Misdirected Effort

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. – Philippians 3:12-21 ESV

As we saw in yesterday’s post, our faith in Christ is meant to be practical and visible. It should show up in the way we live our lives and give proof of the Spirit’s presence within us. Our faith can manifest itself in the fruit of the Spirit flowing out from us and through the supernatural abilities with which He has gifted us. Leading and loving are both evidence of the Spirit’s presence. His power can show up in the capacity to provide spiritual nourishment to God’s people or by meeting their physical needs with food, clothing, and shelter. But regardless of what we do, we are to recognize that we do it in the strength of the Spirit of God and for the glory of God.

If anyone speaks, he should speak as one conveying the words of God. If anyone serves, he should serve with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory and the power forever and ever. – 1 Peter 4:11 BSB

But there is another important factor that should influence what we do, and Paul addresses it in his letter to the believers in Philippi.

There is little debate over the fact that Paul was a man on a mission. He was driven. He was almost obsessive-compulsive in his desire to obey the command of Christ to carry the gospel message to the Gentiles. He had done so in the face of all kinds of obstacles, including shipwreck, beatings, a stoning, hunger, thirst, imprisonment, and constant opposition to his message and ministry. But, like the Energizer Bunny, he just kept going and going. But why? What was his motivation? How did he manage to maintain his enthusiasm and not lose hope when faced with constant threats to his life and the unceasing attacks on the churches he had worked so hard to plant?

He provides us with the answer in the third chapter of his letter to the Philippians. And it is in the form of a personal glimpse into his own approach to his spiritual life and ministry.

First of all, Paul admits that he ’s a work in process. He’s not some kind of religious rock star or spiritual superhero. In fact, he confesses to the Philippians, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection” (Philippians 3:12 NLT). When it came to spiritual maturity, Paul flatly denied that he had “arrived.” Instead, he tells the Philippians, “I press on.” Then he claims to be “straining forward to what lies ahead.” Paul had an objective in mind. But what was it? Was he attempting to achieve a state of fully realized spiritual maturity in this life? Did he believe that he could somehow work his way toward sinless perfection this side of heaven?

The answer is no. Look closely at his choice of words. He said that he was “straining forward to what lies ahead.” He claimed to be pressing on “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul had an objective in mind. He lived with a sense of purpose that was based on a well-defined outcome or destiny. Some might way that Paul lived with his eyes set on heaven, but I think there was more to it than that. Look at how he describes his goal for living.

My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:10-11 NET

Paul had been around long enough to know that the Christian life, this side of heaven, was going to be marked by suffering. But he also knew that the end result of any suffering we experience in this life was nothing when compared to our future glorification or resurrection. Which is exactly what he told the believers in Rome:

…what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Romans 8:18 NLT

For Paul, this life was temporary. It was a path that led to a preferred future in a much better environment. And he lived with the reality of that future constantly on his mind and permanently in his line of sight.

But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. – Philippians 3:20-21 NLT

Paul lived with the end in mind. He viewed the Christian life like a race or a journey. In race, each runner has his eye focused on the finish line. They share a common objective. Every one of them is running with the finish line as their final objective. Not all will win, but they all need to run in order to complete the course. And Paul used this racing analogy to encourage the Corinthian believers.

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

Paul was a man who ran to win. He understood the reason behind Jesus’ calling of him. Yes, he had been called to be an apostle, a messenger of the good news of Jesus Christ. But, more importantly he had been called so that one day he might experience the sinless perfection promised to him by Jesus Christ and made possible by His sacrificial death on the cross. Which is why Paul said, “I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Philippians 3:12 NLT). Glorification is God’s goal for every believer, so it should be our goal as well. We should settle for nothing less than that for which Jesus Christ died, our ultimate transformation into His likeness, complete with a glorified body and a sinless, perfectly holy character.

This entire passage is like a donut. Verses 12-17 and 20-21 surround verses 18-19. Those two verses form a kind of hole in the passage in which Paul places a negative example for the Philippians to avoid. In verse 17, Paul invites the Philippians to imitate him and to learn from anyone else in the church who follow his example. But then he warns of another group within the church whose behavior was not to be emulated. He describes these people in harsh terms, calling them “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18 ESV). That’s not exactly politically correct terminology. But Paul sees these individuals as dangerous because their behavior was actually anti-gospel. Their lives were focused on the wrong thing. Rather than fixing their eyes on the prize to come, they were looking to enjoy all their blessings in this life. That is what Paul means when he states that “their god is their belly” (Philippians 3:19 ESV). They were all about satisfying their physical desires and appetites. They wanted to good life in this life, not the one to come. They wanted heaven on earth.

Rather than recognizing that Jesus had died so that they might live with the end in mind, with their hopes focused on their future glorification, they preferred to live in the moment. They lived with their minds set on earthly, rather than as citizens of heaven. And Paul states that “their end is destruction” (Philippians 3:19 ESV). In other words, what they had chosen to pursue was not going to produce what they were expecting.

But Paul reminds the Philippians that their citizenship is in heaven. That is their destiny and their final destination. But Paul is emphasizing much more than a change of address. He is stressing a change that will take place in our nature.

He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own. – Philippians 3:21 NLT

That is the goal. That is the objective. It is what God has in store for each and every believer and Paul would have us live our lives with that end in mind. We will not achieve that glorious state in this life, but if that is what God has in store for us, shouldn’t we make that our life’s focus? Wouldn’t it make sense to run the race with the actual finish line in mind? If not, we will run aimlessly, focusing our energies on the wrong goals and wondering why the promised prize remains beyond our grasp.

