Sunday, September 13, 2020

Act Like What You Are

Clean living requires an act of the will, and acts of the will require a changed mindset — at least if they are going to stick for any length of time. Down through the centuries, men and women who sought to control their natural appetites have attempted to “live clean” with different goals in view.

Plato taught the suppression of fleshly desires in order to free the soul to search for knowledge. The Stoics disciplined themselves to manage their emotions in order to uphold what they believed was the essential dignity of human nature. Kant advocated moral asceticism in hope of cultivating virtue. Monks of various religious orders idealized poverty, fasting and celibacy as ways of expressing devotion to their gods.

Better Reasons than the Ascetics

But will-based efforts at self-control succeed only intermittently unless they are accompanied by a truly changed mindset. When the apostle Paul challenges Christians to live clean, he has better reasons in mind than these various groups of ascetics.

He starts 2 Corinthians 7 this way:
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves ...”
The starting point for the sort of holy living Paul is promoting is the promises of God. The apostle assumes these promises apply not just to those who originally received them, but also to his readers in the first century, and therefore to us, as mostly-Gentile members of the church a couple thousand years down the road.

Which Promises Might Those Be?

Naturally, we ought to be curious exactly which promises he is referring to, and we find them in an extended series of references to Old Testament passages located at the end of chapter 6:
I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”
Pardon all the bold text, but I am looking to point out that in fact there are seven distinct promises here:
  1. I will make my dwelling among them
  2. [I will] walk among them
  3. I will be their God
  4. They shall be my people
  5. I will welcome you
  6. I will be a father to you
  7. You shall be sons and daughters to me
Applying the Promises

The formatting in our Bibles may be a tad misleading with respect to the source of these promises. My ESV, for example, makes it look like this is an extended quotation from the Old Testament. But no single passage is in view here. Paul is giving us the repeated theme of Old Testament prophecy, reflecting the deepest desires of God’s heart. So he quotes from a mash-up of Exodus 29 (“I will dwell among the people of Israel”, “I will be their God”), Leviticus 26 (“I will walk among you”, “I will be your God, “you shall be my people”), Ezekiel 37 (“my dwelling place shall be with them”, “I will be their God”, “they shall be my people”), Isaiah 52 (“Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing”) and 2 Samuel 7 (“I will be to him a father and he shall be to me a son”), passages addressed not to members of the first century church, but to national Israel or to David its greatest king.

And yet it is not the least bit illegitimate for us to apply these promises to ourselves. Paul’s argument is, in effect, that if Israel, or Solomon, or any of Israel’s other kings who sprang from the Davidic branch could be considered by God to be his children or his people, then how much more so the church of God, where God has made our adoption as his sons (and daughters) through Jesus Christ a matter of public record? “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” That’s rather unequivocal. Our place in the family of God is firmly established. God has spoken, and we accept what he says about us. And because we are sons and daughters of God through the work of Christ, we can count on his presence as much or more than could Israel. It is God’s purpose to dwell among us, to walk among us, to be our God and for us to be his people.

Touch No Unclean Thing

Now there is a condition attached to the Old Testament promises we are claiming by application, and the condition is this: “Go out from their midst, and be separate from them, and touch no unclean thing.” But when a Christian fails to separate himself from the world, he does not cease to become a child of God. That reality is established once and forever. What happens when the Christian blends in with the unsaved is that he ceases to show to the world the spiritual family to which he really belongs. The picture of Christ you are I are designed to be in this world is marred, and our connection with our heavenly Father and with his Son, our Savior, is no longer obvious to onlookers. The intended family resemblance is lost.

So then, Paul is saying this to the Corinthians: act like what you are. God has made you members of his own family. He has claimed you as his own. He walks with you. He dwells with you. He welcomes you. Therefore, act like true sons and daughters, not like ungrateful urchins. The logical response to the seven-fold promises of God is to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God”.

Our status as members of God’s household does not depend on our relentless pursuit of holiness, but our enjoyment of that status does, as well as the effectiveness of our testimony to the world.

The Incentive to Holy Living

One can quickly see how important this is to the Christian life, and why such an incentive to holy living is so much more effective than the quest for knowledge, the pursuit of virtue, or some forlorn attempt to demonstrate the highly questionable dignity of human nature. Unlike the natural man, who is dependent on force of will to remake himself in the image of whatever ethic he has adopted, the Christian can pursue holiness with a reasonable chance of daily success because, ultimately, perfection is not just possible, it is inevitable. God has sent his Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts, to walk with us daily, and to remind us of our true nature. The knowledge that God has forever claimed us as his own is what makes holiness possible.

Holiness, then, is not the fruitless effort to become something we are not; it is simply behaving in accordance with our calling, our status as members of God’s family and the new nature God has given us.

Holiness is acting like what we are.

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