Tag Archives: Holiness
“The Battle for the Heart” – Series: Splendor in the Furnace – 1 Peter, Part 1—October 31, 1993
1 Peter 1:13–21
13 Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” 17 Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.
18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.
What we’re looking at and what we have been looking at is the subject of holiness. We said the passage Peter quotes from out of the Old Testament, out of the book of Leviticus, “… be ye holy, because I am holy,” takes the main Hebrew word for holiness in the Bible, the word qadowsh, which means to cut, to cut it off, to separate. We said when holiness refers to God, what it means is he’s off our scales. He’s transcendently above us. He’s not like anything we can imagine.
However, we also said when you apply the word holy to us (what is a holy person), what it means is we are set apart. We’re separated unto God. That’s a religious sounding word. You sang about it tonight. Did you notice that in your first song, “You Have Called Us?”
We are a chosen race
A royal priesthood by your grace
We are a holy nation, set apart
We said last week if you want a real trite illustration of what it means to be holy, just imagine yourself reading a newspaper. You’re reading it, getting information, and as you’re reading through it suddenly there is one article with some information you can use. You want to use it in a sales pitch. You want to use it in a paper. You want to use it in a promotion. You want to use it. The only way to use it is to set it apart. You have to cut it out of the paper. You have to set it apart from the newspaper. Why?
If you don’t do that, you can’t use it. To cut something out, to set it apart for your use, is exactly what the Bible means when it talks about being holy. Every week we’ll come back to this and look at it from another perspective. To be a holy person is not at all what people popularly think. At the worst, the word holy is a terrible word in modern English now. When we use the word holy we almost always mean something imperious, something inaccessible maybe. We use the word holy to refer to “holier than thou,” condescending and self-righteous.
At the very best, people think of a holy person as somebody who keeps all the rules. Don’t you see this goes so much deeper than keeping all the rules? Holiness is an attitude of heart in which you look at God and you say, “Use me.” This is a tremendous clash with modern culture. In modern culture you’re supposed to be independent. You’re not supposed to let anybody use you, but that’s the antithesis to this. A holy person is someone who looks at God and does not say, “Just give me the rules and tell me what the rules are so I can get to it.”
No! A holy person is someone who says, “I belong to you. I’m set apart for you.” That’s what we’ve been trying to get at each week. Last week we talked about holiness of mind. To be holy means to be wholly his, to wholly belong to him. That means, first of all, we talked about the mind. This week and next week, let’s talk about the life.
It’s great to say to be holy means you have to submit your mind to God and submit your beliefs and so forth, but a person who submits the mind without submitting the life, the heart, and the will is a hypocrite, and we hate them. Therefore, to be holy means more than just to give him your mind; you have to give him your life. What we’re going to look at here tonight is a depiction of what a holy life is. It’s really right here in these verses.
“As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”
There is a contrast here between a life without God and a holy life. If we look at the contrast, we’ll continue to get a better feel for what it means to “be holy, for he is holy.”
1. A life without God is ignorant, but a life of holiness integrates the thought and the life
The word holiness comes from the English word wholeness. Therefore, there is a bifurcation. The life without God is a bifurcation of thought and action, but a holy life means a coherent integration of thought and life. Let me explain this. Most people in Manhattan who don’t believe in God or Christianity, they think they don’t believe in it because they know too much, because they think too much.
They say, “There are Christians. That’s great for some people. They’re religious. Fine. My problem is I’m a thinker. I think, and rational people, thoughtful people, thinking people, aren’t religious people. Religious people are people who have abandoned. They’ve jettisoned the rationality. They’ve given up hard thought. They’ve abandoned and jettisoned their capacities for thought and reason and consideration, so they’ve sort of leapt emotionally into the arms of this faith. They just take leaps of faith.”
People say, “The problem for Christians and for religious people is they don’t think, but not me. I can’t believe because I’m a thinker. I think.” In this text here and throughout the Bible, we’re told that actually the opposite is the case. You see what it says here in verse 14? It says, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.” A life without God is a thoughtless life. Let me show you what I mean.
Some of you, having come to Redeemer for a while, have heard arguments up here, rational arguments for why we believe what we believe. How do we know Christianity is true? They sound so wonderfully compelling, so you go out and you try them on people. For some reason they don’t like them. Do you know why? Here’s how they go. For example, ask somebody sometime who says, “Well, you know, you’re religious. Fine. But I’m not a religious person; I’m a thinker.” You say, “Okay, so think. Think with me. What are you living for? What is the meaning of your life anyway?”
