Acting the Miracle in the Everyday: Word of God, Means of Grace, and the Practical Pursuit of Maturity
This message appears as a chapter in Acting the Miracle: God’s Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification.
It is my joy in this chapter to discuss both the concept of acting the miracle of sanctification in the everyday and God’s means of grace that lead us to the pursuit of practical maturity in the gospel. There are three major points that I want to unpack for you by looking at selective texts from both the Old and New Testaments.
First, God’s action for us and in us through Christ is the foundation underneath our pursuit of practical maturity in the gospel of Jesus Christ. John Piper set in context in his chapter the God-centered foundation underneath sanctification, and I think it might be helpful for me in this chapter to reiterate that truth briefly so that I clearly articulate that God’s means of grace and our pursuit of holiness by his means of grace flow from God’s great work for us and in us through Christ.
Second, God uses means of grace by which to enable us to pursue practical maturity in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to consider four means of grace: (a) the Word of God, (b) preaching to yourself and meditation, (c) fervent prayer, and (d) suffering.
Third, both God’s action for us and in us through Christ and his means of grace will in fact lead us to practical maturity in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
1) God’s action for us and in us through Christ is the foundation underneath our pursuit of practical maturity in the gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:28–30)
As Piper clearly states in his chapter, God’s design for our holiness began when he predestined us to be conformed into the image of Jesus. Paul supports this by stating that those whom God predestined to be conformed into Jesus’s image actually experience conformity, because God’s predestination of us into his image also results in our effectual calling to faith in Jesus, in our current justification before God by faith in Christ, and in our future glorification. However, in order to avoid misrepresenting the practical pursuit of sanctification, I shall reiterate the God-centered foundation of sanctification.
Paul asserts in verse 28 that “all things” work together for the good for those who love God. Then, in verses 29–30, he provides five reasons why: (1) God foreknew us (verse 29); (2) God predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son (verse 29); (3) God effectually called us to faith in Jesus (verse 30); (4) God justifies us (verse 30), and (5) God will glorify us (verse 30). For our purposes, I’ll simply unpack foreknowledge and predestination.
God’s Foreknowledge (Romans 8:29)
God’s foreknowledge is debated. Some argue that Paul means that God’s predestination is based upon the foreseen faith of those who would believe. Thus, according to this reading, God’s choice to save some is based on his foresight that some would choose him. This concept of foreknowledge does occur in the New Testament in a couple of contexts where one makes a decision based on information known in advance of that decision, so that the information foreknown actually helps one to make the appropriate choice.
For example, in Acts 26:5, the Pharisees foreknew Paul before he came to Jerusalem after his conversion. In 2 Peter 3:17, Peter gives his audience information about the false teachers in advance so that they can respond to them in the appropriate way with their foreknown knowledge when the false teachers seek to deceive them.
But, in my view, the above reading of foreknowledge in Romans 8:29 does not take seriously the force with which Paul discusses God’s sovereignty in both the immediate and the remote context of Romans, and it does not take seriously the Old Testament roots underneath Paul’s view of God’s foreknowledge. When the concept of foreknowledge is applied to God and to his election of a people for his redemptive purposes, it does not refer to God’s choice unto salvation based on the foreseen faith of those chosen.
Rather, God’s foreknowledge refers precisely to his predetermined decision to set his covenantal love upon a people for his glory. This understanding of foreknowledge is supported by texts in the Old Testament, in early Judaism, and in the New Testament. Because of limited space, a few texts from the Old and New Testaments must suffice.
“Those whom God predestined to be conformed into Jesus’s image actually experience conformity.” Tweet
Several Old Testament texts speak of God’s knowledge as God’s covenantal love. Genesis 18:19 states that God “knew” (chose) Abraham. (Unless otherwise indicated, all Scriptural translations are my own and from the Greek and Hebrew texts.) In Amos 3:1, the prophet states that God “has known” (sets his covenantal love on) Israel, and Jeremiah 1:5 states that God says that before Jeremiah was in the womb, he “knew” (chose) him. Deuteronomy 7:6–7 nicely expresses what these texts mean by God’s foreknowledge, even though the verb “foreknow” doesn’t occur:
The Lord did not set his love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which he swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (NASB)
The most helpful examples for Paul’s definition of foreknowledge are from the text of Romans. First, the immediate and remote context of 8:28–30 is strongly God-centered. That is, God’s action for God’s purposes is emphasized. In Romans 8:3 Paul states that God condemns sin. In 8:11 God raised Jesus from the dead, and God resurrects those who believe in Jesus. In 8:29 God calls. In 8:29 God predestines. In 8:30 God calls. In 8:30 and 33 God justifies. In 8:30 God glorifies.
