The Christian life isn’t meant to be effortless
When we’re born again from above by the Spirit of God, the Lord makes a “new creation” of us (2 Cor 5:17). But when he accomplishes that radical, regenerating transformation of us, he does not eliminate our minds, our bodies, our emotions, our will or anything that’s a part of what makes us human. God’s grace doesn’t eliminate any of those things, instead he gives dramatically new purposes to them.
He calls us to live the Christian life with the full — though God-centered — use of our minds and judgment and everything else that is a part of our humanity.
Let go and let God?
However, many people will tell you that your spiritual problems stem from the fact that you are trying to live the Christian life but that God never intended you to do so. They say that just as God never intended for you to save yourself, so he does not expect you to live the Christian life. They will tell you to “let go and let God; let go and let the Lord Jesus live his life through you.”
You’ve probably heard it put this way: “Have you ever seen an apple tree struggling and working and trying to produce apples? No! The branches just let the sap from the trunk produce the fruit. As long as they remain in the trunk the fruit will come. And in the same way, Christians produce spiritual fruit. All you have to do is abide in the vine, abide in Christ, and he will produce spiritual fruit through you. You don’t have to do anything; he does it all.”
It’s true that the Holy Spirit produces the fruit (that is, Christlikeness) through us and not we ourselves who produce it. But to say that we don’t do anything but remain passive takes the analogy of fruit-bearing too far.
Why does sin tempt me if I’m dead?
Here’s another analogy related to the Christian life that people take too far. Once again, in the process of trying to illustrate a biblical truth they teach that part of our humanity is eliminated in true Christian living. These well-meaning believers will remind us how Romans 6 teaches that we are identified with Christ in his cross and resurrection and therefore should consider ourselves as dead to sin. Then they will say something like: “Suppose an immodestly-dressed woman walks past the corpse of a man; will that man notice? Of course not, he’s dead! And that’s the way it’s to be with you if you are identified with Christ; sin will have no real appeal to you.”
But that’s taking the analogy beyond the bounds of Scripture. Romans 6:11 doesn’t say we are dead to sin, but rather “consider yourselves dead to sin.” The Apostle Paul exhorts us to this because believers are united with Christ by faith and Christ has died to sin on the cross. In other words, sin will still appeal to us as long as we live in these bodies that have been corrupted by sin. However, we should no longer let any sin master us because we are united with Christ. As people united with the sinless risen Christ, we’re to consider ourselves as dead to sin as he is.
“As people united with the sinless risen Christ, we’re to consider ourselves as dead to sin as he is.”
Christlikeness requires effort
Note that to obey the command to “consider yourselves” requires intentionality and effort. It’s a faith-initiated, Christ-focused effort, to be sure, but it is human effort nonetheless. The Holy Spirit motivates and empowers you to do that, but he doesn’t do it for you.
When God saves people, he doesn’t make them less human, but more fully human. And he intends for us to use all that he created us with — our minds, our bodies, our will and all that’s part of being human — to live for his glory.
Who is to do the obeying?
Some teachers, however, deny this when they say that if you abide in Christ as you should (John 15:1-11), then you won’t have to exert effort to be Christlike, any more than a branch of a grapevine exerts effort to produce grapes.
This kind of teaching ignores the fact that in Scripture repeatedly God commands us to accept the responsibility of obeying him. In Colossians 3:2, when you are told, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,” who is to do that, you or God?
When God says in Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives,” that means husband, you’d better actively love your wife. Do you think God intends for you to tell your wife, “I’m not going to try to love you any more, I’m just going to let go and let God?” Try telling her that. She knows how much love she’d get out of that deal!
When the Lord says in 1 Corinthians 6:18, “Flee from sexual immorality,” what he means is for you to use your feet and get away.
Even in Romans 6 when it says, “Consider yourselves dead to sin,” who is to do the considering? You are!
There is no elimination of any part of our humanity in Christian living.
Work toward what only the Holy Spirit can produce
The Bible commands us to work toward things that only the Holy Spirit can give. For example, notice 2 Peter 1:5-7, especially at the beginning when it reads, “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.” Only the Holy Spirit can truly develop those Christlike qualities, nevertheless we are told to cultivate them.
“The Bible commands us to work toward things that only the Holy Spirit can give.”
Think about what Paul says in Philippians 2:12, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” You’ve probably heard the explanation of that. You are to work out the salvation that God has worked in. The verse 13 adds, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God’s grace gives you both the desire and ability to work out what he has worked in. But you must be about it.
Justification is monergistic, sanctification is synergistic
It’s important not to confuse at this point how one becomes a Christian with how one grows as a Christian.
When a person becomes a Christian, only one person is at work — God. Theologians apply to this process the word “monergism,” which means “one person working.” God comes to the person who is dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1-7) and “regenerates” them, that is, he does all the work to make the person alive. The corpse contributes nothing to the process. But once alive, the first thing he or she immediately wants to do is come to Christ in repentance and faith.
This is much like when Jesus took the initiative to come to Lazarus who was dead and entombed. Jesus, by himself, raised Lazarus to life, and the first thing he freely wanted to do was to come to Jesus (John 11:1-44, esp. vv. 38-44).
Once God has made us alive spiritually, we work together with God to grow in the faith. We can’t do anything without God’s grace (John 15:5), but his grace doesn’t eliminate what he gives us to do by his grace.
“We can’t do anything without God’s grace, but his grace doesn’t eliminate what he gives us to do by his grace.”
Notice what the Apostle Paul writes in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” What did Paul say he could do? He could do all things God wanted him to do. But he could only do it as Christ strengthened him. Still, Paul had to do what Christ gave him the strength to do in obedience to the Father.
Compare that with what we’re told in the many popular books like Hannah Whitall Smith’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, (which has sold more than 10 million copies). She says, “Let me entreat you, then, to give up all your efforts after growing, and simply to let yourselves grow” (page 127). As spiritual as it sounds, it doesn’t sound like the New Testament any more, does it?
What has Christ been calling you to do? Then by his grace and empowered by his Spirit, do it!
Donald S. Whitney is professor of biblical spirituality and associate dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary. A longtime pastor and author of numerous books on the Christian life, he is also founder of The Center for Biblical Spirituality and is author of numerous books including Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life and Praying the Bible.