Over the years, one of the virtues we have sought to cultivate at Trinity is a deep and rich catholicity. And we have wanted to express that geographically, denominationally, as well as historically. The Church, the Body of Christ, is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic as the creed says. So with that One Church, we confess the ancient faith of the fathers, summarized in the ecumenical creeds. We worship with many of the same words and songs and prayers that countless saints have prayed and sung before. We partake the same holy meal, sharing the body and blood of Jesus with thanksgiving week after week. We proclaim the one baptism for the remission of sins, and we proclaim Christ crucified and risen for the justification of all who believe. This spirit stretches into our ministries and prayers for the good work the Lord is doing in many other associations and denominations here in Moscow and throughout the world. We regularly pray for the churches in our city. We regularly receive updates from missionaries and ministries around the world. And we pray week after week for the persecuted church.
All of this is good and wonderful. And at the same time, if we are not careful it could create an optical illusion, and given our day and age, it has perhaps an even greater likelihood of miscommunication. And that has to do with the biblical command to pursue excellence and holiness and perfection. This is not some deep or esoteric mystery. It’s right there on the surface of the calling to follow Jesus: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Paul prays that the Philippians may abound more and more in love, with knowledge and discernment, “so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ…” (Phil. 1:10). God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). “Strive for peace with everyone, and for holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him…” (Eph. 1:2-4).
What is abundantly clear is that salvation is not merely an internal change of the heart. It is not merely the washing away of our sins. Though it is wonderfully all of that and more. But it is also the beginning of walking with God that actually shares in His holiness and excellence and perfection. Justification is the imputation, the reckoning of all of God’s holiness and excellence and perfection to us in an instant by faith. But sanctification is the impartation, the actual giving and working out of that grace in real time and history in your life. This is what Paul means when he says that we are saved by grace through faith, “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). But then Paul immediately continues, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). We are saved by grace through faith, completely by God’s miraculous gift. But that gift itself is the kind of good work that contains within it the desire and love and power to strive for goodness and excellence. This good work really is still all of grace because it is God working in you, and therefore, He is the one who will complete the whole project (Phil. 1:6). But it’s the kind of good work that God is doing in you that you are called to participate in: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
So this is what we mean then by excellence and perfection and holiness. We are talking about receiving the gift of grace through faith and responding to it. We are not trying to get God to receive us. We are not trying to get other people to like us or receive us. God is the one who is giving His love and His acceptance to us. And we merely receive that and respond to that. And His free grace and love and acceptance is like one of those 3D picture books that opens up and pictures and characters and scenes emerge from the pages. Only God’s grace is real and live, and when you receive His grace, you open a book that really and truly begins to live in your life.
Now here’s the whole point. One of the temptations of catholicity and expressing our unity with other brothers and sisters is to downplay the need for growth, and excellence and holiness. There is a ditch called denominational pride and schism and sectarianism. And to the extent that you cannot cheerful pray for and work together with other Christians of all stripes, then you really must repent of your pride and sectarian spirit. But you must not mistake repenting of that with some kind of spiritual relativism. Holiness really is to become more like Jesus. Perfection really is to become like your heavenly Father. And it is not necessarily pride to say that a local congregation is cultivating the kind of immaturity that creates foolish disciples. It is not sectarian to say that rock band worship is a disgrace to the honor of Jesus Christ. It is not anti-catholic to point out that the messages are little more than a hot tub religion allowing you to feel a warm spiritual sensation without actually repenting of your major sins.
So as we strive for catholicity, unity, and peace with all men, we must also strive for holiness without which no one will see God. And this means striving for excellence in music, depth in teaching, biblical literacy, thoughtful cultural engagement, joyful and dignified worship, business smarts, faithful and exuberant children, healthy marriages, hospitable homes, love and mercy for the orphans and widows and strangers, and a growing legacy of exporting and duplicating all of it successfully over generations. These things are not automatic, but they are found in the promises of God. It is not hubris to work for and pray for these things. It is faith because only God can accomplish them. It is actually hubris and pride not to strive for them, not to aim for them, because then you are saying that you know better than God. But Jesus told us to disciple the nations, and that means teaching them everything that Jesus said. But if we do this, if we actually attempt this by the grace of God, we will have to make many decisions to do some things and not others, to embrace some doctrines and reject others, to sing these songs and not others, and when we do so, we must do it because we are striving for excellence, for holiness, for perfection. But there are some who think that is mean-spirited and divisive and only causes arguments and pride. But we don’t really have a choice. We must follow Jesus, and we must become more and more like Him.
Paul expresses this spirit well at the end of Philippians: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own… Let those of us who are mature think this way… Only let us hold true to what we have attained” (Phil. 3:12-16). There really is such a thing as Christian maturity, and therefore there really is such a thing as Christian immaturity. There really is such a thing as Christian holiness, and some really are further down that path than others. And wisdom is justified by her children, and you don’t get a better grade by lowering the bar. It’s all grace. It’s all free grace. But this grace is the kind of rocket fuel that won’t let you coast.