The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges, Paperback, 158 pages, The Navigators, 1978.
The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges is a brief book about just that—pursuing holiness—from a Reformed, biblical perspective. In short, this book is a concise, easy-to-read manual on holy living for the Christian. The author makes known that the title of the book is based on Hebrews 12:14: “Follow [pursue]…holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” He explains, “The word pursue suggests two thoughts: first, that diligence and effort are required; and second, that it is a lifelong task. These two thoughts form a dual theme throughout this book.” (p. 15, ch. 1, “Holiness Is for You”). Further explanation of what “pursuing” entails can be found in chapter 8, titled “Obedience—Not Victory”:
We need to brace ourselves up, and to realize that we are responsible for our thoughts, attitudes, and actions. We need to reckon on the fact that we died to sin’s reign, that it no longer has any dominion over us, that God has united us with the risen Christ in all His power, and has given us the Holy Spirit to work in us. Only as we accept our responsibility and appropriate God’s provision will we make any progress in our pursuit of holiness.
By stressing the believers’ responsibility to separate from sin, Bridges is not advocating the “touch not, taste not, handle not” practices of the holier-than-thou legalist. He warns of the errors that surround this legalism, such as Pharisaic “endless lists of trivial do’s and don’ts” and Quaker-like concerns for “specific styles of dress and mannerisms” (p. 19). Rather, the author makes a very good point about Christian responsibility. The main part of that responsibility is the subject of chapter 9, “Putting Sin to Death”:
The action we are to take is to put to death the misdeeds of the body (Romans 8:13). Paul uses the same expression in another book: ‘Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature’ (Colossians 3:5). What does the expression put to death mean? The King James Version uses the term mortify. According to the dictionary, mortify means ‘to destroy the strength, vitality, or functioning of; to subdue or deaden.’ To put to death the misdeeds of the body, then, is to destroy the strength and vitality of sin as it tries to reign in our bodies.
How lacking this is among so many “religious” people today who practice just enough outward morality to keep out of trouble! Daily crucifying one’s old man of sin also goes against the “let go and let God” philosophy that even conservative, doctrinally sound Christians can fall into if they focus far more of their spiritual energy on thinking about their personal salvation rather than on obeying Christ in all areas of life. This is dangerous because the war against the old man—our depraved natures—involves a great spiritual battle (Rom. 7:15-25). Many practical tips on how to fight this battle with the Word of God through personal discipline can be found in chapters 10, “The Place of Personal Holiness” and 14, “Habits of Holiness.” In chapter 3, several reasons are given as to why holiness is a requirement for the Christian, not an option.
Bridges does not promote holy living on the basis of works-righteousness. In a facts-over-emotions approach to what constitutes good works, he puts at ease the mind of the careful, Reformed reader by referring to Isaiah 64:6, stating that our own righteous deeds are but filthy rags in God’s sight. Says Bridges, “Our best works are stained and polluted with imperfection and sin. As one of the saints of several centuries ago put it, ‘Even our tears of repentance need to be washed in the blood of the lamb.’” (p. 36). Regarding the source of these good works, the author explains, “We are dependent on the enabling power of the Holy Spirit to attain any degree of holiness” (p. 79-80). And, “It must be clear to us that mortification, though it is something we do, cannot be carried out in our own strength… Mortification must be done by the strength and under the direction of the Holy Spirit” (p. 87). The author, it seems, confesses with Isaiah and all truly Reformed believers: “Lord, thou wilt ordain peace for us: for thou hast wrought all our works in us” (26:12).
The Pursuit of Holiness is theological, replete with Scripture references on nearly every page. Yet, it is not confined to the realm of truth-in-the-abstract; the author makes an earnest effort to show the reader how to apply Scripture to one’s daily life. For example, Bridges describes a simple system based on three verses in 1 Corinthians for determining whether a particular activity is good or evil. It asks such practical questions as “Is it helpful—physically, spiritually, and mentally?”; “Does it bring me under its power?”; “Does it hurt others?”; “Does it glorify God?”. The author aptly remarks, “These questions can get rather searching. But they must be asked if we are to pursue holiness as a total way of life” (p. 91).
In his thought-provoking book, Bridges brings up pertinent questions that can weigh on the Christian conscience:
If holiness, then, is so basic to the Christian life, why do we not experience it more in daily living? Why do so many Christians feel constantly defeated in their struggle with sin? Why does the Church of Jesus Christ so often seem to be more conformed to the world around it than to God? (p. 20).
To these questions, Bridges offers three brief, but insightful answers by problem areas that often plague believers.
First, “our attitude toward sin is more self-centered than God-centered. We are more concerned about our own ‘victory’ over sin than we are about the fact that our sins grieve the heart of God” (p. 20).
Second, “we have misunderstood ‘living by faith’ (Gal. 2:20) to mean that no (conscious, RV) effort at holiness is required on our part” (p. 21). The author explains, “We must face the fact that we have a personal responsibility for our walk of holiness” (p. 22).
