The Promise of Fruitfulness

If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. John 15:6-11 ESV

So, what does Jesus mean when He says that those who do not abide in Him will be taken away, thrown out, and left to whither, then collected and burned? Whatever He is trying to say, it doesn’t sound good. And these enigmatic verses have caused generations of believers to speculate and debate over their exact meaning. The sad result is that the church has ended up placing far more emphasis on what it might mean to not abide rather than finding comfort and encouragement from Jesus’ call to remain in Him.

This entire passage is about fruitfulness. And Jesus establishes that fact from the onset.

Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” – John 16:2 ESV

His message to His disciples is that He fully expects them to bear fruit because they are in a relationship with Him. They share a special bond with Him that is intended to result in fruitfulness. But the key to their fruitfulness will be their continued relationship with Him. To leave Him would be disastrous. It would sever the tie to the vine and result in a life of unfruitfulness. It would destroy any sense of purpose for their lives. And Jesus’ mention of the branch that fails to abide is meant to sound absurd and ridiculous. No branch would ever choose to remove itself from the vine. To do so would be to go against its very purpose for being.

This passage recalls an earlier conversation between Jesus and His disciples. In His lengthy discourse on the bread of life, Jesus mentioned that “Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (John 6:56 ESV). This rather cryptic and confusing statement from Jesus resulted in many of His followers leaving Him. And He turned to His disciples and asked them if they were going to leave Him as well. To which Peter responded:

Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:67-68 ESV

Yes, the words of Jesus had been difficult to understand. His talk of eating His body and drinking His blood had sounded strange to the disciples. But they believed in Him. He was the Holy One of God, and to walk away from Him would make even less sense than some of the things He said. So, they were sticking with Jesus.

Notice that Jesus had told the crowds that day that if they ate His flesh and drank His blood, they would remain in Him and He would remain in them. Jesus used the very same word that is found John 15:4.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

For all who partake of Jesus’ body and blood, by believing in His sacrificial death on their behalf, they will experience a permanent and irrevocable bond with Him. And that bond will make possible a life filled with fruitfulness and spiritual prosperity. This message from Jesus was meant to be a source of encouragement to the disciples. In the dark days ahead, they were to recall these words from Jesus and find hope.

But sadly, the church has tended to turn the act of abiding into a work. We have made it a mandatory requirement for experiencing fruitfulness. In other words, if we don’t abide, we don’t bear fruit. Which tends to convey the idea that any fruitfulness in our lives is completely up to us. But that is not what Jesus is saying. In fact, He is conveying jus the opposite message. He told His disciples, “you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me” (John 15:4 NLT). In other words, it is the relationship that results in fruit, not the act of abiding. No branch can produce any fruit on its own. And at the same time, no branch has to work at remaining attached to the vine. It is a natural relationship that requires no effort on the part of the branch.

Yet, when we find our lives spiritually fruitless, we tend to question what we might be doing wrong. We begin to wonder what it is that we need to do to get the spiritual juices flowing so that we might be more productive and fruitful. And rather than abiding in the relationship we have, we begin to act as if the fruit production is all up to us. But what does Jesus say?

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. – John 15:5 NLT

No branch can produce fruit apart from the vine. And no Christian can live a life of spiritual abundance apart from His relationship with Jesus. The key to fruitfulness is recognizing our dependence and complete reliance upon Jesus. That is exactly what Paul meant when he wrote, “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 NLT).

Don’t miss what Jesus said in verse 5: “Those who remain in me, and I in them.” That is exactly what He said in John 6:54: “Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” The remaining or abiding to which Jesus refers is not an act of the flesh, but a work of the Spirit. It takes place through belief, not effort. That is the point Paul made to the believers in Ephesus.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 (NLT)

Our fruitfulness is not a result of our strenuous efforts to abide. It is the byproduct of believing that our sanctification or fruitfulness is entirely up to Jesus, just as our salvation was. The entire point of this passage is to remind us that it is our relationship with Jesus that matters most. There is no hope of salvation apart from Him. There is no chance of living a life of fruitfulness except through our relationship with Him. He does it all. And like a branch, the degree of our fruitfulness is entirely up to the vine and the vinedresser. The less productive branch will receive special attention from the vinedresser, resulting in pruning and careful cultivating so that the end result will be increasing fruitfulness. That is what means when He says, “he [God] prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more” (John 15:2 NLT).

The goal is fruitfulness. And Jesus is assuring His disciples that they will be fruitful because their God is faithful.

So, what about the branches that bear no fruit? It would seem that these branches were never truly attached to the Vine. They had no lasting relationship with the Vine and, therefore, no hope of producing fruit. Like the people in the crowd who heard Jesus declare Himself to be the bread of life, they walked away from the very source of life and fruitfulness.

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. – John 6:66 ESV

They had been curious but not committed. They appeared to be branches but lacked a true relationship with the Vine. And Jesus had clearly communicated the non-negotiable requirement for a life of fruitfulness.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. – John 6:53 ESV

Belief in who He was and what He had come to do was the key to having a true relationship with Him. Following after Jesus without having faith in Jesus will never produce fruit. Claiming to be a branch is not the same as abiding in the Vine. And all those so-called branches will one day find themselves judged. And the basis for their judgment will be their fruitlessness. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred to the fate of these false branches.

“On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you.” – Matthew 7:22-23 NLT

They will brag about their fruit, but it will be the wrong kind. They will boast in their knowledge of the Lord, but He will declare that He doesn’t even know them. And these false branches will be “gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6 ESV). But for those branches that remain attached to the Vine, Jesus has some outstanding news.

“…ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” – John 15:7 ESV

They will have access to power like they have never known before. But because of their relationship to the Vine, their desires will be the same as the Vine. They will want what Jesus wants and ask for those things that Jesus desires. And Jesus clarifies exactly what they will ask for.

“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” – John 15:8 ESV

Faithful branches desire nothing more than fruitfulness. They long to fulfill the wishes of the Vinedresser and act as willing agents in carrying out the work of the Vine. And Jesus describes all of this as nothing less and nothing more than abiding in His love. The very act of the branch remaining in the Vine is a beautiful picture of the love of the Father flowing through the Son into the branch and out into the world. And Jesus assured His disciples that His words were meant to encourage them.

