Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Changed from glory to glory" (Part V): Our Role in the Process

"But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining to 
what lies ahead., I press on toward the goal for the prize of the
upward call of God in Jesus Christ." (Php. 3:13b-14)
In part III, we've seen how dangerous it is to put one's self under the compulsive moral obligation of God's law apart from the life-giving and liberating power of the Spirit (Rom. 7:1-25). Then in part IV, we have discussed how the Holy Spirit causes us to obey God's will (Eze. 36:27) and emphasized that even our willingness and exertion of efforts energized by love, even the desire to pray, are marks of divine favor wrought in us by this same Spirit (1 Cor. 4:7; Php. 2:13).

This leads us to the next question: If we do not possess the autonomous power to change ourselves (Jn. 15:5), so much so that our progress to holiness is entirely at the disposal of God (Php. 2:13), does this mean we don't have any role to play in our sanctification? If the Holy Spirit does it all, can we now just sit around and relax? 

V. Our Role in the Process

If we should attend to the question at hand biblically, the correct answer should be negative. The fact that the Bible says "it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Php. 2:13) doesn't mean we should neglect what is said in the previous verse: "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (v. 12b). It is true that God is absolutely sovereign over human choices (Rom. 9:18), but we are also morally responsible and have moral duties to fulfill (Lam. 3:39-41). I know this is somewhat mind-boggling (philosophically speaking), but in so far as the Bible supports both concepts (i.e. God's sovereignty & human responsibility), we should therefore maintain both as truth - BUT with diligent care and balance. 

Why with diligent care and balance? Because over-emphasis of one to the effect of denying or neglecting the other can lead to terrible screw-ups, theologically and practically. For example, believers who over-emphasize human responsibility (and free-will) have a strong tendency of relying on their own 'natural abilities' in the pursuit of holiness. The usual argument is: "If we are truly responsible, it necessarily follows that we must be endowed (in nature) with all the necessary means to perform our moral duties. The main problem with this view is that it fails to consider the vast effects of Sin on man's nature and his disposition of will (see Rom. 3:9-12, 8:7-8; 1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 2:1-3). Moreover, if pushed to its logical conclusions, this view would render God's help as insignificant, or if it has any significance at all, it is not absolutely necessary. Against this self-relying / self-glorying mindset, the Bible says: "For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?" (1 Cor. 4:7); and again, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Cor. 15:10); and again, "Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God" (2 Cor. 3:5); and again, "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Php. 2:13); and many other passages. 

Now, as much as there are those who so rely in themselves in their over-emphasis of human responsibility, there are also Christians who put so much emphasis on God's sovereignty and human depravity that they tend to be slothful. These people tend to have a weak prayer-life; or worse, don't pray at all (i.e. "why pray if God has already predetermined all that should occur"-attitude). They also tend to be so lazy sharing the gospel to the lost (i.e. "why evangelize if those who have been predestined will surely be saved anyway"-attitude). And even worse, some tend to just sit down and relax in front of their laptops and computer screens the whole day, searching for people over the internet whom they can argue with over the doctrines of grace, Calvinism, etc. Some even go too far by saying we shouldn't exert any effort at all! But I should add that this problem of slothfulness isn't confined only to those who over-emphasize God's sovereignty. This is a problem widespread among Christians of different theological persuasions.

Make every effort to become more like Christ!

Wait... Did I just say"effort"? Yes! And I would argue that this is our proper role in the process of sanctification (see 2 Pe. 1:5-10). Does this mean I am retracting what I stated in my previous entries that we, as frail humans, don't have the sufficient natural capability to sanctify ourselves through our own efforts? Not in any way. 

By "own efforts," I mean efforts done in the flesh and not by the liberating, love-infusing, and energizing power of the Spirit. These are efforts driven with a wrong mindset or motives and are merely superficial in nature (Mat. 15:8, 23:28). Such works cannot please God who searches the hearts, however good they may appear outwardly, because they're not borne in humble faith and true love of God (Rom. 14:23; Heb. 11:6; 1 Cor. 13:1-3). 