In 8:31 God is for “us.” In 8:32 God did not spare his son but offered him for “us.” In 9:11–13 God loved Jacob and hated Esau so that God’s electing purpose would stand apart from their works. In 9:17 God raised up Pharaoh to destroy Pharaoh. In 9:22–24 God created vessels of wrath and vessels of destruction. In 9:24–25 God calls Jews and Gentiles to be vessels of mercy. In 11:1–24 God hardens some Jews so that they will not be saved and includes some Gentiles within his saving purposes. In 11:33–36 Paul praises God for his incomprehensible ways.
Second, Paul uses foreknowledge and predestination together (Romans 8:30). At first, this might seem to suggest that foreknowledge and predestination are two distinct divine prerogatives in Paul’s understanding of salvation. However, since Paul mentions predestination and election elsewhere in Romans (for example, Romans 9:10–24) and in his letters (for example, Ephesians 1:3–14) without mentioning foreknowledge, the two concepts (though not synonymous) are closely related, so that one implies the other. Thus Paul can speak of God’s election of Jacob and Esau without using the word foreknowledge in Romans 9:11–12, and he can speak of his foreknowledge of Israel in Romans 11:2 without using the word predestination, because the two concepts are closely related.
Predestination to Conformity into the Image of Christ (Romans 8:29)
Furthermore, notice that after Paul mentions foreknowledge, he asserts that God predestined us to be “conformed into the image of Jesus Christ.” The verb “to predestine” (Greek proorizō) in verse 29 occurs elsewhere in the New Testament, and every occurrence refers to God’s predetermined choice to do something apart from anyone’s foreseen faith (for example, Acts 4:28 refers to God’s determining the choices of Herod, Pilate, and the Gentiles to do precisely what he wanted them to do with regard to Jesus’s death; 1 Corinthians 2:7 refers to God’s predestination of his divine wisdom; and Ephesians 1:5 and 11 refer to God’s predestination of some to be saved in accordance with God’s good pleasure).
The term predestine, as Paul uses it in Romans 8:29–30, means that God chose or determined some people to be saved, for God’s purposes, to be conformed into the image of God’s Son, Jesus, before the foundation of the world. This interpretation is supported by Paul’s statements that God predestined some humans to be conformed to the image of Jesus in verse 29, and in verse 30 that God’s predestination results in the effectual calling of sinners to believe in Jesus Christ, in the justification of sinners, and in the future glorification of believers.
But the major point that I want you to notice in these verses for our purposes is in verse 29, namely, that God’s action of predestining some to be conformed into the image of Jesus results in their conformity into Jesus’s image, and their conformity into his image is the direct result of God’s foreknowledge and of his choice to predestine them.
But what is conformity into the image of Christ? It means to become like Jesus in spiritual maturity. For example, in Romans 12:1–2 Paul urges Christians not to be conformed to the present evil age but to be transformed by the renewing of their mind, and in verse 29 Paul states that God predestined some humans to be conformed into the image of his Son. Quite simply, this means that God predestined some to be conformed into the image of Jesus, which results in their lives of obedience to Jesus.
To state the point another way, Paul refers in 8:29 to predestination unto salvation, which includes spiritual transformation by faith in Jesus through the power of the Spirit, and this spiritual transformation results in a changed life of obedience for all of those whom God has predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus. I think this is one reason that Paul emphasizes ethical exhortations in Romans 12:1–15:12.
Paul emphasizes this foundational act of God elsewhere in his letters. For example, in Ephesians 1:3 Paul asserts that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, and then he asserts in verses 4–5 that:
God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless (verse 4).
God predestined us in love for adoption to be his sons through Christ (verse 5).
The holiness of the believer is not optional! Instead, it is the reason for which Paul states here that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.
Ephesians 2:4–6 makes a similar point: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses and sins, he made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and he raised us up and he seated us in the heavenly places in Christ.” And in 2:10 Paul states that those whom God made alive were in fact created in Christ Jesus to walk in good works.