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” – John 15:11 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Our All-Powerful-All-the-Time God

1 Then Job replied to the Lord:

“I know that you can do anything,
    and no one can stop you. ” – Job 42:1-2 NLT

The Lord merely spoke,
    and the heavens were created.
He breathed the word,
    and all the stars were born.
He assigned the sea its boundaries
    and locked the oceans in vast reservoirs.
Let the whole world fear the Lord,
    and let everyone stand in awe of him.
For when he spoke, the world began!
    It appeared at his command. Psalm 33:6-9 NLT

36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” – Luke 1:36-37 ESV

When we, as humans, attempt to discuss the power of God, we are at a distinct disadvantage. We are finite creatures who are well acquainted with personal limitations. It is impossible for us to consider something being all-anything. That little three-letter word “all” conveys the idea of wholeness or completeness. And while we might say that a glass or bowl is all full, we know that it will not remain full permanently. Upon completion of a task, we might proclaim, “All done.” But we will do so knowing that the finished task will likely need to be repeated at some point.

Someone who claims to be all-in regarding a project or endeavor will likely have his commitment tested somewhere along the way. His assurance of whole-hearted engagement will likely waver, given enough time or the lack of his expectations being met.

We live in a world full of limitations. No one is truly all-knowing. They may know a lot, but there will always be more to know. Someone may appear to have “all the money in the world,” but logic precludes the veracity of that statement. No one can literally have all the money. And while someone might wield a great deal of power, there is no one who is truly all-powerful. Even the world’s most powerful people experience limitations to that power. And the sad reality of life is that no one can ever seem to get enough power. And the same can be said of fame, money, or time.

Which brings us back to our all-powerful-all-the-time God. Theologians refer to this as God’s omnipotence. The word omnipotent comes from omni- meaning “all” and potent meaning “power.” And when used of God’s power, that word “all” is meant to convey the complete and wholly undiminished nature of that power. His power is without limits. It never diminishes in intensity. God does not grow tired. In fact, the psalmist states, “he who watches over Israel never slumbers or sleeps” (Psalm 121:4 NLT).

God isn’t just more powerful, extremely powerful, or simply powerful. He is all-powerful.

The power of God is that ability and strength whereby He can bring to pass whatsoever He pleases, whatsoever His infinite wisdom may direct, and whatsoever the infinite purity of His will may resolve…  – Stephen Charnock, Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God, Volumes 1-2

Notice what Charnock says. God can bring to pass whatever He pleases. God’s power is directly tied to His will. Unlike man, God’s will is never a case of wishful thinking. There is never a case when God desires something, but finds Himself lacking the power to make it happen. God has never had to say, “If I only I could….” He has never had to sit back and watch His will go unfulfilled because of a lack of strength.

A. W. Pink states, “He who cannot do what he will and perform all his pleasure cannot be God. As God hath a will to resolve what He deems good, so has He power to execute His will” (A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God). This is essential if we are to understand and fully appreciate the transcendent nature of God. He is not a slightly improved version of man. He is not a human on steroids, but He is the infinite Almighty God who spoke the universe into existence.

And God’s power was not acquired, developed over time, and is not running out. C. H. Spurgeon put it this way: “God’s power is like Himself, self-existent, self-sustained. The mightiest of men cannot add so much as a shadow of increased power to the Omnipotent One.” The greatest earthly examples of power we can think of are all limited. Niagara Falls, while impressive, is not self-existent or self-sustaining. It has a source, or it would not exist. And it will one day cease to exist. Simply divert the headwater that provides the source of its power, and the falls will become nothing more than exposed rocks and a dry river bed.

But because God’s power is self-existent, it cannot be diminished or diverted in any way. His power is unmatched in its intensity and irrepressible in its intent.

All the people of the earth are nothing compared to him. He does as he pleases among the angels of heaven and among the people of the earth. No one can stop him or say to him, “What do you mean by doing these things?” – Daniel 4:35 NLT

The LORD does whatever pleases him throughout all heaven and earth… – Psalm 135:5 NLT

It was Job who confessed to God, “I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you” (Job 42:2 NLT). And Job argued with his well-meaning, but misinformed friends, “who can turn him back? Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” (Job 9:12 ESV).

It was Lord Acton who wrote the oft-quoted line, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” But that truism does not apply to God. Because He is holy, just, and righteous in all He does, God’s power cannot be corrupted – even though it is absolute. God is deity, not humanity. He is nothing like us, and cannot be measured according to our standards or evaluated based on our limited and sin-influenced perspective.

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?
 – Numbers 23:19 NLT

God’s undiminished and non-constrainable power always accomplishes what He intends. God, Himself stated, “My word that proceeds from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please, and it will prosper where I send it” (Isaiah 55:11 BSB).

While we may not fully comprehend or appreciate the extent of God’s power, we all relish the idea that it might be at our disposal when needed. We love the thought of the all-powerful God putting all that power at our beck and call. But God’s power, while accessible by us, is not answerable to us. He is not our cosmic Genie-in-a-bottle or personal valet. God’s power exists to accomplish God’s will, not ours. And A. W. Pink would have us maintain a delicate balance when it comes to our reaction to and relationship with God’s power.

Well may all tremble before such a God! To treat with impudence One who can crush us more easily than we can a moth, is a suicidal policy. To openly defy Him who is clothed with omnipotence, who can rend us in pieces or cast us into Hell any moment He pleases, is the very height of insanity.

Well may the enlightened soul adore such a God! The wondrous and infinite perfections of such a Being call for fervent worship. If men of might and renown claim the admiration of the world, how much more should the power of the Almighty fill us with wonderment and homage. – A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Proper Prayer

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. – Matthew 6:5-8 ESV

The Jews were a prayerful people. Prayer was an important part of their religious practice. They had prayers, like the Shema, that were to be recited both morning and evening. Services were held throughout the day at the synagogue where the people of Israel would gather for prayer. So, prayer was not uncommon or unfamiliar among those who heard Jesus speak that day on the hillside. But Jesus was not promoting the necessity of prayer, He was trying to expose the false motivation behind their prayers.

