My Dear Friends,
In September of 1840, Robert Murray McCheyne wrote a letter to William Chalmers Burns: ‘I am deepened in my conviction, that if we are to be instruments in a true revival we must be purified from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit. Oh, cry for personal holiness, constant nearness to God by the blood of the Lamb! Bask in His beams, lie back in the arms of love, be filled with the Spirit, or all success in the ministry will only be to your own everlasting confusion.’ (Memoirs and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne, Banner of Truth, 288-289).
Surely every right-thinking Christian longs to be “useful to the Master”. We owe him everything. Our longing to serve him is not so that we might “repay” him. We could live ten thousand times ten thousand years and never begin to begin to repay him. No. We long to serve him and be useful to him to express our love to him, the deep gratitude of our redeemed hearts for his great grace to us in the gospel. But usefulness to the Master does not come easily. In 2 Tim. 2:20ff, Paul tells his young son in the faith, Timothy, that only “If a man cleanses himself...will he be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work”. While our great God has cleansed us from sin’s stain and shame, justified us from its guilt and condemnation, and delivered us from its prevailing power, and all through our union with Christ, he has not yet removed us from the sphere of sin or eradicated sin totally from our bodies.
It is this fact that lies behind the exhortation “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (Roms. 8:13). Mortification of sin (as the older writers called it) is necessary to “life”, to a life of usefulness to the Master. I am conscious that in saying this, some might hear me saying, “So, it’s what I do that makes me useful to the Master”. No and yes. No, because God’s word tells us, “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”. It is the Holy Spirit alone who can ultimately make us holy and useful to the Master: “Every victory we possess and every victory won, and every thought of holiness are his alone”. But we cannot leave it there, because God’s word does not leave it there. So, we also have to say, “Yes”, because, as Paul puts it, “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”. This is simply to say that God uses means to accomplish his holy ends. We are never passive in the Christian life; we “walk by faith”. In a striking passage at the end of Colossians 1, Paul writes, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works in me”. Paul wants these Colossian believers to know that their sanctification commands his utmost commitment. He even uses the word “agonise” (in the ESV, “toil”).
Recently it was my birthday and some of my children presented me with a later Puritan work on gospel holiness by William Bates (“Spiritual Perfection”). It is an extended exposition of 2 Cor. 7:1, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body (flesh) and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (or better, “perfecting holiness in the fear of God”). We have a holy responsibility to “work out (our) salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). We can never “let go and let God”. Yes, “it is”, as Paul reminds us, “God who works in (us) to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13), but that working of God is not irrespective of our working, but rather the dynamic and source of it.
Bishop Ryle once put the matter well, “Cultivate holy habits”. If it is true that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14) and without cleansing ourselves from the “ignoble” we cannot be useful to the Master, then let us give ourselves heart and soul to “perfecting holiness in the fear of God”. As the apostle Peter puts it, “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 Pt. 1:15).
Yours in the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.