Strengthening Spiritual Vitality Post-Course Assignment
February 6, 2009
††††††††††† I can sum up a new thought I gained from this class in the following sentence. I need to appropriate the gospel in my daily life as I battle with my sin to avoid the despair that battle engenders. I want to address a number of elements from this statement in this paper. I also intend to answer the question, ďhow will I apply the essence of this statement in both my life and ministry?Ē
††††††††††† The statement itself includes some ideas I hope to expand upon. What is this battle with sin? How does it lead to despair? How can we avoid the despair this battle with our sin may produce? What is the gospel and how does it assist us in our battle with sin? What does it mean to appropriate the gospel into our daily life and why is that important? What is the connection between our struggle with personal sin and the gospel itself?
††††††††††† Understanding the breadth of our struggle with our sin everyday and how the gospel applies to that is essential for any believer to pursue spiritual maturity. The struggle against sin can be intense. The more we grow the more concentrated the struggle becomes. The more severe the struggle becomes, the more tempting it is to find a way out that will bring relief from the exposure of our sin. When we cannot find relief, we are left with despair at our inability to overcome the sinful tendencies that continue to influence our lives.
††††††††††† This struggle is unavoidable. Once faced with despair, what are we to do? I believe this question is the most significant question that a believer can ask. How one will answer this question will determine whether further despair or deeper spiritual maturity will result.
So, what is the nature of this despair and what contributes to it?
Our Propensity Toward Performance
††††††††††† I asked the question earlier, once faced with despair over the presence of sin in my life, what am I to do? One answer is to try and perform our way out of it. Performance, following a procedure that allows us to earn Godís blessing, is our natural fallback position. We believe that if we can somehow develop a strategy based on performance we can steadily work our way out of the sinful cycle we have been replicating. The intensity of our struggle with sin forces us to scramble to find a way out of this quagmire ourselves. If we can put together a performance plan, then God will know we are serious about battling sin and He will find us acceptable. We look at our performance as the basis of our day-to-day acceptance with God. Unfortunately, the struggle continues and we discover we are powerless, even with a performance plan, to overcome our sinful tendencies.
††††††††††† A large part of the problem comes from struggling in our own strength to overcome sin. We then fail in our expectations of success. We think we have made some progress only to discover that the sin persists. For instance, we are still angry; once again we were insensitive; some situation reveals how we are so selfish; we cannot quite get over our desire to want the worst for that person; another opportunity to blame someone else and be defensive comes and goes. Every effort to perform some plan, to apply some strategy, or to follow some man-made rules fail. We find ourselves at fault again. Once more we let God down. Once again He is displeased with us. Once again we have to admit defeat.
††††††††††† This is the norm for many Christians. Basically we develop a legalistic lifestyle to try and continue to earn Godís acceptance. Legalism is anything I do to earn or not earn Godís favor in my life. We admit the struggle with sin (Galatians 5:16-26) and itís intensity. We know of this struggle day after day. So setting up some rules to help us perform better next time becomes natural even though destined to failure.
Performance Produces Despair
††††††††††† Our struggle with sin overwhelms us. No matter how much we try, the sin, which so easily entangles usÖ (Hebrews 12:1), entangles us still. We discover that our performance is at best flawed. Sometimes we perceive victory but often we must admit defeat. Actually, a performance-based solution to our struggle with sin is fundamentally flawed at its center.† A performance plan will inevitably lead to despair because this plan is incapable of producing the effect we desire. It is insufficient for a number of reasons.
††††††††††† First, a performance-based plan to overcome sin is powerless to produce a righteous life. There is no performance, based on our human effort that can ever be productive. Sin still resides within and mustering the will power to overcome it will be unsuccessful. Determining a baseline of manageable performance is a vain attempt to be righteous. These attempts at obedience based on our will power are not successful with God and as such these attempts are doomed to fail. The reason this is true is because there is no ability or strength that our will power possesses to enable us to successfully battle our sin. Performance that simply attempts to use our will power cannot work. So we despair.