As He has done throughout His sermon, Jesus begins with a warning against hypocrisy – a form of play-acting, where outward appearances were meant to deceive or delude. The Greek word is hypokritēs and was used to describe an actor in a play. An actor’s job was to portray a particular character, altering his voice and appearance to give the illusion that he was someone else. A good actor was able to distort reality and suspend belief, if only for a short period of time.

The problem Jesus is attempting to address is the presence of hypocrisy in matters of faith. Posing and pretending was not to be part of the life of a child of God. Prayer was important to God. He considered the communication between Himself and His chosen people as vital and worthy of reverence. He had provided prayer as a means by which men could express their needs to Him, but also declare His goodness and glory. They could ask things of Him, but they were also expected to offer praises to Him for all He had done for them already.

And yet, prayer had become just another means of promoting personal piety. Praying in public, where others could see and hear you, was done to get noticed and to seek the admiration of others for your superior spirituality. Public praying was a way to put your righteousness on display, for all to see. But Jesus says, “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them” (Matthew 6:5 NLT).

He redefines the purpose of prayer. It was not to get noticed by men, but heard by God. Prayer was not meant to be a public display of your piety or personal righteousness. Remember what He said just a few verses earlier? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1 ESV). Like alms-giving, prayer had become nothing more than a means to an end, and the end was the praise of men. When Jesus warns them not to practice “your righteousness” before other people, He is not offering them a compliment for their apparent righteousness. He is not telling them that their giving of alms and public prayers were righteous acts. He is describing their actions as self-righteousness. They were guilty of displaying a self-produced brand of righteousness. And just so we’re clear, Jesus is not saying that alms-giving and public prayer are wrong. He is simply using these two things as examples of good and godly things that had become misunderstood and misused by those who were desperately wanting others to see them as something they were not. In a desperate desire to be viewed by their peers as righteous and holy, they did everything to get noticed.

But Jesus tells them that they are focused on the wrong audience. They are busy trying to convince others of their righteousness when it should have been God they were worried about. He should have been the focus of their prayers. Rather than wasting their time trying to convince others of their own righteousness, they would have been better off confessing their unrighteousness to God. It was Os Guinness who wrote, “I live before the audience of One – before others I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to prove.”

It is important that we recognize that Jesus is not condemning public prayer. But prayer is intended, first and foremost, to be a spiritual activity. It is meant to be a conversation between man and God. Prayer is intended for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It is a way for man to give to God (glory, honor, adoration). But it also a means by which men can get from God (forgiveness, healing, guidance). Jesus is rejecting the idea of righteousness being inextricably linked to public prayerfulness. He is saying that, if you pray to impress men, you will fail to gain approval from God. Acts of righteousness done with nothing more than recognition in mind are not acts of righteousness at all. In a sense, they become nothing more than right actions done for the wrong reasons.

Jesus is exposing the kind of prayer that is self-focused and meant to get you seen and heard. It’s prayer meant to impress, not confess. It’s prayer meant to gain the praise of men, but that fails to offer praise to God. It’s prayer designed to boost our reputation before men and that lacks confession of our transgressions toward God.

So, what are we to do? Not pray? No, Jesus challenges His audience to rethink their perspective on prayer. He tells them to go into their room, shut the door and pray to God – in private – where no one else can see. And God, who sees all, will not only see them but hear and reward them. He will bless them, approve of them, and express His pleasure with them by answering their prayers. The apostle John would later expand on the message of Jesus,

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. – 1 John 5:14-15 NLT

In essence, Jesus is telling us that if we pray to impress others, we will get exactly what we seek: Their praise. But we won’t get the approval of God. If getting noticed for our prayers is more important to us than getting our prayers answered by God, we will become well-known and revered for our prayer life, but God won’t receive glory for answering our prayers. Prayers prayed to get noticed by men, will always fail to get men to notice God. But our responsibility as God’s children is to bring glory to Him, not us. We are here to point men and women to God, not to us. We are meant to lift Him up, not ourselves.

Jesus goes on to describe an aspect of prayer with which we all struggle. How do you get God to hear and answer you? Even if you pray in private, where no one can hear you but God, how do you make sure He really does hear you? Once again, Jesus exposes a misconception. He states, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again” (Matthew 6:7 NLT).

When you talk to God, don’t try to impress Him with the length of your prayer or by the careful choice of your words. Don’t drone on and on, somehow thinking that God will be more prone to hear you if your prayers display a proper amount of fervor. It is neither the intensity or longevity of our prayers that cause God to answer. It is the motivation of the heart. James tells us, “when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong – you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:3 NLT). Wrong methods. Wrong motives. That’s the problem. Later on, in this same message, Jesus will say:

“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” – Matthew 7:7-11 NLT

We are to ask. And we are to trust God for the answer. He isn’t going to give us something we don’t need or can’t use. But it’s important to remember that God is not going to give us everything we ask for because too often our motives are wrong. Also, we don’t always know what it is we actually need. We may think we need healing, but God knows that what we really need is increased faith. We may ask God for a solution to a financial need, but He knows that the real issue is spiritual in nature. We have a greed problem. So, rather than give us money, He teaches us to live within our means, learning to trust Him for our needs.

Sometimes, we spend far too much time asking God for things. But Jesus reminds us, “your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” (Matthew 6:8 NLT). This doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to ask God for things, but that the purpose behind our prayer is not to share information with God, but to communicate our dependence upon Him. We don’t pray to keep God up to speed with all that is going on in our life. He already knows. We pray in order to convey to Him our complete reliance upon Him for everything in our life. Prayer is an act of submission to God. It is the adoration of God. It is a means by which we offer up our thankfulness for all that He has done and is doing in and around our life.