Third, “we do not take some sin seriously. We have mentally categorized sins into that which is unacceptable and that which may be tolerated a little bit.” (p. 22). And, “Are we willing to call sin “sin” not because it is big or little, but because God’s law forbids it? We cannot categorize sin if we are to live a life of holiness” (p. 23).
The problem areas identified by Bridges are attention-grabbing. They are areas in which the Reformed Christian can slip. The author’s explanations and brief solutions to them are biblical and practical. The reader is strongly encouraged.
Notwithstanding its many strengths, the book is weak in its explanation of the antithesis for the child of God. Mention is made of the fact that we are but “pilgrims and strangers” on this earth and that it is our duty to remain “unspotted from the world.” However, no Scripture references are made to Psalm 1, Psalm 119:63, 2 Corinthians 4:14-18, Ephesians 5:3-7 and the many other passages in Holy Writ that refer to the duty of believers to keep from friendships with those who stubbornly persist in living impenitently in their sins.
What outstanding feature does this book about the holiness of God and the Christian have over so many other books similar to it? The author does not paint a beautiful—perhaps breath-taking—picture of God’s holiness, only to dump a bucket of paint on the same by also portraying Him as a helpless being whose will to save is often frustrated by grace-denying sinners. Bridges is no Arminian. He freely acknowledges: “Holiness, then, is not necessary as a condition of salvation—that would be salvation by works—but as a part of salvation that is received by faith in Christ. The angel said to Joseph, ‘You are to give Him the name Jesus (which means ‘Jehovah is salvation’), because He will save His people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21) ” (p. 39). Jesus saved us from our sins! “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy” (Rom. 9:16).
The Pursuit of Holiness will be a helpful aid for any Christian who recognizes his or her profound need to brace up against the lusts of the flesh that militate against the spirit (Gal. 5:17). I highly recommend it to all who read this.
Last time we considered the serious spiritual problems that result when one acts on the thinking “A little isn’t so bad.” Chief among these is a compromising attitude that leads one to commit seemingly minor sins without repentance. However, these “minor” sins are the “little foxes that spoil the vines” (cf. Song of Solomon 2:15). That is, although they may appear as innocent as cute, fluffy little foxes, they will have a spiritually destructive influence. For example, listening to “Christian” Rock, Pop Rock, or worse can destroy one’s love and appreciation for singing the Psalms. Occasionally watching movies or television with actors continuously impersonating the sins of others will cloud one’s spiritual discernment. Consider what the Apostle said: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (I John 2:15). This means that if we go about loving what the world loves, then we will be consumed by the world and not experience the love of our heavenly Father.
What about the problem of so-called questionable activities such as reading a typical romance novel or book about the young wizard, Harry Potter? Well, consider the following real world situation. Recently, when working in a factory, I read The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges at break times. “What are you reading?” someone asked. “Why are you reading that?” by someone else. And, “That’s an interesting title. What is meant by pursuing holiness?” It is not hard to imagine what disturbing questions and comments would have come from people had I been reading a book about the magic-wielding, power-seeking, rule-breaking, and at times deceitful and revengeful Harry Potter. “Hey, did you see the movie?!” and “I wasn’t much of a reader before Harry Potter books, but I am now.” In the first scenario, it was evident that there was something different about me and the book I was reading from the secular setting. In the latter, there was no obvious distinction.
Now, someone will argue that reading Harry Potter or typical romance novels for pleasure is not outright disobedience to God and His Word. We realize, however, that it can lead to the destruction of watchfulness. Is spending one’s time in this way truly heeding the biblical command concerning worldly things to “Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away?” (Prov. 4:15) By not doing this, one is not obeying Christ’s command to “watch and pray that you will not fall into temptation” (Matt. 26:41). Then, overconfidence about not falling in a certain area will occur. One’s mind will gradually be deceived until disobedience happens. So, indulging in book after book of the sort mentioned above will eventually eliminate one’s watchfulness and hinder prayers, especially the petition “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” This would please Satan whose goal is to once again make us slaves to sin.
Our lives must be characterized by the Spirit’s command: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2). So, by His grace, we prove what God’s perfect will is through holiness in every area of our lives. Living holy consistently allows us to be effective servants of God (2 Tim. 2:21).
Intentionally or unconsciously, this argument can often be used by Christians in an attempt to justify one’s actions. A young Christian may rationalize under-age drinking, wrongful sharing of schoolwork, attending movies, telling dirty jokes, or disobedience to parents. The older Christian may justify (a little) excess drinking, coveting material things, watching movies or television sitcoms with acting or reading novels while “skimming” the violent or lustful scenes. Problem is, A-Little-Isn’t-So-Bad-Thinking is very bad.
The argument is especially harmful because it may outwardly seem to be a valid argument. One may reason “Everybody’s doing it. So, it won’t be bad for me to do that a little bit.” This can make “sense” to us when our spiritual senses have become dulled because we have not been fighting the good fight against sin as we ought.
