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“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them–yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)
Progression into spiritual maturity and being conformed into the likeness of Christ is impossible for man to do through his own self efforts. Given an eternity of chances to perfect and mature himself through his own willpower, discipline, New Years’ Resolutions, strength, severity with himself (Colossians 2:20-23) and perseverance, a man will never be any more spiritually mature, victorious over sin or Christlike in his character than when he first began. Like the apostle Paul in Romans 7:13-25, his failed attempts will only serve to increasingly convince him of his total inability to sanctify and spiritually mature himself.
If one ever believes that by (even in the smallest part) the strength of his own willpower, the persistence of his own efforts and the noble virtue of his own character, that he has attained to a certain level of holiness and spiritual maturity, he deceives himself and has become a spiritually proud Christian Pharisee. (Galatians 6:3).
Sadly but truly, I have wasted too much of my Christian life living as a self-righteous Pharisee. As long as I have my flesh to contend with, I will always be susceptible to slipping into Christian Pharisaism. Whenever I lose sight of my own inability and rely on my own strength instead of the grace of God to sanctify me, I turn into a blind Christian Pharisee. I have found that when I drift away from the grace of God into self-efforts, I develop what I call a “Pharisee complex”.
There are only two roads upon which a Pharisee can walk: pride (when they perceive themselves to have achieved a certain level of holiness) and condemnation (when they perceive themselves to be failing to attain that level of holiness). See Luke 18:9-14. A “Pharisee complex”, therefore, is being stuck in a cycle of pride and condemnation, and it is completely focused on self (self-achievement and self-failure). Therefore, the glory for “success” never goes to God alone, for every good work has been, in at least some small part, self-achieved. Jesus is likewise robbed of his glory when the Pharisee is in the “failure” part of the cycle, for his or her eyes are minimizing the power and magnitude of Jesus’ finished, atoning work by focusing on self instead.
Furthermore, when a Pharisee complex is directed towards other Christians, it manifests itself as jealousy and competition (against those Christians who are successfully progressing in holiness) and as judgment and condemnation (against those Christians who are struggling to successfully progress in holiness). Pharisees either shout “crucify him!” (in jealousy and competition) or they cast stones (in judgment and condemnation) rather than exhibiting the love and grace of God towards their fellow brethren. Their jealousy also prevents them from finding joy and spiritual unity when the Spirit is poured out on others (like Moses in Numbers 11:24-29). It also prevents them from possessing the Spirit of intercession to pray for those who are struggling with their weaknesses (as Jesus did and does Luke 22:31-32, Hebrews 4:14-16).Yuck, yuck, yuck!!!
Thank God there is deliverance from this awful, sinful attitude! Thank God there is a true, established way into deliverance, spiritual maturity, holiness and Christlikeness which brings glory to God alone! “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
What is impossible for man to achieve through his own strength, God can do through his own Holy Spirit and grace. The doorway to spiritual maturity is humility, and the pathway to spiritual maturity is grace, grace, grace, grace, grace! The doorway into a life of true holiness and Christlikeness is extremely low–in fact, impossibly low–for any man to get through. I am reminded very much of the Scripture:
“Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ Those who heard this asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with men is possible with God.’” (Luke 18:24-27)
Though this passage refers to salvation, I think the principle is just the same for sanctification. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a Christian to sanctify himself through his own efforts. It is impossible!
Man does not like to hear that he cannot achieve salvation through his own efforts; it is a huge offense to his pride. Likewise, neither do we Christians like to hear that we cannot sanctify ourselves through our own self-efforts (see Galatians 3:1-5); it also offends our pride. But I strongly believe the same grace of God we needed for salvation is the same grace we constantly need for sanctification. Just like we did for salvation, we must relinquish all our self-efforts and pride (thinking we can do it ourselves). Instead, we must continually acknowledge or total inability to live a holy life and day by day, moment by moment, continually ask God to give us grace to live a holy life. In faith, we must believe and rely upon the Holy Spirit to do within us what we cannot do ourselves. (And do not be deceived, God will never grant strength and help to our own self efforts. We have to relinquish our self efforts completely. Then God will do it completely for us. It is 100% him and 0% us.) (See“Empty Hands” (Believer’s Road Series), my experience of relinquishing all my own self efforts and relying upon God through faith to sanctify me.)
