Does Holiness Come By Striving After it or By Resting in God?

by Jerry Bridges

As I sat in the doctor’s waiting room, my attention was drawn to a portrait of a man sculpted out of a block of marble. The sculpture was complete down to about mid-thigh, but below that the partially chipped away marble gradually phased into the outline of the original block. The man in the sculpture was handsome and robust, the kind of body any man would like to have. But the arresting thing about the picture was that the sculptor’s hammer and chisel were in the hands of the man being sculpted. The man was sculpting himself. As I pondered the painting, I was struck by its graphic portrayal of how many Christians seek to grow in personal holiness. We try, as it were, to sculpt or mold ourselves. We seek to grow in holiness through our own personal efforts and willpower. And we’re just as ludicrous as a block of marble trying to sculpt itself.

Holiness is not, as is so often thought, adherence to a set of rules. It is conformity to the character of God—nothing more, nothing less. It is God’s plan for us. He has “predestined [us] to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Ro 8:29). To this end, Paul says, “We are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Cor 3:18). The words conform and transform in these verses have the same root. A form is a pattern or model. Transformed speaks of the process; conformed speaks of the end result. We are being transformed into the likeness of Christ so that we might finally be conformed to the likeness of Him who is our pattern or model.

Who, then, transforms us? Paul tells us in 2Cor 3:18 that it is the Spirit. We are not sculpting ourselves into the likeness of Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. The writer of Hebrews recognized this when he prayed, “May the God of peace … work in us what is pleasing to him” (He 13:20, 21). Paul prayed similarly for the Thessalonian believers, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you [make you holy] through and through” (1Th 5:23). We as believers can no more make ourselves holy than a block of marble can transform itself into a beautiful statue. We are totally dependent on the Holy Spirit to do this work in us. Yet over and over we place the entire burden for growing in holiness on ourselves. We make resolutions, we try harder, and we may even succeed in changing some of our outward conduct. But we cannot change our hearts. Only God can do that.

It was said of the Lord Jesus, for example, that He “loved righteousness and hated wickedness” (He 1:9). To be transformed into His likeness, then, is to be brought to where we, too, love righteousness and hate wickedness. This is more than merely changing our conduct or conforming to a set of rules. It is a complete renovation of our hearts, something only the Holy Spirit can do. Is the road to holiness, then, one of dependence on God, or of personal discipline? Surely it is one of dependence on God.


We must not, however, carry the analogy of the marble statue too far. After all, a piece of marble is absolutely lifeless. It has no mind, no heart, no will. The sculptor receives no cooperation from the lifeless block of marble, and expects none. The same is not true of believers. God has given us mind, heart, and will with which to respond to His work in us, with which to cooperate with His Spirit in the process of transforming us into the likeness of Christ. He intends that we understand His will with our minds, that we yearn to do it with our hearts, and that we actually make choices of obedience with our wills. We are to “make every effort … to be holy” (He 12:14). We are to train, or discipline, ourselves to be godly (1Ti 4:7). We are to put to death the traits of our sinful nature and clothe ourselves with the traits of godly character (Col 3:5; Col 3:12). The New Testament is filled with injunctions about holy character that address our responsibility. In the pursuit of holiness, we must not be passive blocks of marble in the hands of a sculptor.

Is the road to holiness, then, one of dependence on God, or of personal discipline? Surely it is one of personal discipline. But how can this be? If the work of transforming us into Christ’s likeness is the Holy Spirit’s ministry, where does our responsibility fit in? How can we be simultaneously responsible for pursuing holiness and totally dependent on the Spirit?

I am an engineer, both by training and by temperament. One characteristic of engineers is that we always want to know how things work. I carried this analytical attitude into the Christian life. For years I tried to analyze the precise relationship between the Holy Spirit and the human personality. I visualized two gears, one representing the Spirit and one representing my own personality, and I wanted to know just how they meshed. I kept trying to answer the question of exactly how my personal responsibility for growing in holiness fit together with the work of the Holy Spirit.

I finally gave up. I concluded that God has not answered that question anywhere in the Bible. The mutual relationship of the Holy Spirit and the human personality in the work of sanctification is a mystery known only to God. But our inability to explain just how God works in and through our personalities should not keep us from believing that He does. He not only instructs us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling,” but also assures us that He Himself “works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Php 2:12; Php 2:13). Although God has not explained to us the mystery of how He works in us, He has made our responsibility clear. He has also made it clear that, in carrying out that responsibility, we are dependent upon Him. I call this dependent discipline.

The word discipline sums up our responsibility to grow in holiness. The qualifying word dependent emphasizes our need for God’s work in all that we do. Apart from Him, we can do nothing (Jn15:5). What, then, are our responsibilities for growing in holiness?

Let’s look at four words that I believe summarize our responsibilities: renewing, watching, choosing, and praying.


RENEWING OUR MINDS: Paul tells us that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Ro 12:2). He is not talking of a mere acquisition of information. He is talking about a fundamental change in our values. Nevertheless, in order to change our values we must know what God’s values are, and this does mean we must acquire new information, In Titus1:1, Paul writes that “the knowledge of the truth … leads to godliness.” We must know the truth about sin and righteousness before we can hate the one and love the other. Our hearts cannot love or hate what our minds know nothing about.

To gain “the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness” we must diligently study the Word of God. Although there are many different methods of Bible study, all of them require diligence. We are to “look for [the truth of God’s Word] as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure” (Pr 2:4). No Christian who treats the Word of God with casual indifference or approaches it only sporadically and haphazardly will progress much in holiness. We are transformed by the Holy Spirit, but He does this as our minds are renewed by His Word. Not only must we study God’s Word, we must also hide it in our hearts. (Click for discussion of Biblical Meditation, Click for a "Primer of Biblical Meditation") The psalmist wrote, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps 119:11). The word hidden conveys the thought of storing something up against a time of future need. We do this by meditating continually on God’s Word, by constantly thinking about it, and by applying its truths to the everyday situations of life. I personally have found a systematic Scripture memorization program to be absolutely necessary to continual meditation on God’s Word. I cannot think throughout the day about what I do not have in my memory.