A-Little-Isn’t-So-Bad-Thinking may seem to ring true because the harmful effects of sin in one’s life can appear for a short time and then seem to go completely away, or appear later, or appear but go un-noticed. But, appearances can be deceiving. How?
First, the harmful effects of sin may become obvious for a short time and then appear to go completely away. But, this is not always the case. For example, a young person watches a movie. She is disgusted for giving in to this sin. She may repent, but the bad scenes pop into her head for the next couple of days and she works hard to force them out again. A week goes by. Finally, by the grace of God, peace. But, the damage has been done. She knows and experiences peace with God over the matter, however, the scenes can be recalled years later and vex her soul. They have left a scar in the mind.
Second, the harmful effects of sin may not immediately become obvious to us, but appear later. We must remember the biblical truth that we often reap what we sow (Job 4:8). And, just as seeds that grow in the earth do not become obvious to the physical eye until they have had days to grow, so the seeds of sin we sometimes plant may not appear to our spiritual eyes until much later. In the meantime, the “hidden” sins may have festered out of view, growing like a weed in the soil. For example, a young person goes out to drink “a little” too much with some friends one night. No damage done—all in fun. Yet, the lust to commit the same sin has been aroused in his sinful flesh. He finds it more and more difficult to say “No” to committing the same sin with peers again. And, the desire grows until he succumbs to his sinful flesh once again. Maybe he says one more time and that’s it! But, he does it again and again. He realizes at last that he has become a slave to that sin and how living without repentance after the first transgression led him deeper into sin and further away from God.
Finally, sins can be present with us but go completely unnoticed. This may be the greatest danger of all. David prayed “Cleanse thou me from secret faults” (Ps. 19:12), making known to us that we hide sins from ourselves. Jeremiah confirmed this when he said that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). We can’t even know our own hearts well enough to see some of the sins hidden within the deep recesses of them. Our prayers ought to often include what David’s did. Then we will see our sins, repent, turn away from them, and more and more enjoy close communion with God.
The root problem with A-Little-Isn’t-So-Bad-Thinking is that it is directed toward self rather than toward God. Its standard is based on what others are doing rather than the Law of God. Its focus is “God wouldn’t mind if I just…” rather than humbly asking the question “Would doing this offend my heavenly Father?” And, as we have seen in the examples above, the consequences of sin are often greater than supposed.
There is a way to escape being corrupted by A-Little-Isn’t-So-Bad-Thinking: rely on the great and precious promises of God. II Peter 1:4 states: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” God can and will guide us through the many temptations in life by His great and precious promises. His divine power has made us one in Christ that we might live godly before Him. Godly living in His grace allows us to escape the corruption and lust of the world.
There are many different and difficult circumstances that Christian young people face today. Times of discouragement might come when you don’t do as well in school as you had hoped or as your parents had expected. Or, the situation might be that you begin to wonder whether it is even in God’s plan for you ever to enter into holy marriage. You might be at a time in your life when it seems like you do not have many friends. Or, maybe you have been mocked, ignored, or shunned in ways that make one feel not liked—possibly even for standing up for what is right and not joining others in the way of sin.
During our short pilgrimage on this earth, it is important for us to keep holding tightly onto the truth that everything is under the Lord’s providential care. All things, including any great difficulties we face, work for our good (Rom. 8:28). It may sometimes seem to us that this is not the case. We can think that our troubles are pointless and only harming us. Or, we might foolishly start to believe that we are the only Christians whose faith needs to be proved while it seems to us that the faith of peers around us do not. However, all of God’s children undergo chastening, for if they didn’t, they would not be His legitimate sons and daughters (Heb. 12:8)! The afflictions that God sends to us in His perfect love and wisdom vary for each one of us, and come at different times in our lives, but come they will.
Holy Scripture promises blessings and grace in our earthly lives through troubles and sorrows. Even more than that, our present afflictions work for us heavenly glory (2 Cor. 4:17-18)! Understand, they do not earn for us salvation. Rather, our difficulties work, or prepare, us for the heavenly glory that will be revealed in us. How do they do this? Why must we be prepared for heaven? We need preparation because we are still much too carnally-minded. We are not yet spiritually ready for the heavenly place that Christ is preparing for us. So great is that place that the Apostle has said, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things God hath prepared for them that love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Before going there, it pleases God to have us go through a life-long process of spiritual cleansing. Part of the way that He does this is through difficulties and sufferings in our earthly lives. God does this in love as part of His work of salvation in us. He uses trying circumstances to remove the impurities of sin from our lives. Like the goldsmith who heats up the gold to bring the impurities to the surface to be removed, so the Master Workman’s testing makes our sinful impurities obvious to us. Then, by His grace, we repent and turn from them (1 Pet. 1:6-7). God gives us earthly pictures of this in creation as well. For example, God sends seasonal fires on prairies to destroy acres of dead grass. Where the fire burned, new grass sprouts up, providing more nourishment for animals. Where the fire didn’t burn, dry, worthless, dead stalks of grass remain. Again, fire—chastening—was the purifying influence on dead grass—sin. The result was new grass—spiritual growth. This spiritual growth strengthens us to put to death our old man of sin. We all like sheep have gone astray, each one going our own way. But, after affliction, by His grace, we keep His Word (Ps. 119:67).
