When God Comes Near (Part 2)

As mentioned in the previous article of this two-part study, God is not only omnipresent in his creation, he is also present in a special way among those whom we might call God-seekers.

We saw that one of the spiritual principles of the kingdom of God is that whenever God comes near—i.e., manifests himself through his Holy Spirit to a God-seeker—one of the results will be conviction of sin in the life of the sinner as well as in the life of a failing Christian. The outshining of God’s perfect holiness awakens in both the sinner and the Christian the awareness that all is not well whenever sin is near.

When God came near to a disobedient king, he lamented, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (Psa. 51:3).1 When God came near to an unclean prophet, with deep agony of soul he cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost . . . for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5). When God came near to an unbelieving disciple, he instinctively cried out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Lk. 5:8). Holy Spirit conviction of sin invariably accompanies the manifest presence of God when sin is present.

The purpose of God in convicting the conscience of sin is that he might bring us into fellowship with himself and conform us to the likeness of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ” (see Rom. 8:29). If we confess whatever God convicts us of, there is mercy and restoration (see 1 Jn. 1:7).

Hungering for Holiness

But there is more. Not only does God convict of sin whenever he manifests himself to sinners and failing Christians, he also creates in them a hunger for holiness—the holiness we see manifested in our Exemplar, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Any so-called decision for Christ that is unaccompanied by a hunger for holiness, is a spurious conversion. Any baptismal candidate who has failed to discover an intense appetite for holiness of heart and life following a walk down the sanctuary aisle, will come out of the baptismal waters as much a sinner as when he or she descended into the waters.

The same convicted king who lamented, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me”—also prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” Psa. 51:10). The same convicted prophet who prayed, “Woe is me!  For I am  lost . . . for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”—also wrote, “And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way” (Isa. 35:8). The same convicted disciple who cried out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”—also exhorted, “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct; since it is written: ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy,’” (1 Pet. 1:15-16).

One of the great tragedies of our day is that we are filling our church membership roles with people who do not evidence an intense appetite for God. Their lives are still characterized by the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the pride of life (see 1 Jn. 2:15-16). They’re still in love with the world; they never left it! They still look like it, talk like it, smell like it, think like it, and walk like it.

A Soft Gospel

Is this a hard gospel? May I be so bold as to say that if this sounds to our dull, “uncircumcised” ears like a hard gospel, it is because we have grown accustomed to listening to a soft gospel, which is no gospel at all?

A soft gospel teaches Romans 7 without explaining Romans 8. A soft gospel tells people, “Neither do I condemn you,” but doesn’t say, “Go your way and sin no more” (see Jn. 8:11). A soft gospel tells converts that they are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, but God doesn’t expect them to keep their robes white. A soft gospel emphasizes the doctrine of justification, but has little, if anything, to say about the doctrine of sanctification. A soft gospel tells people to love God and others but has nothing to say about hating and forsaking sin.

A Change of Appetites

The Holy Spirit is called the Holy Spirit, not only because he himself is perfectly holy, but also because his primary mission is to conform believers to the likeness of Jesus Christ, which is Christian holiness.

When God comes near to a convicted, confessing sinner, who responds to his gracious overtures with a simple evangelical faith in Christ, he imparts to such his Holy Spirit (see Rom. 8:10, 15). The Holy Spirit then begins his mission—not merely to get this believer to Heaven eventually—but to make this believer into the image of Christ.

A genuinely repentant believer soon discerns a change of spiritual and moral appetites. He probably won’t be able to explain it theologically, or even be able to quote a chapter and verse in the Bible to explain this evolving change. But he will intuitively know that a radical change is in the making. Although experiences will vary from person to person, a changed appetite is the universal, common denominator in every conversion.

An Example

After 50 years in India as a Methodist missionary, and after more than 60 years following his conversion to Christ, Dr. E. Stanley Jones wrote about the immediate change the Holy Spirit produced in him when he gave his heart and life to Jesus Christ:

When I walked out the next morning following my conversion, I walked out into a new world. The trees seemed to clap their hands; the sky was never so blue, and nature was never so alive and radiant. I walked up to my chum, Ras, slapped him on the back, and said, “My, what a d___ fine day,” using the old vocabulary to express my newfound joy. The angels must have smiled and said, “He’s trying to say ‘Hallelujah,’ but he doesn’t know the language yet. Let him alone; he’ll get it.” I said to myself: “Why, I can’t say that again. I’m converted.” And it dropped away. I was to find a new vocabulary for a new type of life, for he converts us and our vocabulary. . . .

Sometimes while going to church the gang on the street corner would call out: “Hello, Stan, going down to see Jesus?” And the inward answer was “Yes, glory be!” For going to church is just like that—“to see Jesus.” But their taunts grew fainter and fainter and finally died as they saw I was lost to their crowd. I was marching to the beat of another Drummer, and I was trying to keep step with him . . .

