Be Ye Holy as the Next Holiest Person is Holy (John Owen)
“But as to those who walk humbly and sincerely, several reasons may be given, to show that holiness may be thriving in them, and yet be undiscerned by themselves… Again, it is our duty to grow in holiness; and what God requires of us, we are able to believe that he will help us, and does so, whatever be our present apprehension. And he who on these grounds believe the growth of holiness in himself, though he have no sensible experience thereof, is, in my judgment, in as good, and perhaps in a more safe condition, than he through the vigorous working of spiritual affections is most sensible of it. For it is certain that such a one does not willfully obstruct the growth of holiness; nor is he in danger of a vain elevation, and carelessness thereon, as others may be, for when we live by faith, and not at all by sense, we shall be humble, and fear always; such a one not finding himself in the evidence of what he most desires, will be continually careful that he drive it not far from him.” – John Owen “The Holy Spirit”
That’s counterintuitive. According to John Owen, as it concerns personal holiness, that person who is most confident in their growth and constantly observing their progress is probably far less holy than they imagine. As Jesus warned, appearances are deceiving. (Luke 16:19-31) The most confident often have no reason for confidence. Those most committed to the “vigorous working of spiritual affections and most sensible of it” should not be. More than anything, they merely lack honest appraisal. Sanctification is easy if it means standing next to someone worst than me. Or, holiness is a synch if is only creating the appropriate distance between myself and immoral things. It’s different when talking of the heart. You can neither get far enough away from yourself, nor create enough distance between you and your corruption to have any confidence.
Beyond all this, much of what happens in sanctification is not always obvious to the individual Christian. Can a person actually transform their own heart and desires by an intense commitment to external means, or by obsessively needling at things on the surface of their life? Is humility even measurable or love something we care to quantify? At what point in all this have pietists simply crossed over from the protestant idea of transformation to the ancient Catholic practice of aestheticism? Or when have they adopted secular models of cognitive behaviorism and marginalized the reality of Spirit filled transformation accompanying the New Covenant. With the right amount of applied voltage anyone may be encouraged to change, but it is still not from the inside out.
On the other hand, that person who is concerned their rate of growth is falling below reasonable levels, or are anxious as they compare themselves to others is probably growing far more than they imagine. And more than the first guy. Again, it’s counterintuitive. According to Owen, sanctification is like watching a pot of water boil, or a seed germinate. It is slow going, often imperceptible and subtle. This is the normal pace. In fact, the opposite experience may the be real experience of the Christian life. The more we grow the more aware we are that we haven’t grown as much as we think we have. If you check your bank account every fifteen minutes for interest earned on your money, you’re going to be disappointed. But, check the graphs after five years and you’ll see where it was happening all along and at the very moment you could not see any upward tic.
As it is, that person who is disappointed at the trajectory of change or feels inadequate compared to others needs to know a couple things. First, that pressure to grow at exponential rates placed on them by the pietistic and over-spiritualized culture of evangelicalism needs to be rejected as quickly as possible. It’s a deadly leaven. (Luke 12:1-3) It will exhaust your soul and rob you of the sublime joy of simply knowing Christ. (Philippians 3:8) Slowly, your own faithfulness will become the object of your faith. How well you practice the means will become the end at which you’re aiming. This will only end in despair. You should know that your fight against sin and the gravity of your fallen nature is your fight to be fought in the power of the Spirit. It is fought within view Christ’s love for you and not someone else’s self-righteousness tape measure. Another person’s conscience is not your conscience. Let them fight over who’s most holy. Get out that undercurrent while you still have your joy! Swim hard against that tide.
Second, you’re transformation is a God ordained inevitability. It’s all rather simple. Glorification follows sanctification which follows justification which follows regeneration. (Romans 8:29-30) While sanctification involves us it is exists within a chain of events which are all of Him. What this means, among other things, is that when there is no change there is no life. But, faith in Christ is the first actual sign that life has begun. Dead men don’t believe. Living ones do. (Ephesians 2:8-10) From that initial moment of spiritual life (faith) transformation was always under way. Change is guaranteed because God is changing you. He is and will bring you home. That other way of thinking is a mild sort of perfectionism which is a by-product of the Arminian theology inherent in all of evangelicalism. In that realm your perseverance is conditional and rests in your hands. In the reformed world sanctification is not something to worry about, but to rejoice in. The other world makes sanctification sound like a trip to the dentist. Calvinism, if I may be so bold as to say its name, is very different. Sanctification is understood to be an ongoing, constant and ever-joyful deliverance by God from those desires and inclinations that were a part of our previous bondage. It’s an actual freedom and not a new imprisonment. As Owen says, “what God requires of us, we are able to believe that he will help us, and does so, whatever be our present apprehension.” Your sanctification is as certain as your justification and your glorification are. It is God who brings them all to pass. So, don’t worry weary saint. You’re doing fine. God is at work in you no matter how hard it may be for you to discern, or how disappointed you are in how far you’ve come. Look to Christ and not to self.
It should be noted that a church culture which compulsively measures its members’ progress in sanctification they way parents chart their children’s height against a wall is merely encouraging self-righteousness by making the progress of others the standard of everyone else. Christ himself, of course, strictly forbade this. (Matthew 6:1) People are different and struggle with a complexity of issues at various levels and experience various rates of transformation. (1 Thessalonians 5:14) But, regardless, we mainly compare ourselves to others, or to whoever claims the title of most holy. In fact, the concept of personal holiness I was exposed to within fundamentalism had a competitive edge to it. We would point to those who’d achieved a certain level of “personal holiness” as a sort of mark for the rest of us to hit. Looking back now, it was a ridiculous bondage. This moralism embedded in our evangelical culture was originally put there by our revivalistic forefathers. So, we come by it naturally. Jonathan Edwards, the father of revivalism, is among the most formidable and influential proponents of this sort of culture. However well intended, or sincere, the abandonment of common sense and basic theological categories are always the unintended consequence of pietism. It goes out of its way to ignore history… and the obvious. Consider Edward’s sixty-third of his seventy resolutions:
On the supposition, that there never was to be but one individual in the world, at any one time, who was properly a complete Christian, in all respects of a right stamp, having Christianity always shining in its true luster, and appearing excellent and lovely, from whatever part and under whatever character viewed: resolved, to act just as I would do, if I strove with all my might to be that one, who should live in my time. – Jan. 14 and July 13, 1723.
There’s much about Edward’s writings that are commendable. He’s had an enormous impact on my life, but this notion is a bit of insanity and a blind spot in his theology. “I want to be the holiest person on the planet at any given time” can only end in the over-confident self-righteousness. The very thing that Owen warned about. Besides, if Edward’s syllogism were an actual possibility the person he identifies as the most holy would be unaware of it anyway. A truly holy person does not go around thinking of themselves by degrees or making their progress known to others. This person has never and will never exist. This is because the holiness demanded of us as creatures is not relative. It is absolute and as such we absolutely fail to satisfy it. Who cares who jumped farthest across the Grand Canyon when they all lie dead at the bottom. This is why we needed Christ in the first place. I think sometimes we confuse biblical sanctification with Victorianism.