Yes, we have been saved, but as Paul reminds us, “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” He is coming back one day and He will finish what He started. He will complete what He began. And we are to live with that end in mind.

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

 

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The Power of the Spirit

17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. – Romans 14:17-19 ESV

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

14 I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. – Romans 15:13-14 ESV

Remember what Jesus said to His disciples just prior to His ascension: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” (Acts 1:8 ESV). Luke records that Jesus promised that they would receive power and that power would be a result of the Holy Spirit’s coming. The Greek word for power is dynamis and, as you can see, it is where we get our word for “dynamite.” According to the Outline of Biblical Usage, it is “inherent power, power residing in a thing by virtue of its nature, or which a person or thing exerts and puts forth.” It can also mean the power to perform miracles.

When we consider the kind of power the disciples were to receive, we tend to associate it with that second meaning, the miraculous power to perform miracles. Why? Because we remember what happened that day in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples gathered in the upper room. Luke describes it for us:

…suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:2-4 ESV

And this extraordinary phenomena did not go unnoticed.

…at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished… – Acts 2:6-7 ESV

The crowds that gathered were blown away by what they saw and heard because they immediately recognized that the disciples were Galileans. This prompted them to ask, “how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (Acts 2:8 ESV).

We read this story and can’t help but associate the power of the Spirit with the miracle of speaking in tongues. And we are right to do so. But, at the same time, we tend to miss an important part of Luke’s record of the events of that day. While it’s only natural to focus on the miraculous nature of the disciples’ Spirit-empowered tongues-speaking, Luke wants us to consider what they were saying, not just how they were saying it.

“…we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” – Acts 2:11-12 ESV

There is no doubt that a miracle had taken place. Luke makes that point perfectly clear by providing a list of all the different ethnic groups represented whose languages were spoken by this small group of Galilean disciples. There were Parthians, Medes, and Elamites. There were residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and Libya. Not only that, there were visitors from as far away as Rome, the island of Crete and the region of Arabia.

This was a bonafide, Spirit-empowered miracle. But the point behind the miracle was the declaration of the mighty works of God. All of the people who gathered heard the wonders of God proclaimed in their own native tongue. And Luke notes, “all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?”” (Acts 2:12 ESV).

This obvious miracle had a not-so-obvious intent. It had gathered a crowd and had garnered attention. Not only that, it had raised the level of curiosity among those who saw and heard “the mighty works of God.” And Peter, under the power of the Holy Spirit, took advantage of the opportunity and addressed the crowd, sharing with them the good news concerning Jesus Christ. And Luke records that when Peter was finished, they were “cut to the heart” and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37 ESV).

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38 ESV).

And Luke points out that the real miracle that day was not the disciples speaking in tongues, but the conversion of thousands of sinners into saints.

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. – Acts 2:41 ESV

Jesus promised power, and that promise was fulfilled in stunning fashion. But that day was to be one day among many yet to come. The Spirit of God was far from finished. And much of His work would prove to be far less flamboyant and spectacular.

Which brings us to Paul’s message to the believers in Rome recorded in chapter 14 of Romans. He has had to address an issue taking place within the local congregation in Rome. There were some disputes taking place between believers over what we might call “grey areas.” The church was made up of people from all walks of life, social strata, income levels, and religious backgrounds. There were Jews who had converted to Christianity and Gentiles who had turned from paganism to faith in Christ. And, like any other church, it was made up of believers of varying degrees of spiritual maturity.

The church in Rome had become a social, economic, racial, and religious melting pot. And, to a certain degree, it had become a spiritual petri dish where the Christian life was lived out, and the indwelling power of the Spirit was fleshed out in tangible and somewhat pedestrian ways.

Paul is addressing certain behaviors and personal beliefs that were causing conflict within the church. There were debates taking place over which foods were acceptable for Christians to eat. This had to do with meat sacrificed to pagan idols, which was often sold in the marketplace. The more mature believers were arguing that, since there was no such thing as a false god, because alone is God, the meat was perfectly fine for consumption. But the less-mature believers, many of whom had a pagan religious background, found the eating of this meat to be offensive – a kind of tacit approval of the false god to whom it was sacrificed. There were other conflicts brewing in the church as well, including arguments over which days were to be considered sacred and set apart as holy. These debates were dividing the church, and this led Paul to ask, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?” (Romans 14:10 ESV).

For Paul, the real issue was selfishness and self-centeredness. Each group was judging the other based on their own particular viewpoint. So, Paul gave them a sternly worded command: “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13 ESV).

These people were worrying about and arguing over which food was proper to eat and which day was right for worship. But, in doing so, they were failing to love one another. Each had made the issue about themselves. Their personal viewpoint had become sacred, and the unity of the body of Christ has become secondary. Which is what led Paul to say, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Don’t miss that last part of Paul’s statement. “Righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is not to be viewed as some kind of disembodied force that provides power for performing crowd-gathering miracles. He is the Spirit of God who dwells within the people of God so that they might express the righteousness, peace, and joy that come from God. And the forum for living this out is within the family of God.

In the very next chapter of his letter, Paul expands on his call for corporate unity through the power of the indwelling Spirit.

