Imagine a basketball team that only played defense. They guard the basket to the best of their ability. They aggressively mark every man that crosses to their side of the court and block any attempts to score on their side. But they never go on the offensive.
They would lose every game.
Well, maybe they could perfectly protect their basket for an entire season. In this case they would never lose, but they’d never win either.
Like this team, too many Christians live their lives always on defense. They avoid sin (at least the really bad ones). They aren’t necessarily bad people, but they aren’t all that good, either.
But lukewarm Christianity, the Bible tells us, isn’t Christianity at all (Rev. 3:15, 16). The Christian life is not meant to be lived in the passive avoidance of sins; rather, it is intended to be an abundant life of love, obedience and righteousness. Both the Bible and Christian history are populated with people who lived life to the fullest. Christ desires this proactive, victorious mode of living for all of His disciples (John 10:10). He modeled this kind of living and we are called to imitate Him like a child mimics his father (1 Corinthians 11:1).
What does it look like to live the kind of abundant, holy life that the New Testament describes? We’ll use 2 Timothy 2:22 as our guide.
Timothy was a pastor in the church at Ephesus. Paul wrote to the young leader, “Flee from youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22 CSB). First, Paul instructed Timothy with a negative imperative: Flee from youthful passions.
The New Testament uses strong, descriptive language for how Christians ought to repent and remain holy. “Flee” is one of those words. The Greek word Paul used means to escape, elude, or seek safety in flight. It’s the kind of word David Attenborough would use to narrate a gazelle running away from a lioness on “Planet Earth.” It’s the word used when Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre (Matthew 2:13).
Sin is not something to linger in or play with. Sin is mortally dangerous to the soul. Christians must not rest or become complacent in the battle against sin. Rather, we are to make war against the deeds of the flesh. Paul wrote, “Therefore, put to death what belongs to your earthly nature” (Colossians 3:5). Just like Joseph fled from Potiphar’s wife, Christians should run from temptation. Like David slayed Goliath, Christians should actively kill sin.
In your daily life this means don’t make room for sin. Romans 13:14 says, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” You must order your schedule, home relationships and life to make no opportunity for temptation to present itself. Of course, you can never make your life completely temptation-proof. Yet to flee sin, you must take advantage of whatever is within your power to influence.
Does browsing social media open the door for temptation? Delete the apps. Does Netflix increase your intimacy with Christ or absorb precious time that could be spent with Him? Cancel your account.
You may be in a relationship that is a source of overwhelming temptation. You may have friendships that habitually pull you away from holiness and compromise your integrity. The workplace you’re in may be a bad environment for your growth in discipleship. In whatever manner or place it might be, if there is an opportunity for sin to manifest itself in your life, do not allow it to linger. Rather, flee! The Puritan John Owen famously wrote, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
The second command from Paul is the positive counterpart to fleeing sin: Pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace. His word for pursue is the complete opposite of flee. If the first word means “run from,” then this word means “run after, chase.” It means to be in pursuit like the hunter who carefully, deliberately tracks his prey.
Pursuing holiness means to aim at God and draw near to Him. Righteousness is not a spiritual token that we build up through good acts. Instead, righteousness is a quality of character developed in us through our relationship with God.
I’m not a talented artist. The only sketching that I ever enjoyed was tracing. You take a blank sheet of paper and lay it over an image. Then you carefully trace a new copy of the image over the lines showing through from the picture underneath. Pursuing righteousness kind of looks like tracing. When our life is laid over the model of Jesus’ life the lines do not match up. However, the gospel empowers us to be transformed so that our character will begin to match His over time.
This happens in two stages. First, righteousness is something given to us in Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:9). We do not achieve it in our own good works. Rather, Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross purchased our salvation by trading His righteousness for our sin; therefore, we are given His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). Second, as a new creation in Jesus, we are empowered to pursue good works (Ephesians 2:10). Paul instructed the Ephesians to put off the old self — the image that doesn’t match Jesus — and to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).
We forget that the New Testament calls us to a double duty of fleeing and pursuing. Consider a few samplings:
“Therefore, put [sin] to death… put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience… Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Colossians 3:5, 12-14).
“See to it that no one repays evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all” (1 Thessalonians 5:15).
“But you, man of God, flee from these things, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:11-12).
If we do not practice both fleeing sin and pursuing righteousness, then we are in danger of following what Dallas Willard called “gospels of sin management.” Following a gospel of sin management means to accept the redemption of Christ without the transformation. It’s an assumption that Christianity is essentially about forgiveness and that Jesus’ death was only meant to remove sin. We accept the gospel like a trinket to wear but not a reality to change our lives. On the one hand, it creates people who want the blood of Jesus but not the person of Jesus in their lives. On the other, it creates Pharisees who view the world through the lenses of social change in the name of Jesus.
The result is a large population of people who claim the forgiveness of God while their lives look no different from those who do not know Christ. There is no doubt that the central message of Christianity offers forgiveness of sins and the redemption of mankind. But we must understand that this offer is made in the context of an invitation to discipleship — being a life-long student of Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The road to faith [salvation, forgiveness] passes through obedience to the call of Jesus [discipleship, pursuing righteousness].”
Therefore, aim your life at God and pursue His will. Answer the call of Jesus to take up your cross and follow Him. Practically speaking, this means exercising the various spiritual disciplines in daily life. Read your Bible and obey it. Pray to God and submit to His guidance. Journal your days and examine how you have either pursued righteousness or indulged sin.
Proverbs 28:1 says that the righteous are as bold as a lion. Do you have a courageous, bold witness for the truth? Don’t worry; you can grow in courage.
Be a catalyst for positive change. Look at your home and ask if your presence there is doing anything good. Are you contributing to healthy and growing relationships with family or roommates? Is it a place of joy, peace and love because you’re there? If that is not the case, then explore Scripture and trace your life along the lines of Jesus’ example. Then watch how you and the places you find yourself in can change.
Finally, always remember that the pursuit of holiness is at its core drawing nearer to God. Our growth in righteousness is never apart from Him. John Calvin reminds us, “When we contemplate this relationship between ourselves and God, let us remember that holiness is the bond of our union with Him.”
Finally, every great adventure needs a fellowship. Imagine the Lord of the Rings trilogy without the friendships. Frodo without Sam. Aragorn without Legolas and Gimli. Imagine the same for Star Wars — Han Solo without Chewbacca. The story just isn’t the same, right?
Paul exhorted Timothy to flee sin and pursue righteousness “along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” You cannot effectively follow Christ on your own. On the one hand, Jesus calls you to follow Him, not to know Him through someone else. On the other hand, He calls you to follow Him and join in with the community of His life-long students.
Find a Christian community where you will be challenged, encouraged and equipped to flee sin and pursue righteousness. The best place to do this is in a local church where you will find a diversity of people from various stages of life who can help guide you. One of the best experiences that I have found in my personal life is to have a small group of friends that I can do this with. We regularly inspire and help one another continually model our life after Christ’s.
I write about this a lot better than I practice it. The good news is that there’s grace for us in the journey. Christianity is a divine comedy. Not in the sense of a light-hearted, feel-good sitcom, but in the sense of a story where there is danger, calamity and struggle, yet the finale brings everything together in a happy ending. You will be forever changed on this quest. You will be tested beyond your limitations and forged into someone who is “more than a conqueror” (Romans 8:37). But conquering doesn’t just “happen.” Conquering is for those who join the fight and pledge allegiance to the Leader who loves us and has already secured our victory.
Copyright 2019 Aaron Shamp. All rights reserved.