November 2010 - Vol. 44

With Christ in the School of Holiness
by J.I. Packer

One of the titles I proposed for my book [Rediscovering Holiness] was "With Christ in the School of Holiness." That was a deliberate echo, almost a steal, of With Christ in the School of Prayer by Andrew Murray, a much appreciated South African devotional author of two generations ago. I adapted Murray's title in this manner in order to highlight three truths that to me seem basic to all I propose to say. (Murray would – indeed, did – fully agree with all three, as his own many books make plain.) 

First Truth. Holiness, like prayer (which is indeed part of it), is something which, though Christians have an instinct for it through their new birth, as we shall see, they have to learn in and through experience. As Jesus "learned obedience from what he suffered" (Heb 5:8) – learned what obedience requires, costs, and involves through the experience of actually doing his Father's will up to and in his passion – so Christians must, and do, learn prayer from their struggles to pray, and holiness from their battles, for purity of heart and righteousness of life. 

Talented youngsters who go to tennis school in order to learn the game soon discover that the heart of the process is not talking about tactics but actually practicing serves and strokes, thus forming new habits and reflexes, so as to iron out weaknesses of style. The routine, which is grueling, is one of doing prescribed things over and over again on the court, against a real opponent, in order to get them really right. 

Prayer and holiness are learned in a similar way as commitments are made, habits are formed, and battles are fought against a real opponent (Satan, in this case), who with great cunning plays constantly on our weak spots. (That these are often what the world sees as our strong points is an index of Satan's resourcefulness: presumptuous self-reliance and proud over-reaching on our part serve his turn just as well as do paralyzing timidity, habits of harshness and anger, lack of discipline, whether inward or outward, evasion of responsibility, lack of reverence for God, and willful indulgence in what one knows to be wrong.) Satan is as good at judo throws as he is at frontal assaults, and we have to be on guard against him all the time. 

Second Truth. The process of learning to be holy, like the process of learning to pray, may properly be thought of as a school – God's own school, in which the curriculum, the teaching staff, the rules, the discipline, the occasional prizes, and the fellow pupils with whom one studies, plays, debates, and fraternizes, are all there under God's sovereign providence. 

As pushing ahead on the path of prayer and holiness is a prime form of spiritual warfare against sin and Satan, so it is an educational process that God has planned and programmed in order to refine, purge, enlarge, animate, toughen, and mature us. By means of it he brings us progressively into the moral and spiritual shape in which he wants to see us. 

Physical education in grade school and adult workouts in fitness centers offer perhaps the closest parallels to what is going on here. They, too, require us to endure things we find it hard to enjoy. As a schoolboy I was gangling and clumsy. I loathed "P.T." (physical training, as it was called in those days). I was in fact very bad at it, but I do not doubt that it was very good for me. Having to heave and bump my dogged way over a period of years through physical jerks that others found easy (and treated as fun and did much better than I could) may well have helped me grasp the virtue of keeping on keeping on in other disciplines that are not immediately gratifying: and God's program of holiness training always includes quite a number of these. 

We must be clear in our minds that whatever further reasons there may be why God exposes us to the joys and sorrows, fulfillments and frustrations, delights and disappointment, happinesses and hurts that make up the emotional reality of our lives, all these experiences are part of his curriculum for us in the school of holiness, which is his spiritual gymnasium for our reshaping and rebuilding in the moral likeness of Jesus Christ. 

It is reported that on one occasion when Teresa of Avila was traveling, her conveyance dumped her in the mud. The spunky [gutsy/spirited] saint's first words as she struggled to her feet were: "Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder that you have so few." One of the most attractive things about Teresa is that she could be playful like this with her God. But none knew better than she that the ups and downs of her life were divinely planned in order to mold her character, enlarge her heart, and deepen her devotion. And what was true for her is true for us all. 

Third Truth. In God's school of holiness our Lord Jesus Christ (the Father's Son and the Christian's Savior) is with us, and we with him, in a controlling relationship of master and servant, leader and follower, teacher and student. It is crucially important to appreciate this. Why is it that in the school of holiness, as in the schools to which we send our own children, some move ahead faster than others? How are the different rates of progress to be explained? Fundamentally, the factor that makes the difference is neither one's intelligence quotient, nor the number of books one has read nor the conferences, camps, and seminars one has attended, but the quality of the fellowship with Christ that one maintains through life's vicissitudes. 

Jesus is risen. He is alive and well. Through his word and Spirit he calls us to himself today, to receive him as our Savior and Lord and become his disciples and followers. Speaking objectively – with reference to how things really are, as distinct from how they might feel at any particular moment – the "there-ness" of Jesus, and the personal nature of his relationship with us as his disciples, are as truly matters of fact as were his bodily presence and his words of comfort and command when he walked this earth long ago. Some, however, do not reckon with this fact as robustly and practically as others do. That is what makes the difference. 

I mean this. Some who trust Jesus as their Savior have formed the habit of going to him about everything that comes up, in order to become clear on how they should react to it as his disciples. ("Going to him" is an umbrella phrase that covers three things: praying; meditating, which includes thinking, reflecting, drawing conclusions from Scripture, and applying them directly to oneself in Jesus' presence; and holding oneself open throughout the process to specific illumination from the Holy Spirit.) These Christians come to see how events are requiring them to: 

  • consecrate themselves totally to the Father, as Jesus did 
  • say and do only what pleases the Father, as Jesus did
  • accept pain, grief, disloyalty, and betrayal, as Jesus did
  • care for people and serve their needs without either compromise of principle or ulterior motives in practice, as Jesus did
  • accept opposition and isolation, hoping patiently for better things and meantime staying steady under pressure, as Jesus did
  • rejoice in the specifics of the Father’s ways and thank him for his wisdom and goodness, as Jesus did; 
and so on. 

Kept by this means from bitterness and self-pity, these Christians cope with events in a spirit of peace, joy, and eagerness to see what God will do next. Others, however, who are no less committed to Jesus as their Savior, never master this art of habitually going to him about life's challenges. Too often they start by assuming that their life as children of God will be a bed of roses all the way. Then when the storms come, the best they can do is stagger through in a spirit of real if unacknowledged disappointment with God, feeling all the time that he has let them down. It is easy to understand why those in the first category advance farther and faster in the love, humility, and hope that form the essence of Christ-like holiness than those in the second category.

[excerpt from Rediscovering Holiness (Revised and Updated), Know the Fullness of Life with God, Chapter 4, by J.I. Packer, published by Regal Books, 2009.] 

J. I. Packer is a Reformed theologian and retired professor of theology at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. He is a prolific author, and a well-known pastor, teacher, and lecturer.

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