Throughout history mankind has attempted to develop many thoughts and philosophies about God’s creation but have left God out of the equation. Humanity’s attempt to figure out why we exist and how we should live, apart from the influence of what God has to say about it, seems to be a recurring theme for us. This is why I suppose every generation of the church needs to remind ourselves and the world around us of the who, what, why, where, when, and how of a life that honors and glorifies our Creator above all else.
As we consider the importance of this and come to the realization of how daunting a task this is, we must always remember that God has not left us to ourselves to struggle through the muddy quagmire of worldly philosophies to get to the truth. God has given us revelation for life in His Word. And it is to this Word that each successive generation must turn to get our compasses realigned back to true north. Without it, we will be hopelessly lost as we find ourselves relying on broken compasses that give false readings.
I often consider what future generations will have to say as they look back on our current generation of churches. Will we be perceived as faithful, fiercely hanging on to the truth of our Lord despite a wicked society? Will we be seen as courageous, not forsaking our Lord despite those who persecuted us? Will we be seen as victorious, overcoming the temptations of the devil and this world’s system? Or will we be seen as faithless, weak, and defeated? I am praying for the former and fighting against the latter.
The Battle of “Self”
One of the great conflicts that is being fought in our culture and in our churches is the great Battle of Self. Of course, this is nothing unique to our generation, it has been around since the time of Adam and Eve. But in our current epoch of time, you don’t have to look very far to find a world that is deeply self-righteous, self-centered, self-promoting, self-sufficient, self-indulgent, self-rewarding, and self-satisfied even when it doesn’t have any good reason to be.
Some may argue that this sounds harsh and may not be very accurate, but I would point them to the fruit that is being grown by our current generation. I think what you find at its core is the seed of “self.” For instance, we live in a society that cries, “Foul” every time it is suggested that certain behaviors need correction. Instantly, the defensive argument of, “You can’t judge me!” is brought up (for further reading, Who Are You to Judge). Even more, we find ourselves being a people who are far too easily offended by things that really shouldn’t be offensive. But if an idea or action or suggestion infringes upon me in a way that I perceive will be uncomfortable to my way of life or thinking, then it is instantly offensive and once again the arguments begin.
Another fruit that is in abundance today is the philosophy of focusing on the good while ignoring the bad. True, Paul said, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things,” which is a great truth to live by but this is not the principle that is being promoted these days. Rather, it is the idea that we should simply ignore our failures and sins by promoting what humans have done well. While this is great for providing encouragement and motivation, it will eventually fall short and empty because as I see it, humanity is on a downward spiral which forces us to constantly lower the bar when defining what is considered good. It also will fail to bring honor to God because once again, it leaves Him out of the equation. Our God doesn’t want us to simply ignore our sin, He wants to forgive and heal us of our sin which cannot be done if we are unwilling to recognize it for what it is in the first place. At the root of all this bad fruit is the malignant seed of self.
So is this a dilemma that is restricted to the world or has it infiltrated our churches? I believe it has crept into the church because it seems as though we have forgotten our call as followers of Jesus Christ. If this call is not remembered and reintegrated into our lives, I believe we are in danger of becoming part of the group of people that Paul talked about in Philippians.
“Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things.” Philippians 3:17-19 (NASB95)
But Paul admonishes us to join him in following his example, as well as those who walk in that same pattern.
Our Upward Call
As followers of Jesus Christ, we have a high calling from God that demands our obedience. God has promised to all of His people that He will dwell among them, walk among them, and be their God. Furthermore, He promises to be a father to us and we shall be sons and daughters to Him. We have His unchangeable word on this. Because of this amazing promise, Paul reminds us of our position and responsibility in response to God’s forgiving, adopting, and abiding love towards us – holiness.
“Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” 2 Corinthians 7:1 (NASB95)
To cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, thereby perfecting holiness in the fear of God. This is not the message our society has adopted. And how can we expect them to live like this, apart from Christ? But Paul isn’t addressing unbelievers. He is speaking to believers, the followers of Christ, because they need to be reminded. And I believe it would do us well to be reminded also.
In the Old Testament, God told the Israelites through Moses,
“‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.'” Leviticus 19:2 (NASB95)
I know this quote comes from the Old Testament and someone may argue that this falls under the old covenant and isn’t relevant, but this same command was repeated in the New Testament as Peter quoted Leviticus in his letter, saying,
“….but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because as it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.'” 1 Peter 1:15-16 (NASB95)
The call to holiness is just as relevant to God’s people today as it was thousands of years ago. God expects His people to follow the path of holiness. Now, I know this concept has been abused by those who interpret holiness in an unbiblical way, but we cannot allow that to get in the way of obeying God. I believe that if holiness is coupled with humility and grace, we will do well.
I like how Paul puts it in Philippians.
“Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.” Philippians 3:12-16 (NASB95)
At first glance, this passage can be a bit challenging. Paul starts out by saying he hasn’t yet obtained it or become perfect so he presses on. But then he seems to flip his position by saying those who are perfect, himself included, need to continue in perfection by living by the same standard to which they have attained. Confused?