If somebody came up to you after the service and said, “I’d like you to spend your entire afternoon with me tomorrow,” what would you say? You would probably say, “What for? What’s the purpose? Articulate for me the purpose of our meeting.” The person says, “Well, I’m not really sure, but I would like to meet with you.” You’ll probably say. like a busy New Yorker, “Well, a whole afternoon? Unless you can articulate the purpose, unless you can tell me what it’s about, it will be a waste of time.”
“That’s only logical. Well, all right. Let me ask you a question. What is your life about? What is your life for?” They say, “Well, I’m working. I have a career.” “Okay, great. You have a career. What is it for? What do you actually hope to accomplish? What is the meaning of your life? What difference will it make that you have lived?” People don’t like to be asked that. Oh, no. They really don’t like it at all.
“I have to press you a little bit on this. You would not spend an afternoon with me unless you knew the reason for it. Otherwise it would be a waste, and yet you can’t tell me the reason for your life. You can’t tell me what your life is about. How do you know it’s not a waste? What’s it for? What’s the purpose of your life? What is its meaning?”
People don’t want to think about that. They’ll get irritated with you at a certain point. Very quickly, they’ll start to get irritated with you. Why? They don’t want to think. They don’t want to think about these things. The average person’s lifestyle and behavior is based on no thought, no thinking out a philosophy of life. They don’t want to think about that. They think it’s morbid to think about that. They say, “You’re getting religious on me.”
“What do you mean, ‘getting religious on you’? You wouldn’t meet with me all afternoon because you wanted a purpose. I’m asking you, what is your purpose? If there is no God and if you don’t know if there is a God and if when you die you rot, then isn’t it possible nothing you are doing has any meaning and nothing you are doing makes any difference? If when we die we rot and eventually the universe is going to burn up, nothing you do, whether you’re a violent person or a compassionate person, will make any difference. Have you thought that through?” They don’t want to think it through.
Let me give you another example. This week we went to see a movie that is not a particularly good movie, but there are a couple of good scenes in it. It’s the movie Fearless with Jeff Bridges in it. At one point, Jeff Bridges (he’s a survivor of a plane crash and he’s talking with a young woman who is also a survivor of a plane crash, and she believes in God, and he doesn’t) says, “People don’t really believe in God; they just choose not to believe in nothing.” He says, “People want to think life and death have a purpose to them. They like to think they were born for a reason.”
He says, “Like the Giants needed a new homerun hitter, that’s why I was born, or my mother needed somebody to console her. You think you’re born for a reason; you think you die for a reason. We talk about not dying in vain.” He says, “It just happens. There is no God. It just happens. Life happens; death happens. There is no reason for the life when it happens; there is no reason for the death when it happens. There is no reason for anything,” he says triumphantly.
The lady looks up at him and says, “Well, if that’s true then there is no reason to love either.” He looks and says, “What?” She says, “There would be no reason to love.” What she’s doing to him in her own inimical way … he stares at her because there is no answer … is she’s doing what we call presuppositional apologetics, which means she’s pulling the rug out. She says, “If that is true, why are you here trying to help me?”
The whole idea was he was a plane crash survivor and she was a plane crash survivor, and they were having troubles adjusting, so he was there to help. He said, “The only way to help yourself is to get rid of your idea of God. Get rid of it! That’s the reason why you’re all full of guilt and shame. Get rid of it. I’m here to help you.” She said, “If there is no God, why should you help me? Why shouldn’t you just scratch my eyes out?”
A typical person in Manhattan will say, “Racism is wrong, intolerance is wrong, but sexually, you can do pretty much what you want.” Now just ask this question: What is the basis for that distinction? The person says, “Everybody knows racism is wrong.” You say, “Well, there have been countries where everybody knew certain races should go to the gas chamber. I don’t think we should determine morality by a popular vote. Are you saying that as long as a majority of the people think something is right, therefore it’s right?”
“Oh, no,” the person says. “Actually, I believe everybody has to make up their minds on their own. There are no moral absolutes. We have to all determine for ourselves what is right and wrong.” You ask yourself, “You mean there is nothing that is always wrong?”
“Isn’t torture always wrong?”
“Oh, of course, torture is always wrong.”
