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It is certainly true that whoever repents of sin and believes on Christ as Lord and Savior will be forgiven. But is that where it ends? After we are forgiven of our sins, does the Lord expect us to become holy as he is holy?
We know that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works. According to Jesus, the thief on the cross who confessed Jesus as the Messiah entered Paradise after he died. He certainly had no opportunity on earth to become holy. But what of those who live out their lives on earth after they repent and follow Jesus Christ?
That old bumper sticker
The slogan on the bumper sticker declares that we are simply forgiven of our sins and not expected to live holy lives. Or at least, although it would be good if Christians could live holy lives, it is optional. This is because, it is taught, we have received God’s righteousness when we believe on Jesus. Therefore we are already perfect in God’s sight—even though in reality we may still be sinning. As long as we truly believe in Jesus, we are forgiven of our sins and we have eternal life. Living a holy life, although certainly desirable, is therefore optional. Thus we place great emphasis on faith and much less emphasis on works and personal holiness. This is what we are generally taught.
Let’s see what Scripture teaches.
The Sermon on the Mount
In Matthew 5, Jesus gives what is traditionally called the Sermon on the Mount. He begins with the Beatitudes. He tells us his disciples that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Then he reveals the following.
Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus taught that in order for us to enter the kingdom of heaven, our righteousness had to surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. None of the commandments in the Law and the Prophets would disappear “until everything is accomplished.” We believe that everything was in fact accomplished when Jesus died on the cross for our sins, thus abolishing in his flesh the Law with its commandments and regulations (Ephesians 2:15). When we put our faith in him and his atoning sacrifice for us on the cross, then we receive God’s perfect righteousness which surpasses that of the Pharisees.
But does that mean that we do not need to grow in personal and practical righteousness in our daily lives?
Is personal righteousness important?
After that, Jesus taught his disciples about the judgment for being angry with one’s brother—the fire of hell. He taught that the consequence of lusting after women was being thrown into hell. He taught about the sin—in some cases—of divorce and remarriage. He commanded his disciples to love their enemies. Finally, Jesus concluded with the following command.
Matthew 5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Are we to conclude from all this extensive teaching that being perfect is entirely optional? If that is the case, why should we bother to teach God’s people to avoid anger, lust, divorce, and hate? Is it only for the sake of having a blessed life on earth? No, there is more to it than simply earthly blessings. Personal holiness is not optional. We are in fact expected to grow in holiness after we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior.
It takes every effort on our part
Leviticus 11:45 I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.
After Jesus Christ delivers us from slavery to sin in Egypt, he commands us to be holy, because he is holy.
Throughout the New Testament epistles, there is exhortation after exhortation to live a life which is worthy of the calling we have received. This takes actual effort on our part.
2 Peter 1:3 His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faithgoodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.
10 Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
How to never fall
Peter concludes his exhortation by telling us that we will never fall if we obey his teaching. We may reasonably conclude conversely that if we do not add to our faith goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, and so forth; we might in fact fall. Note that we begin with faith. But to that faith we must add the listed qualities in increasing measure in order to make our calling and election sure.
We see therefore that we must expend effort in order to receive a rich welcome into the kingdom of God. What kind of effort?
Paul teaches us how not to be disqualified for our heavenly prize. Whatever “the prize” means in the following teaching, certainly no disciple of Christ wants to risk being disqualified for it.
1 Corinthians 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slaveso that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
The Olympic Games
Paul uses the metaphor of a highly-trained athlete preparing to compete for Olympic gold. In such training, the athlete treats his body most strictly and harshly. He does not give in to its desires (although he does give it proper nourishment and rest), but “beats it and makes it his slave.” In this way he will not be disqualified for the gold.
Exactly what is Paul beating into submission here? He is certainly not referring to his physical body. To find the answer, let’s see what he says in his very next breath.
1 Corinthians 10:1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.
6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
Putting our flesh to death by the Spirit
Paul is teaching us to “beat our body” by putting to death the works of our flesh. Before we followed Christ, we were slaves to our sinful nature and were powerless to stop sinning. But after being born-again by faith in Christ, we are able by the Spirit to put to death the misdeeds of our body (Romans 8:13). It is essential for us to exercise authority over the works of our flesh in order to live a holy life. Scripture teaches us to rebuke our flesh with spiritual violence. If we do not, both Peter and Paul teach that we might fall.
To learn how to exercise authority over our flesh and make it submit to us, please click here.
After such a harsh warning, Paul balances his teaching with a word of comfort. God is faithful and will help us. But this certainly does not absolve us of the responsibility doing our part in putting the works of our flesh to death.
13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
We are indeed forgiven of our sins when we put our faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. But after that we must be sanctified and grow up to become like Him in holiness. If we do not, our salvation may be in doubt. Definite effort on our part is involved in our salvation. We are not talking about doing “dead works” to earn our salvation, but growing the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our personal lives as the outward evidence and fruit of our salvation.
Galatians 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Hebrews 10:12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
Now we can better understand the seeming paradox between believers who have been made perfect forever by Christ’s atoning sacrifice—yet who are still being made holy.