Book Review: The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges

During last year, I spent a good amount of time reading on books dealing with sanctification. While there are many books that address this teaching, I’ve come to realize that most books on this topic within Reformed circles have two basic problems: (1) they merely repeat and/or reword the doctrine of sanctification found in Reformed confessions and catechisms and (2) they spend an inordinate amount of time discussing what is sanctification is NOT. While these are helpful and have their place, I wouldn’t say that these books are convicting or challenging. In looking for a change in pace, I picked up a classic from Jerry Bridges entitled The Pursuit of Holiness. Although it’s a relatively short book (less than 160 pages), it was one of my favorite books of last year.

Jerry Bridges begins his book with the following statement:

We Christians greatly enjoy talking about the provision of God, how Christ defeated sin on the cross and gave us His Holy Spirit to empower us to victory over. But we do not as readily talk about our own responsibility to walk in holiness.

This is a perspective that I did not grow up with as a young Christian. As a child of the Holiness Movement, I grew up with the testimony “Are you saved and do you know you’re saved? Are you free and separated from sin?” However, since I have begun fellowshipping with Reformed believers, I’ve noticed that holiness is not a common topic of discussion. In an effort to avoid legalism and various strains of perfectionism, many have fallen for the opposite error – namely that sanctification functions in the same manner as justification.

The title of this book comes from the biblical command found in Hebrews 12:14

Pursue holiness, for without holiness, no one will see the Lord.

In many ways, this book circles around this essential statement by carefully explaining what this verse means and by explaining what this verse doesn’t mean. However, the book goes a step further in actually discussing appropriate spiritual disciplines necessary for a genuine pursuit of holiness.

The book begins by simply declaring that holiness is basic to the Christian life and thus holiness is for all believers. One of the points that Jerry Bridges repeats is that God wants us to walk in obedience, not victory. This is a subtle point, but often times, our discussions on “victory over sin” is oriented toward self whereas walking in obedience is oriented towards God. Bridges address this concern head-on in his chapter Obedience, Not Victory, where he states

Our reliance on the Spirit is not intended to foster an attitude of ‘I can’t do it’, but one of ‘I can do it through Him who strengthens me.’ The Christian should never complain of want of ability and power. If we sin, it is because we choose to sin not because we lack the ability to say no to temptation. It is time for us Christians to face up to our responsibility for holiness. Too often, we say we are defeated by this or that sin. No, we are not defeated; we are simply disobedient.

Secondly, Bridges argues that part of the larger problem of ungodliness among Christians is because of a misunderstanding of what it means to live by faith. He discusses this point multiple times in the book by examining the nature of our union in Christ and by examining relevant passages in Romans 6-7. The reality is that the battle over indwelling sin is lifelong and thus there is a legitimate need to cultivate personal discipline. In his chapter The Place of Personal Discipline, Bridges argues that the sure way to obtain godliness is through Christian discipline. In referencing 1 Corinthians 9:25, Bridges states:

If an athlete disciplines himself to obtain a temporal prize, how much more should we Christians discipline ourselves to obtain a crown that lasts forever?

This Christian discipline includes a regular healthy diet of the Word of God (which includes Scripture memorization and meditation) along with a regular habit in disciplining our physical body. His commentary regarding our physical body is particularly insightful. In his chapter entitled Holiness of Body, he writes

Materialism wars against our souls in a twofold manner. First, it makes us discontent and envious of others. Second, it leads us to pamper and indulge our bodies so that we become soft and lazy. As we become soft and lazy in our bodies, we tend to become soft and lazy spiritually… When the body is pampered and indulged, the instincts and passions of the body tend to get the upper hand and dominate our thoughts and actions. We tend to do not what we should do, but what we want to do, as we follow the cravings of our sinful nature.

Hence, holiness in mind and spirit cannot be accomplished without holiness in body.  This methodical discipline in our body is not contrary to “living by faith”, but it is wholly consistent and harmonious with it since true saving faith has many graces that accompany it. Based on this above discussion, this means that the battle for holiness is centered around how our human will operates and how we need to develop godly habits in order to direct our will in the appropriate direction.

Much more can be said about this little book, but it is a very challenging and very convicting book. It is not a legalistic book, but it is a book that will challenge you if you are currently apathetic regarding your growth in grace. This book will exhort you to treat your sanctification with as much skillfulness and discipline as an athlete treats his own body. This book will cause you to rejoice in the provision that God has given you as a person united to Christ. Finally, this book will encourage you to see the blessed joy that comes with obeying the Lord and walking blameless before Him.

What I’m Not Saying About the Godly Line of Seth

Recently, I posted a four-post argument on my understanding of the identity of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6. Since settling on my view of this passage, I have read several articles from those who hold to the more common view. In these articles there are some misnomers I’d like to address. I think each of these arguments can be reduced down to one very simple assertion: Don’t hear what I’m not saying. Let’s address each one of these misnomers in turn.