“Why? Maybe that’s just what some people like to do. Maybe that’s right for them.”
“Oh, no. Torture is always wrong because you can’t mess with human beings.”
“Why not? On what basis have you determined that people are really more valuable than rocks? On what basis?” The person, you see, will get mad at you. They always do. If you’re trying this out on people, they will get mad. Do you know why? They don’t want to think. Most of the simplest, uneducated Christians have worked out epistemology issues. They don’t know the name. They’ve worked out metaphysical issues. They’ve worked out ethical issues.
Let me ask you a question. This is a typical Christian’s framework. A Christian would say, “I discovered there was a body of evidence that indicated there was a man who lived 2,000 years ago who claimed to be God and convinced a lot of monotheistic people that he was God and that he had been raised from the dead. I discovered there were 500 people who claimed in an eyewitness account that they saw this man raised from the dead. It was documented, and I began to study the evidence.” This is how a Christian would speak.
“I began to study the evidence, and as hard as it was to believe this man was God, I decided the alternative explanations for the phenomenon of this man were even more incredible, and I decided to believe he was who he said he was on the basis of the evidence, on the basis of weighing it out. If he is God, therefore, he is my author, and that means I have a purpose in life. I know why I was built; I was built for him. I know what is right and wrong: whatever his will is.” Perfectly coherent, based on evidence, based on rationality. Then go further.
The Christian says, “I’ve begun to live this life in faith. I found that it fits my nature. I found through personal experiences I began to give myself to the will of this One who I have decided to believe in. I began to find that he fits me. The things he says, the things he’s done, they fit my nature.
As that one writer said, ‘I’ve been all my life a bell, and I never knew it till he picked me up and rung me.’ I found out, not only is this fitting me in a way I never thought before, but I found out there were millions of people over 2,000 years who have found the same thing out. I read the works of Christians who lived 1,000 years ago and I read their experience with Jesus, and I discover this is the same relationship I have with Jesus.”
Does that sound like a leap of faith? Sure, there is faith in there. Does that sound like you’re not thinking? Not at all. Let me show you a leap of faith: somebody who you press and say, “Well, how do you know torture is wrong if there is no God? How do you know people are more valuable than rocks if there is no God? How do you know there is any meaning in life?” They say, “Well, you just know. We just know people are valuable just because I know it.” Oh, that’s a leap of faith.
That’s thoughtlessness. That’s ignorance. That’s a bifurcation between your life and your thinking. Friends, life without God is a thoughtless life. A holy life means you integrate how you live. You know why you’re doing the things you’re doing, because you’re always thinking, “What is the meaning of my life?” And you have it in front of you. You’re always looking at what is right and wrong on the basis of the meaning in life, on the basis of whom you know God is and who you know you are. There is an integration. Don’t live a life of ignorance. Don’t go back to that life.
2. A life without God is an imitative life, but a holy life is an examined life
Look down at verse 18. “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers.” A life without God is an imitative life, but a holy life is an examined life. Let me put it this way. Again, just like I said, a lot of people in Manhattan and a lot of people in New York I meet would say, “I’m not a religious person because I think so much.”
I’m trying to show that ordinarily a life without God is not a thinking life or a reflective life; it’s a thoughtless life, but secondly a lot of people say, “Well, I’m not a religious person because I’m not a conformist. I’m an original. I think for myself.” That’s not what Peter says, and I think he’s right. Especially people come to Manhattan and they say, “I got out of bourgeoisie, middle America. I live in Manhattan now. I’m a sophisticated person. I think for myself.” What do you mean, you think for yourself?
If you’re a Christian in Manhattan, you really have to think for yourself. You open up the New York Times and you read the op-ed pages, what is happening? Your faith, your beliefs, your worldview is getting blasted with every article. You have to think for yourself. Most people in Manhattan open up their newspaper of choice, and they’re just kind of affirmed. You get into your particular imitative style of unbelief. Peter says unbelief is handed down. We see people doing certain things, and so we do them.
In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, there is a great place where a man who had lost his faith … He used to believe, but he had lost his faith because he went to college, and he began to think. His friend said to him, “Is that really what happened? Don’t you remember how we really lost our faith? We didn’t want to be laughed at. We heard a lot of other people saying things, and we wanted them to think that we were smart and intelligent and sophisticated, too. We wrote the kinds of papers that our professors thought were courageous and relevant and creative.”