One area of adjustment was made the next day after my conversion. Out of habit I went to the barber shop where a group used to play cards. But fortunately and providently I picked up a pocket New Testament lying on a table in our home and took it with me. And it was lucky that I did, for it helped me break a useless and harmful tie. As the group gathered at the card table, I went to the barber’s chair and began to read the New Testament. They called me to join them as usual in the card game. I replied: “No, I’ve been converted.” It was a bomb. A silence fell upon the stunned group. One of them, Ras, who had refused to take the step when I took it [the day before], spoke up and said: “Well, then, read us something from that book.”2

Amazing, isn’t it?—the Holy Spirit jealousy beginning the process of forming the new-born believer into the likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ!

For every true conversion to Christ there are the attendant consequences—one of which is a hunger for holiness, which results in an immediate as well as ongoing change of life and lifestyle. A note of caution: though such a radical change will not be seen in a young child, the fruit of conversion will be the same.

Cultivating an Appetite for God

We can’t give ourselves an appetite for God and holiness any more than a rock can call up an appetite for water. Apart from grace, we are dead to God; without the life of God in us, there can no appetite for God. But although we cannot create within ourselves a hunger for God, we can take measures to cultivate and encourage the appetite he first gave us when we trusted in Christ. How can we cultivate and maintain a healthy appetite for God?

Consider the following pointers.

Give yourself to God totally. One cannot maintain a strong, healthy appetite for God and be a straddler. God wants you to serve him without reservation, with a single-mindedness of intention and will. To do this you must make a decisive, deliberate surrender of yourself to God. To those debating about taking such a step, the Apostle James exhorts: “purify your hearts, you double-minded.” To those who have yet to make a complete consecration of themselves to God, the Holy Spirit pleads: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2). Such a consecration will be affirmed again and again in the life of the hungry-hearted believer.

Meet with God regularly. I remember Mary Ann saying to me in a discipleship class soon after she gave her heart to Christ a number of years ago: “Pastor Tilley, I’ve cleaned out a spare bedroom where I can have my daily devotions.” No one told her to do this. She did it because she wanted to have a quiet place where she could regularly meet with her new-found Friend. A Christian without a systematic, regular devotional life is an undisciplined, careless Christian. To hunger after God is to set aside time to meet with him in his Word and to talk with him (prayer). Private Bible reading and prayer is a matter of spending time with our Friend.

Walk in the light explicitly. Your fallen sinful nature (the flesh) will provide you with a thousand reasons as to why you shouldn’t obey the plain, revealed, written Word of God. But as a Christian, you are called to walk in the Spirit, not to walk after the flesh (see Gal. 5). By walking in the light (truth the Holy Spirit reveals to you through his Word directly, or by other means which are in harmony with his Word) you will enjoy uninterrupted fellowship with God, and maintain a healthy spiritual appetite.

Pray to God transparently. A.W. Tozer once wrote that the only prayers that God responds to are honest prayers. There is so much phoniness in much of our praying because we ourselves are living a phony life. When God comes near to us in our personal devotions, it’s not a time for us to boast before God—we have nothing to boast of. It’s a time of humbling oneself before God. It’s a time for confessing: our lack of passion for God, our careless words, our deadness of spirit, our dry eyes, and our lack of zeal in reaching out to the lost. Let’s quit pretending before God. The last time I looked, a synonym for pretense was “hypocrite.” God rewards transparent prayers and transparent people with his presence and blessings. Transparency before God engenders a greater appetite for God.

Abide in Christ constantly. To learn to abide in Christ is one of the open secrets to a life of power and fruitfulness in the Christian life. To abide in Christ is to exchange our inability for his ability, to exchange our self-sufficiency for his all-sufficiency, to exchange our independence for his power and control. “Abide in me,” Jesus says to every thirsty-hearted disciple (see Jn. 15).

Are you enjoying God’s nearness in your life? Are you experiencing a real, ongoing hunger for God—a hunger for his holiness? Jesus promised, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Mt. 5:6). And they will be filled and satisfied again and again, and again—as long as they are hungry.

Dear reader, in closing I encourage you to join with me—an unworthy servant of the Lord Jesus—in affirming the ancient psalmist’s confession: “But for me it is good to be near God” (Psa. 73:28). Secondly, I ask you to join with me in supplicating our Father in Heaven:

O God, my Father, I thank you for coming near to us by sending your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, into this fallen world. I thank you for coming near to me, by sending your Holy Spirit to inhabit my body—your sacred temple of clay. I cherish your nearness. Guard me, so I will not grieve your Holy Spirit and thereby lose your nearness. But when I do become careless, I beg of you to convict me of my failure, so your loving intimacy and nearness will return. Amen.

– Soli Deo Gloria –

1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. E. Stanley Jones, A Song of Ascents (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968), 34-35.

Ralph I. Tilley
copyright © 2016 Ralph I. Tilley
(May be copied for noncommercial purposes;
not to exceed 500 copies.)

Author: Ralph I. Tilley

I joyfully identify with the long history of the orthodox, evangelical stream of the Church. Theologically, I am a conservative. On issues of secondary importance, I will not quibble with my brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I would hope I have no doctrinal biases; however, I realize that is a practical impossibility: “Now I know in part.” You can read more on the About page.