One day at church I overheard an older man giving his testimony to a group of friends.
In short, he came to Christ when he was ten, but then he got involved with people who weren’t the best influence on him. Until he married his wife, he led a life that was far from God. He stated emphatically, though, that he believes he was a Christian during that time. He’d made that profession of faith that was genuine. How can you undo being born again, he asked. Never mind that his life showed no evidence of a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Some people call this “easy believe-ism” and don’t think such a person is saved.
Christians know that nobody is made right with God by what we do. No work of ours can erase the sin in our heart. Through Jesus alone can we be brought into relationship with God. What we must do is confess with our mouth and believe in our heart:
that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. (Rom 10:9-10)
This believing issue is the one that gets a little sticky. James says the demons also believe (that God is One) and they shudder (James 2:19). They are, however, not saved. He uses them to illustrate that the person with genuine faith is the person who by his actions demonstrates what he believes.
A tangential issue has to do with how we can possibly do works of righteousness, which seem to be the evidence of faith.
Are the works ours? Or do they come from the Spirit within us?
Paul seems to indicate in Colossians 2 that, as we began in faith, we are to live by faith: “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord [by faith], so walk in Him [by faith] (Col. 2:6).”
Yet he also says we are to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord [action], to please Him in all respects” (Col. 1:10b).
So which is it, God’s saving work in us and our faith in what He’s done, or our works demonstrating the faith we profess?
The Holy Spirit gives gifts and He also supplies fruit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22-23)
Yet the Christian is commanded not to quench the Spirit or to grieve Him, which seems to indicate we can stifle His influence in our life (and so not show His fruit or use His gifts). Are we then, not Christians?
Not at all. Too many verses in Scripture indicate that God does not lose those who are His own. So either the wayward person was never a Christian or he will change his behavior in due time, like the mouthy brother who said he wouldn’t obey his father, only to end up doing what he was told after all (see Matt 21:28-29).
Still, there is the question about our works. My former pastor was constantly reminding us that we live by grace. Alistair Begg, who I listen to on the radio, is also diligent to explain that we don’t go to church to get a pep talk, to learn what it is we’re supposed to do, then go out, pull up our socks, and try harder.
Rather, “it is God Who is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).
Do we have no responsibility, then?
Peter seems to say we do. “Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior because it is written, ‘You shall be holy for I am holy’ ” (1 Peter 1:15-16).
This is one of those issues, I think, where a great case can be made for living by grace—a “let go and let God” approach when taken to the extreme. But at the same time, an equally good case with supporting verses can be made for working out our salvation.
In such instances, I think the best approach is a both/and acceptance. Somehow God does work in the life of the Christian and at the same time expect the Christian to obey. Not by his own strength (“strengthened with all power according to His glorious might,” Paul says in Colossians). Nevertheless, somehow—volitionally, perhaps—we’re involved. We don’t (or ought not) sit around waiting for God to pull our wallet out of our pocket and give to our needy neighbor. We already have His command to love our neighbor as ourselves, so we don’t need another, personal, individual invitation to do what God has already told us to do.
What about the flip side of the coin, those disobedient things like lust or greed or anger? We have clear directions about those issues already, so are we to obey or are we to wait for God to make us obey?
It’s a both/and issue, remember. We first pray, confess our sin and our inability in our own flesh to deal with the issue. Then we thank God that we don’t have to, that He’s already given us the Holy Spirit to empower us to do the very thing He has asked us to do. Then we take a step in the right direction. One after another, trusting that God will give us the strength each time to lift our foot and keep going where He’s shown us we should go.
I think learning to live in God’s strength is harder than it sounds. It is for me anyway. But at the same time, I don’t feel so defeated as I once did. I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m the one who doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions because I was so tired of trying to do the same things over and over, year after year! It gets … discouraging. But God’s promise of strength and provision of His Spirit gives hope.
On that note, Happy New Year!
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This post, with minor editorial changes, first appeared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in March, 2012.