The Miracle of Striving

Often, the mystery of how we grow as Christians baffles us. There are some Christians who say, “God takes care of all the work. Those commands in the Bible simply show you that you can’t do them and need Jesus.” Others say, “No, you gotta clench your fists and get to work. God gets this rolling, but you need to seal the deal.”

I think both of those approaches to sanctification are wrong.

If we are going to be ruthlessly biblical however, we are going to see grace and effort working together. We are going to see that Paul is adamant that Christians need to strive, but all of their striving is by God’s power and grace. Earlier this week, I spent a devotional time in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24, where this idea is extremely clear:

12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

In one breath, Paul can command the Thessalonians to “be at peace,” “admonish,” “rejoice,” and “do not quench.” In the next breath he can say, “Now may God sanctify you completely.” How can he do this?

Paul understands that, at bottom, the Thessalonians will grow in holiness only by God’s grace. He also understands that his teaching, exhorting, and commanding are the God ordained means to accomplish what God wants in the Thessalonians. So yes, God is sovereignly working for the holiness of the Thessalonians (and us). On the other side of the coin, people have to actually do something. As John Piper has said, Christians have to act the miracle of sanctification. And who gets the credit for that acting? God. Therefore, it is not legalism for Paul to give a command, and it is not legalism for us to do so either.

Paul is clear that Jesus delivers from the wrath to come (1:10). He delivers through his perfect obedience and substitutionary death. The only proper response to being rescued by Jesus is love, joy, thanksgiving, abstaining from evil, devotion, and obedience. John Stott once wrote, “To teach the standards of moral conduct which adorn the gospel is neither legalism nor pharisaism but plain apostolic Christianity.” Those who have been saved by grace will respond with obedience. They will not obey perfectly, of course, and that is why salvation is all of grace. It is only by the grace of God that our soul and body will be kept blameless when Jesus returns (5:23). That is why Paul prays in verses 23-24, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you!” We do the acting, but God is the one causing the acting to happen in such a way that he gets the glory and ensures that we will arrive at the end the way he intended.

So what’s the difference for you and me? If someone asked me, “If you seek to do some act of obedience even though you don’t want to do it, isn’t that the definition of legalism?” my answer would be, “No, because my theology is right.” That might sound like a snarky answer, but think about it.  If I believe my rejoicing in God (one of Paul’s commands above) merits love from God, then yes, it is legalism. But consider an alternative. I strive to rejoice in God even when I don’t feel like it. I do it not to earn God’s love because I realize I am already loved in Christ through the gospel. No amount of rejoicing will earn more of God’s favor I already have. Instead, I know rejoicing in God is what God deserves in light of the gospel and that only rejoicing in him will bring true joy. I ask God to help me strive. I confess my apathy and laziness. I recognize that Christ is the treasure and some other comfort has subdued his rightful place in my heart. I realize that through my striving, God is working in me to kill idolatry, laziness, apathy, self-pity, etc. in order to find true happiness in him. Only when I strive this way is my striving not legalism but proper response to God’s grace in the gospel. 

And that kind of striving, my friends, is a miracle. It is a gift of grace, and that makes it all the more beautiful, lovely, and exciting. I want this for myself, and you. May God be gracious to do it!

Life Ministry Theology

Effectively Shepherding Yourself and Others

If you are like me, then you have probably wondered how to be an effective self-shepherd. God’s family—the church—is absolutely essential and necessary to our growth. We cannot be Lone Ranger Christians. But we can’t always talk to a pastor or a friend when we feel defeated, and we are primarily responsible for our own progress, so we need to learn to be self-feeders and help others to be self-feeders as well. We need to learn how to be self-shepherds.

I recently read Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission, the newest book from Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. One of the most immediately helpful parts of the book (along with Chester’s You Can Change) is a section on how shepherd yourself and others.

