Once upon a time there was a screwed up Christian, let's call him "Colin". Colin was at a particularly low point of his life, one in which it was becoming abundantly obvious that the above fruits of the Spirit were clearly not present in his life. The fruits of his spirit were not so much love, joy and peace, but anger, resentment, fear, bitterness and anxiety. Clearly there was something wrong with his Christian walk, so Colin did what any rational person would do, he looked in places that he hadn't looked before to find answers.
Colin ended up focusing on certain preachers and theologians whom he now realizes probably belonged to something called the Holiness Movement: a group of people who believe that saved Christians have been given a "second work of grace" that enable them to live a life free of "willful sin". So says this movement: you have the power to abstain from any intentional sin in your life, just pull up your bootstraps and do it. Preachers of this movement say things like "porn?", that's intentional sin, just suck it up and stop looking. You're depressed? Suffering from anxiety? Moral failure. Stop being depressed, start being joyful.
Colin came to believe that self-control, the last item on the list, was the ticket to obtaining personal holiness. On Colin's list, self-control was at the top. He gritted his teeth, tightened his sphincter, and got to work on the biggest religious self-improvement project of his life.
Guess how long Colin took to become twice the intolerable jerk that he was to begin with?
Answer: about a month. Colin, as it turns out, was incapable of achieving these desirable character traits; what's more, in thinking that he was capable, he became twice the angry, embittered basket case that he was when he started. Once he realized this, he began to fear to the only reasonable conclusion one could come to if one still believes such theology to be true: Colin started to wonder if he wasn't saved after all.
Back to Colin later.
The attraction of this line of thinking, particularly for one who feels that s/he is losing the war against the flesh is obvious; it appears to be a path forward. If I were drowning in the ocean and someone told me I was perfectly capable of swimming to shore on my own, I would start swimming.
The problem with this theology, however, is that it promotes the laughable fiction that there is such thing as Christians who are, at this very moment, abstaining from all but accidental sin. Let's think about that for a moment. How did Jesus describe sin? Have you ever met anyone, anyone at all, who aside from avoiding the more obvious carnal sins (sex outside of marriage, smoking, drunkenness etc.) never:
Really? Never? All of these things are sin; all of these things are intentional, and they're sins of the heart, arising from selfish desire. And while Jesus was clearly concerned with sins of the flesh, He was absolutely, 100% clear that sins of the heart place us in immediate danger of God's wrath (see Matthew 23 if you're not convinced).
The problem with this theology is that it suggests that the "shore" in the above analogy is only about 100 yards away. It's not, it's more like 100 miles; and we scarcely know which direction to swim; and it's dark; and it's windy; and we're wearing lead-lined boots.
What's more, as we saw with Colin's story above, such thinking in amazingly counterproductive. You show me someone who believes this stuff and believes that he's somehow capable of achieving these ends, I'll show you an unendurable, self-obsessed blowhard who is bringing disrepute to the faith and setting himself up for fantastic (and likely very public) failure.
Why is that though? What's wrong with the idea that we have the power to abstain from sin, what's wrong with trying to please God and live a holier lifestyle?
Look more closely at Colin's story. You tell me: is Colin preoccupied here with loving God with his whole heart and loving his neighbour as himself? Or is Colin preoccupied with himself? Is Colin thinking about Jesus's holiness, or is Colin thinking about Colin's holiness?
Look at the next line penned by Paul: "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (Galatians 5:24 - NIV).
Here's what Paul is saying: those who belong to Christ are walking in the Spirit and, as a result of the Spirit's work, are becoming less concerned with themselves and more concerned with others all the time. Their worldviews are doing a 180; their focus is shifting; and they're bearing good fruit as a result. You may be able to love your way to self-control if that love comes from the Spirit of God, but you'll never be able to self-control your way to love.
It just, doesn't, work.
Self-control's purpose is to serve others in love and truth; it's not to serve the believer's ego, but to serve God's purposes.
"Okay..." I hear you say, "that's all fine and dandy. Holiness movement, bad stuff, gotcha. But isn't Colin just back where he started? Does he just go back to being a jerk rather than an a super-jerk?"
Good question, but Colin's story isn't done.
Colin, for once in his life, did something wise: he humbled himself and asked for help. He went to a friend from church who was always on about this "grace" stuff and asked that friend (let's call him, oh I don't know, "Tim") and said "I'm at the end of the rope Tim, can you help me?".
Tim opened up his bible and pointed Colin to the book of Galatians (a letter addressed to an early church that was quickly falling off the legalism side of the cliff) and showed him this passage:
You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Ouch. Tim might as well have punched Colin in the gut. In putting on his superman costume and trying to brandish the Christian faith as a means to feed and grow his own selfish ego, Colin had cut himself off from the fruit of the Spirit entirely. There always was plenty of grace available to him, he just didn't spend any time at the well where such water needs to be drawn. And when he decided that he didn't need the well at all, thing got much, much worse.
So what about Colin? Where did he end up?
Well, long story, but he went back and started reading his bible over again, only this time, he started looking for grace. He re-read the teachings of Christ, he revisited the sermon on the mount, and for the first time in his life, Colin really started to get the point. He started to understand (over time) that by Christ's standards, we're all guilty, that the blood of Christ really does cover a multitude of sins. He began to comprehend that what he needed was not to institute a religious self-help program, but to kneel at the foot of the cross, confess his sins, surrender to the Spirit of God, and joyfully contemplate the wonders of God's grace, all the while doing everything he could to extend that grace to others. He began to see why Jesus' commanded us to remain firmly rooted in Him and in His grace day after day after day. (See John 15)
Is Colin still an intolerable jerk? Ask his wife. My thoughts are, yes, probably, but maybe just a bit less so than when he started; and he's still very much screwed up. Colin still wages war against the flesh, with the Spirit's help, and often feels like he's losing. But he's not. God is in control; thankfully, Colin is not.
As Tim used to say, "whenever you try to control what you were never meant to control, you lose control". Amen to that.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.