Christian living

Do Our Efforts Make Us Holy?

Paul frequently describes the Christian life in very physical terms, far beyond merely “walking in the Spirit”. Paul describes the Christian life as running a race in 1 Corinthians 9:24-26, where he also uses the imagery of boxing. The author of Hebrews says “let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1b).   In Ephesians Paul plainly states that there is a struggle that requires us to use strength given by God, that there is genuine warfare against the devil and his demonic forces (Eph. 6:10-13). Time and again the Scriptures paint a picture of effort, not earning. Willem Van Gemeren  writes: “Paul defines true wisdom (or godliness) as the pursuit of the triune God. He speaks of wisdom as a walking with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He calls upon Christians to walk worthy of God (1 Thess. 2:12; 4:1-8), to be filled with the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19), to put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:11-14), to live in Jesus Christ (Col. 2:6-7), and to walk in the Spirit (Rom. 8:4-11). Paul contrasts the life in the Spirit with the carnality of the world (1 Cor. 3:1-4; 10:1-10; Gal. 5:16-21). The newness of life is theocentric and produces nothing less than a godly way of life, as evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit (Rom. 6:22; Eph. 5:1-2; Gal. 5:22-23; Col. 1:9-10)” The “newness” of life produces evidence that demonstrates the proper functioning of the power dwelling within.

What separates mere effort from the process of sanctification is the power behind it. The Bible states that the best works man can offer are like filthy tatters of cloth before God (Isa. 64:6), so clearly the best efforts of man will not elevate him in the process of Christ-likeness. John M. Frame points out that many secular writers, including the likes of Aristotle, have highlighted the great importance of inner righteousness. While they struggle with the need for such inner character, “they have not succeeded in showing what constitutes virtue or how such virtue may be attained. This insight is based on God’s lordship attribute of presence, ‘for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure’ (Phil. 2:13). Without inward regeneration and sanctification, our best works are hypocritical.”

Frame summarizes the struggle with works and grace in the context of sanctification this way: “In justification, our works play no role. God accepts us as righteous solely on the basis of Christ’s atonement. In sanctification, God’s grace is equally pervasive, but there is a role for our efforts. All our goodness comes from God, but it is still important for us to take up arms against Satan and do what is right…So Protestants have maintained that justification is ‘by faith alone.’ Sanctification is also by faith, but not by faith alone…It is not by faith alone, for human effort is necessary to achieve it. Of course, it is God’s grace that gives us the ability to put in that effort. But human effort is necessary for sanctification in a way that is not necessary for justification. Even though sanctification is not by faith alone, it is certainly by faith. In our quest for holiness, we must above all trust God.”

The Biblical teaching of sanctification indicates a process by which God works through man to provide the power need for man to grow in his walk, his faith, and therefore his relationship with Christ as a disciple. While there are those who question the nature of this process, the life of a Christ-follower is meant to be a life of growth. This process of growth is a lifelong adventure that God uses to build the believer into His image until the day when faith is made sight.
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"All Have Sinned"

Passive Purity?

One of the most difficult subjects to wrap one’s head around is the interaction of faith and works. Once a person receives the forgiveness of Christ, is that all there is? Is no further action required, or is there something the believer has to do? If we are saved by faith, as the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9, do works have any role whatsoever in the life of the Christian?

To suggest they do not is dangerous at best and unbiblical at worst. Since the very best we can do is, as the prophet Isaiah said, “filthy rags” before God (Isaiah 64:6), we know that our efforts have no part in becoming righteous in God’s eyes other than our reception of the forgiveness offered. Even so, the moment of conversion– the justification of the believer through the atonement of Christ– is only the first step in the process. The ongoing walk with Christ in this life, or sanctification, follows as surely as exhaust flows from an internal combustion engine. Sanctification is the natural result of justification, and is not possible through works. This being said, the works are the overflow of the conversion.

Paul teaches that there is more than a passive reception of purity involved in sanctification. In the great doctrinal thesis that is Romans, Paul points out the necessity of involvement in the work of sanctification. “For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification” (Rom. 6:19b). Here he indicates that the nature of man is to offer up service to one of two masters: sin or righteousness. When man chooses to allow his sinful nature to dictate his course, the resulting actions will be an increase of sinful activity. Conversely, when man surrenders himself to God and appropriates the righteousness offered through the cross, his actions will result in actions that are increasingly righteous or undergoing “purification.”

Paul further highlights the effort required of the believer in the process of sanctification in Ephesians 6:22-24: “that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth”. The “laying aside of the old self” suggests effort in addition to the justification of the substitutionary atonement. To suggest that no effort at all is required can be taken to such extremes as universalism, or such passive forms of Christianity as Quietism.

Paul continues and instructs the believer to “put on the new self”. The Greek word used here, enduo, has the connotation of not merely having a garment but putting it on, of literally sinking into the folds of it and having it envelop the wearer. This is very clearly an energetic act as opposed to a passive occurrence. Just as a parent lays out the clothes for a child, the child is undressed until they put their clothes on. When the child is small, the parent puts the clothes on for them. As they mature, they are to dress themselves.

Too many Christians are laying around waiting for God to dress us when He has provided us with everything we need. We need to not overstep our bounds, to be sure, but we must also ensure that we are assuming the responsibility our Father intends for us to take. Saved by Christ, empowered by the Spirit, we are to live out our lives demonstrating the hope we have within us.