Difficulties test our faith. And, the testing of our faith works in us patience (Jas. 1:3). Our faith becomes stronger and less easily shaken by life’s troubles. Then, great difficulties that await us in the future will be less likely to disturb our souls. Over time, we are more and more able to see with the eye of faith that the Lord will deliver us out of all our troubles (Ps. 34:19). We begin to see that the “sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
Last time we considered God’s holiness and how it applies to us as Christians. Now let’s take a closer look at how true obedience to God’s law is an expression of our proper fear of the Lord.
Jehovah admonished the nation of Israel again and again by the mouth of Moses both to fear Him and keep His commandments. Why? Because keeping the Lord’s commandments and fearing Him are not two detached ideas, but closely connected (Ps. 111:10). Christian young people, Godly fear enabled the Israelites then, and enables us now, to obey God’s laws. Inspired Jeremiah explained that Jehovah puts fear into the hearts of His covenant people so that we will not depart from Him (Jer. 32:40). So, the fear of the Lord is a gift of His grace. It is for our good (v. 39). The great church father Augustine said, “Command what Thou wilt, and give what Thou commandest.” The Lord does this when He gives us the gift of His fear that we may keep His commandments.
It is impossible to live in spiritual peace and in willing obedience to God without godly fear of Him. We see this in the church at the time of the prophet Malachi. It did not enjoy the spiritual rest that the God-fearing church did soon after Pentecost (Acts 9:31). The church was not comprised of congregations that feared God and were unified in praise of Him (Mal. 3:16; Ps. 22:25). Instead, the vast majority of the nation of Israel was neither living in the fear of God nor in true obedience to Him. Even though there was no return to the former idolatry that had existed before the captivity in Babylon, spiritual corruption in a different form than idol worship had settled in. The traditional worship that had been restored consisted of spiritual deadness and cold formalism. The people were guilty of the robbing of tithes, false accusations against God, and other evils. The priests, or spiritual leaders, were especially to blame. God demanded of them, “If then I be a father, where is mine honour? And if I be a master, where is my fear?” (Mal. 1:6). These spiritual leaders lacked fear of God. They made an outward show of godliness, going through the motions to keep God’s law.
How did the priests make a show in order to seem obedient to God’s law? First, they tried to appear faithful to their marriage vows by maintaining their “marriages.” But, the priests had treated their first wives badly and unbiblically divorced them—something which God says He hates (Mal. 2:16). Then they replaced their real wives whom the Lord calls “thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant” with “daughters of a strange god.” Re-married, they lived in continuous adultery with heathen “wives” who were not the God-given ones of their own marriage-covenant. The Lord reminded the priests of the reason why they had made the marriage vows which they had broken—that they might hope for godly children (Mal. 2:15). God said that if they did not change their ways and give glory to His name, He would corrupt their seed (Mal. 2:1-3).
Second, the spiritual leaders made a show of keeping God’s law when they accepted polluted bread and lame, sick, and blemished animals for sacrifice from the people. Instead of refusing these ill gifts and reprimanding the givers, the spiritual leaders helped the people “serve God” in an outward way. God’s commandments to sacrifice were kept, but the priests moved people to despise God’s law by letting them partially obey it! They encouraged the people in superficial, hollow acts of worship. These insincere acts were not good works done out of true faith, according to the will of God, and for His glory (Heidleberg Catechism Q&A 91). On the contrary, they were done for personal gain (Mal. 1:10). The people did not offer their firstfruits (best) according to His will (Ex. 23:19). Nonetheless, they thought they were doing pretty good, for they questioned God “what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance and that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of hosts?” (Mal. 3:14). God responded, with righteous anger, that their back-talk greatly offended Him (v. 13). “I have no pleasure in you,” the Lord said, “neither will I accept an offering at your hand” (Mal. 1:10). He was not glorified by their blemished, torn, and lame gifts, and the offering of them was blasphemous. Those tainted offerings were not a picture of the perfect, unblemished sacrifice of His only Son, nor were they accompanied by what the Lord considers to be true sacrifice: a “broken spirit” and a “broken and a contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17). As a result, the sacrifices were not offered out of faith. The people worshipped only in outward ritual.
God explained that His covenant of life and peace had been made with the tribe of Levi and its descendants because of Levi’s fear of the Lord (Mal. 2:5; Deut. 10:8). Nevertheless, the spiritual leaders of Malachi’s day corrupted the covenant and caused many to stumble at the law (Mal. 2:8). Christian young people, we can expect that God’s life and peace will not be with us if we do not live obediently in His fear. Living in loving obedience to God is the only way we obtain and experience His favor and life in Him (Lev. 18:5). When, by His grace, we are determined not to do things which He despises, the Lord takes pleasure in us (Ps. 147:11). We must not think, however, that by doing good works of obedience we could ever make ourselves worthy of eternal life. We cannot merit anything with God. No man is justified by the law in His sight (Gal. 3:2).