2 Thessalonians 2:13
That God’s action is the foundation underneath our pursuit of holiness is further evident in 2 Thessalonians 2:13:
But we always give thanks for you, brothers, who are loved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.
Paul’s point here is that God chose us to be converted. Paul’s soteriological package includes both justification and sanctification, although Paul would distinguish between these two soteriological realities (compare Romans 3:21–4:25 with Romans 6:1–23). God’s sovereign election of us unto salvation includes our sanctification. That is, it includes our holiness.
1 Peter 1:3–5
This sort of language isn’t unique to Paul. Peter likewise makes the same points about God’s action in and through Jesus as the foundation underneath our pursuit of sanctification. In 1 Peter 1:3–5 Peter praises God for his great work of salvation:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who caused us to be born again according to his great mercy for a living hope through the resurrection from the dead to an incorruptible, unfading, and undefiled inheritance, which is being kept in heaven for you who are being kept by the power of God for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
After these remarks, Peter exhorts his audience, in 1:13–16, to be holy since God is holy, and this exhortation basically dominates the entirety of 1:13–5:10. So 1 Peter 1:3–5 asserts: praise God because he has saved you. Then 1:13–5:10 commands believers to be holy because God is holy.
2 Peter 1:3–11
That the foundation of holiness is God’s action for us and in us through Christ is also evident in 2 Peter 1:3–11. Here, Peter asserts that since God’s divine power has given us everything for eternal life and godliness, we therefore should make every effort to add to our faith moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, and godliness. But how does understanding God’s foundational action underneath our pursuit of holiness practically apply? Quickly, I offer three points of practical application.
(1) God chose us or predestined us before the foundation of the world to hear the gospel, to believe the gospel, and to obey the gospel. (2) Unless God worked for us and in us through Jesus and through his Spirit, we would never have believed the gospel, and we would never desire to pursue maturity in the gospel. We would never desire holiness. (3) But since God has chosen all Christians to be in Christ, to hear the gospel, to believe the gospel, and to obey the gospel, all Christians have the moral capacity with God’s help to obey the gospel by the power of the Spirit and to grow daily in sanctification and to pursue it with great intensity.
2) God uses means of grace by which to enable us to pursue practical maturity in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I will spend the rest of this chapter discussing this truth. To reiterate my earlier points regarding God’s foundational action, God predestined us to be holy. Yet he does not leave us to ourselves to pursue holiness.
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Instead, he predestined us to be conformed into the image of his Son; he gives us the faith to believe the gospel; he enables us to obey the gospel, and he gives us means of grace by which to obey it. There are many means of grace, but I want to focus on four that the Spirit uses to enable us to pursue maturity in the gospel.
The Word of God
First, the Word of God is a powerful means of grace that enables us to pursue maturity in the gospel. We see the power of God’s word in creation in the first words of Scripture, in Genesis 1:1–3. As the rest of the narrative of Genesis 1–2 demonstrates, God created the heavens and the earth by his word.
We also see the power of God’s word in that it gives physical life. When Lazarus died, Jesus (the living word of God) spoke the word of God to Lazarus’s dead body when he commanded him to come forth from the tomb (John 11:43). He raised Lazarus from the dead by his powerful word (John 11:44).
The power of God’s word also becomes apparent in that it gives spiritual life. In Romans 10:17 Paul says that “faith comes by hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.” In Ephesians 1:13 he asserts that when the Ephesians heard “the word of truth,” the gospel, they believed in Jesus.
God’s word is also a powerful means of standing firm in our Lord, Jesus. According to Ephesians 6:10–17 God’s word is a means by which we stand firm in Jesus and fight against the Devil. Notice that Paul mentions standing firm or withstanding four times (vv. 11, 13, 14 [stand], and v. 13 [withstand]), which I think is another way of exhorting the Ephesians to fight against the Devil in light of Paul’s remarks in verse 12 that we do not wrestle (“fight”) with flesh and blood. In verse 10 Paul explicitly exhorts them to fight against the Devil, when he commands them to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (another way of saying “stand firm”), and in verse 11 when he exhorts them to put on the whole armor of God.
