Article by Jerry Bridges: Does Holiness Come By Striving After it or By Resting in God?
As I sat in the doctor’s waiting room, my attention was drawn to a portrait of a man sculpted out of a block of marble. The sculpture was complete down to about mid-thigh, but below that the partially chipped away marble gradually phased into the outline of the original block. The man in the sculpture was handsome and robust, the kind of body any man would like to have. But the arresting thing about the picture was that the sculptor’s hammer and chisel were in the hands of the man being sculpted. The man was sculpting himself. As I pondered the painting, I was struck by its graphic portrayal of how many Christians seek to grow in personal holiness. We try, as it were, to sculpt or mold ourselves. We seek to grow in holiness through our own personal efforts and willpower. And we’re just as ludicrous as a block of marble trying to sculpt itself.
Holiness is not, as is so often thought, adherence to a set of rules. It is conformity to the character of God—nothing more, nothing less. It is God’s plan for us. He has “predestined [us] to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). To this end, Paul says, “We are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). The words conform and transform in these verses have the same root. A form is a pattern or model.
Transformed speaks of the process; conformed speaks of the end result. We are being transformed into the likeness of Christ so that we might finally be conformed to the likeness of Him who is our pattern or model.
Who, then, transforms us? Paul tells us in 2 Cor 3:18 that it is the Spirit. We are not sculpting ourselves into the likeness of Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. The writer of Hebrews recognized this when he prayed, “May the God of peace … work in us what is pleasing to him” (He 13:20, 21). Paul prayed similarly for the Thessalonian believers, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you [make you holy] through and through” (1 Thess. 5:23). We as believers can no more make ourselves holy than a block of marble can transform itself into a beautiful statue. We are totally dependent on the Holy Spirit to do this work in us. Yet over and over we place the entire burden for growing in holiness on ourselves. We make resolutions, we try harder, and we may even succeed in changing some of our outward conduct. But we cannot change our hearts. Only God can do that.
It was said of the Lord Jesus, for example, that He “loved righteousness and hated wickedness” (He 1:9). To be transformed into His likeness, then, is to be brought to where we, too, love righteousness and hate wickedness. This is more than merely changing our conduct or conforming to a set of rules. It is a complete renovation of our hearts, something only the Holy Spirit can do. Is the road to holiness, then, one of dependence on God, or of personal discipline? Surely it is one of dependence on God.
THE MYSTERY OF SANCTIFICATION
We must not, however, carry the analogy of the marble statue too far. After all, a piece of marble is absolutely lifeless. It has no mind, no heart, no will. The sculptor receives no cooperation from the lifeless block of marble, and expects none. The same is not true of believers. God has given us mind, heart, and will with which to respond to His work in us, with which to cooperate with His Spirit in the process of transforming us into the likeness of Christ. He intends that we understand His will with our minds, that we yearn to do it with our hearts, and that we actually make choices of obedience with our wills. We are to “make every effort … to be holy” (Heb 12:14). We are to train, or discipline, ourselves to be godly (1 Tim 4:7). We are to put to death the traits of our sinful nature and clothe ourselves with the traits of godly character (Col 3:5; Col 3:12).
The New Testament is filled with injunctions about holy character that address our responsibility. In the pursuit of holiness, we must not be passive blocks of marble in the hands of a sculptor.
Is the road to holiness, then, one of dependence on God, or of personal discipline?
Surely it is one of personal discipline. But how can this be?
If the work of transforming us into Christ’s likeness is the Holy Spirit’s ministry, where does our responsibility fit in? How can we be simultaneously responsible for pursuing holiness and totally dependent on the Spirit?
I am an engineer, both by training and by temperament. One characteristic of engineers is that we always want to know how things work.
I carried this analytical attitude into the Christian life. For years I tried to analyze the precise relationship between the Holy Spirit and the human personality. I visualized two gears, one representing the Spirit and one representing my own personality, and I wanted to know just how they meshed. I kept trying to answer the question of exactly how my personal responsibility for growing in holiness fit together with the work of the Holy Spirit.
I finally gave up. I concluded that God has not answered that question anywhere in the Bible. The mutual relationship of the Holy Spirit and the human personality in the work of sanctification is a mystery known only to God. But our inability to explain just how God works in and through our personalities should not keep us from believing that He does. He not only instructs us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling,” but also assures us that He Himself “works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil 2:12;13). Although God has not explained to us the mystery of how He works in us, He has made our responsibility clear. He has also made it clear that, in carrying out that responsibility, we are dependent upon Him. I call this dependent discipline. Continue reading