A life of willing obedience to God’s law is what the life of the believer ought to be all about. “If ye love Me, keep my commandments,” said Jesus. According to the summary of the Law, love for God is the motive that moves us to correctly fear and obey Him. Part of what this means is that we not be hypocritical. Outward appearance alone is not enough. God, Who searches and knows the heart, requires that obedience be from the heart. “My son, forget now my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments: For length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee” (Prov. 3:1-2, emphasis mine, RV). It is our hearts that must do the keeping! By whole-hearted obedience to God, we recognize that He is our sovereign Lord and lawgiver, and He receives glory, honor, and praise. We know that we will never be perfectly obedient while on this earth, but we have the beginnings of obedience by the Spirit’s work of grace in us (I Pet. 1:2). We must hate the utter depravity of our old natures, cry out to God for help, and by His strength and grace overcome our sinful weaknesses. It will be well with us when, in His fear, we keep from willful sins. Said the Lord to Moses, “I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee: they have well said all that they have spoken. O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever!” (Deut. 5:28-29).
In conclusion, the proper fear of the Lord is our trust and hope and fountain of life (Prov. 14:27; Job 4:6). God promises the following glorious blessings to us who fear His name:
And they shall be mine…in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not.
But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves in the stall (Mal. 3:17-18; 4:2).
Last time, we briefly considered some teachings and practices that are not characterized by proper fear of the Lord. We saw that godly fear is different from the fear of pure dread or terror that the world has. This attitude is not Christian or godly because it does not draw us closer to God. Said the Apostle, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love,” (I John 4:18). Instead, the fear of God’s people is a holy fear, rooted in love. It is a fear motivated by reverence for and love of God.
After all the tragic events of September 11, the idea of fearing the Lord takes on new significance. There is much talk in the media on the on the one hand about not fearing anything and on the other about fearing man and man’s weapons. As redeemed believers, we are neither pridefully fearless, nor man-fearing, but God-fearing (Matt. 10:28). We know the biblical truths that the Lord alone is Sovereign and has all power. God is everywhere-present, and all things are under His control. We are greatly conscious that our whole lives are lived by, in, and before Him (Acts 17:28). These truths fill us with the awe and wonder of His majesty, and we revere His glorious name.
Holy fear is not only in our thoughts and in our hearts. It is also the way in which we work out our own salvation (Phil. 2:12-13). That we fear God will become evident in our sanctified and obedient walk. As God-fearing believers, we trust in Christ’s strength to walk humbly before God, fight against sin, and do what pleases Him.
Christian young people, we begin walking in the fear of the Lord in two main ways; first, by growing in the knowledge of God’s holiness, and learning how that applies to us as we are in Christ; and second, by trying to live “new and holy lives” before Him, obeying God’s commandments out of true thankfulness for what He has done for us.
Walking in the fear of the Lord means that we grow in the knowledge of the great holiness of our God. This is important because knowledge of His holiness is understanding (Prov. 9:10). We saw before that fearing the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Now, we see a connection between godly fear, understanding and knowledge of His holiness. The more we know about God’s holiness, the more we will understand why we must be holy, and how we are to be holy.
The Lord is the Holy One of Israel (Ps. 71:22). “Be ye holy, for I am holy,” He commands us in 1 Peter 1:16. What is God’s holiness? We first think about His perfect sinlessness. This is how He is ethically holy. He is totally free from all evil. All of His works are wondrous, perfect and without sin. God loves righteousness and us who are righteous in Christ. Negatively, His holiness demands that He hate unrighteousness and despise the wicked. His curse is already with them in their “house” – in their earthly lives (Prov. 3:33).
God is also holy in being. We can learn a bit more about this from Isaiah 40. Here, Scripture reveals how God is the perfect example of the basic meaning of holiness. He is sacred, completely set apart from all other beings. No one is like Him (Is. 40:18, 25). The Lord is high and infinitely lifted up above all other beings. The greatest of His creatures is nothing in comparison to Him. The nations of the world are so insignificant in comparison to God that they are like dust on the balances of a scale – their total weight is so light that it does not even tip the scale! (Is. 40:15-17).
What does God’s holiness mean for us, covenant young people? First, when Jehovah spoke to Israel at Mount Sinai to make His covenant with them and give to them His law, He called us, His elect, a “kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). This same terminology is used in the New Testament in I Peter 2: 9-11 where we learn that God separated us from the dark world as a “holy nation”, a “chosen generation”, and a “royal priesthood.” As individual members of Christ’s body, we are “pilgrims” and “strangers” (v. 11). All of these terms refer to our holy election in Christ (Eph. 1:4). For God’s glory, Christ’s holiness is imputed to us, making us holy saints. “I behold no iniquity in Jacob.” He says this because we are legally righteous in Christ. By confessing this, we are not making claims to be sinless in this life as some people do. We do say that while we live down here, the Father increases our holiness, by His Spirit, continuously drawing us out of the darkness of this world and into His marvelous light. Already in this life, we have a small beginning of holiness in Him. This gift of holiness causes us to have covenant friendship with our Father because fellowship within the Triune God is holy (Ps. 93:5). Our holiness and friendship with God is the fruit of our proper fear of the Lord (Ps. 19:9).