Prayer isn’t meant to get you noticed by men. But, on the other hand, it isn’t intended to get you noticed by God. He already knows everything there is to know about you. Prayer is an expression of humility to God, showing Him that we are completely dependent upon Him for all things. But how easy it is to make prayer an expression of pride and self-promotion. So, Jesus warns us not to pray that way. And then He provides us with an example of how to pray. But that’s for tomorrow.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

But As For You…

11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. – 1 Timothy 6:11-16 ESV

Flee. Pursue. Fight. Take hold. Keep.

In just six short verses, Paul provides his young protégé, Timothy, with at least five imperatives or commands. And at least one of those commands includes six subsets or categories. Paul warns Timothy to run for his life, getting as far away as he can from false doctrine because it can lead to conceit, controversy, and unproductive quarreling over words. And those things will produce jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions (1 Timothy 6:4-5 NLT). 

But it wasn’t enough that Timothy avoid false teaching like the plague. In running from the negative, Timothy was to run toward the positive. Paul tells him to “pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11 NLT). That word “pursue” is diōkō in the Greek and it means “to run after.” It pictures a runner in a race who is actively pressing on toward the finish line. Paul used this imagery in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! – 1 Corinthians 9:24 NLT

He used the very same illustration when writing to the believers in Philippi. In fact, in this passage he used the very same Greek word: diōkō.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on [diōkō] to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on [diōkō] to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:12-14 NLT

Paul wanted Timothy to run from one thing and run towards something else in its place. And Paul was quite specific about what Timothy was to pursue or press on toward: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. Those qualities or characteristics were to be Timothy’s end goal. But was Paul telling Timothy to achieve these things? Was he commanding his young brother in the faith to somehow increase these qualities in his life? Probably not. Because Paul told the Corinthians, “because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

Paul wasn’t demanding that Timothy make himself more righteous or godly. He wasn’t suggesting that Timothy could or should increase his faith, ramp up his capacity to love, grow in his ability to persevere, or improve the degree of his gentleness.

But there is always a risk when we come across a passage like this. We read those commands from the pen of Paul and we immediately begin to think in terms of self-effort. We hear Paul telling us to flee, pursue, fight, take hold, and keep. It’s a list and we tend to like lists because they provide us with tangible, measurable, and, for the most part, achievable objectives for which to strive. Lists trigger the built-in performance mindset that exists in each and every one of us.

But is that Paul’s point? Is he really telling Timothy to achieve? It’s important to note that Paul refers to Timothy as a “man of God.” He doesn’t call him a man of God in the making or a work in process. No, he addresses Timothy as who he is: a man of God, and then he gives him five commands:

…flee these things

…pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness

…fight the good fight of the faith

…take hold of the eternal life to which you were called

…keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach

And Timothy is to do these things “until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, they are to be lifelong objectives or goals. But why? Because they are God’s goals for us. He has sanctified us or set us apart that we might reflect His image as we live in the power of His Spirit and exhibit the new nature He has made possible through His Son’s death on the cross.

Paul is not providing us with a to-do list of religious exercises to perform in order to improve our spiritual health. He is not asking us to become something we are not. He addressed Timothy as a man of God for a reason. Timothy was a man of God. And Paul wanted him to live as who he was. But to do so was going to entail a change of focus, a new way of Timothy seeing himself. Paul emphasized this new perception to the believers in Corinth.

Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NLT

Paul provided a similar reminder to Titus, addressing the change that takes place in the life of a believer and the need to embrace a radically different perspective.

Once we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other.

But—

When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life.  – Titus 3:3-7 NLT

It is not that we have no role to play in the process. But where we tend to focus all our attention on activities to be performed, Paul would have us recognize the radical transformation that has been provided for us by God.  He saved us. He washed away our sins. He gave us new birth and new life. He poured out His Spirit. He made us right in His sight. And He gave us the confidence that eternal life is ours, not because of anything we do, but because of who we are in Christ.

Our natural tendency is to look for something we can do to earn God’s favor. We’re performance-driven, rewards-oriented creatures who are hard-wired for self-achievement. And while Paul had a type-A, driven personality, he also confessed, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). Paul prayed on behalf of the Colossian believers that they would be strengthened with all power, according to his [Jesus] glorious might” (Colossians1:11 ESV). And Paul was happy to boast about his own weaknesses and insufficiencies so, as he put it, “the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV).

The Christian life involves effort. But there is no place for earning. It requires energy on our part but, more than anything else, it demands a new way of seeing ourselves. We are children of God. We are filled with the Spirit of God and, as a result, have the power to…

…flee these things

and to …pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness

and to …fight the good fight of the faith

and to …take hold of the eternal life to which you were called

and to …keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach

Not in our own strength or according to our own effort. Not for our own glory or in order to earn God’s favor. But in total dependence upon Him and in full recognition that, as Paul put it, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 ESV). So, by all means, flee, pursue, fight, take hold, and keep. But do so because of who you are, not because of what you hope to become.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Put On…Put Off…Grow Up

13 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
– Romans 13:14 ESV

20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:20-24 ESV

But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. – Colossians 3:8-10 ESV

2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation – 1 Peter 2:2 ESV

18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 3:18 ESV

15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ… – Ephesians 4:15 ESV

By this point in our discussion, there should be little doubt that our sanctification is the work of God. In fact, each member of the Holy Trinity plays a vital and very specific part in our transformation from a sin-plagued, enemy of God to one of His chosen and fully forgiven children who stand in His presence as completely righteous and fully acceptable in His sight. And not just acceptable or tolerable, but loved and cherished as His very own.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that it was God the Father’s will that we be sanctified and the means by which He accomplished it was through His Son’s sacrificial death.

For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. – Hebrews 10:10 NLT

Paul expands on this thought in his letter to the believers in Ephesus.

Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. – Ephesians 1:4-5 NLT

God chose to set some apart, even though they were undeserving and unbelieving. And then He sent His Son into the world to be the means by which the unholy and unrighteous could be sanctified or made fit for His presence. It was only through the shedding of the blood of Christ that sinful men and women could receive permanent cleansing from their sins and made pure and holy in God’s eyes. God willed our sanctification. Jesus made it possible. And Peter summarizes the three-fold work of the Father, Son, and Spirit in our salvation when he states that it was “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Peter 1:2 ESV).

