Favorite Books: The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges

The impact of books should not be underestimated. Books are full of ideas. Some of them are good and true. Others are bad and false. Books suggest ideas for contemplation which can affect the trajectory of a life. I am thankful for books full of good and true things which have influenced my life.

One such book which I read very early in my Christian life is “The Pursuit of Holiness” by Jerry Bridges. This little gem was given to me when I was a teenager dealing with the call to vocational ministry. In this book, Bridges addresses what holiness is, why it is important, and how we can pursue it. He helps us to understand the urgency of obedience and battling against sin as we follow Jesus. He helps us with practical advice regarding self-discipline and building into our lives “habits of holiness.”

Bridges writes in the opening chapter, “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.” This emphasis argued throughout the book is critical for the Christian life.

Another influence from this book was the people whom Bridges quoted. He used extensive quotes from the Puritans (Owen, Charnock) and other like-minded authors (Ryle, Lloyd-Jones). One is not only influenced by an author but also by the authors who influenced him or her. This stream of influence in Jerry Bridges’ life has also been an influence in my life.

Whenever I pull this book from my shelf, there is one more thing that I appreciate. The man who gave this book to me wrote a brief message inside the cover. He wrote, “I hope this book will challenge you to live a pure and blameless life in Christ. You are responsible for the depth of your life – God is responsible for the breadth of your ministry.” Thank you Bruce Smith for these formative words and this formative book.


How to Distort the Truth by Making Part of the Truth All of the Truth

How Does Sanctification Work? by [Powlison, David]David Powlison has helped me a great deal in my thinking about the process of how God changes people (including myself). One of the most helpful insights in this book relates to how we tend to take one aspect of the truth and make it the golden key to everything. He writes, “When practical and pastoral implications are deduced from sweeping theological generalization and then buttressed by selected texts and a single-stranded personal testimony, important things are overlooked.” In other words, when you take one aspect of the truth about sanctification, cherry-pick some verses to back it up, and top it off with your personal experience, you are going to miss some important things. By making part of the truth all of the truth we distort the truth.

Powlison describes what he calls “unbalancing” and “rebalancing” the truth in the process ministering to people. By unbalancing he means selecting a particular aspect of the truth for relevant application to particular persons and situations. By rebalancing he means viewing any particular aspect of the truth in light of the comprehensive whole of what Scripture teaches on that subject or issue. For example, when talking about the character of God we might focus on his love. But if we fix on that truth in isolation from all the Scripture teaches about God, we will have a distorted understanding of God. We need to understand the love of God in connection with everything else the Bible says about God to get a complete understanding of his character.

Both unbalancing and rebalancing are necessary. Powlison states, “Teaching that is only balanced is, in this sense, pointless. It discusses topics rather than touching people on matters of urgent concern. Ministry electrifies when it connects something to someone rather than trying to say everything to no one in particular.” On the other hand, he warns against the dangers of a failure to rebalance. He writes, “The delicate relationship between the whole truth that orients particular truths that scintillate also helps explain how “unbalanced” teaching can go bad….when one truth morphs into The Truth – the whole truth – it becomes an ax to grind.”

God meets specific people with specific needs with specific aspects of his truth at specific times in their lives. What a powerful thing that is! But he also wants us to have a solid grasp of how all these truths fit together in a more systematic whole so that we don’t end up distorting the truth. This is why we need to read and study all of Scripture. This is why we need interaction with other believers in community whose lives have been changed by various aspects of God’s truth.



Run Away, Run Toward

It is both sickening and saddening to see the glut of recent headlines detailing allegations of sexual abuses perpetrated by Hollywood moguls and politicians. Of course, pastors and ministry leaders have had their share of such headlines as well. These headlines represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when you consider the untold stories of average and unknown folk who have indulged the same sinful desires and behaviors. These sexual sins include a heart-breaking blast radius of physical, emotional, and spiritual carnage.

As I pondered these headlines, my mind ran to Paul’s advice to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:22. He tells Timothy, “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” A similar note is sounded by Paul in 1 Timothy 6:11: “But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” In both cases, Paul’s strategy for Timothy is both running from and and running toward. Run from the wrong things. Run toward the right things. There are damaging sins to avoid. There are also strengthening virtues to pursue. There is also in the 1 Timothy passage an element of community included in this strategy. Run from the wrong things and toward the right things in community with others who worship God.

As the church responds to the latest reminder of the bankruptcy of the sexual revolution, we will likely hear a lot of “run from” messaging. Sexual sin is bad. Avoid it. It demeans women. It destroys marriages. It ruins careers. It damages people. Of course, this is completely true and biblical. But running “from” alone will not suffice. There must be a big YES along with the big NO. We must also run “toward” the things which strengthen us in our fight against sin (sexual and otherwise). Flee and pursue. We must not settle for an incomplete strategy of avoidance. We also need the positive pursuit of godly character in community with others who are pursuing Christ.