Second, God’s holiness requires that we offer ourselves up to Him by fleeing sin and worldly lusts. Inspired Peter explains, “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy. And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear…” (I Peter 1:15-17). “Conversation” refers to our whole lives. So, we begin to live “holy and unblamable” lives before God in His fear. When others observe our behavior it must be evident to them that the Lord dwells among us and has sanctified us. Even the heathen will know it! (Ez. 37:27-28) How? By the power of Christ’s Spirit, we are on our guard, fleeing sin and situations that may lead to sin. We are witnesses when we refrain from evils found among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. These evils are clearly listed in Scripture (read Gal. 5:19-21 and I Cor. 6:9-10), and including the following: idolatry, hatred, strife, heresies, envyings, adultery, fornication, covetousness, drunkenness, witchcraft (rebellion is witchcraft, c.f. I Samuel 15:23!) For Christian young people, it is in the way of godly fear that they do not get drunk. Holy fear also motivates them not to do the things that their consciences tell them are forbidden outside of marriage. They do not give in to the pressure of peers—which can be great—to seek thrills in the way of danger or in rebellion against parents, the laws of God, or the government.
When we consider Romans 1:29-32, we see that doing evil things, or taking pleasure in people who do them, is not living in the fear of God, but rather unto death! This means that we must separate ourselves from sin and impenitent sinners. This is part of our calling as “priests” of God’s “royal priesthood,” for it is not possible to have close fellowship with Him and also with the unfruitful works of darkness. In God’s grace and strength, we keep ourselves clean and cleanse ourselves from spiritual filthiness by turning from sin, confessing our sins before His throne, and trusting His mercy. In this way of constant conversion, we perfect our holiness in His fear (II Cor. 7:1). This perfecting work of the Spirit deepens our friendship with our holy Father.
Next time, the Lord willing, we will consider how true obedience is an expression of our fear of the Lord, and the many blessings that come upon us who fear His name.
Fear of the Lord, as we know from the words of inspired Solomon, is the beginning of the knowledge of God (Prov. 1:7; Prov. 2:5). This idea of reverence and awe of Him is prevalent throughout the holy Scriptures. We can get a better understanding of what it means to properly fear God by first looking briefly at some teachings and practices that it is not.
Godly fear is not being afraid that “there may be a god out there” who will judge all men. A while back, signs posted on churches in the area drew attention to this idea with the question, “What if it’s True?” This question begs more: “What if God does exist?” “What if there is eternal life for some and eternal hell for others?” etc. To some, these may seem fitting questions for the seemingly fearless attitude of our society. After all, aimless young persons have “No Fear” plastered on T-shirts and vehicles. However, these questions do not proclaim God as true and living. Instead, the questions promote doubt of His existence and fear only of the personal consequences of sin. They serve only to scare people into going through the motions of worshipping God in order to appease Him.
Proper fear of the Lord does not mean living in terror of an angry god who is never pleased with his people because they are sinners. This is the error of some, who fear only the consequences of their sins rather than grieving over their transgressions against the Most High. Such sinful terror also spurred the works-righteousness of the late Reformation leader Martin Luther before his conversion. He said that God “tortured” him by offering him no peace for his soul due to his sins. The Holy Spirit later enlightened Luther so that he knew that righteousness was completely “alien” to him by nature and there was no way that he could earn it or merit any favor with God by his own works. God’s covenant young people know that although the wages of their sins is death, those sins have all been covered by the blood of the Lamb. We know that the Lord is plenteous in mercy, and will neither keep His anger forever nor reward us according to our sins (Ps. 103).
Fearing God correctly has nothing to do with believing that the godly are blessed less, or even cursed by Him in this life, while the ungodly seem to receive blessings. This is an error that even God’s children can fall into, as did the psalmist Asaph. It is a temptation when surrounded by the wicked who prosper in every physical way; job status, over-abundance of material things and free time, and apparent happiness. Asaph realized, however, that this thinking is like the foolishness of beasts (Ps. 73:22). We too, know that the Lord chastens whom He loves, rather than giving them over to the lusts of the flesh. Children of God are admonished not to be envious of the ungodly (Prov. 23:17). God is a God of justice and injustice must not be expected of Him. He is good to spiritual Israel, guiding them with His counsel to glory (Ps. 73:24). But, the wicked are set in “slippery places” to their own destruction (v. 18). Often, those slippery places are the high slopes of a mountain of wealth that they put more and more of their confidence in – God punishing sin with more sin. How gracious is our sovereign Lord for keeping His people from the snare of trusting in earthly riches!