But is our sanctification complete? Has everything been done that needs to be done? Is there anything left that we need to do to complete the process? If you go back and read the verses that opened up this post, you may get the impression that there is still much to be done. After all, we’re told to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” And while we’re at it, we’re to put off the old self and put on the new self. And Peter tells us we’re supposed to grow up into salvation, whatever that means, and in the grace and knowledge of Christ.

Sounds like there is plenty left for us to do. And in his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul leaves the impression that even God has not yet completed the work of our sanctification.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. – 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 ESV

And the author of Hebrews provides us with a somewhat confusing and contradictory statement regarding the status of our sanctification when he writes, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14 ESV). So which is it? Are we perfected for all time, or are we becoming that way? Are we fully righteous or becoming more so? And if we are to supposed to be increasing in righteousness, is it up to us or up to God?

This is one of the classic debates of Christianity, and it has caused a lot of confusion and fostered a great deal of debate over the centuries. It has also resulted in a wide range of views regarding the doctrine of sanctification and man’s role in it. The primary crux of the debate revolves around the two poles of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. There is within every human being the desire to be the master of their own fate and the captain of their own soul. The thought of anyone or anything usurping our autonomy and controlling us from the outside rubs us the wrong way. We argue vehemently for our right to have a free will and the freedom to do as we choose – even as believers. But God would have us recognize that, apart from Him, free will is a misnomer, a lie of the enemy meant to keep man from recognizing the reality of his true condition. The apostle Paul reminds us that, prior to coming to faith in Christ, our so-called freedom was one-dimensional.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the obligation to do right. – Romans 20 NLT

Those who are outside of Christ are slaves to sin and have no other choice but to obey their own sin natures. And because all that they do is done in their own flesh, and corrupted by their sin natures, even their so-called righteous deeds are like filthy rags in God’s eyes. They are unholy people attempting to do holy things, but everything they say and do is mired and marred by their sin. Even their best efforts done with the best of intentions are unacceptable to God.

But what about those of us who are in Christ? Once we have a relationship with Him, what is our responsibility when it comes to sanctification? Do we have a part to play? The answer is simple: Yes. But the explanation as to how we pull this off is a bit more complex. And this is where we tend to get into the high weeds when it comes to the topic of sanctification or our growth in Christlikeness. Far too often, we make the task of spiritual growth our own. We hear the Scriptures say, “put on, put off, and grow up,” and we assume that it is all up to us. But we fail to recognize that this ongoing transformation is still the work of God. It is not something we can accomplish in our own strength or by virtue of our will power. It is the work of the Spirit of God.

Think about what Paul said to the Thessalonian believers: “may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely.” It was God’s will that we be sanctified and it is God’s will that web become completely sanctified. And He has chosen to accomplish His will through the indwelling presence of His Spirit in the life of each and every believer. But it is essential that we understand what Paul is not saying. He is not inferring that our sanctification is somehow deficient. We have been sanctified by God. It is a completed action. He has set us apart as His own and nothing can impact that reality. We cannot become un-set apart. We don’t run the risk of losing our set apart status as His children or our righteous standing before Him.  Those were paid for by the blood of Christ.

But we can live in greater reliance upon His Spirit and experience an ever-increasing transformation into the likeness of His Son. Paul makes this clear in his second letter to the church in Corinth.

So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT

We stand before God as righteous because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but that does not mean that all we do in this life is righteous. Not all our thoughts and actions are righteous. We still have a sin nature that does daily battle with the Spirit within us. We have the capacity to ignore the Spirit’s promptings and to give in to our old desires. But it is the recognition of that interior battle that should drive us back to complete reliance upon God. He alone has made it possible for us to grow up in our salvation. He has provided the means by which we can be holy as He is holy. Or to put it another way, that we might live as who He has called us to be. Our daily lives can actually reflect the reality of our righteous standing as we put on Christ daily. But how do we pull that off?

Through complete dependence upon God. It is God alone who can produce in us the fruit of righteousness (Philippians 1:11). Remember, we are already righteous before God and, because we have His Holy Spirit within us, we can live righteous lives. Who we are can actually show up in how we act. Our righteous character can show up in righteous conduct. But it is only by the power of the Spirit of God.

So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. – Romans 8:3-6 NLT

When we read the words “put on, put off, and grow up,” we tend to hear commands telling us to get busy. They come across as tasks to perform and objectives to accomplish. But if we attempt to do them in our own strength, we will fail. They are a call to dependency and complete reliance upon the Spirit of God. They are reminders that our righteousness is God-given, not self-produced. They are meant to drive us back to the source of our sanctification: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The source of our sanctification is the same as that of our salvation.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

The Lord is Faithful

1 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5 ESV

To Paul, the Christian life was anything but independent. He constantly stressed the vital interrelationship between believers within a local fellowship, and between different congregations that found themselves separated by distance and cultural differences. A good example of this is the fund Paul raised from the Gentile churches in Macedonia and Achaia to minister to the needs of the financially strapped and predominantly Jewish congregation in Jerusalem.

…the believers in Macedonia and Achaia have eagerly taken up an offering for the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. They were glad to do this because they feel they owe a real debt to them. Since the Gentiles received the spiritual blessings of the Good News from the believers in Jerusalem, they feel the least they can do in return is to help them financially. – Romans 15:26-27 NLT

This cooperative concern for one another was encouraged continuously by Paul. He knew the strength of the body of Christ was founded on God’s grace-filled love for each believer and demonstrated through selfless, sacrificial love for one another. Even the believer’s ability to love comes from God, as the apostle John makes clear.

We love each other because he loved us first. – 1 John 4:19 NLT

And one of the highest expressions of the mutual love believers are to share with one another comes in the form of prayer. Paul prayed faithfully for each of the churches he had helped to found, and he coveted their prayers for him. He fully believed in and relied upon the power of prayer, and took to heart the words of James.