What is the armor of God? I think it’s both the gospel and the Scriptures, because Paul commands the Ephesians in verses 14–15 to stand firm by girding up their loins with truth and by putting on their feet the gospel of peace, and because in verse 17 he commands them to receive the sword of the Spirit, “which is the word of God.” So I think that the gospel and the Scriptures are in fact the armor of God that Paul exhorts the Ephesians to put on.
But why does Paul command the Ephesians to be strong in the Lord Jesus and to arm themselves with the word of God in the gospel and in the Scriptures? He tells us in verses 11–12: “So that you may be able to stand against the wicked schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” As a result of his remarks in verses 11–12, he exhorts them again in verses 13–14 to take up the whole armor of God, so that they may be able to fight against the Devil.
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Paul makes clear that sanctification is a fight and that God gives us the gospel and the Scriptures as means by which he enables us to fight for sanctification and to win the battle. So let’s apply this practically.
(1) Read the Scriptures regularly. If you don’t read the Word of God, you don’t stand a chance of successfully fighting against the Devil, against sin, or against your flesh. (2) Be intentional about reading the Word of God. (3) Pray the Word of God for your lives. Pray through the psalms; pray through Romans, pray through Galatians; and ask the Spirit as you do so to apply the truths of God’s Word to your soul. (4) Incorporate singing the Word of God into your devotional lives. (5) Memorize the content of the Scriptures. (6) Study the Scriptures. (7) Wrestle with them and chew them so that you digest them into your soul. (8) Be intentional about applying the Scriptures to your life by looking for ways to live out the text in community with other people.
Preaching to Yourself and Meditation (Psalm 42)
Second, preaching to yourself the truths of God and meditating upon the truths of God are means by which God enables us to pursue maturity in the gospel. A great example of preaching to oneself is Psalm 42.
Psalm 42 is a song of hope mingled with despair. The psalmist expresses despair in verses 1–4 and 7–10 and hope in verses 5 and 11 in the midst of despair. The psalmist preaches to himself in verses 5 and 11 and exhorts himself to hope in God. Since the psalmist’s hope in God occurs in the context of his preaching to himself, one could argue that a means by which he hopes in God in the midst of his despair is by reminding himself of the God who has saved him and whom he believes will save him. Verses 5 and 11 support this.
Notice verses 5 and 11: “Why are you in despair, O my soul, and why are in turmoil within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. . . . Why are you in despair, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
Application: preach to yourself the gospel and the Scriptures every day. Yes, you should listen to biblical preaching on a regular basis. But you should also preach to yourself individually. When you doubt God’s love for you, preach to yourself Romans 5:6–11. When you forget God’s faithful provisions for you, preach to yourself verses that speak of God’s faithfulness. When you are tempted to lust, preach to yourself verses that exhort you to flee from lust.
When you sin, do not despair and do not give up, but preach to yourself verses that exhort you to repent of your sins and verses that talk about the forgiveness of sins found in Jesus if you repent. When you feel condemned, preach to yourself that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). When you struggle with pride, preach to yourself verses that emphasize the humility of Jesus (such as Philippians 2:6–9).
If you struggle with racism, preach to yourself verses that emphasize Jesus’s death for the nations (such as John 3:16 and Revelation 5:9–10). Preach to yourself verses such as Ephesians 2:11–22 that emphasize God’s work of reconciling Jews and Gentiles into one new man through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Preach to yourself verses that remind you of the priority of taking the gospel to the nations (for example, Matthew 28:16–20). And then look for practical ways by which to act out those verses in reality by intentionally reaching out to others from different races and ethnicities.
If you struggle to love your enemies, fight against hate by preaching to yourself verses that remind you to love your enemies and then look for opportunities to display love to them. We should do this because God uses the Scriptures and the gospel as means by which to enable us to pursue holiness and because we so easily forget the truths of the gospel. Thus we need to remind ourselves of things that we’ve forgotten (for example, see 2 Peter’s numerous statements about reminding God’s people of what they already know).
Third, fervent prayer is a means by which God enables us to pursue maturity in the gospel. Paul was a prayer warrior! For example, in Ephesians 1:18–19 he says: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of your calling, what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power toward us who believe.” Ephesians 3:14–19 says,
For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.
In Philippians 1:3–4 Paul says, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all.” In Philippians 1:9 he says, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment.”