He said, “We never thought our way out of faith; we just wanted to imitate what was around us.” That’s exactly what Peter is talking about. We all have our uniforms. If you say, “I’m a sophisticated person, and I’ve thrown off bourgeoisie, middle-America values,” in Manhattan the only way you’d let people know that is if you have to dress in a certain way. You have to dress downtown, or maybe you dress uptown, but the point is there are uniforms here. There is imitation going on here.
What it means to be a holy person, however, is utterly different. Nothing is passed down to us. The Bible says to be a holy person means that now Jesus is your authority, and the Word of God is your authority, and it doesn’t matter if you say, “I’m Italian; I’ve always done things in an Italian way.” Is it biblical? “I’m Park Avenue.” Is it biblical? “We’ve always done things this way.” Is it biblical? Is it in conformity with your Master and his will and your new self? “Well, we’ve always done things because I’m a southerner.” Is it Christian?
“We’ve always done things this way because I’m from Brooklyn?” Is it Christian? “I’m Irish.” Is it Christian? The great thing about being a Christian is you’re pulled up out of anything that was passed down to you. You don’t say, “Well, this is the way I am. This is the way my parents were. This is the way my family was. This is the way my peers are. This is the way the people are who read the books I read and read the journals we read and hang out at the same parties we hang out at. This is the way we are.” A Christian’s life is utterly examined. Every bit of it is examined. Every single part of it is examined.
One of my favorite memories of a good example of this is how, when I went as a Yankee, as a Northeastern college educated kid, I took a church in blue collar, Southern town. There was a culture there. I remember there were several marks of that culture. That culture was much more frugal than I was used to. That culture was much more hospitable and less privatized than I was used to. That culture was much more negative and scornful of education than I was used to. That culture was much more full of racial stereotypes than I was used to.
As a result, I could see all these differences, but very often the people who were living in the culture couldn’t. I remember one man, a friend of mine, who did not even graduate from junior high school. When he became a Christian he could hardly read, and yet I remember when he became a Christian he grasped what it meant to be holy. He knew just because all the other good ol’ boys did things didn’t mean that was the way he should live, so he began to examine.
Actually, he virtually taught himself to read in order to live a holy life, so he could study the Bible, so he could think things out. He awoke, and here’s what happened. He began to realize the fact he was more frugal than I was. That was a biblical value I had to learn. The fact he was more hospitable than I was. That was a biblical value. But his scorn of education he realized was a kind of ego defense mechanism, and his racial stereotype was also sinful.
What was he doing? He refused to take what was handed down to him. A holy life is an examined life. Isn’t this interesting? Life without God is supposed to be sophisticated, but actually, it’s thoughtless. Life without God is supposed to be original and creative, but actually, it’s imitative.
3. A life without God is a life of slavery without authority, but a holy life is a life of freedom under authority
I know that sounds weird. If you’re under authority you’re not supposed to be free, right? No. Look carefully at this verse. “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had …” Now unfortunately, this another one of those places where the text’s translation is not only wimpy, but kind of misleading. The word conform is a word that means to be shaped or molded.
The translation of the words evil desires is two words that is the translation of one word, epithymia, which is really a poor translation, and here’s why. The word epithymia means an inordinate desire. Think of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Do you remember the pyramid? The more basic needs are you need to eat and drink. Then you move up, and you need relaxation and recreation. Another need is sexuality. Then you keep moving up to more complex needs. You need to be loved. You need to feel like you accomplish things. You need to see your significance in the world. These are all needs.
Every one of those things is a legitimate need. They were all created by God. God invented food and drink. He likes them. God invented rest. You know, on the seventh day he rested. That’s what it says in Genesis. God invented sex, and he saw it was good. God invented our social needs for approval of other people. God gave us the desire to work and to accomplish something. They’re all good, but Peter says a godless life is not a life so much of evil desires. That’s a bad translation of this word. It gives you the impression what it’s talking about are people who pillage and murder and do violence and so forth.
That’s not what we’re talking about. He says, “You used to be molded, you used to be fashioned, you used to be utterly controlled by good desires that had become inordinate.” That’s what the word means: out of order, too important to you, good things. We talked about this last week, but Thomas Oden, who teaches at the graduate school at Drew University, has a fascinating book in which he lays out a couple of principles.