By all means build boundaries into your life. Have fences you will not cross when it comes to your online browsing habits, your interactions with the opposite sex, the kinds of media you consume. These fences are essential. But you must also fill your mind and heart with Christ-centered things. Read Scripture and other edifying books. Go to church and worship with God’s people. Pray through all the experiences of your daily life. Build relationships with people whose influence will support you running after Christ and away from sin.

Run away. Run toward. This is the biblical strategy which keeps us from becoming the latest headline in a story of sexual sin.

Terrible Twins

The Whole ChristSinclair Ferguson offers some important insights on the terrible twins of legalism and antinomianism in his book, The Whole Christ. He refers to these two errors as “nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb.” The error of antinomianism (opposition to and violation of God’s law) is driven by the error of legalism (seeking to earn God’s favor through obedience to the law). Ferguson traces the pathology of legalism back to Eden where Eve rejected the law of God and ate the forbidden fruit. She rejected the law because she separated the law of God from the person of God.

Ferguson writes, “It is this – a failure to see the generosity of God and his wise and loving plans for our lives – that lies at the root of legalism and drives it…in Eve’s case antinomianism (her opposition to and rejection of God’s law) was itself an expression of her legalism!” Both of these errors fail to grasp the goodness of God in the law and the gospel. The fall in Eden has wired us to view God through a lens that distorts him into a narrow and restrictive God who demands that we earn his favor. Legalism was the attitude that caused Eve to see only the one tree God prohibited instead of the lush garden he had freely provided.

Ferguson points out that even those of us who have a correct doctrinal understanding of the gospel can have a form of “experimental legalism” in which we believe that our standing with God can and must be improved or strengthened by our obedience to the law. Instead of resting in our union with Christ by faith for peace in our hearts regarding our standing with God, we mix law and gospel together. We rely partly on the righteousness of Jesus and partly on our good works. Ferguson writes, “It is the natural instinct of the once-antinomian prodigal who, when awakened, thinks in terms of working his way back into the favor of his father.” Thus is it possible to have an “evangelical head” and a “legalistic heart.”

In the end, we do not prescribe measured doses of legalism to cure antinomianism or vice versa. Rather, we apply the antidote of the gospel which tells us that our grace-union with Christ through faith is the ground of our standing with God.  Then we are able to view the law as an expression of a gracious Father who loves us and wants the best for our lives.

Big Help for Tough Questions

ConscienceHaving been in pastoral ministry for 30 years, I have discovered that issues of conscience can be some of the most difficult problems that we deal with in the church. What holidays do we celebrate or abstain from? How do we school our kids? What personal habits are acceptable or sinful? These and many other questions have been the source of tension between Christians. These tensions often threaten to sabotage friendships and even divide churches.

I recently read Naselli and Crowley on the conscience. These authors provide some excellent wisdom on how to understand the function of the conscience in the Christian life. They carefully unpack Paul’s teaching regarding the “weak” and the “strong” in Romans 14-15. It is some of the best material I have read regarding how to apply biblical truth in these tricky areas of life.

This book will assist the reader in avoiding the pitfalls of both legalism and license. It will provide a solid framework for thinking through how to exercise one’s conscience in a loving way which exalts Christ and values others. It also has excellent insights on how cultural issues shape questions of conscience. The book is theologically solid and extremely practical. I highly recommend it. You will be challenged and encouraged.

Why the Reformation Still Matters

Here is a helpful summary from Dr. Gregg Allison about areas of agreement and difference between Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism. Enjoy this brief review as you give thanks for what this date represents in the history of the church.



A Forgotten Anniversary

October 31, 1517 is a date well-known in church history. It was the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This act is considered by many as the spark that started the Protestant Reformation. Five basic ideas which summarize the teaching of the Protestant Reformation have come to be known as the “Five Solas.” These Latin phrases capture the theological emphases of the Reformers.

  • Sola Scriptura – the Bible alone is the final authority for the believer and the church.
  • Sola Fide – faith alone is the sufficient condition for justification.
  • Sola Gratia – salvation is by grace alone as the free gift of God to those who believe in Christ.
  • Solus Christus – Christ alone is the Savior of sinners through his mediatorial work on the cross.
  • Soli Deo Gloria – Salvation is for the glory of God alone and the redeemed live all of life for his glory alone.

According to the results of a survey by Lifeway Research and Ligonier conducted in 2016, there is confusion among self-identified evangelicals regarding these basic reformation truths. Consider for example:

  • 83% agree with the statement, “A person obtains peace with God by first taking the initiative to seek God and then God responds with grace.”
  • 54% agree that “Everyone sins a little, but people are basically good by nature.”
  • 36% agree that “By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven.”
  • 74% agree that “an individual must contribute his or her own effort for personal salvation.”
  • 46% agree that “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”

It seems that many in our churches have forgotten the important anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the basic evangelical truths it championed. These survey results represent not just a failure in teaching church history but a failure to teach the Bible. I am not trying to say that all evangelicals will or should agree with the Reformers on every theological issue. But the “five solas” are, in my estimation, basic to historic evangelical belief. There is an urgent need for the church to look again at the biblical foundations of these truths which ignited the hearts of the Reformers. What is at stake is a biblical grasp of the gospel itself.

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