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In Colossians 1:9 he says: “For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you.” In 1 Thessalonians 1:2–3 he says, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers.” And in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 he exhorts the church to pray without ceasing.
Why this emphasis on prayer in Paul’s letters? I think the answer is that Paul believed that prayer is a means by which God granted maturity in the gospel. For example, prayer is a means by which Christians understand the wisdom and revelation of God (Ephesians 1:15–23; 3:14–20). Paul prays that God would give to the Ephesians a spirit of wisdom and revelation in knowledge (Ephesians 1:18), that he would enlighten the eyes of their hearts so that they would know “the hope of his calling, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and the surpassing greatness of his power in us who believe in accordance with the working of his strength” (vv. 18–19), and he states that this is the same power that God worked in Christ to raise him from the dead and to seat him at his right hand in heaven above everything (vv. 20–23).
In 3:14–20, Paul prays that God would grant the Ephesians to be “strengthened with power through his Spirit in their inner being, so that Christ may dwell in [their] hearts through faith—that [they], being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, and that [they] may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Prayer is a means of being strong in the Lord and overcoming the schemes of the Devil (Ephesians 6:10–18, especially v. 18). In Ephesians 6:10–18 Paul urges the Ephesians to be strong in the Lord and to put on the entire armor of God (the gospel and the Scriptures) so that they would be ready to fight against the Devil and his schemes of evil, and in verses 18–19 Paul exhorts them to pray “at all times in the Spirit with all prayer and supplication” and to keep alert with all perseverance as they make supplication “for all the saints.”
He also asks the Ephesians in verse 19 to pray for him so that he would boldly proclaim the gospel. Thus in Ephesians 6:10–19 prayer is connected with standing firm in the Lord (verse 10), with perseverance in the faith (verse 18), and with faithful gospel proclamation (verse 19).
But what types of prayers are God’s means of leading us to the pursuit of maturity in the gospel? We should pray God-centered prayers, Christ-explicit prayers, Spirit-filled prayers, and Scripture-informed prayers. The exaltation and the glory of God in Jesus Christ should be the goal of our prayers, the empowerment of the Spirit should be the nature of our prayers, and the Scriptures and the gospel should be the guides of our prayers.
If you want God to answer your prayers with regard to sanctification, pray Scripture. Pray Romans 5:6–11. Pray Psalm 42. Pray John 3:16. Pray the prayers of Paul in his letters. Pray the psalms. Pray Galatians 5:22–26. Pray that God would work the truths of the gospel in your lives and in your hearts through the power of his Spirit.
Fourth, Paul’s suffering was a means of his sanctification. In 2 Corinthians 4:1–5:21 Paul asserts that he and his fellow missionaries suffered severely for the gospel, but they did not lose heart (they did not give up), because God was using their suffering to work in them an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison to their earthly sufferings. As a result of God’s suffering, Paul delighted more strongly in the treasures of the glorious gospel of Jesus.
Furthermore, 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 supports that suffering for the gospel is a means by which God enables us to pursue maturity in the gospel. Here, Paul speaks of his thorn in the flesh. In verse 7 he states twice that God gave him this thorn to “keep him from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,” of which he speaks in verses 1–6. So here Paul explicitly connects suffering for the gospel with humility, which supports that his suffering served as a means by which God kept Paul humble. God gave him this thorn (which may have been suffering for the gospel; see v. 10) to keep him from being arrogant about the revelation of Paradise (2 Corinthians 12:1–6).
The New Testament also teaches that God uses the various sufferings of life as means by which he enables us to achieve maturity in the gospel. In Romans 5:3–5 Paul states that God uses any sufferings that we experience (not just suffering for the gospel) to help us mature in Christ. He says there that suffering produces “endurance, character, and hope, and hope will not disappoint.”
James makes the same point in James 1:2–4 when he asserts that we should rejoice when we experience various trials, because such trials will produce steadfastness in the faith, and steadfastness in the faith as a result of trials will result in blamelessness before God (maturity in the gospel) (1 Peter 1:3–12 supports that suffering various trials is a means by which God strengthens our joy, our hope, and our love for Jesus Christ. See also examples in Acts, where the apostles’ suffering for Christ motivated them to proclaim the gospel even more boldly [Acts 4, 8–9]).