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself…  – Romans 15:1-3 ESV

He uses Jesus Himself as an example of what it looks like to please your neighbor for his good and to build him up. Even Jesus explained His ministry in terms of selfless service, not self-centeredness.

“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:28 ESV

It was Paul’s heartfelt desire that the believers in Rome live in Spirit-empowered unity.  He knew there was no other way they could pull it off. The true miracle of the church is that it exists at all. It is a work of God. Which is why Paul asked God to unify the Roman believers and provide them the resources they needed to glorify Him together.

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Romans 15:5-6 ESV

And how does God do this? Through His indwelling Spirit. Paul makes that point clear when he prays yet again: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

The power of the Spirit is intended to transform our lives. The third person of the Trinity exists to radically alter the lives of those who have placed their faith in Christ and whom God has placed within the body of Christ. Our unity will not be the result of human effort, but the power of the Spirit.

It’s interesting to note how Luke records the gathering of the disciples in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. He writes, “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1 ESV). On closer inspection, we find that the term “all together” carries far more significance than we might think. Luke used the Greek word, homothymadon, which means “with one mind, with one accord, with one passion.” The disciples were of like mind. They had unity of purpose. They had been told by Jesus to return to Jerusalem, where they were to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. And it was in that state of unity, accord, and like-minded passion, that the power of God came upon them. 

They were transformed and, as a result, the world was forever changed. The power of the Spirit isn’t about external miracles but about the transformation of lives and the miraculous, mysterious formation of the body of Christ.

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 Mind of the Spirit

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. – Galatians 5:16-18 ESV

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. – Romans 8:5-10 ESV

Living water. That’s how Jesus described the ministry of the Spirit in the life of the believer. He told His disciples that whoever believed in Him would have “rivers of living water” flow from his heart. And John makes it clear that this rather obscure reference was to the coming Holy Spirit. 

Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. – John 7:39 ESV

Prior to His death and resurrection, Jesus spent a great deal of time attempting to prepare His disciples for His eventual departure. On numerous ocassions He warned them that He was going to Jerusalem where He would be put to death. His disciples had a difficult time accepting these dire predictions because they didn’t fit their understanding of the Messiah’s role. At one point, Peter even rebuked Jesus for saying such things, telling Him, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:23 ESV). 

Peter didn’t understand the significance of Jesus’ death. The idea of Jesus being the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world had escaped Peter and his companions. And, while Jesus had repeatedly spoken of His death and His resurrection, the disciples remained fixated on the idea of Jesus setting up His earthly kingdom in their lifetimes. They were eagerly waiting for Him to enter Jerusalem and present Himself as the long-awaited Messiah and King of the Jews. But Jesus continually pointed them to the necessity of His death, resurrection, and ascension. He even told them that they would be better off without Him.

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” – John 16:7 ESV

Whether they understood it or not, and regardless of whether they liked it or not, Jesus was going to leave them. But He assured then that He would not abandon them. He would send them a helper or advocate. The Greek word is paraklētos, and it refers to one who comes alongside to provide aid. And Jesus assured His disciples that this helper, intercessor, or advocate would not only come alongside them, but dwell within them.

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” – John 14:16-17 ESV

And Jesus wanted His followers to know that the Spirit was going to be a gift from the Father. His role would be to give testify through their lives as to the veracity of who Jesus was and what He had done on their behalf. In other words, the Spirit was going to be a witness to the reality of the gospel message.

“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” – John 15:26 ESV

His presence within the life of the believer would provide tangible proof that the salvation message offered by Jesus was reliable. When Jesus had said that He came to provide abundant life, He had meant it, and the Spirit would prove it. The disciples would discover that the key to them living in Christ’s absence would be the reality of the Spirit’s presence. The Spirit would be a game-changer, providing them with power beyond anything they had ever seen or experienced before. And while the disciples had already experienced the thrill of performing miracles and casting out demons, they had something even greater in store for them. Jesus had even told the disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:12-14 ESV).

Think about that. Consider carefully what Jesus said to the disciples. He told them that they would do greater works than He had done. That had to have blown them away. But it probably left them a little bit excited as they thought about the prospects of all that it might mean. But it’s important to keep these words within their context, because immediately after making this promise, Jesus told them: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16 ESV). 

The Spirit was going to be the key to their success. He would be the source of those “greater works.” And just so we don’t overlook the obvious, one of the greatest works the Holy Spirit makes possible is the miraculous transformation of a sinner into a saint. He provides the power for those who were once slaves to sin to live in freedom, fully capable of living in obedience to the will of God. That is Paul’s primary point in Galatians 5 and Romans 8. The believer can walk or live his life by the Spirit, and by doing so, no longer live in captivity to his old sin nature. And the reason the believer can live differently is because the Spirit equips him to think differently.

Paul describes two options. The first is to set the mind on the flesh. The other is to set the mind on the Spirit. One leads to death, while the other leads to life and peace. But what does he mean by “to set the mind on”? He used the Greek word, phronēma, which refers to one’s thoughts and purposes. It has to do with a person’s mindset or way of thinking about things. So, Paul is saying we can be flesh-minded or Spirit-minded. We can view life through our own natural, sin-contaminated disposition or we can have a godly perspective made possible through the presence of God’s Spirit.