He says, “Everybody has to live for something.” Remember I told you before people don’t want to think about what they’re living for, but everybody has to live for something. “Everybody has to have some central value that is the basis on which we make decisions.” The only way you can make priority decisions, the only way you can decide this and not this, is if you have a hierarchy of values. “There is something that is your ultimate value, your ultimate reason for living. It could be attractiveness. It could be approval of people. It could be power. It could be anything, but everybody has to have something you live for.”
Thomas Oden said, “That central value is that something without which you cannot receive life joyfully.” If you don’t have that your life falls apart. He says, “You can either make God your central value which is an infinite center or you can put something finite in the way, something finite in the center—and when that happens—to the degree that I center my life on a finite value instead of God, to that degree I relate to my past with guilt and to my future with anxiety.” Here are a couple of quotes from him.
For example, he says, “My relationship to the future will be one of anxiety to the degree that I have idolized finite values. Anxiety becomes neurotically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite values that properly should have been regarded as limited.” He says, “If the thing I’m living for is money or if the thing I’m living for is my children or if the thing I’m living for is the Republican party or the Democratic party, I’m always going to be experiencing anxiety because those finite values cannot last, and so I will always feel threatened.”
He says, “On the other hand, my relationship to the past will be one of guilt. Guilt becomes neurotically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite values that properly should have been regarded as limited. Why? Because if you’ve decided, ‘The only way in which I know I’m going to be able to look myself in the mirror is because of this value (I will achieve, I will be loved, I will look good),’ whatever you decide that you have to have in order to feel you have meaning in life, when you fail those standards, finite gods never forgive, ever. You’re always down on yourself.”
What is Thomas Odin saying? “I have guilt in my life to the degree that I idolize finite values. I have anxiety in my life to the degree that I idolize finite values. That’s what Peter is talking about. What he is saying is life without God necessarily means I am driven by inordinate desires, good desires for good things that now fill me with anxiety and fill me with guilt.” Isn’t it interesting? A life without God is supposed to be sophisticated, but it’s thoughtless. A life without God is supposed to be original, but it’s imitative. A life without God is supposed to be free, but it’s a life of bondage.
However, a holy life is different. It’s a life of coherence between thought and life. It’s a life of examination. Lastly, it’s a life of freedom under authority. “As obedient children …” Let’s just look at that, and this is the final point. Do you know what it means to be a holy person? First of all, it means you’re obedient, and unfortunately the word obedience means, yes, to be holy you have to submit your will to another’s. To be obedient means there is a submission of your will to the will of someone else.
There are really two basic epistemologies. There are two basic ways of knowing that are dominant in New York right now, and these are kind of fanciful names. There is the scientist view of life and the New Ageism view of life. The scientistic view of life says, “You know, there is no supernatural. There is no spiritual realm. All that exists is matter, and when you die you rot, and that’s that.” That’s one view. You live your life the way you decide, however you see fit.
Then there is the New Agestic view, and of course, the New Agestic view is growing. New Ageism isn’t just one particular group, but the New Agestic view says, “That’s not true. The scientistic view is wrong. Everything is divine. Everything is sacred. God is in everything. God is throughout everything. You are God yourself, and you must come into contact with it. You must get in touch with the greatness of what you are and the greatness of who you are.”
What is so funny is those two views look like they’re against each other, but they agree in one area: neither of them has any concept of obedience. The scientistic view says, “There is no obedience; there is no one to obey. Do what you want.” The New Agestic view says, “Get in touch with God, but this a God who is impersonal, not a God who speaks.” If you want to understand how New Ageism believes you should get in touch with God, you just watch Luke Skywalker. What does Obi-Wan Kenobi say to Luke Skywalker? “Reach out with your feelings. Get in touch with your feelings.” Okay. No obedience. No obedience at all.
A holy life is an obedient life. Right here Christianity is running a head-on collision with the two dominant worldviews of New York City. What does it mean to be holy? It means to say, “Use me.” It means to be cut out. It means to say, “I belong to you.” It means to say, “You have your will, O Lord, and where my will crosses your will, my will goes.” Otherwise, you’re not really his.
In fact, let’s go one step further. Do you notice down here in verse 15 it says, “… as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do?” Let me push this a little further. To be holy means to be wholly obedient. If there is any area of your life in which you’re not being obedient, you’re actually not being obedient at all. Some people will say to me, “Well, I’m a Christian, and I am obeying God … except there. I’ll get it together.” You’re not obeying God except there. There is no such thing as obeying God except there.
