A Habitat for Holiness
A Habit of Holiness
Pursuing Holiness – Sermon 14
by William Klock
Every one of us struggles daily with sin and often we wonder why. In his book, Temptation and Sin, John Owen writes this:
“Repeated acts of the consent of the will unto sin may beget a disposition and inclineableness of the will unto proneness and readiness to consent unto sin upon easy solicitation.”
Now what he’s saying is that we make a habit of sin by training our wills to easily fall into sin when it presents itself. In short, the more you sin, the more you’re likely to sin. Sin creates and cultivates its own habit.
Every sin we commit reinforces the habit of sinning and makes it easier to sin in future. Last week we looked at how important it is for us to guard our minds and our emotions, because those are the two main channels that influence our wills. But what about our habits? They’re important too.
Webster’s defines a habit as the “prevailing disposition or character of a person’s thoughts and feelings.” In other words, habits are the thought and emotional patterns that we’ve engraved or allowed to be engraved on our minds. They’re internal patterns that influence our actions just as much as external influences – in fact, probably more so. To quote John Owen again, “Every lust is a depraved habit or disposition continually inclining our hearts to do evil.”
As unbelievers we gave ourselves to developing habits of unholiness. We spent out whole lives developing a habit for sin. We trained our wills to respond to particular situations in life sinfully. We trained ourselves so that when someone offends us, we respond with an outburst of anger. We trained ourselves so that when we hear a juicy piece of gossip, we just can’t keep it to ourselves. We trained ourselves so that when an attractive member of the opposite sex walks by, we take time to let our gaze linger. We trained ourselves to respond to lustful desires by throwing gasoline on the fire with pornography or illicit sex. We made sin a habit – what St. Paul calls “ever-increasing wickedness” (Romans 6:19). Every time we sinned – every time we lusted, coveted, hated, cheated, or lied – we were developing habits of ever-increasing wickedness. And those repeated act of unrighteousness became habits that made us, in fact, slaves to sin.
And yet as we saw in our study of 1 Corinthians 6 last week, while at one time we were sexually immoral, idolaters, thieves, swinders, revilers, and drunks, through Christ we have been washed clean, made just before God, and are being sanctified. It’s that last part that’s important here: we’re being sanctified. To sanctify something is to set it apart as holy and sacred. That’s what God is doing with us by the work of his Spirit living in us. Our duty is to work with the Spirit to break the old sinful habits and develop new habits of holiness (Romans 6:19). We’re called to put off our old self – our sinful disposition and its habits – and put on the new self – with its character and habits of holiness. To train ourselves in godliness (1 Timothy 4:7) is to discipline and structure our lives so that we develop godly habits. Putting off these sinful habits is what St. Paul calls mortifying or putting to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13).
But as much as we have a duty to cultivate a habit of holiness, we can’t do it in our own strength. Breaking sinful habits will only ever happen as we rely on the Holy Spirit working in us. A lot of people see a sinful behaviour in their lives and just resolve never to do it again and they try to keep that resolve by their human willpower. The problem is that human willpower has never once broken the shackles of sin all on its own. And so this evening I want to give you four practical principles that you can follow to train yourself in godliness.
The first principle is that habits are developed and reinforced by frequent repetition. Webster’s also defines a habit as “a behaviour pattern acquired by frequent repetition.” This the principle that underlies the fact that the more we sin the more we’re inclined to sin. But the opposite is just as true: the more we say no to sin, the more we will be inclined to say no to sin in future.
For that reason, as we depend on the Holy Spirit, we need to work systematically at acquiring a habit of saying no to the sins that so easily entangle us. We all know what these sins are – the sins that we’re particularly vulnerable to. We start by saying no to these. And as we gradually develop a habit of holiness here, God will lead us on to work on other sins – often time sins that we didn’t even realise we were falling into. The more we succeed in saying no to our sinful desires, the easier it becomes to say no.
But it’s not just the negative side. The same way we develop a habit of saying no to sin, we also develop habits of holiness. We can develop the habit of thinking thoughts that are pure, true, and good. We can develop the habits of prayer and meditating on Scripture. But these habits will only ever develop if we practice them frequently. I’ve found spending time deliberately working on Scripture memory to be one of the most helpful practices in this area. Instead of day dreaming or letting my mind wander during down time, like walking between home and work, I’ve learned to spend that time recalling verses of Scripture that I’ve memorised. And as that becomes a habit, Scripture starts coming to mind at other times.
The second principle of breaking sinful habits and creating new ones is to never let an exception occur. Allowing exceptions only reinforces the old habits we’re trying to get rid of or at least it fails to reinforce the new habit. When I say “exception” I’m talking about those times when we’re tempted to sin and say something like “just this once.” It’s a subtle and dangerous trap. Because we’re unwilling to pay the price of saying no to our desires, we tell ourselves that we’ll indulge just one more time and that tomorrow will be different. But down inside we know tomorrow isn’t going to be any different – in fact, tomorrow it’s only going to be harder to say no, because we’ve reinforced the sinful habit.
Third, we need to understand the need to be diligent in all areas if we’re to see success in one area. John Owen wrote, “Without a sincere and diligent effort in every area of obedience, there will be no successful mortification of any one besetting sin.” There may be sins in our lives that we really don’t consider to be that big of a deal, but as we continually give into it that sinful habit, it weakens our wills against the onslaughts of temptations from other directions. This is why, as just one example, we need to develop habits of self-control over our physical appetites. We might not think that indulging in ice cream or soda is a big deal, but indulgences in small things weakens our wills in every other respect of our lives.
Finally, don’t be discouraged by failure. We need to remember that there’s a big difference between failing and becoming a failure. Scripture tells us that none of us will achieve perfect holiness in this life – that’s why until the day we die, we have to rely on the perfect holiness of Christ as we stand before God. In the meantime we’re called on to pursue holiness and to grow in maturity of our faith by the Spirit’s help. We only become failures when we give up – when we stop pursuing holiness at all. But as long as we’re working on breaking our sinful habits, regardless of how often we might fail and fall back into sin, we haven’t become failures and Scripture promises that we will see progress.
Friends, it’s pointless to guard our minds and emotions against the temptations that come from without if we don’t at the same time deal with the habits of sin within. The battle for holiness is something we fight on two fronts – without and within. Only then will we see progress toward Christlikeness.