To live according to our flesh is to live as we used to – in open hostility toward God. When we set our minds on ourselves, thinking we can somehow live righteous lives in our own strength, we end up living in opposition to God, not in reliance upon Him. We live with the mistaken impression that we can somehow earn a right standing with God through our own efforts. And when we do so, we devalue the sacrifice of Christ. We make the sufficiency of His death null and void, an unnecessary expenditure of life. If we can make ourselves righteous, Jesus didn’t need to die.

But Paul would have us remember that “no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20 NLT). Law keeping is not wrong or sinful, but it can become so if we think it can lead to a right standing with God. Paul emphasized that point to the believers in Galatia.

…we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

We have been made right with God through the efforts of Jesus Christ. His work on the cross made possible God’s declaration that we are righteous in His eyes. And it is His Spirit within us that makes possible our ability to live righteously in this life. The Spirit’s presence within us makes Christ’s righteousness available to us. We can think as Christ did. We can live as He did. All because the Spirit of God lives within us.

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 be 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 uses 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 view 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 sign. 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

…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

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

 

Love One Another

15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. – 1 John 4:13-21 ESV

Christians are to be known for their love. And that love is not up for debate or a negotiable part of the Christian experience. It’s a mandatory divine imperative. It was Jesus who said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34 ESV). It’s a command, not a suggestion. And Jesus uses His love of us as the gold standard. He sets the bar high and expects us to reach it because our love for one another will provide the world with evidence that we belong to Him.

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35 ESV

But, according to the apostle John, our ability to love one another will also provide tangible proof of our salvation – to us.

If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. – 1 John 3:14 NLT

And the kind of love of which Jesus is speaking is not to be confused with the counterfeit kind of love the world offers. Worldly love is fickle because it’s usually based on the loveliness or lovableness of the one being loved. It also tends to be reciprocal in nature. In other words, it’s a love that lasts only as long as the other party loves us back. And worldly love is essentially a love of self. It involves a cost-benefit analysis or risk-reward assessment that helps us determine if the love expended will be worth it.

But Jesus wasn’t using worldly love as the model. He offered His own love as the sole criteria for emulation and evaluation.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” – John 15:10-14 ESV

It’s important to note that these words were spoken to His disciples before His crucifixion. While He had tried to tell them that His death was inevitable and unavoidable, they had refused to believe Him. And, as a result, this command was lacking its full significance for them. They only had the last 3-1/2 years of life with Jesus as evidence of His love. While they recognized Jesus as being special, they probably thought His brand of love was well within their capacity to replicate. And, as far as laying down their lives, it was Peter who had told Jesus, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matthew 26:35 ESV). But when the time came, Peter didn’t follow through on his commitment. Rather than die on behalf of Jesus, he chose to deny Him.

Jesus’ reference to someone laying down their life for a friend probably escaped the disciples. But it would not be long before they recognized the full import of those words. Jesus eventually made His way to Jerusalem, where He was arrested, tried, convicted, and murdered. And the apostle John later explained the full significance of Jesus’ actions and their implications for us as His followers.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. – 1 John 3:16 NLT

That is what Jesus meant when He had said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” And that is the kind of love He expects us to show one another. It’s sacrificial and selfless in nature. It is other-oriented and expects nothing in return. And it has nothing to do with the loveliness and lovableness of the recipient. As the apostle Paul reminds us, it was “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). We didn’t deserve His love. In fact, we were His enemies, standing opposed to the will of He and His Father. And just so we don’t misunderstand and assume that this kind of love is only required for our brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus provided us with clarification.

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. – Matthew 5:43-45 NLT

It’s relatively easy to love a friend. But Jesus calls us to love our enemies. And Paul ups the ante by reminding us, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good” (Romans 5:6-7 NLT). The kind of love Jesus commands is a lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of love. It is intended for all. No hidden clauses or list of unworthy candidates. Paul doesn’t want us to miss that “our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies” (Romans 5:10 NLT). And that’s the kind of love Jesus expects us to practice.

But how? It all seems so impossible to pull off? And that’s the point. That’s why Jesus said it would prove to the world that we were His disciples. And it would prove to us that we have truly been saved. That kind of love is impossible. It is divine. It is not something we manufacture on our own. Which is why John said, “We love because he first loved us.” It was His love for us that makes it possible for us to love others. When Jesus commanded His disciples to love others the same way He had loved them, He was speaking prophetically. He was referring to His coming death, when the Good Shepherd would lay down His life for the sheep (John 10:10). It would be His death, burial, and resurrection that made the love He commanded possible.

We can love as He did because He loved us as He did. His selfless, sacrificial death is what makes possible the kind of love He demands of us. And the power behind that kind of love does not come from us, but it does come from within us – in the form of the Holy Spirit. We have been given the capacity to love as Jesus loved. We have the power to live and love as He did.

Look closely at John’s words: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:19 ESV). We have the love of God, in the form of the Spirit of God, living within us. When we love Him, we are simply returning His love to Him. When we love others, we are sharing His love of us with those around us. We become conduits of His love. Loving others is not an option for us, because we have the love of God living within us. Yes, our old natures get in the way and cause us to live out our former patterns of selfish, self-centered, what’s-in-it-for-me kind of love. But John would have us remember that the love of God abides in us. And what is resident in us must flow out from us. Jesus was loved by God and that love did not rest or remain on Him. He shared it with those who didn’t deserve it. Jesus gave His life because He loved His Father. And His love of the Father showed up in His love for the lost.

