Get Back Up

Nothing gut-punches the soul of a Christian like a willful sin. I know all sins are willful to some degree. But there are those that are willful, and those that are really, really willful. The shame that comes rolling into your conscience after you cuss at a person who cuts you off in traffic doesn’t feel quite as gut-punchy as that which comes after you’ve watched porn or gotten drunk. Why? Because speaking improperly during a moment of fearful rage is more spontaneous than it is willful. Is it bad that was the first thing to come out of your mouth? Yes. But did you say to yourself when you got into your car that morning, “If someone cuts me off in traffic, I’m definitely going to drop the F-bomb on ‘em”? No (at least I hope not). In the heat of the moment, without much thought, it just came flying out of your not-so-sanctified mouth.

But committing the other sins I mentioned requires a series of willful decisions to be made. You don’t feel tempted to watch porn and then do it within less than a second. You have to decide to get alone by yourself, open your browser, type in that web address, and click that video (and the next one, and the next one, and the next one). You don’t feel tempted to get drunk and then—whazam!— you’re drunk. You have to decide to get dressed, order an Uber, walk into the bar, and order that drink (and the next one, and the next one, and the next one). At any point in the sequence of decisions, you can say, “no, I’m not doing this” or “no, I’m not going take this any further.” You have so many chances to stop and turn back.

Therefore, if you end up watching porn or getting drunk, you said a whole bunch of yeses to get there. And if you’re a Christian, this knowledge hurts worse than any hangover headache. Your heart sinks lower and your eyes grow wetter as you ask yourself why you chose to do this sin again, remember all the points at which you could have stopped but stubbornly refused, and mourn that you dishonored and grieved the God who gave his life for you. And don’t let any well-intentioned person try to tell you, “Oh, don’t beat yourself up, baby”—it is good and right that you feel this way! Grief is 100% appropriate.

However, the appropriate kind of grief, which the Bible calls godly grief, doesn’t stall out but instead “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). When we commit a sin—however heinous and grievous that sin might be—it isn’t pious to wallow in shame and despondency. That’s called worldly grief, and it leads not to salvation but to the debilitation and destruction of faith. God may allow a dark cloud of painful emotions to settle over you for a little while—a few hours, a day, a week. He disciplines those whom he loves. But the God of the Bible is not one to smack you around with his belt day after day for the sin you committed last month or last year or in 1996.

No, he’s one to speak gracious words of forgiveness and hope:

“Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself” (1 Samuel 12:20-22).

God’s desire is not that you’d try to feel as terrible as you can for as long as you can after every wicked thing you do. Your prolonged emotional suffering won’t make you any cleaner. The blood of Christ alone makes you clean. God’s desire is that you’d confess your sin, appropriately grieve your sin, trust him to be as gracious as he says he is, and keep following Jesus.

So by all means, feel the shame. Feel the regret. But then turn your eyes away from yourself, trust God to forgive you (yet again!), and get back up. 

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:11-13).  

 

It’s His Pleasure

I know God is able to do great things for people. He can shatter the chains that bind us to sin. He can hold us steady through every wave of heartache or adversity that comes crashing over our lives. He can empower us to subdue every licentious, legalistic, apathetic, or anxious attitude in our flesh that seeks to handicap our faith and render us useless, fruitless people. God “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think . . .” (Ephesians 3:20).
Does he actually want to, though?
I don’t question God’s ability. The immeasurable greatness of his power is a “duh, of course” in my book. But when it comes to his willingness to wield his power for my personal good—well, that’s a whole different animal. Just because God can do a certain thing for me doesn’t necessarily mean he will do that thing for me. His power isn’t bound or dictated by my wants and desires. Prayer isn’t some transaction-like system in which I “place an order” and he has to prepare it for me just as I ask. God is a person, not a vending machine. “He does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3; emphasis mine).
So, while I believe God has the ability sustain me in or deliver me out of a circumstantial difficulty, battle with temptation, mental anguish, or other undesirable condition, I’m not very encouraged unless I also believe he wants to sustain or deliver me. The question my insecure heart needs re-answered every morning as soon as my eyes pop open is not, “Can he?” but, “Will he?”
Will he keep me trusting in Christ today?
Will he give me strength to resist destructive sins today?
Will he enable me to withstand the attacks of the Evil One today?
Will he strengthen me to exercise control over my anxious thoughts today?
 And every morning, after I pour myself cup of thick black coffee and open the Bible, the Spirit of God whispers the same answer: “YES.” Whether I open to the Prophets, the Gospels, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Pentateuch, or to anywhere else in the inspired Scriptures, I always see portrayed an all-powerful God who delights so much in his people that it actually makes him happy to bless them!
 “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. . . I will rejoice in doing them good.” (Jeremiah 32:40-41)
 “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good . . . He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:28, 32)
 “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17)
 “. . . the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me (Jesus) and have believed that I came from God.” (John 16:27)
 “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)
 What an awesome God we have. Not merely because of the magnitude of his power, but also because of his tender disposition toward sinners like us! Our hearts and lives are riddled with sin that dishonors him. We deserve nothing but his anger. And how faithfully my conscience reminds me of this! My inner voice relentlessly points out my sin—with the help of Satan, I’m sure—especially when my heart begins to swell with joy at the thought of God’s grace. “Yeah, God is good . . . but you’re bad, remember? God has no obligation to be good to guilty people like you.”
 
