Jack Bernard’s How to Become a Saint has many great qualities, but perhaps the most exemplary thing about the book is the way it makes the topic of holiness something bearable to talk about. For far too long talk of holiness has been hijacked by moralistic pietism, especially in protestant circles. Bernard cuts through all that fog in his lively and trenchant treatment of the meaning of holiness.
Against all notions of holiness as some sort of personal moral achievement, Bernard puts the matter exactly right: “The struggle for holiness is perhaps not so much about you as it is a struggle over you” (p. 83). Here Bernard strikes precisely the right note in regard to the nature of moral agency. Most Christians are apt to think of ourselves as moral agents who have the responsibility to rightly choose between bad and good. Like Israel at the boarders of the promised land each one of us must “choose for yourselves whom you will serve.” In this construal what is crucial is our own process of decision-making, which way we choose to move ourselves is determinative of whether we become holy or perverse.
This vision, however, is entirely wrong. The struggle for holiness is not something we choose as capable moral agents who can direct ourselves either way. Rather we are the very site of a cosmic conflict between opposing powers who vie to either enslave us or make us free. The human self is not a neutral site from which one might choose God’s way or the Devil’s. It is the locus of the conflict between the principalities and powers and the lordship of Christ.
As such, growth in holiness only occurs by placing our trust in the victory of Christ over the powers, which alone determines our destiny. We cannot make any sort of moral struggle to achieve holiness. We can only be caught up in Christ’s holy victory over the powers of sin and death which liberate us, not only from our sin, but from our compulsion to be able to lift ourselves out of it. Christ makes us holy precisely by freeing us from the self-grasping instinct towards morally improving and managing ourselves.