In other words, effort isn't really bad. It becomes bad only if it isn't based on truth and if we rely on them for the attainment of holiness (Rom. 10:2-3). It is Christ and His work alone that we should rely on: "who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'" (1 Cor. 1:30-31). Relying on Christ, however, doesn't entail that we can just sit down and relax. The Bible also tells us to: "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" (2 Pe. 1:5-7). True, we are saved by grace alone without works (Eph. 2:8-9), but it is also true that we are saved for and unto good works: 
"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10).
So the Bible tells us that we are "created in Christ Jesus," or born again, "for good works," and it was God's plan all along that "we should walk in them."  Physically speaking, walking doesn't really require much effort, unless you are impaired. An average person makes about six-thousand steps per day, and we don't even notice it. But in the spiritual realm where we are torn in the battle between the Spirit and our old-self, walking in righteousness is surely not a very easy task, that is, unless we have in our hearts the true love of God by which "we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome" (1 Jn. 5:3). Yet having genuine love for God and his righteousness is in itself not a very easy thing to do. This is where prayer assumes an important role in our sanctification.

The Importance of Prayer

In prayer, we come to God completely empty-handed, recognizing His sovereignty and acknowledging our frailness and insufficiency. We don't pray to brag about our achievements. We pray because we know we are nothing apart from Him (Jn. 15:5).

In Part IV of this series I have listed seven ways the Holy Spirit causes us to obey God; namely, that He (1) illuminates us, (2) convicts us of Sin, (3) infuses love in our hearts, (4) leads us not into temptation, (5) makes us pray, (6) intercedes for us, (7) and permits us to fall for a time. The last two in the list cannot be obtained through prayer, because it is a default that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us whenever we pray, and that His permitting us to fall for a time is due to our impertinence and pride. The first five, however, can all be procured through prayer. Thus, we pray that God will give us understanding (illumination) when we read His Word (Jas. 1:5). We pray God to convict our hearts so that we may not continue in sin (Job. 6:24). We also pray that God will grow the seed of love which Has implanted in our hearts so that we may delight and walk in His ways (Psa. 119:124). We pray that God won't let us fall into temptation by reminding us of what we have learned from His Word (Luk. 16:13). And lastly, since it is the Holy Spirit also who makes us to pray (Rom. 8:15), we should also pray that we should be more prayerful (Psa. 80:3)! 

Of course God knows exactly what we need before we even ask (Mat. 6:8), and He can give everything we need without us praying. Yet He commands us to pray so that when we receive what we need, we will not think of it as coming from ourselves or ascribe it to fortune. Prayer leads us to praise God for His wisdom in providence, because we cannot truly say, "To him be glory forever. Amen!" if we do not in the first place acknowledge that "from him and through him and to him are all things" (Rom. 11:36).

Indeed, there is power in prayer. Not a power to compel God to move for our own benefit; but a power to make hold of God's promises. Not a power to change God's eternal plans; but a power to change us from the inside out according to His plan. The Prince of Preachers, C.H. Spurgeon, says about prayer:
"If any one should ask me for an abstract of the Christian religion, I should say it is in that one word prayer. If I should be asked, “What will take in the whole of Christian experience?” I should answer, “prayer.” A man must have been convinced of sin before he could pray; he must have had some hope that there was mercy for him before he could pray. All the Christian virtues are locked up in the word prayer. In troubling times our best communion with God will be carried on by supplication. Tell Him your case, search out His promise, and then plead it with holy boldness. This is the best, the surest, and the speediest way of relief." (link)
I've got plenty of other things to say concerning our role in sanctification. But since I don't want this paper to become too much of an eye-sore, the rest of this chapter will be on a separate post. God bless and stay tuned!

To God be the glory!

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