The tell-tales of Spirit-empowered Holiness

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Holiness is beautiful.  Its counterfeits are odious, but their standards are humanly attainable.  So we write our rules and set ourselves to keeping them. We make our do’s and don’t lists and check them off…and are no more holy, and maybe a little more smug, when we’re through.

I’ve been meditating, talking and reading about holiness a lot lately. What does the real thing look like? It’s a many-faceted topic and I’ve wrestled all day at where to begin here…HOLY.   It’s what God is. It’s what He’s called us to be.  It’s both what we are and what He’s making us to be.  It’s His work and it’s ours to reach for.  We can’t attain it but are to be ever about the business of aiming at it while waiting for it.  Holiness is a beautiful enigma.

My practical grasp of it is so far behind my head-knowledge of it that to write of it seems hypocritical.  And yet, I have a growing sense of what it is not and how it is not attained.  And surely this is a start…

“Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”(Gal.3:3)

“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col.2:22,23)

We through the Spirit are being made holy, being conformed to the image of Jesus.  The process is hard to define and impossible to mandate. Though we are called to be active participants we are clearly not in control of outcomes. Only God can make us holy. 

The man-made versions of holiness come in an endless array.  They may look quite impressive and their appeal is tremendous.  We can at last ‘do something’ to make ourselves holy!  But without exception, unless the Spirit of God is the wind in our sails, the results will be disastrous!

I’ve been thinking of these things this week in light of sickening scandals revealed at the highest levels of two widely renowned Christian ministries known for their strict adherence to “Biblical principals’’.  Thousands of Christians dedicated to pursuing the highest standards for their families have been  sucked into movements whose founders have been living duplicitous lives for YEARS, even decades in one case. How has this not come to light sooner? How is it that a Christian ministry can flourish in terms of adherents, purporting to promote godliness, while grieving the Holy Spirit all the while,  and noone knows the difference?

Have we gotten so very clever with our principles and formulas for being ‘holy’ that we no longer need faith or dependence on the Spirit of God? Are we blind to the infinite difference between what we call ‘godly’ and who God really is?

I’ve been mulling over these things…surely there are indicators to keep us off the shoals of self-made religion and running in the power of the Spirit toward that  holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb.12:14). How do we distinguish the two?  Holiness is not a goal we can reach without God but we can sure waste a lot of time and energy and do a lot of damage pursuing it on our own steam.

It’s rather like sailing without minding the tell-tales.  A pair of these brightly colored strips flip about in the wind on either side of the sail.  The position of these tell-tales  tells the sailor how he’s doing with respect to the wind in his sails.  If  he reads them well, he will be spared a great flapping of sails as the wind catches them awry and attempts to turn his boat from its course.  If he fails to heed the tell-tales indication of what the wind is up to he may lose control of his craft and find himself headed in quite a different direction than he had intended.  The tell-tales are there to show him the optimal angle of attack with regard to the wind. The handy sailor will gain a great advantage by them. He will trim his sails accordingly and so arrive at his destination.

Is this not the way of the Christian life? We can get in our boat and try to motor against wind and wave, sails flapping, being blown this way and that because the set of our sails is wrong.  Or we can heed the tell-tales and sail in the power of the Spirit to God’s destination for us—the likeness of His Son.

So what are the tell-tale signs that the holiness we espouse is truly Biblical holiness?  What are the indicators of the Spirit’s sanctifying work and where is it just our flesh flapping in the breeze and thinking we’re going somewhere?

May I offer some negative perceptions first?  These are the ones I know best. They come naturally to me. This stripe of ‘holiness’ is tell-tale that we’ve missed the wind of the Spirit and are heading off course.

  • When we get together for ‘fellowship’ but speak of ‘them’ and ‘us’ more than of Jesus.
  • When we follow the letter of the law but fail to celebrate the grace of God in Christ Jesus as our only source of righteousness.
  • When we are so appalled by the evil in others and in the world at large that we don’t see the evil in our own hearts; more energy is spent enumerating other’s faults than repenting of our own.
  • When we are quick to condemn others’ blatant sins (especially those with which we have not struggled),  but slow to see our own (which are no doubt just as glaring to others)
  • When we are more apt to point out another’s sin than to aid in his restoration.
  • When we nobly bear the burden of obedience to our own set of prescribed rules but cannot help condemning (and secretly envying) others who don’t follow our rules.
  • When we justify our pious distance from sinning brothers in Christ as ‘holiness’ and are consequently too distant to be involved in their restoration

My sails have been madly flapping all through that list.  Those things are tell-tale indicators that we are veering off course in our pursuit of holiness. I see another way drawn out all through Scripture, a “new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom.7:6) It is beautiful, marked by righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  Obedience is no longer burdensome but the overflow of love for God and others that the Spirit has worked in us.  It is marked by a glad service to God, rather than a holy grimness.

Here are some of the tell-tales that the Spirit is filling our sails and moving us steadily in the right direction:

Restful Confidence that the good work God’s begun in us He will move in us to complete.  We won’t be motivated by guilt, anxiety or regret but by the Spirit of God revealing truth and error and guiding our steps in practical daily ways. “…He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.” Phil.1:6

Freedom.  We won’t be bound by a one-size-fits-all exhaustive list of  principles and disciplines.  Our righteousness will not be about keeping rules: “Never…,  Always…”  but about walking by the Spirit in the light of God’s revealed truth.  Consequently, we won’t assume that the way God has directed us is the way everyone must live. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.” II Cor.3:17

Sacrificial love will characterize our lives and interactions with others in the Body.  Rivalry will cease.  Instead we will look for every opportunity to build up, to restore, and to forgive.

Self-forgetful humility will keep us from thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. We will not necessarily recognize the changes God is making in us, but others will.  When Moses talked with God, his face shone, but he wasn’t aware of it. The people around him certainly were!

Devotion to Christ will be more important than keeping up appearances or keeping rules. We will seek approval from Him alone.  Our focus will not be on doing but on being with Him and getting to know Him and He us. Our ability to do anything good will flow from being rooted and grounded in this relationship.

These are some of the tell-tales when our sails are trimmed to catch the wind of the Spirit’s working in bringing us to glory.

We dare not be driven by our own ideas of righteousness, our own clear-cut standards and programs and principles to the exclusion of the need for faith and the Spirit’s power.  It is not the externals that make us holy but the matters of the heart. “All that matters is faith working through love.” Gal.5:6

If we want to be holy people, it will not start with lists, but with loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength.  Who can do this in his own power? The answer to the  lawlessness we see around and within is not law-keeping or even law-enforcement, but love. The one who loves God keeps His commandments and they are not burdensome.

And so we’re faced with ‘Be holy as I am holy.’  What will we do?  It will start with the provision Jesus has made for us to draw near the throne of grace ‘that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ Heb.4:16  It will be in drawing near to Him that we will be changed.  This is where the breeze is blowing us. Mind the tell-tales.

–LS

“the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” Ex.34:29

For ‘through the Spirit by faith we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness’ Gal.5:5

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. II Cor.3:18

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A related post from the archives: “Wind and Spirit”

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