Frank Abagnale, Jr. posed as a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer as he traipsed across the country for free because of his brilliant—yet totally fraudulent—abuse of the American financial institution. And he did it before he turned 18. His story is told in print and on film, both works titled Catch Me If You Can. As the movie unfolds, the audience watches not only Abagnale’s smooth ability to act any part, but also the relationship that develops between Frank and Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent who devotes his life to catching Abagnale. The title of the film captures cat-and-mouse game that Abagnale and Hanratty play for about three years, with Abagnale always able to evade capture, even when it seems impossible. However, Hanratty finally prevails in bringing the con-man to justice, and the two become friends. As part of his sentence, Abagnale would eventually go to work for the FBI alongside Hanratty, helping to catch other money launderers. While Abagnale’s story is compelling all by itself, it’s the diligent, even obsessive, pursuit of Hanratty that holds the narrative together. As we’ve finally crossed into 2021, with its predecessor thankfully in our rearview mirror, we need to ask ourselves a serious question. What am I going to pursue this year?
Of course, we know that we often pursue the wrong things. For example, ‘tis the season for fitness resolutions, right? That’s great. I’m all for working out. I think it’s important and healthy. However, exercise can easily become a “pursuit,” an obsession. The same goes for a promotion at work. In all likelihood, that promotion is a good thing, and perhaps you’ve set your sights on it this year. However, if that’s your main pursuit, even if you attain it, you will find it hollow. The list could go on indefinitely: money, marriage, kids, beauty, health, weight loss, etc. But let me give you a pursuit that cannot be optional this year: holiness.
“Pursue…sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
First of all, notice that this is not optional. The author is issuing an imperative, a command. He doesn’t tell his readers that it would be a good idea to pursue holiness if they’re not too busy this year. No. Frankly, I doubt he cares one lick about his readers’ schedules. He cares about their souls. Thus, he commands them to pursue sanctification. The simple truth is that if we’re not pursuing holiness, we’re living in disobedience.
I mentioned a moment ago that the writer of Hebrews cares about his readers’ souls, not their schedules. He’s shown this throughout his “word of exhortation” (13:22) as he’s issued warning after warning against playing the game of Christianity. And here, in the verse we’re considering today, he hints at it again. He says, “Pursue . . . sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” That last phrase tells us that we’re in a high-stakes game. We must pursue holiness because it’s the only way we’ll see Christ.
It would be easy to read this in a legalistic way, as if the writer is telling his audience that they have to do certain things in order to be saved. Certainly not! He has spent the bulk of his letter, explaining why Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient. He died once for all, and has sat down at His Father’s right hand, as a demonstration of the efficacy of His death. No, we do not need to add anything to Christ’s sacrifice to be saved. So, then, what is the author driving at?
As he has throughout the epistle, the writer is warning the Church that true believers grow, mature, persevere, and pursue holiness. It’s not what they do to be saved. It’s what they do because they are saved. For example, my dog is not outside barking right now (much to my displeasure) in order to be a dog, but because he is a dog. That’s just what dogs do (at least poorly trained ones, like mine). Christians pursue holiness. It’s just what we do. We may do it haltingly, imperfectly, weakly, and feebly, but it’s what we do. If you have no interest in pursuing your sanctification this year, the author of Hebrews would want you to consider what you have really done with Jesus.
Before we continue, a caveat is in order. One reason (among many) that our spiritual “resolutions” often go awry is that we forget to apply the Gospel. We think we have to do this in our own strength, as if to prove that Christ got a “good one” when He saved me. Consider these words from John Piper: “Be holy because you are already holy. Kill the threatening sin because your sin really is already canceled.” In other words, be who you already are. We pursue the holiness that has already been purchased for us, keeping in mind that Christ has already done the work. Paul put it this way: “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now perfected in the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). We are fools to think that we pursue holiness in our own strength. Our holiness comes only and always through Christ in us. And yet—we still must pursue.
I hope you’re on board by now and ready to chase down holiness in 2021. But how? I’m sure you can find oodles of ideas out there right now; and hopefully, we’re all saying basically the same thing. That’s because it’s not complicated. But, as Jerry Seinfeld once told his buddy Kramer, “It’s only done if it’s done.”
So here, are just a few ideas for how you can get it done this year.
- Make a portion of Scripture yours this year. I’m not opposed to read-through-the-Bible plans. They’re important. And maybe this is the year for that for you. Or maybe it’s the year for you to soak in one book all year and just own it. Read through it fast. Read through it slow. Listen to it over and over. Memorize it. Read some books about it. Let the Holy Spirit knead one passage of Scripture into your life over the next twelve months. I think it will amaze you at how life-changing that can be.
- Zero In. It can sound intimidating to pursue holiness. You may be wondering where in the world to start. After all, “holiness” is a pretty large category! Why not start by asking the Holy Spirit to search your heart and show you an area in which you really need to grow this year. Maybe you already know about a dozen such areas! Pick just one and label it with a single word. Maybe “repentance” or “brokenness” or “trust.” God will probably surprise you by working on far more areas than just the one you chose, but let Him do that work. To get started, just zero in on one area. For more ideas with what to do once you’ve got your word, you can read a post I wrote last year by clicking here.
- Don’t pursue alone. Most of us are natural-born quitters, and if we don’t have someone alongside us, egging us on, we’ll throw in the towel as quick as Pliable in the Slough of Despair. Find a Faithful or a Hopeful to walk alongside you as you pursue the Celestial City this year. Give that person permission to ask you the hard, uncomfortable questions, and be willing to answer them. Pursuing holiness alone is a sure way to end up in a ditch.
These are just three ideas. Take one, or don’t. That’s optional. What’s not optional is that we pursue our own growth in holiness this year!
 John Piper, Providence. Crossway: Wheaton, Ill, 2020. 586.