Examples of Suffering as Means of Grace
I have seen God use suffering as a means of grace to increase holiness in the lives of so many Christians throughout my brief seventeen years of being a Christian. Because of limited space, two examples must suffice. First, in 1996, when I was seventeen, my dear friend Merri-Kathryn Prater sustained a severe brain injury due to a tragic car accident.
Prior to her accident, I was not a Christian. Jesus used the faith of her family and their suffering as means by which he drew me to himself in faith. When my friends and I visited Merri-Kathryn in the hospital, her mother, Ella Prater, and her father, Willie Prater (deceased since May 2012), would comfort us by pointing us to Jesus. They prayed with us, and they would invite us to sing hymns with them in the lobby of the hospital.
During this experience, for the first time in my life I began to see Christianity lived out in a radiant way through the Prater family to the point that I began to desire and love their God. Consequently, a few weeks after Merri-Kathryn’s death, God brought me to faith in his Son. In addition, he also strengthened Ella’s and Willie’s confidence in God’s comprehensive sovereignty over all things, including his sovereignty over their daughter’s death. Ella delights in his sovereignty with joy! Through Merri-Kathryn’s death, Jesus strengthened the faith of so many saints at our church, and he used Merri-Kathryn’s life and death and the faith of Ella and Willie as means by which he strengthened the church’s faith, joy, and confidence in his sovereign plan.
Unfortunately, this was not the last time that my home church witnessed this sort of tragedy during my teenage years. My pastor, Michael Caudill, and his wife, Alice Caudill, suffered the death of their sixteen-year-old son. He collapsed and died at baseball practice. This devastating tragedy, of course, sent shock waves throughout our church in Hindman, Kentucky, and throughout our small community. But God used this tragedy as a means by which he deepened the love, joy, and faith of Pastor Caudill and Alice. Their love for Jesus was great before their son died, but their love for Jesus and his gospel is even greater now, because God used this tragedy as a means by which he strengthened their joy, faith, and hope in Christ.
Here’s the application: when you suffer, of course, ask Jesus to take it from you, but also ask him to use it to keep you in the gospel and to serve as a means by which he will enable you to pursue conformity into his image.
3) God’s action for us and in us through Christ and the means of grace that he gives to us will in fact lead us to achieve practical maturity in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Because of God’s work in us, Christians will experience spiritual progress with God’s help. Some Christians may experience rapid progress, and others may experience slow progress in maturity. But Christians can and in fact will experience maturity in the gospel, because God has worked in us through his Spirit to achieve this end.
Maturity in the Gospel Is God’s Will for Christians
Paul states in 1 Thessalonians 4:3–8:
This is the will of God: your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality, that each of you know how to control his own vessel in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like Gentiles who do not know God, that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you, for God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards no man, but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (NRSV)
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In Galatians 5:16–26 Paul warns the Galatians not to practice the lusts of the flesh or else they will fall short of inheriting the kingdom of God. But he urges them to practice the fruit of the Spirit (see also Ephesians 4:1–6:9 and 2 Peter 1:3–11 where Paul exhorts Christians to pursue obedience in the gospel), which gives the impression that they can walk in the power of the Spirit with the help of the Spirit.
Actively and Aggressively
Because of God’s work for us and in us through Christ and because of God’s means of grace, Christians should pursue practical maturity in Christ with great intensity by fighting against the Devil and the flesh. As Paul states in Philippians 2:12–13, we should “work out our salvation with fear and trembling because God is the one who has worked in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Christian obedience is God’s “work” first and it’s our work too, because of God’s work in us. His sovereign work in us does not cancel our need to work out our salvation or to pursue him with great intensity. Instead, his work in us propels us to do so; that is, we should wear ourselves out intensely pursuing God through various spiritual disciplines and means of grace because he has worked in us.
We should not passively sit back and allow the Devil and the flesh to defeat us or to strip us of the freedom, the joy, or the victory that we have in the gospel. But we should actively and aggressively use the spiritual resources and means that God has given to us so that we can both pursue and experience maturity in the gospel.
Christians should not live a defeatist lifestyle. We can overcome the sins of racism, sexual immorality, lust, and more with God’s help because of his work in us and for us through Christ as we rely totally on him and as we use his means of grace by which to do so. With God’s help and by his grace, we can act out the miracle of sanctification in the everyday!
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