I’ve been thinking about a quote from Jerry Bridge’s The Pursuit of Holiness (pp. 25-26, 1st ed.). He writes:
Many Christians have what we might call a “cultural holiness”. They adapt to the character and behavior pattern of Christians around them. As the Christian culture around them is more or less holy, so these Christians are more or less holy. But God has not called us to be like those around us. He has called us to be like himself. Holiness is nothing less than conformity to the character of God.
I agree…in part. Having lived in one of the foremost evangelical cities (Colorado Springs), surrounding myself with “Christian” culture, and immersing my family for almost 3 decades in all-things-Christian, this really struck home. What is the standard for my holy behavior? Do I look to others for models of sanctified living? Clearly the Bible teaches us that God is the standard as embodied in Christ Jesus our Lord. But, do others play a part in my sanctification?
Before addressing these questions, let me be precise about what I mean by “sanctification.” As The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration states: “saving faith results in sanctification, the transformation of life in growing conformity to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification means ongoing repentance, a life of turning from sin to serve Jesus Christ in grateful reliance on him as one’s Lord and Master (Gal. 5:22-25; Rom. 8:4, 13-14).”
Now that it’s clear what I’m talking about, who is involved in this process? True that Jesus is my Sanctifier, but do others sanctify me and propel me toward “growing conformity to Christ?” Should believers be involved in a culture of holy living without erring on the side of “cultural holiness?” What I believe Bridge’s is getting at is this.
The means God uses to sanctify me must not displace the One who is the standard of my sanctification and my Sanctifier. He alone is the measure of holy living, just as Matthew 5:48 says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are to “be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1). I get that. But what role might others play in my sanctification?
Negatively: The Psalmist indicates that my state of well being is directly related to the company I keep. “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers” (Psalm 1:1)
Likewise, the Lord forewarns Israel to remain set apart from the lifestyles of their new neighbors. “When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there.” (Deuteronomy 18:9; see also Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16)
Positively: Paul writes to the Corinthians, commanding them to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1)
And Paul insists we follow him in the way of humble Christian service. “Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:16-17).
Believers at Philippi are encouraged to “join with others in following [Paul’s] example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” (Philippians 3:17)
In addition, Timothy is a fine illustration of solid Christian character (see Philippians 2:19-24).
And Timothy’s progress in the faith should be evident to others. “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.” (1 Timothy 4:15)
Epaphroditus, likewise, is a model of one who was proven in times of trials (see Philippians 2:25-30).
And the Thessalonian Christians are given a solid example for a Christian work ethic in Paul and admonished to follow after him in this. (2 Thessalonians 3:7-10).
So, others are clearly involved in our growth toward Christlikeness. It seems to me, therefore, that our spiritual growth promotes a culture of holy living. And, the best antidote I know to ward off the dangers of “cultural holiness” is a culture of holy living as we look to God as our model and seek to imitate others who are doing the same.