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Christian living

Is “Getting Saved” All There Is?

Salvation itself needs to be clearly defined. Is the initial moment of salvation intended, or rather the totality which concludes in the presence of God? Here the three steps of salvation become critical as opposed to merely informative.  In his book The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings On Discipleship, prolific author and professor Dallas Willard wrote that “when ‘salvation’ is spoken of today…what is almost always meant is entry into heaven when one dies…This usage of ‘salvation’ and ‘saved’ deprives the terminology of the general sense of deliverance that it bears in the Bible as a whole.” If this is true—which the Bible seems to indicate is so—then the concept of deliverance can be especially clarifying.

For example, consider a hiker who becomes lost on the side of a mountain. He has no cell phone service, no GPS, and an injury that keeps him from going any further. Suddenly he hears the sound of a rescue helicopter overhead. The rescuer spots him, hovers over the injured hiker, and lowers a rescue basket and operator. The hiker is placed by the operator into the basket. Is he saved at this point? Has he been delivered from his distress? Certainly he has been rescued from his current helpless predicament, but the totality of the rescue is far from accomplished. He must now be lifted into the helicopter and be removed from the rescue basket so that he might be treated for his injuries. Are his injuries instantly healed by the medic on board? No, the treating and healing of injuries is a process that must be endured. Now, the helicopter must transport him back to civilization where true care can finally be given to fulfill and complete his healing. Does the helicopter instantaneously arrive at the hospital? No, it must make the journey there, varying its course and speed according to the situations it encounters along the way.

James the half-brother of Jesus rhetorically asked those who questioned a need to show effort in discipleship and sanctification: “are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:20) Regarding the balance of God’s work and man’s effort, he continues, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?  You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God.   You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:21-24). There is a significant difference in the word used here than what was previously seen in Paul’s writings, however; James uses “justified” (Gk. dikaioo), which means “to render innocent.” This is the first step of salvation, whereby the sinner in radically transformed on the inside into a saint of God at the moment of regeneration. Is James advocating a works salvation? Is he saying that works can render someone innocent in God’s eyes? Not at all, as he clearly states in verse 22: “faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected.” The key to understanding this seeming conundrum is the word “perfected”—the Gk. teleioo, which means “to complete” or “consummate.” The works do not save, but rather are an evidence of that salvation.

Car engines direct their spent fumes from the internal combustion process through exhaust pipes. Some cars are very quiet, while others are very loud. Regardless of the sound volume, each produces evidence of their inner workings—grab either tailpipe, and a burn will be the result. The inner process produces an outer result. Genuine salvation manifests itself through Godly works.

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Christian living

Can True Discipleship Ever Be Completely Program-Driven?

The nature of discipleship has become something of a hot-button topic in recent years in the Christian church. Growing up Southern Baptist, I have seen firsthand the struggle to balance evangelism—getting people out of the pew and down the aisle during the invitation—and discipleship—getting people out of the pew to follow God in their everyday lives. For many years the emphasis was almost exclusively on getting people to “make a decision to get saved”, to receive the forgiveness of Christ through His atoning death. Whatever it took, the priority was getting people down the aisle during the “altar call.”

Certainly the centrality of people’s need to repent of their sin and receive the forgiveness offered by Christ alone is unarguable within the context of biblical Christianity, but this was treated as the end of journey and not the beginning. There was need for a system of developing new converts into mature believers, that much was certain, but the implementation of such a system was woefully inadequate. Relying upon program after program, Southern Baptists fell into the trap of seeing discipleship as a Sunday or Wednesday night option instead of an everyday part of the Christian life.

Much of the damage from the programmed imitation of true discipleship comes from the fact that it so easily replaces genuine relationship with busywork. God is not impressed by our class attendance, nor is He moved by the number of evangelism program outlines we have memorized. He desires an intimate relationship with His children, one freed from legalistic barricades and programmed responses. This relationship, of Master and disciple, is a process that begins at the moment of conversion and continues until we meet Jesus face to face. We short-change ourselves when we seek the shortcut.

Why are we then so tempted by the pull of the quick and easy way? Because it is exactly that. Genuinely following Christ is not only difficult, it is impossible. Only through the power of the Holy Spirit that takes up residence in the heart of the believer at the moment of conversion do we have any hope of being a faithful follower of Christ. It is this total, constant dependence upon Christ which drives genuine discipleship. Programs are only the framework upon which everything hangs. They are not the foundation, and when they become such they prove to be shifting sand at best.

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General blog stuff

The Key to Blogging Is Consistency? Oops

I can give you a lot of reasons why I haven’t posted on my website in the last decade. I can use the excuse of working on my doctoral dissertation. Or this or that. The fact of the matter is I just haven’t done it. I’ve cheated by posting short blurbs on Facebook and Twitter, but it isn’t the same. So I’ve officially asked a few key people to keep me accountable about regularly posting on this site. We’ll see how that works out.

If you have topics you would like me to address, or questions you would like to ask, feel free to send me an email to marcus@rbcgreer.com. I’d love to write about things you’re dealing with or interested in. In the meantime, we’ll see about getting this thing going again.

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