By Merle Harton, Jr.

There is a prejudice among some persons that it is not possible for a Christian to live the Christian life and remain where one is. According to this perspective, the world is just too strong a force for the Christian to face every day. One outcome of this view is that the Christian must live the saintly life in order to live the life of an authentic Christian. Of course, the saintly life may mean the ascetic life, the monastic life, the priestly life, the life of the vocational Christian worker. But the Christian cannot be a manager, lawyer, physician, secretary, factory worker, daylaborer: such positions and professions are inconsistent with the saintly Christian lifestyle. Commerce is inconsistent with the Christian lifestyle; it is after all built entirely on the lurid acquisition of wealth, and this, as we all know, is a bonafide evil. It just cannot be done. We have to separate ourselves from the world.

This does not necessarily express a denial that Christian perfection is possible, but only that it requires extraordinary changes—typically a radical change of lifestyle—in order to get it.

Quite curiously, though, Paul says precisely the opposite. "Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him." [1 Cor. 7:20] Status and profession are altogether irrelevant to the Christian life. Was he circumcised or uncircumcised? A slave or freed? A painter or a tent maker? It is irrelevant to the issue. "Keeping God's commands is what counts," says Paul [1 Cor. 7:19]. So the important issue is not vocation or life's station, but rather the ability to achieve maturity in the Christian life.

But many still want to pursue this goal with a need to help maturity along by removing ourselves from the world in some form or fashion. If we do not take the monastic life, then we can create an entire community that will encourage the proper habits, keep us from untoward influences, and give us an environment in which to raise our children in the proper lifestyle. Again, what drives this need is the obstinate belief that living in the world is an impossibility for the Christian. This has expressions in various Christian sects: communal situations, denominational communities, fanatical Christian political action groups.

On the one hand, let us change the world to fit the tenets of our faith; on the other hand, let us remove ourselves from the world. One cannot be both a citizen of this world and also a Christian (who is really a citizen of another world). And yet that is exactly what each of us is called to be: We are naturally of the flesh, but we are not to live by the flesh.

Surely, when we are convinced of the truth, and also come into obedience to it, we have to be aware of the vast difference between the holiness of God and the dim light of virtue that early resides in us. So awesome is God that it seems that we can never have a relationship with him, and yet this is precisely what Jesus Christ did through his death and resurrection: he made us blameless in God's eyes and restored our ability to have a relationship with our creator. In doing so, he also calls each of us to follow him, to be his disciple. Why do we forget that for our sake Jesus himself came boldly into the world? And for that he was accused of being "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and 'sinners'" [Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34].

Just prior to his arrest, Jesus prayed for his disciples. He did not pray that his disciples be removed from the world. Quite to the contrary, what he asked the Father was this: "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it." [John 17:15-16]. Although we are no longer citizens of this world, Jesus calls us to be his disciples living and working in the world. More importantly, he calls each of us to be like him.


We must never forget that the Christian life is a process, not a static event. Through our faith in Jesus Christ we are made righteous before God, but this justification comes to us through the grace of God alone. When we become justified, we are also sanctified, or consecrated—we are set apart for God's special purpose for us. Sanctification is exclusively the work of God in grace [Lev. 21:8, 15; Ezek. 20:12; Heb. 2:11].

Sanctification is a certain but progressive work of grace which begins at our rebirth as Christians [Heb. 10:10]. As sanctified beings, as consecrated believers, we are "being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory" [2 Cor. 3:18]. We enter into a process by which we are being made holy, for without holiness no one can see God [Hebrews 12:14]. Holiness for us is progressive. Just as we do not become Christians through any special effort on our part, we do not achieve this perfection solely through our own effort.

We are called to sanctification, to a life of holiness. Holiness is something which we are to pursue [Heb. 12:14]: "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight" [Eph. 1:4]; "For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life." [1 Thess. 4:7]; God has "called us to a holy life" [2 Tim. 1:9]. We "ought to live holy and godly lives" [2 Peter 3:11]. Moreover, we are called to be perfect, "as your heavenly Father is perfect" [Matt 5:48]—to be "imitators of God," as "dearly beloved children" [Eph. 5:1]. God will judge any Christian who does not pursue holiness [Matt 7:21-23].

Jesus left us in order for the Holy Spirit to come upon the earth and dwell with us, and in us [John 14:16-20]. This is the blessing of the new covenant [see Ezek. 36:26-27]. The Holy Spirit—the Counselor [John 14:16, 26], the Spirit of truth [John 14:17; 16:13]—comes with a specific ministry. The same spirit that inspired the Scriptures now comes to sanctify us [John 17:17; Rom. 15:16; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2] and also to teach us [John 14:26].

Through the work of the Holy Spirit, our holy teacher, we learn how to be holy. This is a dynamic process. Even Paul, while calling on us not only to imitate God [Eph. 5:1], but also to imitate him [1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Philip. 3: 17; 2 Thess. 3:7], denies that he has achieved perfection [Philip. 3:12]. We are not to think that the Spirit effectively causes us to be holy beings through some sudden, special purification. All Christians have certainly wanted this effect, and long for that immediate transformation, waking to find our face radiant as Moses' after a conversation with the living God. We should not expect this, and it certainly has not been promised to us. The forbidding fact is that we otherwise have serious duties to perform, duties that demand considerable discipline on our part.

