In the lower elementary Sunday school class at Bethlehem Baptist Church, I remember learning three hymns: How Great Thou Art, To God Be the Glory, and
Trust and Obey. It was a safe assumption that one of those songs would show up in our classroom worship every week amid other songs that have since disappeared from my memory. It’s a worship trio that covers a lot of ground: who God is, what He has done, and how it should change our lives as we respond to it. In that classroom, we weren’t all saved, and we didn’t understand everything we were singing, but the teachers were stamping in our hearts and minds a rhythm of grace—saved by grace, living in faith, changing by grace and faith.
Several years ago, I sat in on freshman orientation at a Christian college. They were beginning to discuss college lifestyle policy about abstaining from alcohol, drugs, and gambling when hands started going up. I can’t remember the specific questions, but the gist of the students’ questions was “how much—how far—can I go before I get in trouble?”
Not all lifestyle statements are good, and Christian liberty is not a myth, but the story above reveals much about the reality of our hearts: redeemed as we are, old man sin still lurks in the corners and fights for whatever victories he can get. Although we have died to sin and thus been freed to live to righteousness, when we see the “rules” or “guidelines for conduct” our tendency is to push back. We celebrate God’s holiness, and we celebrate Christian liberty. But what about personal holiness—our blood-bought, Spirit-enabled, personally-striven-for Christlikeness?
Personal holiness isn’t hip. If anyone questions the way someone talks, dresses, drinks, or entertains himself, he gets labeled a legalist and is dismissed. Sometimes, that’s legitimate. Legalism does exist, and we don’t get to heaven by following a list of dos and don’ts. But some of Jesus’ statements should cause us to question the simplicity of our “liberty”—statements like “sin no more” (John 8:11). There is the Sermon on the Mount, which makes the Ten Commandments look easy. Even Paul, the author of Ephesians 2, wrote about how Christians should act, talk, and walk in Ephesians 4-5. Could it be that in our battle against legalism, we’ve gotten mixed up about who the “enemy” is? After all, God’s law isn’t the real enemy; the real enemy is our sin, false self-sufficiency, and pride. Maybe the problem is that our souls don’t find holiness sweet.
In a culture that celebrates doing whatever feels good, we need to be griped anew by the beauty of holiness and the pursuit of personal holiness. Holiness doesn’t feel good to the rebellious heart, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Psalm 19 sings about the law of the Lord being sure, right, rejoicing the heart, pure, clean, enduring, true, more desirable than gold, sweeter than honey, rewarding the servant to keeps it. This isn’t the language of the Pharisees. It’s beautiful. It’s poetic. It’s worth singing.
Jesus’ commands are not burdensome to the heart that treasures Him above all and is overcome by the splendor of His holiness and grace. So when we feel that rise of rebellion against His ways, we must pray and work (grace-empowered effort) to change the attitudes of our hearts. We have the Spirit, the Word, and an Advocate—and we have music. If melodies have helped saints chase away despair and fear, surely the hymns of faith can also help us fight for personal holiness by helping us see godliness as it is—beautiful. Hymnists over the years have put these truths into prayers of consecration: Take My Life and Let It Be, May the Mind of Christ My Savior, More Love To Thee, O Christ, Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart, and Trust and Obey, to name a few. Such songs should be part of our daily repertoire, even as we pray that the words become truth of our hearts and minds, and our children.
When I found out we were expecting a daughter, I wanted to name her Elizabeth Marie after two biblical women who were fearless in faith, steadfast in trust, and joyfully submitted to God. Elizabeth is described as a woman who was “righteous before God, walking blamelessly” (Luke 1:6), and she also verbally affirmed and rejoiced at the coming Messiah Mary carried in her womb (Luke 1:41-45). Mary was heralded as “favored one” (Luke 1:28). Her faith-filled submission to God’s purpose for her life was not only willing (Luke 1:38), but song-filled (Luke 1:46-55). They stand as two examples of ordinary women, changed by an extraordinary God, used by God for world-changing purposes. We pray that our Elizabeth will grow to be a faith-filled woman, a favored servant of the Lord, consecrated to Him, who is ready to do His bidding in the world. While we wait to see how God will work in her heart, we sing of the gracious and trusting life we hope she will have:
May the mind of Christ, my Savior,
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and power controlling
All I do and say.
Note: For excellent teaching and discussion regarding the place of personal holiness in the Christian life, please read The Hole in Our Holiness by Ken DeYoung.
(Photo courtesy of Papaija2008 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)