Think of it this way: if you can say to somebody, “You can have the whole house except for that room. You can have the whole house, but you can never go in that room,” if you’re in a position to tell somebody they have the whole house except for that room, they don’t have the house; you have the house. Even if you only live in that room, and you give all the rest of the house to that person, if you can keep that person out of that room, you still own the house.
If you say, “Well, I’m going to submit to what Jesus says about this area of my life and this area of my life, but not this area. Not now. No. Not right now, but I’ll give him my life in every other way,” you haven’t done it at all. Do you see? “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” Anything else isn’t holy. I’m not saying to be holy you have to be perfectly obedient. Nobody is. We’ve been through this before. A person is a Christian strictly because Jesus died for them. They rest and trust in that, and therefore, they are forgiven.
The only proper response and the only way you can know that you received Christ as Savior and the only proper response to him giving himself utterly for you on the cross is you giving yourself utterly to him right now. Anything else is inappropriate. Anything else is not holy. To be holy doesn’t mean to be perfectly obedient; to be holy means to be completely submitted in the sense of saying, “I take my hands off my life. I give you the rights to every room in my house. Come in. I can’t keep you out of any, because the house isn’t mine.”
More than that, real holiness does not simply consist of external submission to authority. It says, “As obedient children …” That’s the last point. If you want to know what holiness means, it’s not simply getting all the rules and getting all the regulations. Oh, no. Think about this. Why would Peter say “as obedient children?” Why not as obedient people or as obedient servants? Why obedient children? Because the obedience of a child is different than the obedience of a servant or a slave.
A child can’t obey his or her father … a child can’t obey the parent … unless there has already been an action on the part of the parent to receive that child. You can’t obey your parent unless your parent has had you. You can’t obey your parent unless your parent has adopted you. There either has to be a biological action or there has to be a legal action, but the point is your obedience is not the reason your parents have you; the fact that your parents have you is the reason for your obedience. That’s utterly different.
A slave is scared to death. A slave, or a servant, or an employee says, “I’d better do well.” An employee says, “I’d better do well. Otherwise, I could be fired.” The employee is completely motivated out of rewards and punishments. “I want my reward; I fear the punishment. I want my salary; I don’t want to lose my job. I want a promotion; I don’t want to be demoted.” That’s the employee, and there is obedience to an employee. But no! Not for a Christian. The essence of a holy life is that you obey as children.
“I know I’m accepted.” The entire obedience of a Christian is based on this little word, for. Why should you be obedient? Because “… you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed … but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” If you want to get to the very, very heart of what it means to live an obedient life as a holy person, as a child, not as an employee, to be wholly God’s and to belong wholly to him in your life will only issue from a vision of how he wholly gave himself for you.
At the very end of the movie, The Bible, the one John Huston put together some years ago, George C. Scott plays Abraham. My wife and I can never watch that thing without weeping at the end, so we avoid it. (No, we don’t.) Here is George C. Scott playing Abraham, and God comes to him. In Genesis 15, God said to Abraham, “I will bless you and your descendants through Isaac, your son.” God moves between the pieces of cut up animals to show … He says, “I will obey my promise. I will bless you and your descendants, and if I don’t, may I be cut up as these animals.”
Yet, years later, God comes to Abraham and says, “Abraham, do you know that son I promised I was going to bless you through? I want you to kill him.” The Bible tells us Abraham wrestled and wrestled and wrestled, and finally he walked up the hill with his son, and he put him on the altar. In the movie, they add a little line that is not in the Bible, but it’s perfectly appropriate. In the movie, as Abraham is tying up Isaac and Isaac realizes what he’s doing, Isaac says, “Father, is there nothing he cannot ask of thee?” Abraham says, “Nothing.”
Why not? Why was Abraham holy? Why was Abraham wholly God’s at that point? Because he was just knuckling under the naked power of God? Did Abraham say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do; how can I fight against God?” No. The book of Hebrews tells us he walked up with his son, figuring out somehow God was going to raise him from the dead because God would keep his promise. Ah, if Abraham was only here now. Do you know why? Because as soon as Abraham had wholly given even Isaac …
Everybody in this room has “Isaacs,” things we want to hold on to, and yet God says, “You must be wholly mine.” As Abraham was ready to give Isaac up, God said, “ ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ ‘Here am I,’ he replied.” “Do not harm the lad. Now I know that you love me for you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love from me.” Abraham, as an Old Testament figure, understood God was good. That’s why he obeyed. He understood God was loving in a general way, but, boy, we have something Abraham didn’t have.