††††††††††† Second, a performance-based plan to overcome sin is incapable of earning Godís acceptance. This tendency to try and earn Godís favor is based on the way we try to earn favor in other relationships. We tend to think that God is happy with us because of our performance when things are going well. We also assume God is displeased with our performance when things are not well. Paul tells us that our performance is never good enough to earn Godís acceptance. He writes, Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3). The implication is that we cannot be good enough to earn Godís acceptance. No amount of fleshly performance can make up for our deficiency. Godís acceptance of us cannot be based on our performance because our performance can never measure up to the standard which Godís acceptance demands. So we despair.
††††††††††† Third, a performance-based plan to overcome sin produces guilt when we fail to perform. The reason guilt is produced is because we do not meet the expectations of our performance. Guilt is not a motivator for growth. It will cut off the desire to pursue the righteous life. Paul observed the struggle of the normal spiritual life even after he had dedicated himself to Jesus Christ. He concluded, So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin (Romans 7:25). Expecting to harness our propensity to sin by performance is unrealistic and we set ourselves up for failure. Failure produces guilt. So we despair.
††††††††††† Fourth, a performance-based plan to overcome sin is based in pride. Pride is putting value in something (usually people) apart from God. When we place value in our performance as a means of overcoming sin and having acceptance with God, we assume we have the ability to contribute to our struggle with sin. We believe that this contribution obligates God to acknowledge what we have done and so He can accept us based on our performance. This thinking either ignores the fact that there is nothing we can contribute to our struggle with sin or is ignorant of that fact. When we fail then we believe God picks up the slack because He appreciates our efforts. Otherwise, we will despair.
††††††††††† Fifth, a performance-based plan to overcome sin does not appreciate the power of sin. We are not capable of managing any sin in our lives. We can expect an erratic performance at best and many of our imperfections due to sin will constantly be set before us all of our days. The normal spiritual life is lived as we Ölay aside the old selfÖand put on the new self (Ephesians 4:22-24). But that means there is an old self that must be laid aside. I may have died to sin but sin has not died to me. We cannot simply overpower the presence of sin in our lives by our attempts at performance. When we try to it does not work. The outcome is only despair.
††††††††††† Sixth, a performance-based plan to overcome sin is based in a misunderstanding of the nature of the gospel. Instead of viewing our sanctification upon the finished work of Christ, †† we attempt to base it on performance day after day and that includes both our good and bad performance. Believing the gospel was necessary to be accepted by God through Christ. But to continue to be accepted requires performance consistent with His expectations of us. So we press the issue with our performance plan never considering that there is a disconnect between our salvation based in Christ, as the basis of our acceptance by God, and our attempts to maintain that acceptance by performance. The gospel is not based on our performance and neither is our spiritual growth. If it were we would only be left with despair.
††††††††††† Seventh, a performance-based plan to overcome sin will not develop spiritual maturity in our lives. Maturity is a process of full development that one reaches through continual growth. A believer can be spiritual and not be mature. Any believer, by repenting and confessing sin can be spiritual. They are spiritual in the sense that they have been regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. But a performance mentality will only assist in keeping a person ordered and out of trouble. It is not a means of maturity. Maturity needs order as a platform for growth but order based on performance does not itself promote maturity. Actually, it keeps a person immature because the focus is only on trying to stay out of trouble by following rules and being under control. Instead of pursuing our full development through continual growth we try our best to keep out of chaos. Continual failure here only produces more despair and keeps us from growing.
††††††††††† Eighth, a performance-based plan to overcome sin is a source of grief for God. Sin is anything contrary to the character of God. So all sin is basically and ultimately against God since He is the source of all morality. Our daily attempts at performance are a constant source of grief for God. Paul wrote, And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30). Our sin is not just a disappointment to God it causes Him grief. It reveals that our sin pains God emotionally. So our sin not only hurts us it also hurts God in the sense that it brings Him emotional pain. Our performance-based attempts to overcome sin set us up for failure. Every time we fail to overcome sin, we grieve the Holy Spirit. God is grieved, not pleased, and we are left to despair.