Again, look closely at John’s words:

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. – 1 John 4:20 ESV

The proof of Jesus’ love for the Father is found in His love of others. Jesus lived out His love for God by expressing it in sacrificial, selfless love for others. And He calls us to do the same.

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

 

If You Love Me…

15 If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” – John 14:15-21 ESV

Jesus has been discussing some significant issues with His disciples. As the day for His crucifixion drew closer, He had begun intensifying His efforts to prepare these men for His departure. He wanted them to know what was coming. Jesus knew that His words would make no sense to His disciples, because they were still living with their own concept of who He was and why He had come. To them, He was still the long-awaited Messiah who had come to set up His kingdom on earth. Any hope they had of Israel being restored to prominence and the Romans being removed from power was tied to their concept of Jesus as Messiah.

But everything Jesus was saying and doing in these last days was creating confusion and concern among them. At supper, Jesus had surprised them by assuming the role of a household servant and washing their feet. And He followed this shocking display of humility with the words: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15 ESV).

His call to follow His example was accompanied by the reminder that “a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16 ESV). If He, as their rabbi, teacher, and Messiah, had been willing to humble Himself and serve them, what right did they have to see themselves as somehow exempt from such lowly service? Jesus was sharing important truths with His disciples that He fully expected them to hear and obey.

If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” – John 13:17 ESV

Immediately after this exchange, Jesus had revealed that one of them would betray Him. And Judas, having been exposed by the Lord, had left the upper room to follow through with his prearranged plans to turn over Jesus to the religious leaders.

Jesus, knowing that His Father’s divine plan was in full motion and the time for His death was drawing near, told His remaining disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35 ESV).

Jesus seems to have picked an odd time to discuss this particular topic. He had just told them that His remaining time with them would be short. He would soon be leaving them, and they would be unable to accompany Him to His destination. This shocked and saddened them, and prompted Peter to ask where it was that Jesus was going. And Jesus informed him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36 ESV). Peter, always quick to speak his mind, declared that not only was he willing to follow Jesus, but he was also ready to lay down his life for Him. But Jesus prophesied that Peter, rather than dying for Him, would actually deny Him, three times.

Do you see a pattern here? Jesus was talking about the future, while the disciples were stuck in the present. They couldn’t see past the moment in which they lived, and yet Jesus was thinking about the glory to come. That’s why He had told them, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once” (John 13:31-32 ESV).

Jesus had been sent by His Father to pay the penalty for the sins of mankind and to make it possible for the justly condemned to be released from their condemnation and restored to a right relationship with Himself. But not only that, Jesus’ act of sacrificial obedience was going make it possible for unrighteous men and women to live truly righteous lives. No pretense. No pretending. No hypocritical displays of self-righteousness. What Jesus was about to do was going to be a game-changer. Better yet, it was going to be a life-changer for His disciples.

It is essential that we understand the timing of Jesus’ words. Everything recorded in this portion of John’s gospel is prior to the cross and long before the resurrection. Jesus was speaking of things to come. And while the news He was sharing sounded grim to His disciples, He encouraged them, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1 ESV). Jesus knew that they were struggling with disbelief and doubt. None of what He was saying made any sense to them. But He called them to believe. He assured them that He was going to prepare a place for them and that one day He would return for them. But Thomas, speaking on behalf of the other disciples, expressed his confusion over where it was that Jesus was going. They didn’t know the way. So, Jesus told him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). 

Notice what Jesus is doing here. Thomas was asking about directions to a destination. and Jesus pointed Him to God. Thomas was focused on a point on a map, but Jesus was pointing Him to a relationship. Thomas couldn’t stop thinking about where, but Jesus was attempting to shift their focus to who. And Jesus reveals a powerful truth concerning these men who had followed Him for more than three years.

“If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” – John 14:7 ESV

They had seen Jesus perform miracles. They had heard Him speak, marveling at His wisdom and wrestling over the meaning of His parables. But Jesus reveals that they had not yet understood His relationship with the Father. While at one point Peter had confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV), he had not fully understood the weight of his own words. He had seen Jesus as a messenger from God, even as the long-awaited Christ or Messiah, but he had not understood Jesus to be the one who would reconcile sinful men to God. Peter and the disciples had not yet grasped the true nature of Jesus’ earthly ministry. But in time, they would.

Jesus was going out of His way to help the disciples understand His relationship with the Father. He asked them, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:10 ESV). Jesus was trying to convey to them the unity He enjoyed with God. His coming had not been about establishing an earthly kingdom, but about re-establishing man’s broken relationship with God. And He wanted them to understand that He was the key to that reconciliation taking place.

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” – John 14:11 ESV

It was His union with the Father that was going to make possible mankind’s reunion with their Creator. The disciples were still under the impression that their relationship with God was perfectly fine. But Jesus was revealing that His whole earthly ministry had been about the reconciliation of sinful men with a holy God.

And that brings us to chapter 14. Look carefully and closely at Jesus words. Consider all that He has communicated to His disciples up to this point. And then think about the import of His statement: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

What a punch to the gut that must have been to His disciples. It had to have sounded like He was questioning their love for Him. And it must have come across to them as if He was tying their love for Him to their obedience to Him. In other words, their behavior, as evidenced by their obedience, would the proof of their love. And sadly, that is how most of still interpret Jesus’ words. We hear Jesus saying that our obedience to His commands will prove that we love Him. And our disobedience will demonstrate that we don’t. But is that what Jesus is saying?

