The Pursuit of Holiness: An Interview with Jerry Bridges
Tabletalk: What do you see as the greatest need in the church today?
Jerry Bridges: There are so many needs in the church today that it is difficult to single out one as the greatest. However, if I had to pick one, I would say the most fundamental need is an ever-growing awareness of the holiness of God. I don’t say this because that is the main emphasis of Ligonier Ministries but because I believe it is true.
The emphasis of my own ministry has been the believer’s personal pursuit of holiness. But years ago I came to realize the gospel has to be the foundation and motivation for the pursuit of holiness. Believers need the gospel to remind them that our standing with God is not based on our own obedience but on the perfect, imputed righteousness of Christ. Otherwise, the pursuit of holiness can be performance driven: that is, “If I’m good, God will bless me.”
How, then, can we get Christians to embrace the gospel every day? I believe Isaiah 6:1–8 gives us a paradigm for addressing this need. Isaiah sees God in His holiness, that is, His supreme majesty and infinite moral purity. In the light of God’s holiness, Isaiah is completely undone by an acute awareness of his own sinfulness. This is what we need in our churches today. Because we tend to define sin in terms of the more flagrant sins of society, we don’t see ourselves as practicing sinners.
It is only after Isaiah has been totally devastated by the realization of his own sinfulness that he is in the right position to hear the gospel proclaimed to him by the seraphim: “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (v. 7).
What happens next? Isaiah hears God say, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Immediately he responds, “Here am I! Send me” (v. 8). What causes such an immediate and spontaneous response? It is gratitude for the forgiveness of his sins as he hears the gospel from the seraphim. Jesus said, “He who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). It is because the vast majority of Christians do not realize how much they have been forgiven that there is so much lethargy in the church today.
There is an inevitable sequence in the account of Isaiah’s vision. It is God (in His holiness), guilt, gospel, and gratitude. It is deep, heartfelt gratitude for the work of Christ as proclaimed in the gospel that motivates us to pursue holiness. But it all begins with an ever-increasing realization of the holiness of God. That is why I see it as the greatest need in the church today.
TT: What is the mission of the Navigators and how have you participated in this ministry over the years?
JB: Our mission statement is “To advance the Gospel of Jesus and His Kingdom into the nations through spiritual generations of laborers living and discipling among the lost.” The phrase “into the nations” expresses our conviction that God has called The Navigators to be a missionary-sending organization. We now have ministries in just over one hundred nations and about four thousand staff from more than thirty countries.
The phrase, “spiritual generations of laborers” expresses our emphasis on training disciples to establish and equip others, thus continuing the process of producing “spiritual generations.”
I became a staff trainee in 1955. I thought that after a couple of years of training I would go overseas as a missionary. Instead, I was asked to become part of the headquarters administrative team. At one point, I wrestled with this because I wanted to have a part in the Great Commission. Then I realized it takes many people fulfilling many roles to accomplish our God-given task. I sensed that my part in the Great Commission was to provide administrative support for those who were engaged in more obvious ministry. So I served in administration for almost forty years.
For the last seventeen years I have been a Bible teacher both inside The Navigators and among a larger audience outside of The Navigators. I have also written about a dozen books, though my writing actually began when I was still serving in administration.
TT: You have written numerous books on the topics of grace and holiness. Why did you write on these topics, and how do you hope God will use these books in the lives of His people?
JB: From my earliest contact with The Navigators, I sensed the need to apply the Scriptures specifically and intentionally to my life. But I struggled with the question, “What is my part and what is God’s part?” Finally, the Lord enabled me to see from the Scriptures the principle I call “dependent responsibility.” We are responsible to respond to the moral commands of Scripture, but we are absolutely dependent on the Holy Spirit to enable us.
I started to teach this principle of “dependent responsibility.” Then I was challenged by a friend to try writing. My first book, The Pursuit of Holiness, became a best-seller. But I soon realized that a pursuit of holiness that is not founded on grace and the gospel can lead to a performance mentality and even to discouragement. That’s when I began to emphasize grace and the gospel as foundational to the pursuit of holiness.
It is my desire that as a result of reading my books, people will seek to pursue holiness out of gratitude for what God has done for us in Christ. There is no doubt that it is our duty to pursue holiness. But I want believers to desire to do out of gratitude what is our duty to do. I want to see the “ought to” mentality replaced with a “want to” attitude.
TT: What led you to write the book Respectable Sins?
JB: I observed for some years a growing tendency among conservative evangelicals to focus on the more flagrant sins of society but to overlook our own sins of pride, selfishness, gossip, and the like. Again, it goes back to this: “He who is forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). Because of our self-righteousness, due to focusing on the major sins of society, we do not see our own desperate need of living by the gospel every day.
TT: Can and should we measure the progress of our sanctification? If so, why and how?
JB: Not numerically in the sense that I am 10 percent more generous now than I was last year. But we should be able to say, “I have improved in certain areas of my life. I do see progress in putting to death persistent sin patterns and in growing in the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit.” We are commanded to put sin to death (Rom. 8:13). We are commanded to put on a Christ-like character (Col. 3:14). That being true, we should seek to measure, in a general sense, the progress of our sanctification. However, it is also true that the more we grow in spiritual maturity, the more we see our need to grow. So we should always, to use Paul’s expression, be pressing on to become more like Christ.
TT: How important is fellowship with other Christians to our spiritual health?
JB: The biblical word for our English word fellowship is koinōnia, which has a much richer and deeper meaning than the concept of fellowship as mere social activities. Koinōnia has the connotation of sharing together a common life in Christ and of expressing that common life in encouraging and admonishing one another. The expression “two are better than one” in Ecclesiastes 4:9 and the several “one-another” passages in the New Testament, such as Hebrews 2:13 and 10:24–25, emphasize the importance of true, biblical fellowship.
TT: Aside from the Bible, do you have a favorite Christian classic? What is it about this book you admire?
JB: My all-time favorite Christian book is the Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement by nineteenth-century Scottish theologian George Smeaton. It has two strengths. First, it is thorough in the sense that Smeaton treats every passage on the atonement from Acts through Revelation. But for me, the real strength of the book and that which makes it my favorite is his continual emphasis on the believer’s union with Christ, both representatively and organically. But it is his emphasis on the representative nature of our union with Christ (that Christ both lived a perfect life and died on the cross in our place) that gets me so excited.
Jerry Bridges has been on staff with The Navigators since 1955 and currently serves in the Collegiate Mission, where he is involved in staff development and also serves as a speaker resource to the campus ministries. Dr. Bridges is the author of numerous books, including The Discipline of Grace, The Gospel for Real Life, The Great Exchange: My Sin for His Righteousness, Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate, The Bookends of the Christian Life, and his most popular work, The Pursuit of Holiness, which has sold more than one million copies.