WATCHING AGAINST TEMPTATION: Jesus said, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Mt 26:41). This is another area of discipline. It is something we must do. We must continually watch, or guard, against temptation. We must guard against temptation within ourselves. James wrote, “Each one [of us] is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (Jas 1:14). We must face the fact that evil desire lurks in our hearts. It searches constantly for occasions to express itself.

Evil desire comes in many forms. We often think of grosser desires like lust, but there are other, more subtle, ones: the acquisitive urge always to have the latest gadgetry; the feeling that we always need one more outfit to complete our wardrobe; the compulsion to “win” in all our relationships; the will to intimidate or manipulate other people. Watching against temptation from within ourselves requires honest, humble self-examination to learn what particular evil desires hide in our hearts and when and how we are most vulnerable to them.

We must also guard against temptations that come from the world around us. As our minds are renewed and our values changed, we begin to recognize temptations from our environment that we didn’t notice before. But we must make conscious decisions to keep from falling into those temptations.

I once became aware that my favorite news magazine always ran several articles calculated to appeal to unhealthy sexual interests and that I always read those articles. Conscious decision for me was to cancel my subscription. Someone else, tempted to live beyond his means through the “just say charge it” credit card philosophy, might need to cancel his credit cards. “The prudent see danger and take refuge,” Solomon said, “but the simple keep going and suffer for it” (Pr 27:12). The person pursuing holiness must be prudent. He must watch for the moral danger of temptations. Most of us know our areas of vulnerability; we should take special precautions to guard against temptations in them.


CHOOSING OBEDIENCE: In The Freedom of Obedience Martha Thatcher writes of practicing obedience one step at a time. Our daily lives contain a constant stream of moral choices that are made one at a time. Some choices can be made deliberately and with reflection; others must be made spontaneously and instantly. But whether deliberately or spontaneously, we are choosing all day long, every day. Someone sends you an angry letter, unjustly criticizing you. You choose to respond in kind or to be gracious and forgiving. The cashier at a restaurant gives you ten dollars too much change. You choose to keep it or to give it back. We choose to tell the truth or to lie, to forgive or to harbor anger and resentment, to entertain lustful thoughts and looks or to refuse them. We choose to respond to opportunities to show compassion and care for others or to ignore them in favor of our own interests. Choices like these, made over time, develop our character in one direction or the other.

In 2Pe 2:14, Peter writes of false teachers who “are experts in greed.” Another Bible version says they have hearts “trained in greed” (NASB). The word trained could also be rendered “disciplined.” These false teachers had disciplined themselves in greediness until they were trained in it—experts in greed. They were disciplined, all right, but in the wrong direction. How had they become experts? One choice at a time. God wants us to be experts in purity, experts in honesty, experts in compassion and forgiveness. How will we become such experts? One choice at a time.

Dawson Trotman (Born to Reproduce), founder of The Navigators, used to say, “You are going to be what you are now becoming.” The choices we make each day determine the person we will be in the future.


PRAYING FOR HOLINESS:  Prayer is not the last in a series of four disciplines but a necessary companion to each of the other three. We are to pray for God to renew our minds as we study the Bible and meditate on its truths. We are to “call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding” (Pr 2:3). We should pray not only for understanding of the truth in our minds but also for the rooting and building of biblical convictions in our hearts. We should pray that God will make us alert as we watch for internal sinful desires and external temptations to which we are vulnerable. We need to ask God to reveal to us matters in which we are not living according to the truth. And we should pray to God for strength to choose right, to say no to temptation and yes to His will. We should pray that He will change our deeply rooted desires so that we will, like Jesus, love righteousness and hate wickedness. We cannot effectively renew our minds through God’s Word, watch against temptation, or choose what is right without the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. We must be faithful in these disciplines, but we can only be effective in them as the Spirit both enables us and blesses our efforts.

Prayer for holiness should be of two kinds. First, we must have daily, persistent, persevering prayer asking God to enable us and to bless us in our discipline. We should pray daily about the areas of sin where we are especially vulnerable, whether they involve doing things we should not do or failing to do things we should do, or even harboring sinful attitudes like resentment, self-pity, or covetousness. Then we should develop the habit of short, spontaneous prayers throughout the day when ever we must make choices. A brief “Lord, help me,” uttered silently in the very face of temptation, is an acknowledgement of our dependence on the Holy Spirit to supply the power to resist temptation and choose His will.

FINAL DEPENDENCE: As successful as we may be in the needed disciplines, however, we must not think that the disciplines themselves make us more like Christ. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Only He can produce spiritual growth in us. Consider a farmer and his crops. There are certain “disciplines,” or tasks, he must do. He must plow, plant, fertilize, and cultivate. In some areas, he must irrigate. But he cannot make the seed germinate and grow. Only God can do that. The farmer, whether he recognizes it or not, depends on God both for the physical and mental ability to do his tasks and for the capital to buy his supplies and equipment. And he obviously depends on God for the growth of his crops. In the same way, the Christian depends on God to enable him to perform his disciplines. But the performance of the disciplines does not itself produce spiritual growth. Only God can do that. Growth in holiness, then, is not a matter of personal discipline plus God’s work. It is a matter of dependent discipline, of recognizing that we are dependent on God to enable us to do what we are responsible to do. Then it is a recognition that even when we have performed our duties, we must still look to Him to produce the growth. “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1Co 3:7).

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