Some of us hesitate to associate the sanctifying work of the Spirit with a word like diligence. We can be prone to think of the Spirit’s ministry in terms of spontaneity and flexibility, not discipline and diligence. But unless we read the Bible attentively, pray devotedly, and gather for worship regularly, the holiness that comes from the Spirit will not be ours.
“Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made.” This prayer, often found on the lips of Robert Murray McCheyne, strikes a chord in every Christian soul. When the Holy Spirit makes his home in us, holiness ceases to be the stuffy obligation we thought it was. All of a sudden, holiness feels like heaven in our hearts, and every earthly longing bows the knee to this burning, bright desire: “Lord, make me holy.”
As we look ahead to a new year, how might we expect the Holy Spirit to fulfill that longing? One answer may not be surprising, but it is easily forgotten and neglected. To make us holy, the Spirit leads us on the pathways of Scripture, prayer, and the other means of grace. And along the way, he shapes our posture to align with two fundamental truths:
Holiness cannot be found apart from the Spirit’s means of grace; therefore, we must be diligent in the use of them.
Holiness cannot be found in the means of grace themselves; therefore, we must be desperate for the Spirit to work through them.
Diligence and desperation: these are the postures that honor the Spirit’s means of grace. And by his design, they are our only hope for true holiness.
Lord, Make Us Diligent
Some of us hesitate to associate the sanctifying work of the Spirit with a word like diligence. We can be prone to think of the Spirit’s ministry in terms of spontaneity and flexibility, not discipline and diligence. But unless we read the Bible attentively, pray devotedly, and gather for worship regularly, the holiness that comes from the Spirit will not be ours. In other words: no diligence, no holiness.
The Bible’s description of the growing Christian hums with activity and effort. Such a Christian does not read the Bible merely when he gets around to it; instead, he aims to meditate “day and night” (Psalm 1:2) — thinking over the word (2 Timothy 2:7), attending to the word (Proverbs 2:2), storing up the word (Psalm 119:11). He does not pray a few vague petitions on his way to work; rather, he endeavors to “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2), devoting his whole mind to the task (1 Peter 4:7) as he struggles on behalf of himself and others (Colossians 4:12). And he does not simply gather with the church when his schedule allows; he exhorts (and is exhorted) “every day” (Hebrews 3:13), “not neglecting to meet” with his brothers and sisters (Hebrews 10:25).
Just as no twig drifts upstream, so no Christian drifts into holiness. The flesh is too weak, the devil too deceitful, and the world too alluring. When it comes to holiness, the Spirit speaks the same command to us as the one he spoke two thousand years ago: strive (Hebrews 12:14).
Sometimes, of course, our striving toward holiness does not seem like striving at all. We feel carried along by the Spirit, filled with a power that scorns sin and sends us with joy to the means of grace. These are precious experiences. But they can lead us astray if we begin to expect that the path to holiness will always feel like flying on eagles’ wings.
The reality is that much of our progress toward holiness requires painful, painstaking effort — though not joyless — carried along by a stubborn faith that clings to God’s promise. J.I. Packer offers the realism many of us need to hear: “Holiness teaching that skips over disciplined persistence in the well-doing that forms holy habits is . . . weak; habit-forming is the Spirit’s ordinary way of leading us on in holiness” (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 90).