If Abraham was here now, do you know what he would know? He would know why God was able to say, “Abraham, you don’t have to kill your son.” Do you know why? Because years after Abraham, God walked up the hill with his Son and he slew him, and there was nobody there to call out from heaven, “Don’t do it.” If Abraham was here now, he would look at God and say, “Here’s why I’m wholly yours. Now I know, O Lord God, that you love me, because you did not withhold your Son, your only Son, whom you love, from me.”
As obedient children, for you know you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver and gold, but redeemed with the precious blood of Jesus Christ. That creates a motivation for obedience that no one else knows. It’s not an oppressive thing; it’s a liberating thing. We put ourselves wholly under him, wholly in all that we do, and obedient in every area of life. Isn’t it amazing? The ungodly life is not sophisticated; it’s thoughtless. It’s not original; it’s imitative. It’s not free; this is freedom. His service is perfect freedom. “You will know the truth,” Jesus said, “and the truth will set you free.” Let’s pray.
Help us, O Father, to get that freedom and to get that holiness of life, which only comes from the sight of you walking up that mountain with your Son and slaying him for our sins so we could know your pardon. Thank you for taking our punishment upon yourself. I pray, Father, that everybody in this room would know tonight that only if they give themselves wholly to you, because your Son gave himself wholly for us, will we know the freedom and the liberty of holiness. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
About the Preacher
Timothy Keller is founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City and the author of numerous books, including Every Good Endeavor, Center Church, Galatians For You, The Meaning of Marriage, The Reason for God, King’s Cross, Counterfeit Gods, The Prodigal God, and Generous Justice.
A small item I read in the news twenty years ago has stuck in my mind ever since. The Rockdale County High School Bulldogs basketball team of Conyers, Georgia, won their first-ever state championship in March of 1987, rolling over all their opponents. After eighteen years of coaching the team without a championship, coach Cleveland Stroud was ecstatic.
But a few weeks after the championship game, Coach Stroud was doing a routine review of his players’ grades when he discovered that one of his third‑string players had failed some courses, rendering the player academically ineligible for the basketball team.
The struggling student was by no means a factor in the team’s victory. He was an underclassman who suited up for games but hadn’t actually seen any playing time all season. During one of the semifinal matches, however, with the team leading by more than 20 points, Coach Stroud wanted to give every player an opportunity to participate. He had put that player in the game for less than 45 seconds. The ineligible man had scored no points. His participation had in no way affected the outcome of the game. But it was, technically, a violation of state eligibility standards.
Coach Stroud was in a distressing predicament. If he revealed the infraction, his team would be disqualified and stripped of their championship. If he kept quiet, it was highly unlikely anyone outside the school would ever discover the offense.
Yet the coach realized that at the very least, the player involved was aware of the breach of rules. It was also possible that other students on the team knew and thought their coach had purposely ignored the eligibility guidelines. But more important still, Coach Stroud himself knew, and if he deliberately tried to keep the facts from coming to light, his greatest coaching victory would be forever tainted with an ugly secret.
Coach Stroud said from the moment he discovered the violation, he knew what he had to do. He never even pondered any alternatives. His priorities had been set long before this. He realized that his team’s championship was not as important as their character. “People forget the scores of basketball games,” he said. “They don’t ever forget what you’re made of.”
He reported the infraction and forfeited the only state championship his team had ever won.
But both coach and team won a far more important kind of honor than they forfeited. They kept their integrity intact and gained an immeasurable amount of trust and respect. The coach was recognized with numerous teacher-of-the-year, coach-of-the-year, and citizen-of-the-year awards, as well as a formal commendation from the Georgia State Legislature. A few years later he was elected to Conyers City council, where he still serves. He was right. People who would have long ago forgotten about the Bulldogs’ victory in the state championship have never forgotten about this coach’s integrity.
Ethical integrity is one of the indispensable attributes of Christlike character. As vital as it is to be sound in doctrine and faithful in teaching the truth of Scripture, it is by no means less crucial for Christians to be upright in heart and consistent in our obedience to the moral and ethical principles of God’s law.