The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. – James 5:16 NLT

And Paul was not embarrassed to ask the Thessalonians to pray for him. But notice the nature of his request. It’s not personal or self-focused. He doesn’t ask them to pray for his healing from a sickness or for deliverance from a difficult situation.  No, Paul is very specific, asking for prayer “that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1 ESV). You might conclude that this is a personal prayer because Paul seems to be asking that God bless his work, but his real focus is on the spread of the gospel. Paul wasn’t in it for the glory. He wasn’t interested in how many converts he had made or whether he was getting all the credit.

At one point, while in prison in Rome, Paul had received news that there were others preaching the gospel out of jealousy and rivalry.  They were taking advantage of his situation and stepping into the gap his absence had created. And Paul was fully aware that some of these preachers had impure motives, stating, “They preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely, intending to make my chains more painful to me” (Philippians 1:17 NLT). Yet Paul was able to respond, “But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice” (Philippians 1:18 NLT).

Paul didn’t care who got the credit. But he did care that the gospel message was preached. And he wanted the Thessalonians to join him in prayer with that goal in mind. And knowing that the gospel was going to encounter opposition, Paul asked that they prayer for their protection.

Pray, too, that we will be rescued from wicked and evil people, for not everyone is a believer. – 2 Thessalonians 3:2 NLT

Again, this request has a personal element to it, but Paul’s primary concern is about the spread of the gospel and the spiritual battle that raged against it. As the Thessalonians well knew, the good news of Jesus Christ was not always met with open arms. They had experienced first-hand the kind of animosity the gospel could engender.

But almost as if saying, “enough about me,” Paul suddenly turns his attention to the Thessalonians, declaring to them, “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3 ESV). This statement exudes Paul’s confidence in God, and it reflects his understanding that the believer’s dependence must ultimately be in God. He is the faithful one. He is the one who strengthens, guards, guides, and protects. Paul is not diminishing the need for or power of their prayers. He is emphasizing the undeniable nature of God’s role in the believer’s spiritual well-being.

And don’t miss what Paul says next: “we have confidence in the Lord about you” (2 Thessalonians 3:4 ESV). Notice that he doesn’t say, “We have confidence in you.” He wasn’t telling them, “You’ve got this!” He wasn’t inferring that they had their spiritual act together and were handling their walk of faith well. No, Paul’s confidence was in the faithfulness of God. And he knew that God was the one who behind the past, present, and future obedience of the Thessalonians. Any spiritual success they had enjoyed had been God’s doing, not their own.

Which brings us back to the topic of dependence. The Thessalonian church and every individual who belonged to it was totally reliant upon God for their salvation, sanctification, and ultimate glorification. Their placement within the body of Christ had been the work of God. And it would be God who kept them there, all the way to the end. Which is exactly what Paul had written to the believers in Philippi.

He who began a good work in you will continue to perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. – Philippians 1:6 BSB

And Paul shared the same comforting words with the believers in Corinth.

He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. – 1 Corinthians 1:8 NLT

Their future was in God’s fully capable hands. He had called them, and He would sustain them. He had chosen them, and He would keep them – all the way to the end. And knowing that to be true, Paul prays on their behalf: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5 ESV). This isn’t a request for God to do something He doesn’t want or intend to do. Paul is praying that God’s will be done on behalf of the Thessalonians. Paul’s inclusion of this prayer in his letter to them was intended to remind them that their hearts remain focused on God’s remarkable love for them. He was not going to abandon them. As Paul had told the believers in Rome, “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38 NLT).

They needed to keep their hearts and minds firmly focused on God’s unwavering and unstoppable love for them. And, they needed to use the endurance of Jesus as motivation to remain faithful to the end. Jesus was loved by God, but He had to suffer to fulfill the will of God. God had chosen Him to serve as a ransom for many. The Father sent His Son to die on behalf of sinful mankind. And the suffering Jesus endured in His earthly life was not a sign that God had fallen out of love with Him. It was actually evidence of their love for one another, and proof of God’s love for us.

But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8 BSB

And Paul challenges the Thessalonians to focus on the steadfastness, the endurance that Jesus modeled in His earthly life. He remained dedicated and determined to fulfill the will of God – all the way to the end.

…he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:7 NLT

So, Paul wanted the Thessalonians to use Jesus as their model for endurance. Which is exactly what the author of Hebrews would have them do.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:2-3 BSB

And God makes it all possible. He provides us with the strength we need to model the perseverance and faithfulness of Jesus. And it is His incredible love for us that should motivate us to do as Jesus did.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).

Full Measure.

But “when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior.” – Titus 3:4-6 ESV

How much Holy Spirit did you receive at salvation? According to Paul, you received a full measure of the Spirit of God. No partial fillings. No half-full Christians. No second filling to come. Why is this such an important distinction? Because God’s salvation is full and complete, not partial. He sent His Son to die so that we might live. He sent His Spirit to live within us so that we might be made new. Jesus didn’t undergo a partial death. He gave everything He had to give. And we don’t receive just a little bit of the Holy Spirit. We get all of Him – all at one time. So if we have a full measure of the Holy Spirit, why don’t some of us experience a full measure of His power in our lives? Lewis Sperry Chafer, in his book, He That Is Spiritual, writes, “To be filled with the Spirit is to have the Spirit fulfilling in us all that God intended Him to do when He placed Him there. To be filled is not the problem of getting more of the Spirit, it is rather the problem of the Spirit getting more of us.

The filling of the Spirit has nothing to do with the quantity of the Spirit we possess, but it has everything to do with the degree to which the Spirit possesses us. It is all about control. That is why Paul told Titus to remind the believers under his care to live their lives in such a way that it would be clear that they not only possessed the Holy Spirit, but that He possessed them. His control of them would show up in their behavior. They would willing subject themselves to rulers and authorities. They would model obedience, and be ready to do good works. They would refrain from negative behavior like slander, instead living in peace with others, extending courtesy and exhibiting a gentle spirit to all people. Before Christ they had been known for being foolish, disobedient, misled, slaves to their own lusts and pleasures. Their lives were full of evil and envy, and marked by a mutual hatred for one another. Not a pretty picture. But then Jesus came and changed all that. He offered them salvation, based not on works of righteousness they had done, but based on the mercy of God as exhibited in the death of His own Son.

