I’ve just finished reading what might be my new favourite book on Holiness (J.C.Ryle’s classic aside, obviously), “The Pursuit of the Holy” by Simon Ponsonby. Simon, if you’ve not heard of him before, is the pastor of Theology at St. Aldates in Oxford, and is a serious new theological voice across a broad bit of the Church. He’s written a number of books, including one on eschatology, “And The Lamb Wins” which I’ve already reviewed, and is well known as a conference speaker.
“The Pursuit of the Holy: A Divine Invitation” is Ponsonby’s exploration of one of the most awkward questions that Christians and non-Christians alike can ask: can we as sinful human beings be holy? Ponsonby draws throughout on the resources of the Christian Tradition – he is extremely well read – and delves deep into key texts of scripture to challenge, inspire and encourage us to pursue holiness.
This is, in the best sense, a deeply theological book. Deep, in that it comes from the heart and seeks to draw us closer into deep communion with Christ, theological in that it is not some light ‘self help’ book that papers over the cracks. If you are a looking for a book that will massage your ego, this is not it. If you are looking for a book that applies big lumps of serious biblical theology to your life, in an accessible and appropriate way, this is it. I particularly loved two chapters, looking at the central doctrines relating to our holiness. “Without Blame” is Ponsonby’s superb treatment of the Doctrine of Justification, and he absolutely nails it. The theme of grateful reliance on God for our righteousness is brought out superbly, and there is a sublime section pre-empting it where he quotes a Catholic theologian as realising; “Union with God of this depth is totally unattainable by our own effort; it is a gift that only God can give; we are totally dependent on His grace for progress in the spiritual life“. “Without Fault” expands on the awesome “yes” of God in Justifying us through Christ by grace, in looking at the tricky journey of sanctification.
Throughout, Ponsonby writes with the firm assumption of Grace, a healthy respect for Scripture, and a deeply practical outlook. This is a book that warmed my heart as a crusty book-reading nerd, but also one that forced me to consider practical ways in which I am working out sanctification in my own life. This is a book that continually points to Jesus – Ponsonby is very keen that we do become more like Christ as we journey with him, and it is here that we get so helpfully practical;
“Okay, I am united with Christ. I died with him and am raised with him. But, practically speaking, am I free from sinning? Have you ever met a Christian who was completely conformed to Chris, enslaved to righteousness?”
Ponsonby is not shying away from a big issue. The issue with which he opens his book. The issue of being followers of Jesus who are becoming like Jesus, rather than being religious.
This book, in my mind, achieves what it sets out to do. Diagnosing early on the sinfulness of humanity and the failings of the Church, Ponsonby sets out to paint such a hopeful vision of holiness and Christlike transformation that we might dare to think we can achieve it. Throughout, he is careful to stress absolute dependence on God – but a dependence that does not stay safe, or stay in prayer, or stay being fed. True holiness is the holiness that sets the world on fire, that is salty. And this, I think, is what this book helps point us towards. The holiness that Jesus calls his followers to.
I’m a big fan of this book. I can’t recommend it enough. To those who continually fall, receive prayer, and come back for more. For those who believe their pharisaical little systems will stop them from sinning. For those wishing Christians could be more like Jesus. This book – because it is about the holiness of God that we receive and should push into freely from Jesus at the Cross – is for anyone who follows Jesus. Seriously good.