But praise God for his verdict that silences every accusation (even those we bring against ourselves)! “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Romans 8:33-34; emphasis mine). You and I are very sinful people. This is tragic and true. But if we believe the gospel, we are sinful people for whom Jesus died and whom God has justified! And when we trusted in Christ, God gave us the right to become his children (John 1:12)—the right to feel assured that he forgives us completely, loves us immensely, and delights to bless us with every good gift.
 I know there are people out there who take these biblical truths and prosperity-gospelize them into something they aren’t. When the Bible says God wants to bless us and work for our good, it doesn’t mean that he builds us big houses or fattens our bank accounts. Nor does it mean he rescues us from every financial woe or health crisis or relational trouble. Sometimes he works for our good by delivering us from a trial, and sometimes he works for our good by sustaining us in a trial. God doesn’t always take the pain away—but where he allows pain to persist in our lives, he always gives us power to persevere through it with joy.
 In whatever form grace comes to us, it always comes as a gift from a loving Father who enjoys providing for us everything we truly need—namely, himself. And this is what God’s people want the most anyway, right? I usually don’t lay awake at night feeling afraid of poverty or illness. I usually lay awake at night feeling afraid that God might one day withdraw from me, cease to satisfy me with his love, or quit giving me the strength I need to keep trusting Jesus. It’s these kinds of fears that our heavenly Father longs to crush today. He wants me to know, and you to know, that he will always give us everything we need. It really is his pleasure.

Resolved to Believe

When I think about God, I tend to think of him first and foremost as Master and King. I think about his right to command my obedience, and I think about my obligation to obey his commands. I know, of course, that Jesus obeyed God perfectly on my behalf and has clothed me with his righteousness. But I also know that imputed righteousness always produces personal righteousness. I realize that faith in Jesus is the only way to be saved. But I also realize that faith without works is dead. Obedience matters. Works matter. God is still Master and King—even for Christians, like me.

But is this primarily who God is for Christians, like me? When he looks upon those who hope in Jesus, does he feel merely what a king might feel toward his subjects? The Bible tells us that God takes pleasure in his people (Ps. 149:4). He loves them with great love (Eph. 2:4). He rejoices over them with loud singing (Zeph. 3:17). He delights to do them good (Jer. 32:41). He cares for them (1 Pet. 5:7). Are these the ways that a master relates to his servants? No! These are ways that a father relates to his children!

God is more than our Master. He is more than our King. He is, above all other titles and roles, our Father.

When you struggle like I do to really feel this truth—that God’s primary disposition toward you is not masterly or kingly but fatherly—it can also be difficult to believe that the salvation he offers you is as free and complete as it actually is. A King would never do for his (disloyal!) subjects what God has done for you in Jesus. A Master would never suffer for his (traitorous!) servants to the extent that the triune God has suffered for you. “It’s too good to be true,” you think to yourself, even if subconsciously. You profess with your mouth that you are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And part of you really does believe this! But within your anxious heart still exists the lie that you need to work your way into God’s acceptance and love.

When you read the Bible, you tend to glance over the indicatives (or truths) of the gospel—that you are 100% accepted and loved because of what Christ has already done for you—and fixate on the imperatives (or commands) of the gospel—that you should obey, kill sin, live a life worthy of the gospel, etc. Though a deep belief in the gospel indicatives is supposed to be the power by which you perform the gospel imperatives, you come at it all backwards. Instead of putting on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience because you are already chosen, holy, and beloved (Col. 3:12), you labor to put on these things so that you will be chosen, holy, and beloved. Instead of striving for holiness because you are already accepted, you strive for holiness to be accepted. Your “obedience” is not a gratitude-driven response to God’s love for you in Christ, like it should be. It’s your attempt to earn his acceptance and love. You, like the believers in the Galatian church, are trying to justify yourself.