And after His ascension, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to provide regeneration and renewal. Regeneration refers to our new birth in Christ. We were once spiritually dead because of sin, and the Spirit, the Spirit of Life, brought us to life again. Jesus told Nicodemus, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life” (John 3:4-5 NLT). Paul writes in Romans, “And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives” (Romans 6:4 NLT). Later on, in the same letter, Paul writes, “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you” (Romans 8:11 NLT). We experience the new birth through the power of the indwelling Spirit. But we also experience renewal. Paul tells us, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT). We have experienced a new birth and we are able to live a new life – all because of the Spirit who lives within us. It takes a full measure of the Spirit to get the full effect of what God intended at our salvation.

And because we have the full measure of the Spirit of God living within us, we have all we need to live radically different lives. Not only do we have the hope of eternal life somewhere out there in the future. We have the power to live godly lives in the here and now. Paul tells Titus that believers should devote themselves to doing good, but not in their own strength – in the power of the Holy Spirit. God, in His mercy, saved us. God, in His mercy, is transforming us. It is not something we accomplish in our own strength. It is the full measure of the fully present Holy Spirit that fully transforms us into the likeness of Christ. God saved us. God is sanctifying us. And God will one day glorify us. All according to His grace, love and mercy. You and I have all the Spirit we need to do all that God has called us to do. We don’t need more of Him. We simply need to give Him all of us.

Praying Like Jesus.

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. – Hebrews 5:7 ESV

Sometimes I think we resent having to pray. We see it as some kind of a burden or task we have to perform in order to get God’s attention and have Him do for us the things He ought to do without us having to ask. If we were honest we would have to admit that we get a little tired of having to go to God and ask Him for things. We end up doing so begrudgingly and somewhat doubtfully. Our fervor ends up being a bit weak and our expectations are usually low.

But look at Jesus. He prayed. He prayed a lot. And His prayers were anything but resentful, reluctant or filled with doubt. The writer of Hebrews tells us the prayers of Jesus were accompanied with loud cries and tears. He was passionate and emotional when He prayed. Jesus was anything but indifferent about His prayer life. He took it seriously and practiced it regularly – with intensity, expectancy, and a reverence for the one to whom He was praying. In fact, we’re told that “God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God” (Hebrews 5:7 NLT). Jesus didn’t come to God with a flippant, I-have-my-rights kind of an attitude. He was reverent and respectful, refusing to let His position as the Son of God diminish His humility and dependence upon God. Paul writes concerning Jesus, that “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7-8 ESV). Jesus wasn’t presumptuous. While He was 100 percent God, He was also 100 percent human, and in “the days of his flesh” He lived with complete dependence upon His heavenly Father. He was submissive, reliant, and always willing to accept His Father’s will for His life, because He trusted Him. The writer of Hebrews goes on to say, “Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8 NLT). Even Jesus learned to be obedient, to do what His Father asked, even though His humanity desired to avoid the pain, suffering and humiliation.

“While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death” (Hebrews 5:7 NLT). One of the things we fail to recognize when considering Jesus’ earthly ministry is His humanity. We almost view Jesus with a Greek mentality, seeing Him as some kind of a God masquerading as a man – as if He was simply wearing some kind of a man suit, like a child wearing a costume for Halloween. But Jesus became flesh. He took on humanity. He didn’t just pretend to be a man, He was one. He was born. He grew up. He ate, grew hungry, suffered pain, required sleep, had feelings, could bleed, and even die. And He prayed – regularly, passionately, expectantly, willingly, emotionally, and submissively. He didn’t take anything for granted. He didn’t act like a spoiled, privileged rich kid who demanded His own way or thought of Himself too good to pray. Prayer for Jesus was His lifeline to God. He was separated from His Father by His humanity. He had left His rightful place in heaven and taken on human flesh. He had taken on the limitations of humanity and was no longer able to sit in His Father’s presence, enjoying His fellowship. Prayer was how Jesus reconnected with His Father. It was how He communicated His feelings and received much-needed encouragement and love. Like a husband separated from his wife by thousands of miles and months, prayer for Jesus was like a much-anticipated letter, filled with expressions of love and encouragement. Jesus needed to hear from His Father. He was facing unbelievable difficulty and He knew that, ultimately, He would be required to die an excruciating death. Which is why the author of Hebrews says Jesus offered His prayers “to him who was able to save him from death.” Jesus knew that His life was in God’s hands. His future was completely dependent upon God. So when Jesus prayed, He was coming to the one who was asking Him to suffer and die, but also the one who was going to raise Him from the dead. Jesus brought His temporary needs to the one who had an eternal plan for His life.

Sometimes our expectations of God are so small. We come so reluctantly and doubtfully. We don’t expect much from God. But Jesus saw His Father as the one who was going to save Him from death. Jesus knew that His life was going to be difficult. He realized that there were going to be days filled with rejection, ridicule, pain and suffering. But He had a long-term, future-oriented perspective. He knew that His job was to die a sacrificial, substitutionary death on behalf of mankind. It was God’s job to raise Him back to life. And in the meantime, He would keep going back to His Father for strength, encouragement, love, and guidance. He would be passionate, persistent, and expectant in His prayer life. He would pray about anything and everything. He would pray for hours at a time. He would get alone with God and share His innermost thoughts. He would listen. He would hear. He would walk away encouraged. And He would trust that His life was in good hands and His future was secure because His Father loved Him.

Paul reminds us, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11 NLT). Our Father is going to raise us to newness of life one day as well. We can trust Him. We can rest in Him. And in the meantime, we can talk to Him. We can bring Him our troubles, trials, doubts, fears, hurts, heartaches, and need for encouragement. He is listening. And He longs to hear from us.

Humble Dependence.

