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Pursuing holiness

February 2015 | by Julian Kennedy

I recently studied The pursuit of holiness by Jerry Bridges for two reasons. First, sanctification was the topic of a British Reformed Fellowship conference in Scotland and, second, because the book has an accompanying study guide which our men’s group will consider using for the next year or so.

Jerry Bridges, now aged 84, was an executive administrative staff member of the Navigators for many years, having first encountered them while in the US Navy. I first met Navigators in my student days at Edinburgh University and they were very influential in my early Christian life.

God’s holiness

Bridges sets out his thesis in the preface by saying ‘that the pursuit of holiness is a joint venture between God and the Christian’. This fits well with Philippians 2:13. He starts by stating two basic things: we must recognise the holiness of God and the heinousness of sin; and, holiness is not an option.

He outlines the absolute holiness of Christ, particularly contrasting his pure motives with our impure ones. For example, we often do things for the admiration of others or our own pleasure rather than the glory of God.

He correctly makes much of Romans 6 and the fact that believers have changed kingdoms and died to sin’s power, but nevertheless our ‘old man’, with its ingrained sinful habits, fights on to bring us down. God has provided the full potential to live a holy life, but the responsibility is ours.

He devotes a chapter to the heart — the seat of sinful desires that tempt us by undermining our reason.

‘For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live’ (Romans 8:13). The work of mortification is both the Spirit’s work and ours, as this verse states.

We are to throw off every weight (Hebrews 12:1), submit to God and resist the devil (James 4:7). We are to make every effort (2 Peter 3:14). Holiness is not a case of ‘stand still and see the salvation of the Lord’, since we must work out what the Lord is working in (Philippians 2:13)!

If we sin, it is not for lack of ability from Christ. This is why Bridges dislikes teaching on victory and defeat in the Christian life that implies a force outside ourselves is triumphing over us or being defeated by us. I suspect the author is wrong on this point, as Scripture teaches there is a powerful devil who uses our lusts to tempt us.

But the author is correct in saying that holiness is a matter of obedience and disobedience. The responsibility for my sin is mine alone!

We are responsible for our thoughts, attitudes and actions. That is why Paul spoke about bringing even our thoughts into captivity to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Martin Luther put it this way regarding sinful thoughts: ‘We cannot stop birds flying over our heads, but we can stop them nesting in our hair.’

Mortification

I have to add here a serious question. Can we change our heart’s motives? I believe this is something only God can do (Psalm 51:10). So how do we mortify the sinful old man, the flesh?

First, we must be convinced that holiness is God’s will (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Second, we must commit to being holy (Psalm 119:134), learning to deny temptation and put to death old desires and sinful habits. Christ’s example during his 40 days in the wilderness was to apply and obey Scripture in every situation (Matthew 4).

In matters not specifically addressed by Scripture, that is, in matters we might call ‘indifferent’ (Romans 14), Bridges gives us the following helpful formula based on 1 Corinthians to judge if an action, desire or habit is right.

Is it physically, mentally and spiritually helpful? (1 Corinthians 6:12); does it bring me under its power? (1 Corinthians 6:12); does it hurt others spiritually? (1 Corinthians 8:13); and does it glorify God? (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Bridges elucidates three principles for the mortification of sin, through the Word and Spirit. First, recognise that sin leads to more sin. Since, previously, our old sinful habits enslaved us, we are to train ourselves in godly habits. Saying ‘no’ to sin should become our habit and this will make it easier to resist temptation.

Second, we must allow no exceptions to sin, just as the alcoholic must never touch another drink. Third, we must be diligent in all areas, including in self-control over our physical appetites. Indulging these weakens our will in other areas.

He adds that we ought not to be discouraged by failure. We only fail when we give up. In the chapter entitled ‘Holiness in Spirit’ he lists the sins of thought and attitude that defile us (2 Corinthians 7:1).

These include envy, bitterness and lust, which are hard to eradicate. But Bridges gives good definitions of each one and guidance as to their defeat. However, he omits the vainglory which tends to pervade all that we do.

One of the few faults in this book is that, at one point, Jerry Bridges seems to put our efforts before God’s, thus reversing the order of Philippians 2:13. He speaks of our co-operating with God, when ultimately sanctification is all God’s work. He also appears to assume at one point that Christ even died for the non-elect.

Joy

The author’s last chapter is a gem, showing how holiness brings joy. How so? First, there is the joy of fellowship with God: ‘In thy presence is fullness of joy’ (Psalm 16:11).

God is the God of infinite blessedness, joy and peace in himself. Disobedience means the loss of the joy of salvation (Psalm 51:12). Christ’s love is not conditional on our obedience, but our experience of his love is.

Then there is the joy of knowing you are being obedient, and finally the joy of anticipated reward. Christ was able to endure his unimaginable and unrepeatable sufferings, because of the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:1-2).

The parable of the talents also teaches this joy: ‘enter thou into the joy of the Lord’ (Matthew 25:21,23). Bridges says, ‘Joy not only results from a holy life, but also helps produce a holy life’; ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10).

Christ has delivered us from the reign of sin and, when we know that we are united to him who has all power and authority, and, when by the Spirit we walk in obedience, our joy increases. We then find the joy of a holy walk is infinitely more satisfying than the fleeting pleasures of sin.

In my personal experience, personal and family devotions and sitting under the faithful proclamation of the gospel in a true church are the bedrock of growth in holiness. I highly recommend this book and its study guide as real practical helps in seeking to be more holy.

Dr Julian Kennedy

The pursuit of holiness by Jerry Bridges is published by Authentic Media; 117 pages; £4.99; also on Kindle; ISBN 1-85078-566-X