Jesus was letting His disciples know that the kind of obedience He was looking for was beyond their capability to pull off. They didn’t have it within them. But they soon would. Because He was going to provide them with the capacity to love and obey. Don’t miss how Jesus follows up His question, “If you love me…”

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” – John 14:16-17 ESV

Their ability to love God had been marred by sin. Their capacity to obey God had been damaged by the fall. And Jesus had come to remedy that problem. His death was going to be the ultimate display of God’s love for sinful mankind and His selfless sacrifice would be the key for men being able to love in return. Take a look at the words of John, written long after Jesus’ death and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. – 1 John 2:3-6 NLT

Don’t miss what John says: “In him (the one who keeps God’s commandments) truly the love of God is perfected.” It is God’s love for us that allows us to obey. It is God’s love, as displayed in His Son’s sacrificial death, that made it possible for sinful men and women to be transformed into loving, caring children of God, who not only have the capacity to love Him, but one another. And to live in willful obedience to His commands.

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. – 1 John 5:2-3 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

 

No Condemnation

1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 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 8:1-11 ESV

No condemnation. Let those two words sink in.

Don’t allow yourself to blow past them by treating them with that brand of apathy that so often accompanies over-familiarity. Many of us have read this passage so many times that it no longer carries any meaning for us. But if you keep in mind all that Paul has said in the first seven chapters of his letter to the Romans, the words, “no condemnation” should carry much greater significance for us.

Paul opened his letter with the sobering words: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18 ESV). The truth they suppressed was God’s revelation of Himself through creation. People had no excuse for refusing to acknowledge God because He had made Himself visible and knowable through all that He had made. But mankind chose to ignore God. And Paul states that “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28 ESV). And Paul provides a less-than-flattering list of the things they did that “ought not to be done.” It includes every kind of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, slander, insolence, pride, disobedience, foolishness, faithlessness, and gossiping. And in chapter two, Paul drops the bombshell that “the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:2 ESV). And just so there’s no question as to what Paul means by judgment, he states, “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil” (Romans 2:9 ESV).

So, who does evil? According to Paul, everyone. There is no one who will escape God’s judgment because all stand before God as guilty.

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” – Romans 3:10-12 ESV

No one will escape God’s judgment, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). And just so we understand what that judgment entails, Paul tells us: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV).

Now, look at those two words again: No condemnation.

Those who are in Christ Jesus are no longer under God’s righteous and just condemnation. Which means that His judgment of guilt, which brings with it a mandatory penalty of death, has been lifted. We stand before God, the judge of the universe, as those who are no longer condemned because of our sin. But why? Is it because we got our proverbial act together? Has God removed our guilty sentence because we have somehow reversed our behavior and made ourselves more acceptable in His sight? Of course not.

Paul’s whole point is that we stand uncondemned because we are in Christ. At one point, we stood before God as His enemies, but “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10 ESV). We were made right with God, not because of anything we did to earn or deserve it, but because of what Jesus did on our behalf.

We now enjoy “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1 ESV). His death paid the penalty for our sin. He gave His life in our place, presenting Himself as the sacrificial substitute who took away the sins of the world. And His death was necessary because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

His death on our behalf has provided release from condemnation, complete forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, and the promise of eternal life instead of eternal judgment.

But what does this have to do with sanctification? Everything. Notice how Paul links our release from condemnation to our freedom from the law of sin and death. That word “freedom” is vitally important to understanding what it means to stand as uncondemned before God. Our release from condemnation was not temporary or limited to a point in time. We weren’t released for a moment and then left to live under the threat of future condemnation. And yet, that is how many of us view the Christian life. We live under the constant fear of falling back under God’s condemnation based on what we do or don’t do. In other words, we see our behavior as the determiner of our status before God. And in doing so, we display a flawed understanding of what it means to stand uncondemned before God.

But look closely at what Paul says:

By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he [God] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 ESV

Back in chapter three, Paul told us the sobering news that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20 ESV). No one can be made right with God through adherence to the law. Why? Because the law was designed to make man aware of God’s holy requirements. It told us what God expected, but had no power to assist us in living up to those expectations. Like a speed limit sign on the side of the road, the law displayed God’s expectations and condemned our violation of them. It couldn’t make us obey, but it could expose us when we failed to do so.

But Paul says there is a new law at work in our lives. He describes it as “the law of the Spirit of life.” When we hear the word, “law,” we tend to think in terms of restrictions and binding requirements that keep us from doing what we want to do. But the Greek word Paul uses is nómos, and it has a much broader and more pleasant meaning behind it. According to Strong’s Concordance, it is derived from the Greek word “νέμω némō (to parcel out, especially food or grazing to animals). The law was intended to be prescriptive, not restrictive. The Mosaic law had benefits. It gave directions for life and provided God’s prescribed way for living in unbroken fellowship with Him. In the 23rd Psalm, David describes this prescriptive nature of God’s law. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:1-3 ESV). Through the law, God guided, directed, and protected His people. But the law was weakened by man’s flesh or sin nature. Man couldn’t follow willingly or obediently.

So when Paul speaks of “the law of the Spirit of life,” he is telling us that God has provided us with a new way to live in fellowship with Him. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4 ESV). The key is the last phrase in these verses. We are to walk according to the Spirit, not the flesh. We are to live our lives in obedience to and dependence upon the Spirit of God. He is the nómos or prescribed way to live in fellowship with and obedience to God. And Paul provides us with a vivid contrast of the choice that lies before us each and every day as God’s children. “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. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God” (Romans 8:5-8 NLT). 