††††††††††† We must recognize that performing some plan to manage sin in our lives will not work. It is powerless to produce a righteous life. It is incapable of earning Godís acceptance. It produces guilt when we fail to perform. It is a system based in pride. It does not appreciate the power of sin. It is based on a misunderstanding of the gospel. It cannot develop spiritual maturity in our lives. It is a system that becomes a source of grief with God.
††††††††††† Performing our way into acceptance is just the natural way we attempt to operate. But as we have seen, this activity cannot produce the very thing we hope it will. We cannot transform ourselves in such a way that God will find us acceptable. We cannot do it for our salvation and neither can we do it in our sanctification. If our performance-based programs cannot make us acceptable to God, then what does? What can make us acceptable to God? What is the means of Godís acceptance of us in our daily lives? The answer to this is understanding and applying the gospel to our lives. We will take up this subject in the remainder of this paper.
The Gospel is for Sinners
††††††††††† Since the essence of the gospel is good news that means there must be some bad news that contrasts with and heightens the significance of the good news for us. It is in the gospel and not in our inept performance that we find our acceptance with God. This is the essence of the good news. The gospel is for sinners. It is for sinful sinners. It is for condemned sinners. It is for any sinner. In other words, God has provided the means by which we are forever acceptable to Him. It is the gospel believed and applied that is the basis of Godís acceptance of us.
††††††††††† What is the essence of this gospel? We are forgiven of our sin in Christ. There is no basis of performance for this forgiveness. Forgiven sin means we are not guilty. The guilt has been removed by Christ and nailed to the cross. In exchange for our sin we have been given the perfect righteousness of Christ. So now God the Father on the basis of His Sonís righteousness accepts us. The Lord no longer counts our sin against us. As Paul wrote, Öthat our old self was crucified with (Him,) that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin (Romans 6:6). Paul also says, He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). From Godís perspective, Jesus was given my sin record on the cross and in exchange we were given Jesus sin record when we believed. That is, His perfect righteousness. This, then, is the ground of Godís acceptance of us and that ground never shifts or is in danger of collapsing. There are some implications of this grace-based gospel that relate directly to our sanctification.
Grace encourages growth
††††††††††† Ultimately, it is only the grace of God as manifested in the gospel that will encourage us and motivate us toward the vital growth of spiritual maturity among those who are believers in Jesus Christ. Instead of abandoning spiritual growth due to despair, we are deeply motivated from within to continue because of Godís grace toward us. We recognize that God not only delivered salvation to us but He gave it to us while we were deserving of His judgment. So in gratitude we draw near to God and His holiness. Here is where we become more sensible about our many and varied imperfections due to sin. Here is where we find the key that unlocks our potential for spiritual maturity. Here is where we can daily look back upon our justification as the basis of our continued acceptance by God in spite of our shoddy performance. We can confidently do this for several reasons.
††††††††††† First, a grace-based gospel brings us in union with Christ. This union is vital to our sanctification. There are two aspects to this union. (1) We are united to Christ legally or as our representative. We are righteous and acceptable to God because Christ righteousness has been imputed to us. (2) We are united to Christ spiritually so that it is a real, vital, organic, and living union while we live our lives each day. He works in us by the power and enablement of the Holy Spirit. This union is symbolized by Jesus as being like vine and branches in John 15:4 where he says, I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from me you can do nothing. The implication of this union is that we are being given the ability by Christ to overcome sin in our lives. All of the power is being supplied because of our union with Christ. I do not have to muster the willpower to do that. I can rely upon the power that He supplies to enable me to pursue my sanctification. He does not supplement my efforts but in His power enables my efforts to have effect. This legal and organic union with Christ is what makes the gospel good news for us as we participate in our sanctification. Our new status in Christ provides the motivation to pursue our sanctification in the power Christ supplies.
