Returning to Holiness

(This article was published in the Dec. 2014 issue of Reach Out Columbia magazine.)

In repentance and rest you shall be saved,
in quietness and trust is your strength.
– Isaiah 30:15

When we were kids, my brothers and I loved building rafts. My oldest brother almost drowned because of the first one we made. It was a simple structure, and the raft’s foundation lacked integrity. You can guess the rest of the story. Without a good foundation, a structure won’t last. It was true of our rafts, and it’s true of our Christian faith. Without a good foundation, our spiritual lives will crumble.

The foundation of the Christian life is repentant faith. Our spiritual walk begins and continues by daily repenting of our sins and trusting in the finished work of Jesus Christ through the Gospel. As we pursue holiness (Heb 12:14), it is vital to understand the ongoing battle between our flesh that seeks our own glory story and the Holy Spirit, who seeks to apply the Gospel story to our lives.

The late theologian Gerhard Forde wrote extensively in On Being a Theologian of the Cross about Martin Luther’s concept of basing one’s life either on glory theology or on cross theology. Modern writers have relabeled it the glory story and Gospel story (see Tullian Tchividjian, Glorious Ruin and Elyse Fitzpatrick and Dennis Johnson, Counsel from the Cross). The essence of this concept says that living for our own glory story means living for our own self-esteem, agenda, reputation, flesh, and strength. It is bootstrap Christianity. It is all about us and what we can do for the Lord. At its core is self. Lives based on our glory story are all about us and all up to us.

Living based on the Gospel story is grasping the reality that we are bottom feeders—desperate sinners who need the power of the cross every day. It is admitting that we are far more sinful and flawed than we can imagine, and that we need a Rescuer every day of our lives. As Forde states, “a theologian of the cross (the Gospel story) sees the cross as the end where we die to our sin with Christ and are raised a new creation with Christ. The work is truly finished as Christ promised, and there is no moving on from His cross” (p 17).

A life of repentant faith keeps us coming back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It alone has the power to forgive and make us holy. So while we daily encounter the reality in our flesh that we are far more sinful and flawed than we could ever imagine, through simple faith in the righteous life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus Christ we find we are more loved, accepted, and welcomed than we could possibly hope (adapted from Elyse Fitzpatrick and Dennis Joshnson, Counsel From the Cross).

We see the contrast between the glory story and the Gospel story poignantly displayed in Luke 22 as our Lord celebrates the Last Supper with his disciples. The Lord Jesus’ focus is on the Gospel story as he reminds his disciples that within hours he will be headed for the Cross. While Jesus tells them of his upcoming horrific death, Peter and the other disciples discuss who is the greatest among them (v. 24). Pointing to the Gospel story, Jesus tells them they must die to themselves and serve one another (v. 25-27). Our Lord then “commends them and commissions them” in an incredible act of grace while they continue to focus on their glory story (v. 28-30; p.175, Fitzpatrick and Johnson).

The Lord Jesus then warns Peter, telling him that the devil has demanded to sift him like wheat. “But I have prayed for you,” Christ says. Peter’s own foundation—his commitment to his glory story—is exposed as he tells Jesus that he knows better than Jesus what he would do—he would die before he would forsake his Lord.

Jesus’ response is chilling, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me” (v. 34). This exchange contrasts how Jesus is centered fully on the cross and the Gospel, and Peter and the apostles are engrossed in their own glory story.

How does the glory story conclude? It always ends in depression, despair, and, ultimately, destruction. As Peter denies and betrays Jesus a third time, his eyes meet the bloodstained eyes of his Master, and he hears the rooster crow. Scripture records his despair: “He went out and wept bitterly (v. 62).

Living our lives for the glory story always results in despair (p.173, Fitzpatrick and Johnson). Its sinful presumption places us at the center of life instead of the Lord Jesus, who is Life.

Ultimately, in brokenness and repentance, Peter was restored in faith (John 21:15-23). His life demonstrates our own greatest need every day.

I am just like Peter. I think this life is about me and up to me. I constantly believe I can handle it on my own. I continually wonder, “How am I coming off? How is my name going to be honored?” I wonder what people are thinking of me. I am consumed with my own glory story.

I am also well aware that I daily, desperately need repentance and brokenness over my own glory story. I need to return to the cross through the Gospel of our Lord Jesus. As I do, the power of the Gospel makes me more holy and more like Jesus.

As we pursue holiness, we must remember that we are no different than Peter and the other disciples. Our flesh commits to our own glory story and lives based on our own resources. We constantly seek our glory, our honor, and our reputation.

For self-focused, glory-focused mankind, the only acceptable response is to forsake daily our own glory story and return to the cross of Christ through the Gospel. Otherwise, we will drown in despair.

As we return to holiness through the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit will set us free and move us forward into a life lived for his glory. This is a sure foundation.

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