I’m not saying that the Sethites were anywhere else referred to in Genesis as ‘sons of God’

Sure, the Sethites are not identified anywhere other than Genesis 6 by Moses as sons of God, but neither are fallen angels. The book of Job alludes to angels being called ‘sons of God,’ but even that assumes a certain interpretation. Think of it this way:

Job was the first book written in the Bible. Hundreds of years later Moses wrote the Pentateuch. Hundreds of years after that the prophets tell us that Satan was actually a guardian cherub in the Garden of Eden. Thus, we must assume that Moses, foreseeing the prophets’ understanding of Satan’s nature, interprets that back into Job and then uses that interpretation to identify fallen angels able to create for themselves bodies capable of procreating with female humans. This hermaneutic is, to say that least, bizarre.

However, for God to designate His remnant people as His children is far from bizarre, even for Moses. In Exodus 4:23 God, through Moses, told Pharaoh, “Let My son go that he may serve Me” (NASB). God is a covenant keeping God, and we with whom He keeps covenant are not His mere subjects. We are His sons (Matthew 5:9; Luke 20:36; Romans 8:14; 9:26; Galatians 3:26; 4:6).

I’m not saying that the Sethites were intrinsically godly

Some call into question the certainty with which we can say that the line of Seth were all godly. I would call that into question as well. In and of himself, no man has ever been completely biblecoffee2_kjekolrighteous. Look at the life of Abraham. He deceived to monarchs and put his wife’s purity on the line to save his own skin, and yet he is called righteous. Look at his nephew Lot. He offered up his daughters to the city, got drunk, and impregnated his daughters, and yet he is called righteous.

By referring to the Sethites as the godly line of Seth, we are not eschewing the fact that we are here referring to sinful men. Beyond any doubt, they were sinful men. However, look at the way that sinful men of God are remembered in the Bible vs. sinful men of the world. The New Testament authors only recall the good in the life of Abraham. They refer to Lot as righteous Lot. They recall only the sins of Balaam, but recall only the faith of Rahab the harlot.

So, what is the difference between the godly and the ungodly in a world where all have sinned and fallen short? The difference is a difference of covenant and perseverance. Those who are in covenant with God, though they may sin (even scandalously), through repentance and perseverance, they will be called godly. They will be called sons of God!

I’m not saying that all who are called ‘sons of God’ persevere

Obviously, not all of the Sethites persevered to the end. There is always a certain level of corruption among God’s people. There will always be wheat among the tares. However, God always has His remnant. For the Sethites, the corruption reached so far that, by the time of the flood, the only remnant left was Noah and his immediate family. There were times in the life of the nation of Israel when there were only 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal.

To say that a people of God is godly in the Bible is not necessarily to say that all of them do all things with all godliness at all times. That notion is simply preposterous. If that were the case, why in the world would Paul tell Titus that God’s grace enables us to live godly lives (Titus 2:12)? Why on earth would Peter say that God rescues the godly (2Peter 2:9)? None of us is perfect. We all fall short in many ways. So, to say that the Sethites were godly is not to say that they were perfect or that they persevered to the end. It is simply to say that they were God’s people at that time.

By the time of Noah, they obviously had come to be very corrupt, just as did the nation of Israel before the dispersion and Judah before the exile. That is the point, though. Even though men may fail, God always keeps His promises. He promised a Messiah that would crush the serpent’s head and, though men may fail us every time, God will remain faithful to His promises. God preserved His chosen Seed through Noah, even though the line of Seth eventually failed.

I will not concede that the daughters of men are the daughters of all mankind

Some have also pointed out that “daughters of men” seems to be used to refer generally to the female offspring of all men, not just those of the Cainites. When placed in contrast to the sons of God, though, it is not hard to understand that two very distinct groups are being referenced here. It is much like the use of the two Adams in 1Corinthians 15.

The first Adam became a living soul, but the last Adam (Christ) became a life-giving spirit (vs. 45). Therefore, “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (vs. 22; NASB). Does Paul mean here that every individual in Christ has been or will be made alive? Of course he doesn’t. What he is teaching is that there are two types of men. There are those who are in Adam and, therefore, dead in their trespasses and sins, and there are those who are in Christ, who have been raised with Him to walk in newness of life.

Sometimes the biblical authors used general, universal-sounding terms to designate one group, but then mark them out as not being general and universal by contrasting them with a more specific group. That is what Paul was doing when he wrote 1Corinthians 15, and that is what Moses is doing when he speaks of the daughters of men in Genesis 6. The daughters of men are best understood when contrasted with the sons of God. They are those who follow after the precepts of men rather than the precepts of God. So, when God’s chosen people went after them, they committed a great evil in the sight of the Lord.