Christians believe in the gospel. Simply put, God became human in Jesus Christ; Jesus lived a sinless life; in his perfection, Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for sin; and he was resurrected. Christians believe this life to be the power of God’s grace—we are powerless to save ourselves, but God in Christ has reconciled us to himself. Grace is what justifies us before God. Millions—if not billions—of people alive believe the truth of the gospel. They confess it freely. But the question many of them have is what’s next after this confession. They might say, “I believe the gospel to be true. But what do I do now? How do I grow spiritually?” For centuries, churches have recommended corporate worship, Bible study, prayer, and a host of other spiritual practices. But I’ve recently found when people ask me how they are to grow spiritually, they are actually asking a different question. They are recognizing a universal experience in the Christian life—they are still tempted to sin.
If grace has justified me before God, how does grace change me over a lifetime? God gives his grace freely in Jesus Christ and in Scripture; the Christian journey is one of applying that grace to our brokenness over the course of a lifetime. The application of grace is the way we fight for holiness in life.
How to Fight For Holiness
1. Identify the lie you believe.
We all believe lies about ourselves. These lies are different for each of us, but belief in lies is universal. The prophet Jeremiah puts it this way: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9) You do not need to wonder whether you, too, believe lies about yourself. Instead, you must identify what the lie you believe is.
Our tendency is to focus on the concrete, to focus on our actions. We spot the actions or attitudes in our lives we do not like, and we want to change them. We make plans or resolutions and through sheer willpower, we change behaviors. This sort of behavior modification is good and works in many circumstances. We want to stop biting our nails, so we resolve to do so.
But the darkest places in our heart and actions are not able to be overcome by willpower, for those dark places are not about the actions. The dark places are about motives and loves. And these are the places where the lies live. The place where anger, jealousy, insecurity, lust, lies, and fakery thrive. And these sorts of motives and loves feed upon the lies. As Matthew 12:34-35 reminds us, “How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
If you want to apply the grace of Jesus to your life, you must be willing to spelunk into these dark places and examine your heart. You will need to ask some difficult questions to find the emotional and spiritual motives behind some of your actions. No easy answers are allowed in the dark places.
Addictive behavior often falls into the same trap. I choose to look at pornography, drink excessively, or abuse illegal drugs because I believe that the pleasure I will receive from succumbing to my addiction will supersede all other pleasures available to me. I have convinced myself peace comes through my addiction; the behavior killing me is the one I believe best-suited to satiate my thirst. I believe a lie: The greatest pleasure in my life comes from participating in addictive behavior, not God.
Surface behavior is rarely the root problem. Behaviors are often symptoms of something deeper within our hearts. We believe things about others, ourselves, the world, or God, and we then act upon those deeply held beliefs. Often those beliefs are so deeply rooted within our personality or our past that we cannot even immediately identify them. As a lifelong struggler of insecurity and people pleasing, it took multiple conversations with my wife and friends—along with extended time in prayer and reflection—to begin to notice the lies beneath my behaviors. Rooting out the lies we believe can often be the most difficult part of the process, for it often requires us to visit emotional and spiritual wounds we would prefer to forget or ignore.
2. Find the grace-centered truth of Scripture.
The preceding spiritual lies are false thoughts taking up residence within our current belief structures. These false thoughts are causing us to behave in ways we know are in opposition to Kingdom living. In order to fight the lies, we must replace the false thoughts with the truth. The written source of truth for the Kingdom life is found in Scripture. In order to change our life, we must find the truth of Scripture and allow it to combat the lies. Hebrews 4:12 describes the Scripture as a sword, able to divide between soul and spirit. The truth found within the pages of the Bible must become the weapon you use. These lies are not new; humanity has been recycling the same lies for millennia.
To battle lies with the truth, we need to know the themes of Scripture. Because the lies we tell ourselves are not always about the outward symptom (drugs, pornography, etc.) but instead about heart motivations, we must ensure we are allowing the Word of God to speak to the lie itself, not simply the symptom. Take anger for example. A root lie for anger says, “I believe I am entitled to a life I control.” In order to combat this belief, I must find what Scripture says regarding control.
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:24).
“In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10).
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps.115:3).
“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20).
