KILLING SIN…PART FOURTEEN

IS EFFORT SINFUL?

            The Keswick model of sanctification argues that any effort exerted on our part in struggling with sin or pursuing holiness stems from the flesh and proves counterproductive to experiencing true victory. What do the Scriptures teach about striving in our attempt to grow to become more Christlike? While this is not a comprehensive list, let us examine three key passages.

            First of all, in Philippians 2:12-13, Paul writes, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This text more than any other clearly illustrates the apparent paradox in our progressive sanctification. At first glance it can actually be confusing. When the word “work” shows up we immediately get suspicious because we think Paul proposes a works-based righteousness and that he throws salvation by grace out the window. That could not be farther from the truth.  Paul’s discussion does not focus on how a sinner receives salvation, but instead, shows us how a saved person actually lives out on a daily basis the salvation they have already received. It is key to first understand that Paul focuses on the word “obedience” instead of “victory”.  The saints in Philippi have “always obeyed” which demonstrates that Paul’s agenda centers on obedience to God’s commands rather than instantaneous victory through passivity.

            In these two verses who works? Is it all up to us or is it all up to God? The answer is neither.  Our initial salvation was monergistic in that God alone did all of the work. He chose us before the foundation of the world. He adopted us into His family. He redeemed us through Christ’s blood. He caused us to be born again. He transferred us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. As sinners who were dead in our transgressions, we lacked the power to save ourselves and could not contribute one iota to our redemption. God alone gets all the credit for saving us. This is what theologians call the “monergistic” working of God. This word comes from two Greek words used together to create this idea—“mono” means “one or alone” while the word “ergon” means to “work”. So monergistic salvation means that God alone does all the work in saving sinners. Yet, once we are saved and have been born again and given the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are now empowered to live out this truth through this pursuit of holiness.  This endeavor (post-salvation) is both monergistic and synergistic in nature. “Synergistic” means “two or more working together”.  In other words, we as believers must do our part in this process, and God alone does His part. At the end of the day, we must realize that if any fruit, transformation or anything of lasting significance is to occur it comes from the fact that God alone monergistically worked in us to accomplish that growth.

            In this passage in Philippians, Paul gives us the command to work out our own salvation. In the original language, this is a command to be obeyed on a continuous basis. In other words, we could translate this as “keep on continually working out your own salvation”. What exactly does it mean to “work out” our salvation? The word Paul uses here[1] denotes active labor and it also signifies “to bring about, produce, create”.[2]  In this process of growing to become more like Jesus, God commands us to exert continual energy to make this a reality. We do this with fear and trembling which denotes a godly fear and reverence of our awesome Savior.

            If we just stop at verse 12 and use this in isolation to build a theology of sanctification, it would become very depressing and produce guilt and frustration.  In one sense, we are commanded to take personal responsibility in our growth in godliness by working out our own salvation. This requires diligence, obedience, urgency, and passion. Yet if left to ourselves in this venture, we would never see any lasting fruit or experience gospel transformation.  In and of ourselves, we cannot produce change. In God’s gracious provision, verse 13 displays for us the role God plays in our sanctification. It is synergistic in that we play a vital role in pursuing holiness through our own initiative to work out our salvation. But yet, it is also monergistic in that God is ultimately the One who works in us to accomplish His will.  God keeps on continually working in us to do two things—will and work. In other words, God gives us the desire and the power to obey His commands. Those two realities were not part of us as unregenerate sinners before our salvation. In our lostness, we neither desired to obey God nor did we have the power to obey God.  Our desire was for ourselves and our pleasures and because we did not have the Holy Spirit living within us we lacked the power to obey. But through the new birth and the power of the gospel, God grants to us in our sanctification these two resources—the desire to obey and the power to obey. He does this so that at the end of the day He receives all the glory for being the sole provider of our desperate need for grace. We work but God also works. Our working may be feeble and inconsistent and shallow at times, but behind the scenes, a sovereign God works to ensure that we perform His will through our good works according to His good pleasure. Again, Jerry Bridges aptly calls this cooperative effort between us and God as “dependent responsibility” by saying that the responsibility to work out our salvation is 100 percent our responsibility, but at the same time we are 100 percent dependent on the Holy Spirit to actually produce any fruit.[3]

The second passage of Scripture which answers this question about striving or struggling in the Christian life is found in 1 Timothy 4:7-8 where Paul writes, “Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”  This word “train yourself” comes as a command which needs to be obeyed on a continuous basis. We could translate it as “keep on continually training yourself for godliness.” In addition, this word comes from the world of athletics from where we get our word “gymnastics”.[4]  When Olympic athletes in the first century would prepare for the games, they would go into strict physical training. Paul borrows this word from the athletic world to vividly illustrate the grueling nature in which we as Christians must strive to grow in holiness.

Duff Gibson holds the honor of being the oldest person to win a gold medal in an individual sport in the history of the Winter Olympics—age 39. In the 2006 games in Italy, he won the skeleton race which is similar to the luge and bobsledding.  In skeleton racing, the athlete rides face down on a small sled flying down a track at forces up to 5 g’s.  For years, Gibson practiced on the ice training his body for that one moment in history when he would finally win the gold medal.  Think about the rigorous schedules athletes endure to prepare for the Olympics and how much time they put in the gym, or on the field, or on the slopes. First class athletes are not haphazard even though they may have a great deal of natural talent. They discipline themselves everyday to train with intensity and passion. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps spends up to eight hours a day in the pool. This type of intensity is what Paul describes when it comes to training ourselves for godliness.  Instead of “letting go and letting God”, Paul urges us to diligently “go to the gym” and “work out” spiritually so that we can grow in godliness.

In addition to Paul’s teachings on the importance of exerting energy in our progressive sanctification, Peter also echoes this truth. In 2 Peter 1:5-8 he writes, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.  For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What does God command us to do in this passage?  We are called to make every effort  to continually grow in godliness so that we will not become ineffective in our spiritual walk with Christ.

To add emphasis to this command, Peter uses a strong expression in combining two Greek words which convey the idea of an urgency and quickness to exert energy.[5]  In other words, he exhorts us to hurry up with a passionate zeal and start making effort to increase in godly character. This verb choice is a far cry from the passive “let go and let God” quietism of the Keswick view of sanctification.  

In our next post we will explore the third weakness of Keswick sanctification…”microwave magic” sanctification…


[1] katerga,zomai katergazomai

[2] The Greek lexicon BAGD claims that the verb signifies working at something until it is completed, or carrying it through to its completion.

[3] This is a paraphrase from pages 95-97 in Jerry Bridges’ and Bob Bevington’s book “Bookends of the Christian Life” (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007)

[4] gumna,zw gumnazo

[5] Peter combines the words pareisfe,rw pareisphero—“to make every effort”—and spoudh, spoude—“with diligent haste” in the aorist imperative which gives the command an urgency. It could be translated  “Hurry up with a diligent zeal to exert energy”…

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