That is no simple duty, by the way. The moral standard God’s people are supposed to live by far surpasses even the highest principles of normal human ethics.
This was one of the main points of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). The whole sermon was an exposition of the Law’s moral meaning. The heart of Jesus’ message was an extended discourse against the notion that the Law’s moral principles apply only to behavior that others can see.
Jesus taught, for example, that the sixth commandment forbids not only acts of killing, but a murderous heart as well (vv. 21–22). The seventh commandment, which forbids adultery, also implicitly condemns even adulterous desires (vv. 27–28). And the command to love our neighbors applies even to those who are our enemies (vv. 43–44).
How high is the moral and ethical standard set by God’s law? Unimaginably high. Jesus equates it with God’s own perfection: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).
That sets an unattainable standard, of course. But it is our duty to pursue integrity relentlessly nonetheless. Perfect ethical consistency is a vital aspect of that consummate goal — absolute Christlikeness — toward which every Christian should continually be striving (Phil. 3:12–14). No believer, therefore, should ever knowingly sacrifice his or her ethical integrity.
Here are three powerful reasons why:
First, for the sake of our reputation. Of course, Christians should not be concerned with issues like status, class, caste, or economic prestige. In that sense, we need to be like Christ, who made Himself of no reputation and took on the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7).
There is a true sense, however, in which we do need to be concerned about maintaining a good reputation — and that is especially true in the matter of ethical integrity. One of the basic requirements for an elder is this: “He must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:7 nasb).
Nothing will ruin a good reputation faster or more permanently than a deliberate breach of ethical integrity. People will forgive practically any other kind of error, negligence, or failure — but ethical bankruptcy carries a stigma that is almost impossible to rise above.
Several years ago, a parishioner told me something no pastor ever wants to hear. He had invited a business acquaintance to our church. The man replied, “You go to that church? I wouldn’t go to that church. The most corrupt lawyer in town goes to that church.”
I didn’t — and still don’t — have any idea whom he was talking about. There are dozens of attorneys in our church. My hope is that it was a case of mistaken identity and that the person he had in mind was not a member of our church. But the following Sunday I recounted the incident from the pulpit and said, “If the lawyer that man described is here this morning, please take a lesson from Zaccheus: repent and do whatever you can to restore your reputation in the community. In the meantime, stop representing yourself as a Christian. You’re destroying the whole church’s reputation.”
According to Proverbs 22:1, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” You don’t have a good name at all unless your ethical integrity is intact and above reproach.
Second, for the sake of our character. More important still is the issue of personal character. There’s a good reason why Jesus’ exposition of the moral law in Matthew 5 focused so much on uprightness of heart as opposed to external behavior. That’s because the real barometer of who we are is reflected in what we do when no one else is looking, how we think in the privacy of our own thoughts, and how we respond to the promptings of our own consciences. Those things are the true measure of your moral and ethical fiber.
As important as it is to keep a good reputation in the community, it is a thousand times more important to safeguard our own personal character. That is why Jesus dealt with the issues of morality and ethics beginning with the innermost thoughts of our hearts. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19).
It’s probably not overstating the case at all to say that the single most important battlefield in the struggle for integrity is your own mind. That’s where everything will actually be won or lost. And if you lose there, you have already ruined your character. A corrupt character inevitably spoils the reputation, too, because a bad tree can’t bring forth good fruit (Matt. 7:18).
That brings to mind a third reason why it is so vital to guard our moral and ethical integrity: for the sake of our testimony. Your reputation reflects what people say about you. Your testimony is what your character, your behavior, and your words say about God.
Consider what is being communicated when a Christian lacks ethical integrity. That person is saying he doesn’t truly believe what Scripture plainly says is true of God: That “to do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3). That “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him” (15:8). And that God “delight[s] in truth in the inward being” (Ps. 51:6).
In other words, the person who neglects ethical integrity is telling a lie about God with his life and his attitude. If he calls himself a Christian and professes to be a child of God, he is in fact taking God’s name in vain at the most fundamental level. That puts the issue of ethical integrity in perspective, doesn’t it?
That’s what we need to call to mind whenever we are tempted to adapt our ethical principles for convenience’ sake. It isn’t worth the high cost to our reputation, our character, or our testimony.
About the Author:
Dr. John MacArthur is pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and president of The Master’s College and Seminary. He is also the featured teacher for the Grace to You media ministry.
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