremiah reminds us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). In our sinful state, we are infinitely capable of rationalizing any sin we want to commit and find a way to call it holy living.

A better approach to holiness is to hold the two extremes in tension.

No laws or set of rules can comprehensively define a holy life. However, the commandments and laws of Scripture are meant to be teachers and guides to holy living. (The primary meaning of the Hebrew word “torah (law)” is “instruction.”) The Bible repeatedly calls upon us to obey God’s word. Jesus’ Great Commission to us as his disciples includes the instruction to “make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20, emphasis added). John tells us that we “receive from [God] anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him … Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them” (I John 3:22, 24).

In fact, “obey” or “obedience” appears in Scripture over 175 times, most of them referencing obedience to God’s word and teaching. As Samuel said, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (I Samuel 15:22). To ignore or change the boundaries set by God in Scripture would be disobedience to God.

We quickly find out, however, that we are not capable of obeying the Bible’s teachings. So we focus on just the ones we can obey, or we reduce the requirements of Scripture to the ones we feel comfortable with, or we figure out excuses as to why we can’t obey this or that particular teaching (therefore, it must not really be required of us). “Lord, I can’t forgive that person — you don’t expect me to, do you?”

The only way around this dilemma that is faithful to God is to truly live each day in Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds us, “the righteous requirements of the law [are] fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). Living in the power of the Holy Spirit enables us to fulfill God’s commands, and his presence guides us in applying God’s word to the various circumstances we encounter throughout the day.

This approach is not as simple as drawing up a (short) list of rules to live by or as disregarding the commands of Scripture altogether and relying on our feelings to guide us. But it is the only balanced way to live a life that is pleasing to God and personally fulfilling. What do you think?

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