I keep using the pronoun “you,” but believe me when I say that I am preaching to myself! For months now my heart has been tortured by fear that God’s acceptance of me is still up in the air. I’ve felt like I won’t know for sure I’m forgiven and loved until I prove to myself (and to him) that my faith is genuine. So, I’ve been laboring and striving and toiling for months to grasp a greater sense of assurance that I am safe in the love of Christ. I’ve been doing “good works” that appear “noble” and “holy” on the surface, but they haven’t been propelled by love for God and gratitude for his grace. I’ve been driven by nothing but debilitating fear and a lack of trust that his gospel is for me, personally. My works-based pursuit of God’s love has left me spiritually depleted and mentally frayed.

But praise God that his love for me is sure even when I’m uncertain of it! Though he allows me at times to stray from the gospel in fear and unbelief, and though he allows Satan to play whatever role he has in all this mess, God is always faithful to woo me back to the rest and freedom he’s given me in Jesus. Over these last few weeks, he has kindly reminded me that:

  • He loves me not because of anything in me or any decision I’ve made, but solely because he chooses to love me.
  • He predestined, called, and justified me not because of anything I did or anything he foreknew I would do, but solely according to his sovereign mercy—even my faith is a gift.
  • The obedience he calls me to is birthed not out of an anxious desire to be accepted by him but out of a deep awareness that I am already accepted in Christ.
  • The obedience he calls me to is not an endeavor to earn his favor but the inevitable outflow of realizing that I already have his favor in Christ.
  • The obedience he calls me to is not fueled by angst and dread of his judgment but by gratitude for his great mercy and immeasurable love toward me in Christ.

I know it’s the time of year when lot of people make resolutions to do great things. But my chief resolve for 2018 is to believe great things—the great things of the extraordinary but completely true and trustworthy gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’” – John 6:28-29

“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins . . .  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” – 1 John 4:9-10,18-19

The Pathway to Peace

“You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.” – Isaiah 26:3

We all long and hope for peace. Some of us are single and hope that when we finally marry, we will feel whole. Some of us have wayward children and hope that when they finally turn to the Lord, we will be at ease. Some of us are in financial straits and hope that when our monetary lack is resolved, our souls will find rest. Whatever the undesirable circumstances are that disturb us, we tend to set our hope for peace fully on the day that those troubles are finally eliminated.

However, the Scriptures teach us that our difficulties do not need to dissolve in order for us to experience the tranquility we desire. We can have peace that surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:7) in the midst of our discomforts and disappointments. How so? By having a mind that is stayed on God (Isaiah 26:3)! Conscious fixation on our sovereign, gracious, and loving Lord is the only effective remedy for a troubled heart.

“Yeah, yeah—I know. I see this truth in the Bible, too. But I just can’t seem to focus on him! I really do try. But I can’t stop thinking about my problems!” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this—or how many times I myself have thought it! It can often feel impossible to pull the attention of our weak minds away from our issues and set our gaze “on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2). However, verses like Isaiah 26:3 and Colossians 3:2 would not be in the Bible if such a feat were impossible. We can fix our eyes on God. We can direct our thoughts to his reality, his sovereignty, his promises, and his great love for us in Christ.

Notice the last clause in Isaiah 26:3: “because he trusts in you.” These five little words are of massive importance. What is it that enables us to turn our focus away from the things that trouble us and set it on the One who can keep us in perfect peace? Trust! Trust in God, or faith in God, empowers our feeble minds to forsake their fixation on our circumstantial ills and focus instead on the God who loves us and is in absolute control of the things that burden us.

There is a reason we are so easily and continuously anxious about our undesirable circumstances. Clearly, our hearts struggle to believe that we have a sovereign and attentive God who truly cares for us (1 Peter 5:7)! We forget that he is a constant shield around us (Psalm 3:3), that he orders our steps (Proverbs 20:24), and that all of our days were written in his book before we were even born (Psalm 139:16). We are so prone to feel like we are at the mercy of our circumstances rather than under the never-ending mercy of a God who is eagerly working all things for our greatest good (Romans 8:28).