What I believe Paul is pointing to is his desire to know Christ in all His fullness and to identify with Him in conformity to His life. While there are many different attributes of God that we would do well to conform to, holiness is key, as pointed out in Leviticus and 1 Peter. What I believe Paul is pointing out is that on the one hand, there is still work to be done in his life. On the other hand, in Christ, that work is as good as finished. While we are at home in this body, we wage war with our flesh which is weak and prone to sin. This can be incredibly frustrating for the child of God who is called to be like Christ. It was no different for Paul; that is why he points out that even the apostle to the Gentiles had not yet arrived at perfection. On the other hand, as an eternally secure born again believer, he could be confident of the assurance of his position in salvation and holiness in Christ.
Nevertheless, Paul didn’t just give up on his responsibility to pursue holiness. God has made his people holy, but we still have the responsibility of walking in it. I like how Paul puts it here, “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” It is this call that we need to be reminded of in this and every generation. We cannot afford to become lazy with it or distracted from it. It is similar to the admonition we receive in Revelation.
“…and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy.” Revelation 22:11b (NASB95)
But what if we have forgotten our upward call to holiness and bought into society’s attitude of “self,” how can we make the adjustments necessary to get back on track? I believe that it involves an attitude adjustment founded on the timeless principles found in Scripture.
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2 (NASB95)
A Higher Focus than Self
Attitude adjustment number one involves transferring our focus from self to the Father. When we do this, we find that the bar is raised to perfection as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount when He said,
“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 (NASB95)
This is similar to the command God gave the Israelites in Leviticus. The standard is perfection. This destroys the idea that we can just get by or that we are good enough. We will never be good enough in this life but that doesn’t mean we give up. God has called us upward in holiness and perfection. And He has set Himself as the focus.
A Higher Standard than Self
Another adjustment that needs to be made in the life of the believer who will win the Battle of Self, is to realize that we are called to a higher standard than that which self can provide. Moses once again gives us some direction.
“When you enter the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations.”
“For whoever does these things is detestable to the LORD; and because of these detestable things the LORD your God will drive them out before you. You shall be blameless before the LORD your God. For those nations, which you shall dispossess, listen to those who practice witchcraft and to diviners, but as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do so.” Deuteronomy 18:9, 12-14 (NASB95)
And why hasn’t the Lord allowed us to do so? Because we are called to a higher level, set apart in holiness.
Left to ourselves, it is inevitable that the culture around us will have a negative influence. Instead of us impacting the culture, we will digress and assimilate into the culture around us. When we set ourselves, who are by nature sinful, as the standard by which we are aiming for, we will achieve exactly that – sin. But in the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, the standard for us becomes holiness because our God is holy.
A Higher Reward than Self
The problem with being “self” motivated, is that self is the highest reward a person with that mindset can receive. This is antithetical to the Word of God which clearly points us to a greater reward that is far beyond self.
Back in Philippians, Paul points this out for us.
“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.” Philippians 3:20-21 (NASB95)
For the redeemed sinner, we recognize that this world is not our home; heaven is. Furthermore, we also recognize that at the appearing of our Savior, we will all be changed immortal, imperishable, incorruptible, and eternal for the glory of God. In this promise of the future, we recognize that our greatest longing will be fulfilled; to live in all of its fullness with our glorified (holy) bodies with our Creator for all eternity, just as was originally intended by Him. And that is reward. Anything that I can give to myself in an attempt at self-promotion or self-reward pales drastically in comparison to the promotion we will receive through Jesus Christ in eternity.
The problem with God’s call to us to be perfect and holy is that it is impossible for us apart from God. Which I believe is the whole point. Jesus set the bar high in the Sermon on the Mount on several different levels – anger, lust, divorce, lies, injustices, love. All of this is a divine set up by our Lord who loves us more than we can imagine. It is designed to bring us to the end of ourselves. It is designed to bring us to the place where we realize we need help and the only One who can give it to us is Jesus Christ. We are on a journey and it is not about us, it is wholly about God and His glory.
The philosophical threat we are facing in the church today is the threat of “self” and the biblical response is to stand firm in the Lord as we pursue holiness because the Lord our God is holy.
“Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and my crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.” Philippians 4:1 (NASB95)
Some of the questions that are before us are these:
Will you be known by future generations as one who felt you needed to defend yourself by accusing others of being judgmental or will you humbly recognize that you have not yet obtained holiness as the Lord desires?
Will you be offended by every word of truth that challenges you to personal holiness and the upward call of God?
Will you ignore your sin and treat it as something inconsequential or will you fall on your face in repentance and weep over those habits that are destroying your life?
Will you fall into the trap that says “we are good enough” or will you stand firm in the Lord, pursuing perfection because our Father in heaven is perfect?
“Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
Joshua 24:14-15 (NASB95)