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Holiness and Moral Agency

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.


  1. Tiny Fat Kiwi wrote:

    Incoherent but compelling!

    Not having read the book, there must be more to it than “Let Go and Let God!”

    So much for striving with all the energy he mightily inspires within me. So much for striving, period. Unless it is something like “striving, rightly understood.” If Christ purifies for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds, what does Bernard make of this zeal?

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 9:28 am | Permalink
  2. bruce hamill wrote:

    I must read this book… I have really enjoyed your posts from it. Thanks

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  3. Brad A. wrote:

    Just for the record, Halden, the story of Israel is much more along the lines of your third paragraph here. You may not have intended to associate it with the “wrong” view with your promised land quote, but I just wanted to make sure that point was understood.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 7:16 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    I agree Brad. What I refer to above is really a misreading of Israel’s story which places the human subject in the alleged “place of decision” that Israel seems to be occupying there. Of course, if we read the story even just a little bit further we see that it really bears out the kind of moral agency I’m talking about here: “You will not be able to serve the Lord your God, for he is a jealous God. . .”

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 8:11 am | Permalink
  5. So basically good and bad are redefined as ontological realities rather than abstract virtues. In the end, God calls for a decision which certainly should ethical impact in a situationl, and so one can still technically “do good” insofar as it means aligning oneself with the victory of Christ in that situation, just as they can do bad. The ontological realities do not negate the choice of humanity in situations, right?

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

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