If your belief in these biblical truths is weak, and you therefore find yourself unable to fix your mind on the God who is aware and in control of the things that concern you, don’t lose hope. You’re in good company—I’ve been struggling for the last six months to believe these things and rest peacefully in the love and sovereignty of God. However, when you and I find ourselves barely believing God’s word, we need to consume it all the more! If “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Hebrews 10:17), then we must set his inspired words in front of us so that the Spirit can strengthen our ability to believe them.

So if you’re in a season in which you’re struggling to trust God (like I am), there is a solution: open your Bible. Read it and meditate on the absolute truths within it every chance you get. The Spirit will gradually soften your heart as you do. And as he works his faith-enabling power within you day-by-day, you will find yourself increasingly able to set your thoughts on the sovereign, loving, and trustworthy God who desires and is able to keep you in perfect peace.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).

Treacherous Happiness

I know a lot of godless but sorta-kinda-spiritual people who are very happy with their lives. Many of them, especially those in my neck of the woods (the South), even consider themselves “blessed and highly favored.” These people do not seek God, cherish Christ, or walk in the faith and obedience of the gospel. Their present manner of living looks nothing like the new life that the Spirit gives. But regardless of their lack of interest in the true God, and despite how cheerfully they indulge in the evils he despises, they sincerely believe their happiness of heart is indicative of his loving pleasure toward them.

The Bible diagnoses things a bit differently. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul explained that happy contentment in sin is not an indicator of God’s pleasure or favor, but of his wrath.

Many people think of God’s wrath only in hellfire and brimstone terms. One day, this terrifying manifestation of God’s indignation will be the unending experiential reality of all whose names are not written in the Book of Life (Revelation 20:15). But on this side of the Judgment, the way God most often demonstrates his wrath is by giving people over to all their sinful, soul-destroying delights.

Notice the progression of Paul’s argument in Romans 1:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth . . . although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened . . .

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves . . .

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions . . .

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” – Romans 1: 18, 21, 24, 26, 28

Is your conscience unbothered while you revel in activities that the Bible declares impure? If so, it’s because God, in his wrath, has given you over to impurity. Do you, without a twinge of conviction, delight in pursuing and satisfying unnatural desires? If you do, it’s because God, in his wrath, has given you over to dishonorable passions. Is your life filled with things the Scriptures say ought not to be done? Are you untroubled by this? If so, it’s because God, in his wrath, has given you over to a debased mind.

Hear me, though—this does not have to be the end of your story! Though God’s wrath rests upon you while you remain in unbelief and rebellion (John 3:18), he also extends a merciful hand of salvation toward you. Anyone who will turn from the treacherous happiness they find in their sin and take shelter in the grace of Jesus Christ, God will freely pardon and give a new heart—a heart that desires to pursue the holy happiness in God for which we were all made!

If today you find yourself feeling happy or even “blessed” in an unrepentant way of life, my prayer for you is that God would: 1) graciously trouble your sin-treasuring heart and 2) draw you to his sinner-saving Son. The joy Jesus gives is so much better than the cheap, fleeting, and deceptive happiness sin gives. Only when you know him will you really understand what it means to be blessed.

His Mercies Will Never Cease

I read through the book of Judges this past week and was freshly astonished by God’s faithfulness to his ever-erring people. Soon after Joshua’s generation passed away, “there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord . . . and the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals . . . they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers . . . and they provoked the Lord to anger . . . and he sold them into the hands of their surrounding enemies . . . and they were in terrible distress” (Judges 2:10-15). But things didn’t end here. Though Israel betrayed their Redeemer and rightfully incurred his judgment, “the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them” (Judges 2:16).

Why did God rescue these undeserving people? The text tells us: “For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them” (Judges 2:18). He pitied them. Though these thickheaded, treasonous rebels flat-out rejected his love and goodness, God was moved to compassion as he watched his covenant people suffer the afflictions that he had brought upon them. Yes, God was provoked to anger by their idolatry. But his anger did not endure forever (Psalm 103:9). As he looked upon these people and saw their miseries and sorrows, he, in his incomprehensible mercy, raised up judges to save them. And not just once or twice! This cycle of faithlessness, judgment, and salvation continues throughout the entire narrative of Judges. There even comes a point in chapter 10 at which it seems God’s recurring mercies would finally come to a screeching halt.

“And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, ‘We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.’ And the Lord said to the people of Israel, ‘Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.’” – Judges 10:10-14

But merely two verses later, the tenderheartedness of God prevails:

“And the people of Israel said to the Lord, ‘We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.’ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel.” – Judges 10:15-16.

