I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. — Rom. 12:1-2
The Christian life is a life of transformation. Not physical transformation; not social transformation; but transformation from within unto the likeness of Jesus Christ. In the epistle to the Romans, Paul writes:
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. — Rom. 8:29
What this means is that our Christian lives must be constantly characterised by a change from our past sinful ways into a character that resembles that of our Lord. This process – called sanctification – is a mark of genuine salvation because it is a work of God. It begins with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation and continues until we reach heaven (and this we call glorification).
This is why leagalism and the imposition of external rules don’t seem to have any long-lasting effect. Even with children, there comes a time when you have to stop saying “no”; “don’t”; and “do” and start explaining “why”. Otherwise, they will sooner or later rebel against your seemingly whimsical totalitarian regime.
But sanctifcation of the Christian goes even deeper. If you look at the giving of the Law (mostly Deutoronomy and Leviticus), you will see that there is, more often than not, an explanation of why the children of Israel must or must not do certain things – and where there isn’t one directly, the meaning behind it is fairly easily clarified with some careful study. In other words, the God of the Bible wants His people to know the moral principle behind a certain commandment. Why? Because true obedience comes from the heart as an act of the will; otherwise it is still disobedience.
(Feel free to compare that principle to any other religion you can think of – including, perhaps, those popular misconceptions of Christianity).
But that still is not enough. If there is one thing that we’ve learned from the wonderful letter to the Romans, it’s that even though God’s holy Law is perfect and good, we cannot, by ourselves, obey it perfectly. In fact, by ourselves we are unable to even want to obey it (don’t tell me you need proof for this – just turn on the news). In fact, the apostle Paul argues that the Law was given to show us how far we fall from the perfection the God demands because of our sinful, fallen nature. No amount of religion can solve that problem because change of spiritual nature cannot come about by piling on religious and moral laws.
Think about the Sermon on the Mount for a second. How did Jesus handle the Mosaic Law? By removing the value of external standards (legalism) and pushing everything back into the heart:
You have heard that it was said to those of old,‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. — Mat. 5:27-28
So, according to Jesus Himself, obedience is a matter of the heart, not just an external, dry ritual of religious duty. The ideal is for us to want to obey God because we love Him and know Him as our Father.
But notice what Paul points out:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. — Rom. 3:19-20
So here’s the problem: Even if we know the Law of God, even if we know what He wants from us, we cannot obey it because our natural sinfulness prevents us from pleasing God in the perfect way He wants.
But look at what God had promised long before Jesus came:
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. — Jer. 31:33 (cf. Heb. 10:16)
The astounding thing about the new covenant that the LORD was going to make with the blood of His Son would be that it would mark the end of external, ritual-based religion. The new covenant would once and for all deal with the root central issue that causes all morality systems to fail: The human sinful nature.
When we come by faith to Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are given a new, holy nature. It is the very nature of God residing in us (1 John 3:9); moreover, God Himself lives in us by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5; 1 Cor. 6:19). And now, having been so amazingly and graciously freed not only from the penalty of our sins (eternal hell) but also from the power of sin in us (Rom. 6:14) we are called to naturally grow into holiness (2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 4:24; 1 Thes. 3:13; 1 Thes. 4:7).
I hope that we can all agree that the mark of a true Christian is a call to holy living. It’s sad that we actually need convincing about such a basic and crucial truth but, tragically, you won’t hear that from most pulpits today (I think they use the term “platforms” now…).
In the next part, we’ll take a look at HOW we can grow in that holiness.
Until then, pray for each other!