Says Peter: "As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: 'Be holy because I am holy.'" [1 Peter 1:15-16]

Says Paul: "It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him." [1 Thess. 4:3-6]

And again the words of Paul:

"Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." [Rom. 12:1-2]

God has through his grace made us righteous, he has set us apart for his special purpose in our sanctification, he calls us to a life of holy living, and he has sent the Holy Spirit to teach us and assist us in the process of our transformation. To avoid God's judgment, says Jesus, we are to do the will of the Father [Matt. 7:21]. In the simplest terms, this means that we are to be obedient, affirming his will for us in all that we do.


Upon hearing Jesus' command to follow him, James and John put down their fishing nets and, leaving everything, obeyed. They did not consider the continued care of their equipment; they did not discuss the sale of their catch, or even question where their next meal would come from—they immediately followed Jesus. This was their job, their livelihood, their career. Still, they obeyed Jesus without hesitation. "Follow me," Jesus said to Matthew the tax collector, and Matthew "got up and followed him" [Matt. 9:9; Mark 2:14]. This is the proper response to his call—immediate obedience.

When the rich young man came to Jesus with the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answered his question with: "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." [Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23] This disappointed the man, because he was very wealthy, and about this Jesus remarked: "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God" [Mark 10:24; Luke 18:24]. But Jesus' disciples were amazed at this and wanted to know who then could be saved under these circumstances. Jesus said: "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God" [Mark 10:27; see Luke 18:27].

On the one hand, wealth can be a sign of God's blessings; on the other hand, what so bothered his disciples in the answer Jesus gave to the rich man is that it seemed as if voluntary poverty were being made a condition for salvation. But this overlooks Jesus' final edict. There is nothing we do to earn salvation. We cannot get it by works. Salvation is given to us only through God's grace, God's choice—it is God's gift to us [see Eph. 2:8-9] What God asks of us is obedience and no impediments to our relationship with him. If I go out tomorrow and sell all that I have, this will in no way alter my relationship with God. But if God commands me to sell all that I have, then my obedience to this command will certainly affect my relationship with God. By the same token, if my material possessions take on an importance above my relationship with God or the fulfillment of his will in my life, then I ought to divest myself of what is impeding my closeness with the Father. The rich man's problem was not that he had God's blessings, but that these blessings had become for him an idol.

In the same way, nothing in my relationship with God is changed if I choose to become celibate, or join a monastic order, or take up a cause, or stand on the street corner and hawk the Good News—these are all choices I make and not necessarily acts of obedience. The other side of this coin is actually a type of legalism: we are obedient (strictly speaking, in a technical sense) but not because we are act in obedience to God's voice—we act to get glorify for ourselves through the praise of others [see John 5:44]. In some ways legalism is exactly like dying cloth to hide dirt. I am of course stealing this metaphor from John Woolman (who in his last ten years would wear only undyed fabric and uncured leather):

"Washing our garments to keep them sweet is cleanly, but it is the opposite to real cleanliness to hide dirt in them. Through giving way to hiding dirt in our garments a spirit which would conceal that which is disagreeable is strengthened. Real cleanliness becometh a holy people; but hiding that which is not clean by coloring our garments seems contrary to the sweetness of sincerity." [Journal]

Like dyed fabric, legalism makes a behavior look like faith and it effectively conceals that which to us is disagreeable.

When we are called to follow Christ, however, our fate is not determined by the manner in which we respond to that call, but rather in our strict obedience to his voice. This is important, for this is the paradox of discipleship. Here is another way of expressing the paradox: When God commands us or leads us, we are to go as he has decreed, or not at all; we are to obey, or not—there is no third alternative. Of course, it seems that there is always a third alternative, and this is true, but the paradox says in effect that this third alternative is the same as the second—to take the third alternative is to disobey.

Perhaps it is human nature to want the third alternative. If that alternative is not really clear to us, we will go to extraordinary lengths to make it so—to make the third alternative so reasonable that it seems to us to be merely a restatement of the first alternative. So, instead of obeying immediately, we revise it until it becomes something different, something we can more conveniently obey.

Here I am reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's example of the young boy whose father tells him not to go outside. The boy goes to thinking about it: "Father tells me to go to bed, but he really means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome my tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though father tells me to go to bed, he really means: 'Go out and play.'" [The Cost of Discipleship, Ch. 3]

One would think that the printing press had brought about the proliferation of reasonings like this, enabling even Christians to argue in favor of such things as war, slavery, racial hatred, killing, homosexuality, divorce—among the many deeds and behaviors that God has spoken against. The human ability to escape duty easily predates the printing press, along with the illuminated manuscript before it, so we should also not go about relocating the blame to television, the motion picture industry, talk radio, or the Internet.

The early apostles saw for themselves the possibility of good deeds done outside of Christian love. And this is a consequence of legalism—that it engenders the mimicry of true faith. Paul himself encountered this in Ephesus [Acts 19:13-16], and in 1 Corinthians 13 he even suggests the possibility of a demonic faith that effectively mimics the good works of the Christian worker. Let us not forget this: When we are called to follow Christ, our fate is not determined by the manner in which we respond to that call, but rather in our strict obedience to his voice.

Through obedience we live our faith in Jesus Christ. Christianity is not really an issue of belief—whether well-founded or ill-founded, rational or nonrational—but an issue of action. I am not a Christian because I have committed to memory this Scripture verse, or that verse, or consistently dress plainly, or can speak "thee" and "thou," or show up to worship every First Day. I am a Christian because, through an act of obedience, I respond to Christ's call: "Follow me!" Only after that will his Spirit inform my faith, disclosing to me my sins and shortcomings, providing a light for my path, encouraging me into right behavior and away from the wrong, and therefore teaching me about holiness. Only after stepping forward in response to Christ's command can we "offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God," and can be transformed by our mind's renewal [Rom. 12:1-2].

Copyright © 1999 Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved