One of the first books I read as a new Christian was The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. I would say–without any hesitation–that Bridges’ book had a profound impact on my spiritual formation. It challenged me to take my spiritual life seriously, to practice spiritual disciplines, and to pursue Christ-likeness. As my young high school self underlined and dog-eared page after page, I was given a vision for what spiritual maturity looked like and how I could practically pursue it. It was a game changer in my life as I know it has been for countless others.
I’ve recently found myself wishing I had been handed a different book in my spiritual infancy. Don’t get me wrong, I will be forever grateful for the lessons I learned from The Pursuit of Holinessand I would heartily recommend it to any of my readers, but I don’t believe it would be the first book by Jerry Bridges I would hand to a new believer or someone who is struggling to understand the bumpy road of sanctification. This is because, apart from the gospel and the grace of God, the pursuit of holiness can easily become what it was never intended to be.
Without the gospel message impacting your life every single day, the pursuit of holiness can easily become a performance that you put on for God, yourself, and other people rather than a natural result of the active grace of God in your life.
For this reason, I think it is pivotal that new believers receive a foundational understanding of how the gospel applies to their lives as Christians. Many of us who have walked with the Lord for years are in desperate need of such instruction because we have lived too long under the heavy burden of legalism that our sinful, self-righteous hearts crave. Christians need–above all else–to know where their ability to obey, grow, and mature comes from. Without this knowledge and the resulting dependence upon the grace of God, the pursuit of holiness becomes drudgery rather than joy.
And so, today I would like to recommend a book that makes this vital connection between the gospel and sanctification: The Transforming Power of the Gospel by Jerry Bridges.
Bridges begins this book by explaining how he himself struggled to understand the importance of the gospel in the life of the believer. As many of us do, he initially thought that the gospel message was only for unbelievers and that the Christian had little need of it: “I thought all we needed as Christians were the challenges and ‘how to’ of discipleship. After all, Jesus said go and make disciples of all the nations (see Mattew 28:19).” He goes on to explain that believers “do need challenge and instruction in discipleship, but we also need the gospel every day of our lives because we still sin every day of our lives.” The gospel, Bridges explains, serves a pivotal role in keeping us from the snare of performance based Christianity:
It helps us move from a performance relationship with God to one based on the sinless life and sin-bearing death of Jesus Christ. It daily reminds us that from God’s point of view, our relationship with Him is not based on how good or bad we’ve been but upon the perfect goodness and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, the gospel frees us up to honestly face our sin, knowing that because of Christ’s death, God no longer counts that sin against us (see Romans 4:7-8).
After examining God’s holiness and our sinfulness (even as believers pursuing sanctification), Bridges comes to the subject of our union with Christ. This after all, is the heart of the gospel message. I appreciated his clear and practical explanation of the two key elements to our union with Christ: the representative union and the living union. The representative union is the judicial basis of our holiness before God at this very moment. Christ represented us here on earth as a perfect, sinless man and then died in our place as a sacrifice for our sin. The judgement that fell on him justifies us. Because he suffered, we don’t have to. Because he lived perfectly, we are counted as holy–even though in daily practice we continually fall short. It is this representative union that secures the Father’s love and acceptance of us. This truth smashes any fear we might have of God ever withholding love from his children based on our performance. He loves us as he loves his Son!
It was Bridges’ explanation and focus on the the “living union,” however, that I felt was the greatest strength of the book. This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, as we wonder how our purposeful pursuit of holiness and God’s grace interact on a daily basis. The living union with Christ refers to the powerful and persistent work of the Holy Spirit within us to bring about our sanctification.
I personally think this is one of the most difficult things for us as believers to grasp and practice because it is somewhat mysterious, but Bridges does a very good job of explaining exactly how dependent we must be upon the Spirit’s work and not our own. He reminds us that, “just as we must look outside of ourselves to Christ rather than our own performance for the assurance of our acceptance by a holy God, so we must look outside of ourselves to the Holy Spirit to work in us and enable us to work.”
In a later chapter focusing on the spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading and prayer, Bridges is careful to remind us that the sole purpose of these disciplines is to allow more of God’s grace to invade our lives. They are not magical potions that immediately make us more holy, but rather an acceptance of our dependence upon the gracious God who has saved us and promised to perfect us.
The Transforming Power of the Gospel is the perfect book to give to someone who has just place their faith in Christ or to read as a seasoned saint who desires to better understand the correlation between grace and discipline. It is easy to read, well structured and above all, encouraging to the soul. I highly recommend it.
You can purchase The Transforming Power of the Gospel here.