Chester and Timmis say that in order to experience genuine transformation we must first be clear on the gospel. The gospel is not positive thinking, it is not good advice, and it is not law (legalism). When I need shepherding, and when I shepherd others, I cannot resort to these three alternatives to the gospel. I must give myself and others good news. The gospel is the good news that God in Christ has done for us what we cannot do on our own. He has redeemed us from sin, giving us a living hope, and empowers us by his Spirit to glorify him. Only this good news can transform us from the inside-out. The first way we shepherd is to preach this good news to ourselves and others over and over and over again.

Secondly, Chester and Timmis say that the gospel leads us to believe the following four essential, basic truths. As we preach the gospel to ourselves, we must apply these specific truths to our circumstances.

  • God is great, so I do not have to be in control (Ps. 115:3; Isa. 40:12; Heb. 1:3; Eph. 1:11).
  • God is glorious, so I do not need to fear others (Ps. 18; 27:1-3; 34; 93:1; 119:120; Isa. 40:25).
  • God is good, so I do not need to look elsewhere (John 4:13-14; 7:37-39; Heb. 11:24-26).
  • God is gracious, so I do not need to prove myself (Neh. 9:17; Luke 15).

This is not, of course, everything about God we need to know. But these truths will be applicable to nearly every area of our lives.

Lord, help us as we seek to shepherd ourselves and others for your glory and our joy!


This I Believe: God’s New People

God’s New People
I believe that from all eternity, God ordained to redeem and justify a multitude of guilty sinners by grace through faith in Jesus Christ from all ages from every tribe, language, people, and nation. He has set his love on this people for no other reason than that he loves them. God’s new covenant people make up the universal church, the body of Christ. The universal church manifests itself in local churches, of which Christ is the Head. Local churches are gatherings of this new people who observe baptism and the Lord’s Supper and exercise the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by God’s word. The primary mission of the church is to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, making disciples of all nations. The church’s only proper offices are elders and deacons. God’s new people are not only justified by grace through faith but also sanctified by grace through faith. Above all, God’s new people must be characterized by love for God and love for people. They are to be salt and light in the world and holy in all their conduct.

Deut. 7:7-8; Matt. 5:13-16; 22:37; 28:19-20; Acts 2:38, 42-47; 26:18; Rom. 3:20-28; 8:1, 34; 1 Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:1-7; Eph. 1:22-23; 2:19-22; Col. 1:18; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-16; 1 Pet. 1:14-16; 2:9-10; Rev. 5:9-10; 7:9-17; 21:2-3


What is Preaching?

When you listen to a sermon at church, what do you hear? In his book Transforming Conversion, Gordon T. Smith has some very important words for all Christians to keep at the forefront of their minds:

Preaching is not about urging hearers to work harder, try harder, and do more so that they are more faithful. They cannot do so; the depth of the human predicament makes this impossible and thus futile and (rightly) results in much cynicism about the Christian life—better put, it is cynicism about a false conception of the Christian life. Rather, preaching is about drawing the people of God into the grand accomplishment of Christ in the cross and the resurrection so that they can participate in this life, rest in the wonder of the gospel, and know the transformation that comes through the ministry of the Spirit. Yet in this [the people of God] are not passive! Rather, they need to be involved in active response comparable to one who attends to the subtle yet sure movements of a lead dancer (93).

If you do not leave a sermon in awe of Christ’s grand accomplishment in the gospel and assured of the grace of God at work in you through the Spirit, but rather leave wondering how in the world you will do what the preacher just told you to do, then you did not hear a Christian sermon. You may have heard positive thinking, good advice, or straight-up law; but you did not hear gospel preaching. And lest anyone think that this produces an anti-obedience or anti-effort Christianity, remember Smith’s final words: true Christian sermons aim at active, faith-fueled response, just like a good lead dancer’s initiative.

Let’s respond by praying for our pastors to proclaim Christ, not just talk about Christ. And let us also pray that we respond to Christ’s gospel and the Spirit’s work in us with grace-driven and faith-fueled effort to the glory of God.


Interview With Kevin DeYoung on Holiness

Here’s an 8-minute interview with Kevin DeYoung about his new(ish) book The Hole in Our HolinessDesiring God will post other short videos in the next week from the rest of the interview.