A third point of confusion regarding the relationship of grace to discipleship results from a failure to grasp the profound work of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s scathing words to the Galatians ring too true for many Christians: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Gal. 3:3).
Most will acknowledge the central role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. Only by the convicting and regenerating work of the Spirit is saving faith even possible. Our faith is itself a gift of God. Sadly, however, many restrict the Spirit’s work to this initial entry point of the Christian life and assume that they are on their own from that point. They leave the gospel of grace behind. They hear the imperatives of Scripture—the call of discipleship and the demands of holiness—and consider that success depends entirely on human effort. They feel the force of Paul’s admonition to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), but they forget to read to the end of the sentence. There Paul grounds his imperative on an essential indicative: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (2:13). The Holy Spirit is not only graciously involved in our conversion but also in the ongoing work of sanctification in our lives.
We must not think of the human will as some autonomous force, divorced from the gracious hand of God. The same God who commands also empowers us to respond to those commands. This does not diminish the force of his commands nor our responsibility to obey them. But it gives us hope that obedience is possible, and it results in glory to God when our obedience is realized.
This profound work of the Spirit is what the prophets of the Old Testament spoke of so clearly. Ezekiel prophesied a coming day when the Lord would act powerfully to overcome the sin of his people—”I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezek. 36:26–27). This is the promise of the New Covenant of which Jeremiah spoke when he declared that the Lord would “put [his] law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:31–34). We now live in that new age inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We must realize that in his atoning work on the cross, God acts in Christ outside of us, but his saving work also involves us as persons. God does not act apart from but through our wills—changing us so that we might become like Jesus. Just as our justifying faith is ultimately his gift, so is our willingness to walk in the path of discipleship. They are different aspects of the same reality.
The Puritan John Owen reflects on this relationship between our duty and God’s grace:
Let us consider what regard we ought to have to our own duty and to the grace of God. Some would separate these things as inconsistent. If holiness be our duty, they would say, there is no room for grace; and if it be the result of grace there is no place for duty. But our duty and God’s grace are nowhere opposed in the matter of sanctification; for one absolutely supposes the other. We cannot perform our duty without the grace of God; nor does God give his grace for any other purpose than that we may perform our duty.
We cannot fathom how God’s Spirit works in and through our wills to accomplish his good purpose. We must affirm, however, that he does. Again, as Owen puts it: “God works in us and for us, not against us and without us.” Let us hear the command of Christ in discipleship, and let us respond in obedience, knowing in the end that it is only by the gracious work in us by his Spirit that we are enabled to obey.
|Page 1 2 3 4 5|
|To view this full article on a single page, click here.|
|To receive electronic or hard copies of Knowing & Doing, click here.|
|To browse the Knowing & Doing archives of articles, click here.|