Vicarious Spirituality vs Personal Holiness


Vicarious spirituality is a phrase I heard from Sinclair Ferguson and I have loved to think about it since then. It is spirituality he defined as based on the church you go to and perhaps who your pastor is.

 It sometimes is based on who your husband or wife is, how mature they are. And extends sometimes to the quality of your group meetings, either family devotion, small house fellowships, etc.

This view of spirituality is predicated on a wrong view of biblical Christianity that defines itself as going to a good church or being part of a group where the word of God is preached and highly revered, or being married to a person who loves the Lord.

Biblical Christianity is better reflected in how your own life is being transformed by appropriating and applying the word of God to your own life.

Personal holiness, on the other hand, is what God does within the soul and body of the believer, on a personal level.

Biblical Christianity isn’t a theoretical set of beliefs that have little or no bearing on your life. It isn’t a rigid set of standards that relentlessly rule your life. Living your Christian life this way dwindles every initial enthusiasm that existed at your conversion, it degenerates Christianity to the drudgery of dos and don’ts. And it doesn’t please God nor will you find joy in it.

Personal holiness (also called sanctification) without which we will not see God (Heb 12:14) is becoming -in experience- what grace has wrought on Calvary.

It is the application of the gospel in our daily lives. And this is why we are called by God (1 Pet 1:15; Rom 8:29).

The Westminster shorter catechism, Q35 asks what is sanctification? The answer provided is: “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.”

This answer suggests

  1. It is something God graciously does in us
  2. It is something we obediently do in response to and as evidence of what God has done. It suggests a cooperation, a synergistic work

If you remain passive, waiting for God to do it all, you’ll be overrun. If you are active without conscious reference to what God has done, you’ll still be overrun. It is the cooperation of God and the believer working to produce actual holiness in the life of the believer.

Personal holiness isn’t a divine zap neither is it simply an exercise of your willpower. We react to what God has done on our inside by obeying God’s word and by appropriating through faith all that Christ has done.

Believers who do not seek to advance in personal holiness dishonor God and impoverish their spiritual life (Michael Barrett).

We must seek personal holiness over vicarious spirituality for the glory and praise of God. We must seek to know Christ more deeply and personally (which includes His person and work as revealed in the bible) and to increasingly enjoy Him- this is the secret to a happy, bubbling, vibrant Christianity.

Just as your love for someone grows as you know them more by spending more time with them, so your love for Christ will grow as you know Him more by spending time with His word (no shortcuts).

The more our lives revolve around the savior, the more we’ll enjoy the benefits of being saved, and the more we will desire to live holy personally and not vicariously.

About the author

Oluwadamilare Sobanjo


  • Amen to a well written article concerning a much neglected subject in the Church today…’s been kept hushed and swept under the rug in many cases. In this time of rampant wickedness, our sanctification needs stressed more than ever…..”Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” John 17:17 ESV The truth of the Word of God reveals our sin and leads us to walk in holiness before God.

  • […] Last week we learned that Sanctification is the cooperation of God and the believer working to produce actual holiness in the life of the believer.” We also said, “If you remain passive, waiting for God to do it all, you’ll be overrun.” This week I want to briefly tell us what not being passive entails and the effort, the practical steps that should be taken in our daily lives that will translate to growing in holiness. […]

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