[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church titled "Greatness as a Disciple of Jesus, Part 2". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]
When we read Mark 9:43-50, there is no doubt that Jesus wants His disciples to pursue holiness. They must identify those things which cause them to stumble or sin, they must take radical action to remove such sin from their lives, or they will face the unquenchable, eternal fires of hell. They cannot pursue holiness half-heartedly, for losing their saltiness would mean uselessness as a disciple. Yes...Jesus wants His disciples to be holy, and that includes us.
As one looks at a passage like this, it is important to remember that it is not in competition with the gospel of salvation by grace through faith. Jesus is not saying that rather than be justified by faith, one could chose to do so by obeying the law...exerting effort to be as holy as possible. No, Jesus is not giving mankind a second way to heaven...He's simply describing saving faith. He is informing us what the way of faith will look like in daily life. Faith cuts off a hand and tears out an eye for the sake of holiness. Faith denies self, takes up the cross, and loses life in order to gain life eternal. In saying these things, Jesus lays the foundation for James 2. Jesus says 'pursue holiness or you will go to hell,' and James says, 'Faith without works is dead.'
So, where does the Christian find the power to pursue holiness in the way Jesus describes?When we read the letters of Paul to various churches, we find a clue. The typical form of Paul's letter is that they begin with the gospel...they speak of the great work that God has done in rescuing unholy sinners from their sinfulness. They speak of how God has provided Jesus Christ as the propitiation for our sins, satisfying God's wrath and releasing us from our due penalty. They remind us that we were dead in our sins and transgressions until God made us alive together with Christ, uniting us to Him through faith.
Then, as the letters go on, we find ethical exhortations to be obeyed. These commands, when obeyed, become part of the pursuit of holiness. They involve areas of life like our speech, our marriages, our parenting, our business relationships, our relationships in the family of God, our sexuality, our minds, and more. There is no doubt that Paul wants his readers to pursue holiness with the same kind of fervor that Jesus prescribed.
Why is it Paul's general form to proclaim the gospel and then call his readers to holy living? It is his form because calling people to holy living is the application of the gospel to every day life, and if the gospel isn't right, then the holy livingwon't be right either. It is the gospel that defines sin, it is the gospel that reminds us of our nature, it is the gospel that teaches how sin has been dealt with, it is the gospel which teaches us of the Holy Spirit's role in our lives, and much more.
Without the clarity of the gospel, the pursuit of holiness goes terribly wrong. There will be times when we gain ground in some area of life (i.e.- the tongue, the mind, our marriage, etc.). There will also be times when fail miserably. At both of these points, the gospel reminds us that we are not more or less acceptable to God on the basis of our performance. The only way that we are acceptable to God is because of what Jesus Christ has done for us in His life, death, and resurrection.
This is freeing for both the moments of success and the moments of failure. How? For the failure, it encourages us not to give up on our pursuit of holiness. It warns us not to sin all the more so that grace may abound...God forbid it! (Rom. 6:1-2) No, the gospel will remind us that we were once enemies of God, but now we are His children through being adopted as sons. We will remember that Christ's righteousness has given us an unshakable standing before God, and we are free from the trap of legalistic, performance-based Christianity.
If a Christian is growing in holiness and feels he is gaining a better standing before God, then his pride has gotten the best of him. When we are succeeding in the mortification of sin and the cultivation of holiness in our lives, we must remember two things: (1) Believing that we have contributed to our standing before God means that we think something is lacking in the person and work of Christ, and this is an error we must steer clear of. (2) The gospel reminds us we are prone to wander, and this brings the believer back to reality so that he raises the shield of faith and continues fighting for holiness. In this way, the gospel frees us from our own pride and self-sufficiency, so that we can pursue our holiness with no confidence in our own flesh.
So, the gospel encourages the one failing in their pursuit of holiness, and the gospel humbles the one succeeding. Both are needed, and both grow out of our constantly remembering the gospel...that God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). Through faith in Christ, we are justified before God, and the Holy Spirit lives within us, enabling us to will and to do all that God desires...enabling us to pursue holiness...enabling us to follow Jesus' call and Paul's call (for they are one and the same): Be who you are! God has made us holy in His sight, and this gospel truth gives us the power (through encouragement and humility) to pursue holiness.