Our sinful nature is alive and active. But we are no longer slaves to it. We have been set free from its control. We now have the Spirit of God also living within us, providing us with direction for living a God-honoring life and the power to accomplish it. But we must choose to live under His control and not our own. We must submit to His leadership. We must desire what He desires and long for those things that He has determined as best for us. But in his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul reminds us of the constant battle going on within us. “The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other…” (Galatians 5:17 NLT). If we try to please God through our flesh, we will fail. But if we live our lives in dependence upon the Spirit of God, His prescribed means of living a godly life, we will experience life, peace, joy, contentment, and the transformation of our lives into the likeness of Christ. And no threat of condemnation.

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

 

His Grace Is Sufficient

On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:5-10 ESV

When we speak of sanctification, we typically frame the discussion in terms of spiritual growth or maturity. We tend to use terminology that conveys the idea of progress or of an incremental increase in our spirituality from one degree to another. We talk of becoming more like Christ, of increasing in our faith, or of growing in godliness. And there is ample biblical evidence to support this kind of language.

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

For this very reason, 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. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:5-8 ESV

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

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

The concept of spiritual growth is indeed biblical, but we tend to read these verses with a modern mindset that has been heavily influenced by the American work ethic. What do I mean by that? It’s really quite simple. We read the Bible through the lens of our pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps view of achievement and success. We even throw in biblical-sounding phrases like, “God helps those who help themselves.” This well-worn bromide has become sacred truth in the eyes of many, even though it has no precedence in Scripture. In fact, it is diametrically opposed to the whole concept of grace as found in God’s Word.

But, as western Christians, we have been raised on a steady diet of self-help books that promote autonomy and encourage self-actualization. We are the do-it-yourself generation with an Internet full of how-to videos on virtually any topic just a mouse-click away. With a few helpful tips, we can rebuild an engine or relaunch our careers. We can learn to brew our own beer or open up our own winery. With a little self-effort we can improve our quality of life, increase our income stream, enlarge our network of friends, and even take our spiritual life to a whole new level.

But is that what Paul has in mind in 2 Corinthians 12? I don’t think so. In fact, Paul’s emphasis seems to be on weakness, not strength. His focus is on inadequacy and need, not self-sufficiency and individual sovereignty. Paul was not encouraging the Corinthian believers to help themselves, but to acknowledge their need for God’s grace in their lives. And he used himself as an example.

Paul refers to a man he knew who, fourteen years earlier, had received a vision from God. This man had been allowed to enter into the “third heaven,” a reference to God’s dwelling place.  As a result of this divine vision, this man “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:4 ESV). Like the apostle John in the book of Revelation, this individual was given a one-of-a-kind experience that was difficult to put into words. He saw things no other man had ever seen before. And Paul took it upon himself to brag on this man’s behalf. This hadn’t been your average, run-of-the-mill encounter with God. It had been totally supernatural and an undeserved act of God’s grace.

And it becomes clear from the context that this “man” was actually Paul himself. He was speaking in the third-person in order to relate a past event that had experienced, but he didn’t want it to come across as boasting. His intent was not to make himself look better in the eyes of others, but to emphasize the grace of God. The vision had been God’s doing. Paul wasn’t even sure how it happened. He couldn’t tell you whether he was physically transported to heaven or if it had all been some kind of dream. But Paul refers to  “the surpassing greatness of the revelations” and his fear of the experience producing in him a level of conceit or pride. So, he says that “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV).

Paul had a mountain-top experience with God, but that was followed by some kind of pride-popping, humility producing “gift” from God to keep his head out of the clouds and concept out of his heart. We aren’t given the nature of this “thorn” but we know that Paul prayed for its removal, not once, but three separate times. And each time Paul prayed, the answer was, “No.” God wanted to keep Paul from focusing his attention on the wrong thing. His heavenly vision, as great as it was, was not be mistaken as a sign of his own godliness. His God-ordained glimpse into glory was not to be understood as God somehow glorifying Paul.

In response to Paul’s request for the thorn removal, God simply said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV). The solution to Paul’s problem was not another vision of heaven or a divine thorn-extraction procedure. No, all Paul needed was grace. The grace of God was fully sufficient. It was grace that had transported an undeserving man into God’s presence. And it was grace that would transform an undeserving man into Christ’s likeness. And that is the bottom line of this passage. Paul’s vision of heavenly glory was not the real miracle. It was God’s power made available to Paul in all his earthly inadequacy. Look closely at what Paul says:

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Paul could have bragged about going to heaven. But he knew the real miracle was that heaven had come to him, in the form of the power of Christ. His weakness had not been a barrier. It had actually been the required condition for the saving power of God to show up. For Paul, weakness was a badge of honor, not a sign of unworthiness. He didn’t view weakness as a deficit to be filled through self-effort and hard work. No, it was a non-debatable reality of who he was, apart from Christ. Which is what leads him to say, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

Had Paul lived in the 21st-Century, he might have been tempted to seek the latest self-help advice and do-it-yourself tips for improved spiritual strength conditioning. He might have found himself listening to the endless stream of well-meaning voices telling him how to overcome his weakness and embrace his inner warrior. But I doubt it.

