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Friday, July 20, 2012

Perilous Extremes: God works vs I work

Theological error frequently results from taking a legitimate biblical truth too far by holding it in isolation from other biblical teaching.  For example, some people latch onto the biblical imperative to be “set apart” from the world, and take it to the extreme of having absolutely no contact with the lost (2 Cor 6:14-18).  On the other hand, some latch onto the idea of being “all things to all people” for the sake of evangelism, and take it to the extreme of adopting worldly ways in their personal life in order to attract lost people (1 Cor 9:19-23).  We are prone to perilous extremes and we do it in so many areas of belief and practice.  It is crucial to our walk with the Lord that we be aware of our tendency to do this.    
So, this is the first installement of a blog series on some of the truths that we tend to take to extremes and how we must strive to keep them in balance.  Many of us are prone to extremes in our view of sanctification.  Sanctification is the process that begins at conversion and by which we are transformed into the image of Christ.  In other words, it is the process of us becoming more like the Lord.  The New Testament is full of teaching on this subject.  The crucial question is how does it work?  Who accomplishes this transformation?
Well, the Bible teaches that sanctification is a work of God.  Paul writes in 1 Thess 5:23, Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely.  Specifically, it is God the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us.  Peter wrote of “the sanctification of the Spirit” and Paul wrote of “sanctification by the Spirit” (1 Pet 1:2; 2 Thess 2:13).  The Spirit produces in us the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:16-18).  Paul tells us in Phil 2:13 that God is at work in us to “will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Likewise, the writer of Hebrews writes of the Lord “working in you that which is pleasing in his sight” (Heb 13:21).
This is undeniable biblical truth.  God is at work in our sanctification.  Yet some people take this truth to the extreme, holding it in isolation from the rest of the Bible’s teaching on sanctification.  They live as if the Bible teaches that only God works in our sanctification to the exclusion of any responsibility on the part of the believer.  Consequently, because they believe that God alone is responsible for our progression toward Christlikeness, they themselves put forth little effort at all to obey God’s Word.  Some have called this the “let go and let God” model of sanctification.  It is not biblical.  It is a perilous extreme.  It is perilous because it can serve to desensitize us to both sin and righteousness.  The flesh will always win out in this scenario.  It can lead to laziness in our Christian walk.
The truth is that God’s role in our sanctification is not the only thing that the Bible teaches about sanctification.  God’s Word also shows that we work in our sanctification.  Peter exhorts us to strive for obedience in 2 Pet 1:5: 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. 
It’s in Heb 12:14 as well: Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  In 2 Cor 7:1, we are called to cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.  The truth that we are to work in sanctification is implied in every imperative in the Bible, for every imperative calls upon us to do something! 
And yet, as with the truth of God’s role in sanctification, some take our role to an extreme, holding it in isolation from the rest of the Bible’s teaching on the subject.  They come to believe and live as if they alone sanctify themselves, so they attempt to live the Christian life in their own power.  I would call this fleshly striving and it also is a perilous extreme.  Any success that is had will result in pride and every failure that happens will result in frustration and discouragement.
We must hold both truths as they are taught in Scripture.  God works and we work.  Both truths are found side by side in Phil 2:12-13: 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.  It is God’s power that sanctifies us and so we trust in Him to empower us as we pursue obedience. 
I’ve used the illustration before about the fuel in a car.  Two things are necessary for a car to move: gas in the tank and a foot pressing the pedal.  Without gas in the tank, the driver can mash the pedal until his foot is sore, but the car will not budge.  Conversely, the car may have a full tank of gas, but if the driver doesn’t press the pedal, the car will go nowhere.  The Holy Spirit is the gas in the tank of our sanctification.  He powers the locomotion, but we still have to push the pedal.  We still have to strive to obey. 
Trust and Obey is a wonderful old hymn that we should keep in mind as we pursue Christlikeness.  God’s power is at work in us and we must trust him for the ability and desire to obey while simultaneously striving to obey.
Let’s keep a close watch on ourselves for signs that we are erring on the side of either of these perilous extremes.  And may the Lord be glorified as we become more like His Son.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

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