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Holiness, Grace, and Jerry Bridges

14 Jun

In 1978, The Navigators published a book written by a Navigators staff member named Jerry Bridges. That book was called The Pursuit of Holiness , and it became a blockbuster in Christian publishing. The book was intended as an encouragement for Christians to take personal holiness seriously. It spoke to the church in a special way. After the permissive Sixties and early Seventies, there was a need to remind Christians that ‘If it feels good, do it’ was not a particularly Christian mantra.

I first encountered The Pursuit of Holiness in the early ‘90s. This was the first book I had read that quoted seriously from the Puritans, especially John Owen. I say ‘quoted seriously’ because I had seen Puritans quoted before, but only to mock their attitudes and opinions. Jerry Bridges discovered that the Puritans seemed to take the Scriptures more seriously than our culture did…even Christian culture. The Bible speaks a lot of holiness, and the Puritans applied that to their daily lives, and we did not typically see that same sort of diligence towards personal holiness in the groups I affiliated with. The challenge was real to live up to the holiness laid out before us in the words of Scripture.

There was one potential stumbling block to this call to holiness. If a person has a flawed view of grace and how grace works, it would be easy distort a legitimate call to holiness. This is how Pharisees are made. A person could believe that by successfully living a holy life, he or she could actually become good enough to meet God’s approval on the basis of his or her personal holiness.

Over time, Bridges saw how this mistake could be made, so he wrote another book called Transforming Grace . Chapter One of that book, titled ‘The Performance Treadmill’, spelled out the problem that this flawed view of holiness and grace could cause. The key Scripture for that chapter was Galatians 3:3: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Bridges established a beautiful analogy in that chapter that proved very helpful for me to understand how grace works. Believe it or not, Bridges used two chapters of the US federal bankruptcy code as illustrations. Bridges uses these two types of bankruptcy to illustrate two ways in which grace is understood: one wrong, and one right. Bridges says:

Chapter 11 deals with what we could call a temporary bankruptcy. This option is chosen by a basically healthy company that, given time, can work through its financial problems.

Chapter 7 is for a company that has reached the end of its financial rope. It is not only deeply in debt, it has no future as a viable business. It is forced to liquidate its assets and pay off its creditors, often by as little as ten cents on the dollar. The company is finished. It’s all over. Transforming Grace, p. 14-15

Most Christians know that the type of spiritual bankruptcy we would need to declare from that analogy is Chapter 7. Most would say they have. However, when ‘pursuit of holiness’ steps in, it is easy for us to slip over into a Chapter 11 model. Bridges says “Having trusted in Christ alone for our salvation, we have subtly and unconsciously reverted to a works relationship with God in our Christian lives. We recognize that even our best efforts cannot get us into heaven, but we do think they earn us God’s blessings in our daily lives.”

This concept was monumental in the development of my Christian growth. This Chapter 11 thinking had been there in me all along. As Bridges said, it had been unconscious, but it was there nevertheless. I realized that as much as I had thought I had known about grace before had only scratched the surface. Grace is surely bigger and better and more radical than I had ever imagined. This was a significant waypoint on my road to Reformed theology. Bridges wrote one more important book in this same vein. The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness further advances the topic and synthesizes what he said in the previous two books. Bridges writes:

After Transforming Grace was published, many people asked me how it related to The Pursuit of Holiness. The question always seemed to carry the suggestion that grace and the pursuit of holiness are incompatible. One lady even went so far as to wonder how the same person who wrote the book on holiness could possibly have written the book on grace.

Grace and the personal discipline required to pursue holiness, however, are not opposed to one another. In fact, they go hand in hand. An understanding of how grace and personal, vigorous effort work together is essential for a lifelong pursuit of holiness. Yet many believers do not understand what it means to live by grace in their daily lives, and they certainly don’t understand the relationship of grace to personal discipline.

Discipline of Grace, p. 13

Bridges then gives us examples of two very different types of days you might have. The first goes great for you. You get up early and have your devotional. You really do live out your holiness on this day. You control your temper all day. You have opportunities to be a blessing to others. The second day doesn’t go so well. You oversleep and miss your devotions. You are late to work and have a little road rage flare up on the way. This puts you in a ‘bad mood’ all day. At the end of each of those days, you have an opportunity to witness to an unbeliever. Bridges says:

Would you enter those two witnessing opportunities with a different degree of confidence? Would you be less confident on the bad day than on the good day? Would you find it difficult to believe that God would bless you and use you in the midst of a rather bad spiritual day?

If you answered yes to those questions, you have lots of company among believers. I’ve described these two scenarios to a number of audiences and asked, “Would you respond differently?” Invariably, about 80 percent indicate that they would. They would be less confident of God’s blessing while sharing Christ at the end of the bad day than they would after the good one. Is such thinking justified? Does God work that way? The answer to both questions is no, because God’s blessing does not depend on our performance.

The Discipline of Grace, p. 14

Does that last statement shock you? It would shock many Christians. However, God does not bless us because of what we do, but because of who He is. Think about it.

Transforming Grace and The Discipline of Grace are two books that I cannot recommend too highly to new believers, or to mature believers seeking to better understand the miracle of grace. I guarantee that grace is bigger, better, and more radical than anything you have ever imagined.

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