When we are utterly humbled and thrust all of our faith in God to outwork his grace in our lives, God does the impossible! He brings us through the impossibly, low door of humility (and even to be truly humbled is also a work of God’s grace, for our stubborn, prideful flesh always resists humiliation), and by God’s grace alone, he begins to manifest the righteous, resurrection life of Jesus Christ within us!
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.” (Galatians 2:20-21)
When Christ does the impossible in us and manifests his holy life within us, then God alone gets ALL the glory! There is no pride within us for achieving holiness or spiritual maturity and there is no condemnation when we fail to achieve it. God alone has done it all by his grace!
This is the only kind of attitude which would ever cause us to cast down our crowns and declare that God alone is worthy of all the honor and glory (Revelation 4:10-11).
Finally humbling ourselves and giving up so God can do in us what we can’t do ourselves paves the way for the utmost amount of glory to go to God.
It is also the prerequisite for true, spiritual worship (John 4:23-24).
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:8)
Therefore, may we yield to the Holy Spirit’s workings within us because the Christian life is not a matter of work but of rest (Hebrews 4). It is not a matter of striving into holiness but yielding into holiness. For it is by grace, not by works, for we are God’s workmanship (See Ephesians 2:8-10).
The man in my sketch has been completely humbled by God. He is entering into a deeper level of Christian maturity through the extremely low doorway of humility. God’s grace alone is working the impossible in this man’s life. God alone is bringing him into deeper holiness and Christlikeness. Even if this man tried for all eternity with all his might, he would never be able to squeeze himself through that narrow, low door by his own efforts.
There is also a larger door above him with a doorknob, but that is the door the Christian Pharisees use to enter. They can open the door themselves without any help from God, and they can remain upright instead of prostrate in order to enter. The only trouble is, whenever Pharisees get in, the Lord eventually exposes them as charlatans and hypocrites (Luke 12:1-3) and, humiliated, sends them back out again. The door and pathway to holiness still stands accessible before them, but the Pharisees must submit to entering God’s way if they are ever to progress and remain in true holiness and spiritual maturity.
This Christian who, by the grace of God, is now entering into holiness through the door of humility most likely had many previous failed attempts where he had tried to enter as a Pharisee. Thankfully, however, God gave him grace to recognize his way was not God’s way. He eventually realized that he was getting nowhere in his Christianity, and that he was only going around in the same, old frustrating circles. Thankfully the Lord gave him grace to finally submit to entering through the narrow door of humility and grace. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Each successive door of spiritual maturity that lays ahead of this Christian is just like the one he is going through now, and he must choose whether he will enter in humility or as a Pharisee. The further he progresses, the greater the stakes, for if at any point in his progression through the doors of spiritual maturity he is found to be a Pharisee, the Lord will send him ALL the way back to the very beginning of humility and grace all over again!
If this happens, at least, having learned the correct way before, he possesses the knowledge of how to progress in Christian maturity. But unfortunately, while knowledge is of great benefit on this road to Christian maturity, the Lord will never allow it to replace character because godly character–not the possession of knowledge–is true spiritual maturity (2 Corinthians 12:1-6). Therefore, the further a man progresses in spiritual maturity, the more he grows in the fear of the Lord, the more exceedingly desperate he is for God to constantly keep him humble and the more wholly dependent he becomes upon God’s grace for absolutely everything in his life. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13).
“Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.” (2 Peter 3:17-18)
An extremely helpful book to those who are struggling with sanctification (and are finally ready to give up their own fruitless efforts and do it God’s way) is “The Normal Christian Life” By Watchman Nee.