††††††††††† Second, a grace-based gospel actually supplies the motivation for us to deal with our sin. Sin just does not disappear when we trust Christ for salvation. However, the motivation to deal with our sin no longer is based on our performance of any kind. Now that our sins are forgiven and the dominion of sin has been broken because of our union with Christ, we find the motivation to pursue the righteous life whenever sin gets our attention. We do not have to try and pick ourselves up again after falling but simply acknowledge our sin to God, confess and repent, and ask the Lord to enable us in His power to have victory. Sin does not have to defeat us any longer. We can deal with our sin on the basis of what Christ has already done for us.
††††††††††† Third, a grace-based gospel means Godís discipline of us is for correction not punishment. God does not punish us for what we might perceive as bad performance. Jesus has fully absorbed our punishment on the cross. The wrath of God has been fully spent upon His Son on the cross. There is no punishment left. God does discipline us because He wants to conform us to the image of His Son. Discipline is for the purpose of correctionóto get us back on the correct path. In Hebrews we learn that God disciplines as a father does his son, It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? (Hebrews 12:7). The reason God disciplines us is Öthat we might share in His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11). The fact that we are now fully accepted by God because of our union with Christ makes it impossible for God to continue to punish us for sin that has already been fully paid for and already been fully forgiven.
††††††††††† Fourth, a grace-based gospel supplies the power we need to be transformed. There are two aspects to this supply of power. On one hand we must abide in Christ. That is, we consciously rely on Christ for the enablement we need for our sanctification. We act in dependence on the Holy Spirit to enable our abiding in Christ to be effective. This includes rejecting any confidence we might have in our wisdom or ability. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit communicates the resources of Christ to us so that the ability is from the Lord while the actual working is ours. This leads to our transformation into the image of Christ. This progressive sanctification frees us more and more from our sinful habits and tendencies in our lives. We do not have to perform to be transformed.
††††††††††† Fifth, a grace-based gospel utilizes the instrument of the spiritual disciplines to convey the ability needed to change. These disciplines include prayer, meditation and study of scripture, trials, and the gospel itself. These disciplines are not a performance-based plan. The actual disciplines themselves cannot provide the power to act or overcome sin and pursue our sanctification. We cannot transform ourselves. God supplies his grace to us through the practice of these disciplines. These are the God-given means whereby we can be enabled with the power of Christ to overcome our sin and progress in our sanctification.
†††††††† Sixth, a grace-based gospel is based in humility. A grace-based gospel fosters our dependence upon God for all we need. Humility connects all virtues and value to God. Humble people see God as the source and themselves as a channel of Godís power. Humble
people see their power as Godís power, distributed (channeled) through them (Daniel 4:37; John 10:11; Numbers 12:3). Humble people seek power only in the sense of being an instrument of God. We cannot transform ourselves by our own willpower or through any type of performance. But when the power of Christ is allowed to work in us and through us we will be changed. Our sanctification will be assured.
†††††††† I am going to suggest some implications in both my life and ministry as I incorporate these insights in the future.
†††††††† 1. I need to comprehend and appropriate the fullness of the grace of God available to me in my own personal sanctification. Too much of my life and ministry has emphasized what we should do for God rather than teaching and encouraging what it is He has done and continues to do for us in Christ. This is certainly the path of freedom and not bondage.
†††††††† 2. I need to be serious about my sinóall of it. Specific sins need specific attention not just a general assessment and dismissal. I will fail. I will sin. But it has no bearing on my acceptance with God for sure. Sin must be confronted and in the power of Christ it can be. So my ministry must emphasize that while sin is inevitable there is no need to despair. Admit sin and confess it and repent.
†††††††† 3. I need to express my gratitude to God every day. The gospel, rightly understood, will naturally promote that attitude and mindset. An emphasis on the nature of the gospel will also encourage a spirit of gratitude in those I want to impact through my ministry. So I plan on focusing more of my study and teaching on the gospel.