Repeatedly, Scripture testifies that the Lord is sovereign over all of creation. While I am allowed great freedom to act within the world, the Bible clearly states that everything is seen by his gracious eye and everything passes through his hand. If my anger stems from a desire to control, these (and many other) verses are essential. The lie? I am entitled to a life I control. The truth? God is in control and sovereign over my life.
Once you have identified the lie, finding the truth of Scripture becomes a quest. Do not only settle on the easily discovered Scriptures; instead, dive into Scripture every day. Read the New Testament repeatedly—like any great text, it takes multiple readings to grasp its depth. The more you read, the more the truth of God will replace the lies within your mind. If you keep a running list of Scriptures with the truth that combats your resident lie, you will soon find you have an extensive armory. Even further—and perhaps more important—Scripture is best understood when it is read and interpreted in communally. You need to read the Scripture with other believers so that you can understand it. Deuteronomy 6 exhorts parents to teach their children in this way—talking about the Scripture as they journey together. When you read Scripture in community, allowing it to address the lies present in your life, you will quickly find Proverbs 27:17 true, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
3. Apply the grace of Jesus.
Once you have stocked your built your armory, you are now prepared for the fight. And there will be a fight.
When temptation comes, you will be better-equipped to recognize it for what it is—the seduction to believe and act upon a lie. You will recognize your anger as the lie of control; you will know your desire for people-pleasing is actually your misguided understanding of self-worth.
And in that moment, you must act decisively—you must choose to act upon the truth instead of the lie. This is a tension, to be sure. You are not justified by your action; you are justified by grace. But in that justified state, you are now freed to act upon grace as empowered by the Spirit. The Spirit’s leadership is found within Scripture’s truth. Therefore, you must remember those stockpiled truths and act upon them. Acting upon Scripture instead of self-created lies is the practical application of the purchased grace of Jesus.
- God is ultimately in control (Scripture), not me (lie), so I can resist anger.
- God declares me to be a child of the King (Scripture), not others (lie), so I can resist the need to unnecessarily people-please.
- God alone is the judge (Scripture), not me (lie), so I am not required to immediately criticize the actions of others.
- God is the ultimate pleasure and joy in life (Scripture), not my addictive behavior (lie), so I am free to enjoy him.
Contemporary neurology affirms what you instinctively know to be true. Years of acquiescing to spiritual lies create neural superhighways which feel like second nature. To choose to act upon Scripture’s truth will be difficult, because it will be the hacking of a neural path through the thick underbrush of amassed past decisions. In fact, current neurology explains that to create new neural pathways can be painful, as it indicates new neural growth. In spite of the pain, the decision to act upon the truth is the step toward freedom. You are creating new thought patterns within your mind; you are participating in the inception of holiness.
4. Repeat. For life.
The temptations will always come, but the more you choose to act upon the grace of Jesus imparted within Scripture, the more your machete-hacked neural path becomes a well-worn road. Eventually, the decision for holiness becomes its own superhighway. Like any behavior, the new habit of holiness will eventually take hold, and the truth will more naturally supplant the lie.
You will fail and fall down some days. You will fall prey to old temptations and use the old pathways. But, on those days, do not believe the lie that you are a failure. Instead, embrace the truth of the gospel. Remember 2 Corinthians 12:9, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” In your weakness, God continues to give grace, and he never ceases to do so. The well of Jesus’ love does not run dry.
Spiritual maturity is the journey of a lifetime, and it is a journey that we never complete until the day we “will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2). Paul encourages believers to “work out your salvation” (Phil. 2:12). Much like our contemporary use of “working out,” the application of grace is an exercise or a solving of spiritual issues. It is breaking old patterns of thoughts and behaviors through the process of grace. It is what Jesus referred to when he commanded his disciples to take up their cross each day (Lk. 9:23). Nevertheless, walking with Christ daily is a source of incredible peace and joy—it is the greatest delight of the heart. So find the lies you believe; replace them with the truth of Scripture; and act upon the grace purchased at the cross. This is the path of holiness—the path of a mature disciples.
This is the Kingdom life, the truth of Jesus, made alive in us. As Paul wrote in Galatians 2, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!” May you apply the grace of God each day in your journey to know him alive in you. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Steve Bezner is Senior Pastor of Houston Northwest Church. He holds degrees from Hardin-Simmons University (B.A., Bible; M.A., Religion) and Baylor University (Ph.D., Religion). He is married to Joy and has two sons: Ben and Andrew. Follow him on Twitter: @Bezner.