Is the primary battle of the Believer with sin? Should our focus be our own personal holiness? Did Jesus secure our pardon for all sins; past, present and future? Is it not written that in the new covenant God says, “and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more”? Does not the Psalmist write, “Our sins are removed as far as the east is from the west?”
How often I hear Christians say that they have to work on their pride or their patience or their selfishness or their fear of man. Who can take issue with that desire? Of course we who claim to be followers of Jesus should be like Him. But, after walking this out for nearly 50 years I can tell you it doesn’t work.
Perhaps the best example is when I have tried to be humble, I find I simply end up demonstrating some form of false humility. Where then do we find true humility? Consider, Paul says love is not boastful or proud, therefore love is humble, right? The first of the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galations 5 is love. Therefore, humility is fruit, the natural byproduct of walking in the Spirit. A friend of mine was going through some significant trials and said to himself, “I guess I just need to learn humility.” That very day a friend from out of state, who had no idea what my friend was struggling with, called and said, “I was taking a shower and the Lord told me to call you and tell you that humility is a gift.” When I first heard this story I struggled with the notion that humility could be a gift. But, in a sense it is because love is a gift. We love because He first loved us. Love is the first fruit of the Spirit, it has preeminence over all that follows. The law of love is the law of the new covenant. God is love and He alone can supply the love necessary to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Humility lies in love.
In the same way, whether it be selfishness or fear or whatever, the remedy for our failing is not found in trying to rid ourselves of these less than Christ-like attributes. To the extent that we take the bait and choose that battle we will lose. First, we become distracted from the real battle. Paul tells us quite clearly that our struggle is not against flesh and blood? Are we not flesh and blood? My struggle should not be with me or with you. Rather it is against evil. (Ephesians 6:12) We are charged to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and destroy the works of the evil one. Further, Jesus charged the disciples with going. He did not tell them to bone up on scripture or to establish some sense of personal purity or holiness as an antecedent.
Could it be said that there are two forms of evidence that the Holy Spirit is active in the life of a believer? The first is the obvious demonstration of power that Paul spoke of when he said, “The kingdom of God does not consist of words but of power.” (I Corinthians 4:20) The word power is dunamis, dynamite. Forgive me if I assume too much, but I would suggest that this form of evidence is lacking in the western church today. Lots of words, not so much power. The second mark of the Holy Spirit in our lives is found in the oft-quoted, oft-preached fruit of the Spirit found in Galations chapter five. In the West that list of nine attributes has become a litmus test for authentic Christian living. Who can argue against such things against which there is no law? Okay, but let’s take a look at the context.
The first word in Galations 5:22 is “But”. That means that the fruit of the Spirit listed in verses 22 and 23 is presented as a contrast. Contrast to what? To what came before…
“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”—Galations 5:19-21
Note Paul stated, “that those who practice such things” will not inherit the kingdom of God. Practice, as in habitual, not sin from time to time. Not falling off the path occasionally. My guess is that if you are reading this you do not practice “immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Jealousy? Anger? Envying? Some of these may jump up from time to time, but the great likelihood is that you and I aren’t “practicing” such things.
Check out the verse following the fruit of the Spirit… “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Note the word “crucified” is past tense, already been done. The entire context, the chapter, is all about being free in Christ and staying that way, hence the reference to the fact that “against these things there is no law”.
So given the context we see that Paul was not setting up a list as a litmus test or a list of attributes for believers to seek for, or aim at, or measure themselves by. Isn’t it the case that when we are not engaged in the real battle, the battle out there against evil and all its manifestations, that our fall back position is the fruit of the Spirit? Do we not, perhaps consciously or subconsciously, look to the fruit of the Spirit for confirmation that we are doing okay in Christ? My bet is that there are a lot more sermons focusing on the fruit of the Spirit than there are about the demonstrations of power, the dunamis, that Paul wrote about.
Let’s face it we can neither produce nor fake that power of God… miracles, healings, etc. But, and herein lies the temptation, we can by our own effort, devotion and commitment attain to, at least in some small measure, the attributes we know as the fruit of the Spirit. Don’t we all know unbelievers who manifest love, joy, peace, kindness ever so much as the Christians we know? We see the list and then we go out and try to live the list. It’s called works, religion at its finest, and the result is never good. It is the absolute opposite result Paul was trying to effect when he wrote the letter to the Galations.
By analogy, if I ask you to draw a horse, you will probably sit down and start drawing a what a horse should look like given your experience with horses. Unless your a horse person and an artist with experience drawing horses its probably not going to look too good. But, if we took a photograph of a horse, turned it upside down and simply followed the lines and shadows with our eyes and reproduced those on paper you would be surprised at how much more accurate your drawing would be. My point is that if we try to reproduce something for which we have a preconceived notion it is probably not going to go well. Whereas if we simply keep our eyes on the Holy Spirit and follow the line He provides day by day, moment by moment the fruit of the Spirit will be the natural result, or better, the supernatural result.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that personal holiness is not important. I am saying when it becomes our primary focus we become our primary focus. I don’t want to be my primary focus. “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these shall be added to you.” I have found that I am most content when I am not thinking about me. I am most content when I am hearing and obeying, following the Holy Spirit and engaging in a meaningful way in the lives and issues of those around me.
The real role of personal holiness comes into play in the realm of spiritual warfare. When we are properly engaged in the battle against evil we know that we cannot afford to give a foothold to the evil one, for if we do we become vulnerable to attack. If we give into temptation while engaged in the battle that we are called to as soldiers in Christ we place at risk not only ourselves, but our families and our fellow soldiers. Holiness is not a goal or a qualifier, rather it is an essential defense, even a weapon. That may be nuanced, but it is a very different perspective than seeking to be holy because we are suppose to be holy. When we put personal holiness first we put the cart before the horse, become distracted with ourselves, and are of little value to the kingdom. It’s the wrong fight and it’s exhausting. The evil one is happy to see us so distracted with our own issues while the world goes to hell in a hand basket.
Lastly, the battle against sin has already been fought and won. Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice for sin. Do we really believe that? He has already secured our pardoned, for sins past, present and future. To the extent that we don’t believe and rely on that sacrifice we denigrate it. The writer of Hebrews spends a lot of time comparing the priesthood as it operated under the Law of Moses and that of Jesus, our High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek. One of the most astounding and absolutely freeing trues is found in chapter 10…
“Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies are made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” “Now where there is forgiveness of these things, an offering for sin is no longer required.”—Hebrews 10:11-14, 18 (NASB) (My italics)
We say, we sing, Jesus did it all, but do we really believe it? Don’t we act like it is the sacrifice of Jesus AND my obedience? Don’t we act as though it is all conditioned on our sanctification, which somehow has become our responsibility? Jesus specifically asked the Father to sanctify the disciples in His high priestly prayer (John 17:17). He did not tell the disciples to bone up on Scripture and live a holy life. He did not pray that they would sanctify themselves. How is it that we feel that sanctification is primarily our responsibility? I mean isn’t it true that the unspoken goal of most Christians is not to make any mistakes? Again, the accuser of the brethren likes nothing more than to see me all hung up on how I’m doing and feeling disqualified because of my personal failings, sin.
I leave you with Paul’s admonition, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.”