Proper fear of the Lord is not to live in constant question of His love for oneself as if this is somehow a pious and humble thing to do. For example, one must not believe that a special supernatural experience is required before one can be sure of Christ’s love for oneself and be able to celebrate His death and resurrection. This is a sad delusion and a lie of Satan to get man to claim some credit for his own salvation. It is neither humble nor God-fearing to hold to the idea that “one can never be sure” of God’s love and that assurance of salvation is prideful. Instead, as God’s children, we draw near to him with a “true heart” and “full assurance of faith” for we know that He is faithful to His promises to us (Heb. 10:22-23).
Godly fear is not fearing that we might fall away from grace and that He might withdraw all His love from us. We reject the dangerous heresy which the early Arminians suggested and the outright declaration later made by John Wesley that the believing child of God can make “shipwreck of the faith” and then “may go to hell, yea, and certainly will if he continues in unbelief” (Elements of Divinity). Christ was forsaken in our place, so that we must not and cannot fear that we will ever be forsaken. There are many threats to the new life in Christ which covenant young people receive. But, we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God which we have in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:35-39). We know that God has given us eternal life already in this present life, and that we will never perish (John 5:24; 10:27-29). By His grace, we will persevere as saints communing with our God on our earthly pilgrimages until we are finally brought to glory.
Finally, correct fear of the Lord is not being terrified of His judgment upon the living and the dead on that day when Christ will return on the clouds of glory. We know that His return is our hope and comfort for we belong with both body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. We confess the resurrection with righteous Job, that although skin worms will destroy our bodies, yet in our flesh, we will see God (Job 19:26).
Do we fear any of the things just talked about? At times, a believer may. But, those kind of fears are sin. God’s Word tells us that if one is afflicted in this way, he or she is to pray (Jas. 5:13). The sinful fears must be repented of and left at the cross. “Are we to fear Him at all?” one may ask. Well, many devout men of the Bible were described by themselves or others as God-fearing. There was the Lord’s servant Job, whom He Himself described as a “perfect and an upright man” that feared God and turned away from evil (Job 1:8). The centurion Cornelius was characterized as a devout man, giving much alms, praying always to God, and fearing Him with all his house (Acts 10:1-2). Joseph, son of Jacob, and Jonah described themselves as fearing the Lord. The virtuous woman in Proverbs 31, who was trusted by her husband, opened her mouth to wisdom, kept her household well, and stretched out her hand to the poor, was considered one who feared the Lord. By the Holy Spirit’s work in them, these godly men and women of the Bible obeyed the command, “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe before Him” (Ps 33:8). They were doers of the Word – not just hearers. They sincerely kept His commandments – not just memorized them. Knowing their calling to be holy, they walked as pilgrims and strangers in opposition to the wicked world that walked after the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.
The Apostle challenged the Hebrews with the following question: Shouldn’t we fear and honor our heavenly Father all the more if we have been called to honor our sinful parents? (Heb. 12:9-10) Jehovah instills this fear into the hearts of His young people through His covenant with them! (Jer. 32:40) We are to fear Jehovah God for His name is glorious and fearful (Deut. 28:58). Throughout the inspired book of Deuteronomy, we learn it is in the way of godly fear that we keep His commandments. Our private and public worship of God in the assembly of saints must be done with fear and reverence (Ps. 89:7; Ps. 5:7). Also, proper fear of the Lord is one of the chief signs of true repentance (Mal. 3:13-16). This is significant because repentance is one of the main traits of a Christian; it distinguishes us as children of light from the workers of iniquity. It is plain that godly fear should encompass every aspect of our lives including our daily walk, worship, and spiritual attitude. The inspired writer of Ecclesiastes summarized this well when he declared that our whole duty is to fear Him and keep His commandments (Eccl. 12:13).
Let’s make no mistake about it, though. To fear the Lord does not mean being among the fearful and unbelieving spoken of by the Apostle John who will have their part in the lake of fire (Rev 21:8). We are not to be among the God-fearful, but the God-fearing! There is no place in the Lord’s army for those who are fearful of the enemies of God—the wicked, our old natures, or Satan and his hosts. The Lord made this clear when He commanded through the mouths of Israel’s officers that the “fearful and fainthearted” must not go out to battle against the enemy but go home (Deut. 20:1-8). Also, the practical danger is given here that one who is fainthearted might cause his brother to have a faintheart as well. In other words, one sinning against God by being fearful might cause his brother to sin in this way also. We are not to fear any of our enemies, for the Lord our God is with us and it is He that fights against our enemies to save us.
Our fear of God is to be based on courageous faith. Faith that is a free gift from God to His elect—not of works, not of ourselves. Faith which the Enemy tries desperately to destroy, but our Lord and Savior prays will never fail in us (John 17:9). It is by our fearless faith that we serve the Lord in fear with rejoicing (Ps. 2:11). By being among the God-fearing, we experience the confidence and joy of our salvation (Ps. 85:9).
“Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.” (James 4:8-10)
Those inspired commands came from the mouth of James, the brother of Jesus. He addressed chiefly members of the early church of the New Testament period. He referred to them as “sinners” and “double minded” because of their outwardly corrupt lives. Those addressed placed too much value on earthly pleasures and worldly friendships and were caught up in the pursuit of material things. James admonished them to put an end to their evil actions, purify their hearts, and be sincere before God. Then they could seek to please Him.
We must not think the commands have no relevance for us. Just the opposite is true. The commands go out to all of us, for we all have been born and conceived in sin and have transgressed all of God’s laws. Each child of God must confess “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Rom. 7:19). This confession is not only to be made by believing adults or more mature Christians. It is true that we come to a more conscious knowledge of what sinful creatures we are as we grow older, see more things to repent of, and are more likely to repent of some things than when we were younger. Yet, the inspired commands of James apply to young adults and children, too.
The apostle’s command “Be afflicted…” is interesting. Most of us can easily remember a time when we were being afflicted somehow. The affliction, or hardship may have involved someone close to us passing away or maybe it was the pain we felt when being mocked by classmates—persecution for righteousness’ sake—perhaps when not giving in to peer pressure at school. We were going through hardship in spite of ourselves. We were not asking for it, but it came upon us. Here, however, the word affliction is used in a command, “Be afflicted…” Submit to the will of God, painful as it may sometimes be! Note that James explicitly commands “Submit yourselves to God” earlier in the text (vs. 7). Sometimes the act of submitting to God can be an affliction because doing so is contrary to the nature of our sinful flesh. However, we must “despise not the chastening of the LORD; neither be weary of his correction” (Prov. 3:11).
How is the child of God called to submit here? By mourning and weeping: “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep…” In self pity? No, the mourning and weeping is to be over the awfulness of our sins and the rampant wickedness all around us committed against our Heavenly Father. Proof for this can be found by referring to another passage where the same word “mourn” is used. In the sermon on the mount, one of the beatitudes was “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). The word translated mourn here is the same word in the original language as the word “mourn” in our text. Literally, it means to grieve. In the beatitudes, Christ described righteous attributes that must characterize His people: poorness in spirit, meekness, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc. In possessing these, by the Holy Spirit’s work in and through us, we will be blessed. To mourn or grieve over our sins is a righteous act. This kind of mourning is referred to in the beatitudes. This is also what our text in James speaks of. Grieving over sins is a virtue of all of God’s people, even as it was in the parable of the publican who beat upon his breast because of sorrow for his sins (Luke 18:13).
In contrast to submitting to the will of God, the “double minded” scorners experienced empty “joy” and indulged in sensual pleasures. Their laughter showed how they deceived themselves, savored their sins, and denied God’s judgment. They were living their lives the exact opposite of those who put on sackcloth and ashes. Jesus Himself tells what just judgment will come upon those that laugh and live in impenitence. To the self-righteous Pharisees He proclaimed “…Woe unto you that laugh now! For ye shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25). Undoubtedly, these scorners laughed not only about their evil ways, but about the wickedness all around them. All of us, at one time or another, have gone along with the crowd by either laughing at a cruel joke or rebellious attitude, or by not speaking out against sin as we should have. What spiritual joy we have when our Faithful God shows us our sin! He brings us to repentance that we put off unrighteousness and delight in His righteousness. Thirsting after righteousness will bring us to speak in love against sin to a brother or sister that is walking in sin.
All the sins of God’s elect have been paid for by the effectual work of Jesus Christ on the cross once for all. “Why plead forgiveness then? Our sins are all gone,” one might say. Not so, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24). As sheep, we regularly go astray, all of us going our own way. We would not want our lives to become like that of King David when he lived in unrepentant sin for a time. His painful spiritual, emotional, and physical condition was the result of sin upon sin that he had committed and was able to hide from himself by self-deceit for a time, but was unable to hide from our all-knowing God. Finally, David was ready to “halt” or literally fall down on account of sins not repented of that had piled up and now were “continually before” him (Ps. 38:17)! Instead of allowing sins to “pile up,” daily confession of them before the Most High will allow us to more and more hate our sins so that we may be able to say with the psalmist “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me” (Ps. 101:3). This confession is evidence of a godly sorrow over sin. This godly sorrow will work in us much spiritual joy.
As mourners over our sins, we will be “blessed” and “comforted.” How will we be blessed? And how will we be comforted? We will receive blessed comfort when the Spirit reminds us that because of Christ’s perfect work, our sins have been removed infinitely far from us. “For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far is the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:8-12). By mourning over our sins, we humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord. He gives rest unto our souls. The Lord takes our heavy burden in exchange for His easy yoke. By humbling ourselves in His sight, He will hear us, for He hears the desire of the humble (Ps. 10:17). And, by humbling ourselves in His sight, He will lift us up! Not so that we may enjoy a state of pride. Instead, that we may praise our merciful Lord with the psalmist “Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake” (Ps. 115:1).
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