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Preserve my life, for I am godly; save your servant, who trusts in you—you are my God. – Psalm 86:1-2 ESV

God doesn’t need me. As great as I may think I am and as many wonderful attributes I believe I may have, the reality is that God can get along quite well without me. He doesn’t need my help. He can survive without my worship. His plan for the world will still take place even if I’m not in the picture. I am a non-essential when it comes to God’s sovereign plan for the universe. Admittedly, that’s a hard concept for some of us to grasp. We want to be important. We desire greatly to be significant in some way. But King David put it succinctly. “…what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4 ESV). Our only significance comes from the fact that we are created in the image of God. We are His workmanship. It is He who gives us value. As believers, it is our relationship with Jesus Christ that provides us with our worth. As a result of His death on the cross, His righteousness became ours. He took on our sins and condemnation, and His righteousness was imputed to us. Therefore, we have value in God’s eyes. But it is not due to anything we have done. It is “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV)

In his psalm, David comes before God as “poor and needy.” That’s an interesting self-description for the King of Israel to use, since he was one of the wealthiest men alive and had great wealth and power at his disposal. Yet he knew that he was a man in great need – in need of God. He needed God to hear him and answer him. He needed God’s protection and direction. His armies were nothing without God’s leadership. His wealth was insignificant if he didn’t have God’s daily provision of joy, peace, and contentment. He was the warrior-king who had experienced great victories and accomplished amazing feats of bravery. Yet he knew he needed God to prolong and protect his life. He was nothing without God.

Which is why David called out to God. “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all the day. Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” (Psalm 86:3-4 ESV). He needed God’s grace. He depended upon God for joy. He was totally reliant upon God for inner strength and moral fortitude. David knew his weaknesses. He knew he was sin-prone and self-centered. He knew he was fully capable of not only disobeying God, but dishonoring Him as well. David asked God to save him; not just from his enemies, but from himself. Like all of us, he could be his own worst enemy. His sin nature could wreak havoc on his relationship with God. So he humbly came to God for help, for hope, and for His mercy and favor.

David goes on to ask something from God. “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalm 86:11 ESV). He knew he needed God’s help in order to live his life according to God’s truth. He couldn’t do it on his own. He was incapable of learning what he needed to know, so he asked God to teach him. He even asked God to work on his heart so that he might fear Him. The NET Bible translates that verses this way: “Make me wholeheartedly committed to you!The New Living Translation gives it a slightly different twist. “Grant me purity of heart, so that I may honor you.” He needed God to literally “bind” his heart so that he would live in a way that honors God. David was familiar with the words of Jeremiah. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV). So even his heart needed God’s help in order to stay united, faithful, true and wholeheartedly committed to God’s cause.

A healthy awareness of our neediness and spiritual poverty apart from God is missing from many of our lives. We have developed an arrogance and attitude of deservedness that somehow makes us believe God is somehow obligated to love us and bless us. David knew better. He recognized the fact that he was completely dependent upon God for all that he had and needed God’s help in every area of his life. Humble dependence is a necessity for the child of God. It reveals our complete reliance upon God for everything. In the old hymn, Rock of Ages, there is a line that expresses the attitude we should hold. It says,…

Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Savior, or I die.

Humble dependence. We are needy and poor. We are naked and helpless. But when we bring our need to God, we find grace, mercy, help, hope, healing, power, forgiveness, acceptance, and the love of a holy Father who sees us as His own child.

The Sinless Sin Less.

Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. – 1 John 3:8 ESV

When one accepts Jesus Christ as their Savior, they receive a new nature. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:4 ESV). Nicodemus was a bit confused by this statement and wondered out loud about just how ridiculous and impossible it sounded. But Jesus responded, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 ESV). Jesus was letting Nicodemus in on the exciting news that men were going to be able to receive new natures – spiritual natures – made possible when His atoning work on the cross had been completed. To drive home his point, Jesus used an event from the history of the Israelites. Having sinned and rebelled against God, the people of God found themselves under His wrath. They were being attacked by serpents and many were dying as a result. God instructed Moses to create a bronze serpent, put it on a staff and command the people to look at it – when they did, they would be healed. In essence, they had to look at their sin and their punishment in order to receive healing. And Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15 ESV). This statement is followed by the familiar words of Jesus: “For God so loved the world,i that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). When an individual looks on the crucified Christ, bearing his sins on the cross and suffering the punishment for his rebellion against God, and believes that His sacrifice satisfied God, he is born again. He receives new life and a new nature. At that point he becomes a child of God. He not only receives healing from and forgiveness for his sins, he receives the righteousness of Christ. His new nature is a sinless nature. But the problem is that he also maintains his old nature – his sin nature. These two natures are at war within us. But the apostle Paul gives us the key to “making our sinless nature our dominant nature. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:16-17 ESV). Walk by the Spirit. John tells us the very same thing. “But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him” (1 John 2:27 ESV). We not only have new natures, we have the Holy Spirit living within us. And the key to sinning less is abiding more.

John reminds us that we are children of God – NOW! It is who we are. And as children of God, we have been given the very nature of God that allows us to live righteously and rightly. But the key is abiding or remaining in Him. We must walk in the light. We must stay attached to and dependent upon the source of our righteousness. Jesus’ analogy of the vine and the branches teaches us the undeniable necessity of living constantly attached to and reliant upon Him. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 ESV). Our sin nature sins. That is what it does. But our sinless nature, the one we inherited from Christ, cannot sin. John puts it this way: “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning” (1 John 3:5-6 ESV). Jesus died so that we might become righteous, as He is righteous. But we must remain or abide in Him. We must become increasingly more dependent upon the Spirit of God within us if we want to sin less. Every time we sin, it is a reminder that we are living according to our sin nature. We are not abiding. That should drive us back to the cross where our old nature was crucified with Christ. “We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6 NLT). We can sin less, but only if we abide in Him more. Sinlessness is not the result of sinning less. It is the other way around. We sin less because our new nature is sinless. Paul tells us, “Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God” (Romans 6:13 NLT). We have new life and a new nature. We have a new capacity to sin less because our new nature is from God and is sinless. We sin when we give in to our old nature. We sin when we stop abiding in and relying on the Spirit within us. We are children of God and we can live like children of God. But we must rely on the power of God.