God repeatedly came to the rescue of these rebels. Sometimes he did so in response to their repentance. Sometimes he did so despite there being no evidence of repentance. But he always did so with the knowledge that they would surely turn away from him again—“whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways” (Judges 2:19). Though his people were perpetually faithless, God was perpetually merciful.

What strong encouragement this should be for us today! Things are a bit different now. God’s chosen people are not unregenerate slaves to sin like most of the Israelites were at that time. Those of us who are under the New Covenant in Christ’s blood have received the promised Holy Spirit (Galatians 3:14), who writes God’s laws on our hearts and leads us in paths of righteousness. Our lives are characterized by faith and growing obedience—not unbelief and rebellion. But even though we walk in an enabling power that God’s Old Covenant people lacked, we still sin. We may not ultimately turn away from him and worship other gods as the Israelites did, but we struggle and stumble and fall in our redeemed-but-not-yet-perfect condition. And our struggling, stumbling, and falling can sometimes seem much bigger to us than God’s patience and faithfulness, can’t they?

I have often considered the presence of sin in my life to be a weightier reality than God’s love, mercy, and grace over my life. I have at times convinced myself that I am too wicked, stubborn, and riddled with evil desires for God to continue bearing with me. What absurdity! If God could stomach the ongoing treachery of Israel, how much more is he able to endure the remaining sin of those for whom his Son died? If God could find it in himself to be merciful toward unregenerate idolaters, how much more is he able to be gracious to those who are indwelled by his Spirit and truly desire (but seriously struggle) to love, trust, and obey him?

I’m not saying that God’s patience and mercy give us a license to sin. Those who think in such terms probably do not know Christ. Nor am I saying that God does not ever chastise his children when they go astray, “for God disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). What I am saying is that struggling saints have great reason to believe that God will bear with them until the very end. He is not overwhelmed by our failures. He is not impatient with our frailties. He loves us. And because he loves us, his mercies toward us will never, ever cease.

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.” – Psalm 103:8-14

Where There Is True Holiness, There Will Be Love

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” – 1 Peter 1:14-16

I have often heard God’s holiness defined as his otherness. Though I believe this definition is correct, I think it should be teased out a little. Some might assume God’s holiness involves only the uniqueness of his being—or the absolute otherness of what he is. This is a tremendous element of what it means for God to be holy. He alone is divine, omnipresent, and sovereign. He alone is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the one without origin or limitations or dependence upon anything outside of himself. God is utterly distinct from everything and everyone else in his being.

However, if his holiness is merely the uniqueness of his being, essence, or entity, how could we ever obey Peter’s command to be holy like God is holy? The LORD alone is God; we cannot be what he is!

The holiness of God obviously involves more than the otherness of what he is—it involves the otherness of who he is. God is also distinct from sinful humanity in that his character is completely good. This moral dimension of God’s holiness is what Christians: 1) are commanded to emulate, and 2) have the Spirit-given ability to emulate.

So, what does it look like to grow into the likeness of God’s character? My default response is, “to kill sin and strive for moral purity!” When I envision a person striving to be holy, I see someone who makes it his life’s work to put off every attitude and behavior the Bible deems vile—sexual immorality, dishonesty, greed, gluttony, jealousy, drunkenness, etc. However, I’ve recently come to realize that my perception of holiness and my pursuit of it sometimes lack an indispensable ingredient.

Love. 

Our endeavor to share God’s holiness is not mainly an endeavor to chop away at the various sins that taint our lives. Yes, we are to mortify these things. No doubt about that. But we can only do so effectively, according to God’s prescription for mortification, when our highest aim is to emulate God’s love—one of his chief attributes (1 John 4:8). Jesus makes this clear in Matthew’s Gospel:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:37-40

Did you catch what he said at the end there? “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” What he means is that when we love God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves, everything else falls into place! The immoralities in our lives can only be mortified by the sin-crushing weight of love. In fact, there can be no real holiness without love! Jesus harshly rebuked religious leaders who appeared righteous but lacked love for God and man (Matthew 23:23-38). Paul likewise wrote that seemingly holy acts are worthless without love:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Holiness without love is not true holiness. And a pursuit of holiness that isn’t empowered by love for God and others will never effect real and lasting change in our lives. If we are to truly cast off the works of darkness (Romans 13:12), put on the Lord Jesus (Romans 13:14), and grow in the holiness without which we will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14), we must, more than anything else, be people of love.

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And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.’

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise.’” – Luke 10:25-37