Paul was quite at peace with his deficiences because he knew the real source of his strength. He would not allow heavenly visions or pain-producing thorns in the side determine his identity. His weakness was not a sign of unrighteousness or evidence that he was growth-deficient in his spirituality. It was an opportunity to refocus his faith on the grace of God and to reestablish his hope on the power of Christ.

Think about your own life. If you’re like me, you tend to long for those rare moments when heavenly visions give you a glimpse of God’s glory. But they are few and far between. And you also long for God to remove the thorns that bring you pain and leave you feeling weak and ineffective in your spiritual walk.

Paul’s vision of heaven didn’t make him any more spiritual. And the presence of pain and suffering didn’t make him any less spiritual. Escaping earth for heaven is not the point. Avoiding weakness through self-effort is not the goal. It is a realization that heaven came to a fallen earth in the form of the Son of God, and He made divine power available to sin-weakened men and women who recognize that God’s grace is sufficient.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

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 By the Grace of God…

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. – 1 Corinthians 15:9-11 ESV

Paul had a healthy self-identity. He knew who he was and was well aware of all he had accomplished in his life, including the good and the bad. He didn’t attempt to sugarcoat his past actions or paint himself as some kind of super saint who had his proverbial act together. At one point, he told the believers in Philippi, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Philippians 3:10 NLT). Paul knew he was a work in process, a personal project of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But he wasn’t God’s only reclamation project. He reminded the Philippian believers that “God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT).

That’s why he could encourage them to “work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear” (Philippians 2:12 NLT). He wasn’t asking them to do the impossible. He was telling them to display the new nature that had been given to them by God through their faith in Christ and made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit. They had been saved for a reason and it wasn’t just so they could go to heaven one day. God had a present plan for their lives and He had equipped them with all they would need to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. 

But back to Paul and his healthy sense of self-worth. Look at what he wrote to the believers in Corinth: “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” Paul knew who he was, but he had no delusions of grandeur. He didn’t view himself as somehow deserving of God’s goodness and grace. In fact, he makes it quite clear that his past track record of persecuting the church would have been more than enough reason for God to avoid him like the plague. So, when Paul says that he is what he is by the grace of God, what is he saying? Yes, he’s obviously talking about his salvation. He stands before God as righteous, forgiven of his sins, and free from all condemnation. But as great as that is, I think Paul has more in mind.

Throughout his letters, Paul consistently introduced himself in terms that expressed his awareness of his identity.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God – Romans 1:1 ESV

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus – 1 Corinthians 1:1 ESV

In virtually every letter Paul wrote, he introduced himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus. He willingly and proudly described himself as a servant or slave of Jesus. In other words, he was a servant-leader. He had been called and commissioned by Jesus Himself to take the gospel to the Gentiles, but he knew that his primary role was that of servant. And he had no problem with that role. Which is why he was able to tell the Philippian believers, “But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God” (Philippians 2:17 NLT). Paul knew who he was and what he had been called to do. He was completely at peace with his identity and his purpose.

But not only had Paul been called and commissioned, he was being constantly conditioned by virtue of his relationship with the Holy Spirit. The grace of God had made him who he was: a fully forgiven child of God; but it was also transforming him into the likeness of Jesus Himself.

Paul was confident that his entire life was in the hands of God. It was by God’s grace he even existed. It was by God’s grace he had been called. And it was by God’s grace he stood before the Corinthians as a servant and apostle of Christ. His life, from start to finish, was the work of God. He fully believed what he told the Philippian believers:

God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. – Philippians 1:6 NET

God was going to complete what He began. All according to His grace, not based on Paul’s merit or hard work. Paul’s transformation into the image of Christ was no more the byproduct of his own effort than was his deliverance from death to life. And this is why he was able to tell his brothers and sisters in Philippi that “the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God” (Philippians 2:13 NET).

We should not treat lightly Paul’s admission, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle.” This wasn’t some kind of rhetorical flourish designed to make him appear more spiritual to the believers in Philippi. He truly believed it. He was blown away that he had been considered worthy to be an apostle. But he knew it had not been based on this own worthiness, but that of Christ. If fact, he describes himself as “one untimely born,” a very graphic term which, in the Greek, refers to a stillborn baby. Paul uses this disparaging term in reference to Jesus’ appearance to him on the road to Damascus as recorded in Acts 9. In essence, Paul was comparing himself to a lifeless, prematurely born baby. As such, he would have had no inherent value or worth, yet Jesus chose to reveal Himself to Paul. Not only that, Jesus had called him, commissioned him, and was in the process of conditioning his character so that it mirrored His own.

And Paul recognized that his transformation into the likeness of Christ was the work of God based on the grace of God, just as his salvation had been.

It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. – Galatians 2:20-21 NLT

The grace of God. For Paul, it meant everything. Without grace, Paul was one untimely born and the least-deserving of all men to be called, commissioned, or conditioned by God for His service. God’s grace left Paul slack-jawed and awe-struck. He never got over the shock of who he had once been and who he had become – in Christ. And any value he used to hold in his former life was, by his own admission, little better than dung, when compared to his current standing as a child of God.

But by the grace of God, I am what I am. That was Paul’s firm belief. He knew it to be true and he saw it lived out in his life on a daily basis. I love the way The New Living Translation puts it: “But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me—and not without results.” God’s grace produces results. It transforms and conditions. It radically alters and is constantly changing us so that we “are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18 BSV).

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