Desiring God 2012 National Conference
Act the Miracle: God's Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification
This message appears as a chapter in Acting the Miracle: God’s Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification.
The following is a lightly edited transcript of the panel discussion. David Mathis’s questions are in italics.
Jarvis, thank you for taking us in a practical direction with your message. Would you, and the others on the panel, have anything more to add here in terms of some practicalities of when you go about pursuing personal devotional and prayer time, how you go about that?
Jarvis Williams: I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type of person. I love to wake up at five or six o’clock in the morning and have long seasons of prayer, Scripture reading, and meditation. In addition to that, I try to incorporate prayer and reflection and preaching to myself throughout the course of the day. But I like to have an early morning season of prayer before I start my day.
There’s flexibility in terms of individual persons and temperaments. Some people stay up later and sleep later and find their best time in prayer and Bible reading to be in the evening. Others find it perhaps in the afternoon, depending on their schedule.
John Piper: The principle that we should keep in mind is that the warfare against sin, and for holiness, is a warfare to be fought in the moment with the Bible and in the background with the Bible. In other words, daily meditation on Scripture is tilling the garden in which the flowers of holiness grow. And if a rabbit comes along at three o’clock in the afternoon and tries to chew down this beautiful flower, you kill it, and you kill it with a verse that you remembered from the morning. So it’s both/and.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of doing only one. We say we need the Bible at the moment when we’re challenged in some way of impatience or unkindness, and I need a verse to kill that sin, yes, you do. I do. And I also need to be stocking that arsenal and sweetening my sour heart every morning.
So note those two things by way of principle. We are pursuing a sweetening, humbling, nourishing, strengthening — those are just adjectives of which there are probably a thousand in God’s mind of things he’s doing in our heart when we read the Bible that we don’t know he’s doing. And then through the day we need particular daggers that we stick Satan with when he’s trying to make us do something we shouldn’t do.
Jarvis Williams: That reminds me of something practical that I’ve experienced in terms of having a consistent time of prayer. There was a season in my life when I had doubts about whether God’s sovereignty was worth believing. I would be seized with anxiety unexpectedly, and start fighting, preaching to myself key verses. I had to fight, and that fight was late at night, throughout the wee hours of the morning.
The seasons of life we’re in sometimes push us to fight in a less conventional way in terms of when we have our devotions. Maybe it’s the early hours of the morning, or late at night, or midday. When we struggle, we fight in the struggle at the moment.
Kevin DeYoung: I’ll add two things quickly. First, don’t pass up God’s promptings to pray. As an order guy, a Presbyterian type, sometimes I’ll get this feeling, I just need to go pray, and then the thought comes to mind, I do that in the morning. No, just do that now.
The second thing — very practically — that has helped my prayer life is not sitting down while I’m praying. I walk most of the time, whether it’s on a treadmill, which I find extremely tedious, or outside in Michigan, which I find very cold. But I just walk. It’s much harder to fall asleep walking than sitting, studies have shown. I wish that I could wake up and sit there and just have great times of prayer, but I get very great times of sleepiness that come quickly.
So I walk, and you go out and you walk 25 minutes, and you have 25 minutes to come back, or however long it is, and you pray, and your mind wanders at times and then you come back and in some of the wandering you get some great things that come in and out of there. Walking has helped me immensely.
Russell Moore: Walking has helped me as well. Also it helps me personally to keep from becoming stilted and scripted in prayer, because as you’re walking, your mind tends to move around and race. It becomes easier for me not to move into some kind of theatrical mode of prayer. The most important thing is to know yourself and to know how to subvert yourself and your particular weaknesses and tendencies toward sin.
When it comes to the memorization of Scripture, for instance, I have a friend who can memorize entire books of the Bible. He does it on note cards, and you can reference Ephesians 4:3 and almost see the notecards turning in his mind. He’s built with an engineer’s mind where it seems easier for him to do. I have to trick myself into memorizing Scripture.
I have more of a literary kind of a mind, and so I’ll have a lot of Scripture memorized, but it’s not because I’ve done note cards. It’s just because I’ve spent so much time in that particular place. So I don’t think you can look at any particular model and say you’re necessarily going to emulate that, as much as you have to say, “Where am I weak? Where am I strong?” and then build around that in those practices.
Ed Welch: I think I’m one of the few completely undisciplined Presbyterians. I know that walking around is helpful for prayer, but so what? It doesn’t matter. I’d still rather just sit in my chair.
How does Scripture affect my sanctification? It’s like working out. I never notice it day to day, but it does something over time. I know that. I’ve tried getting up, and it just never works. I just try to do it.
There are a few things we haven’t mentioned yet. You didn’t include when your wife really yells at you about something. I think that’s a moment we need spiritual discipline. In my own style of life, if you followed me around, I guess like most of us, I don’t do obvious sins. I’m not screaming at people. I’m not involved in pornography. It’s easy for me to go through a day without being pierced by the Spirit that I didn’t have times of confession.
So I know that my wife’s confrontations — whether sweet or not — are oftentimes exactly what I need. And those are times the Spirit uses in my life very powerfully, along with what you mentioned — just the hardships of life, the failures of life, the tragedies we see around us.
One more thing to add here: I do find that for me, Scripture and prayer corporately are most helpful. To do it with other people — with my spouse, with my kids, with my colleagues — that’s when I find the Spirit meets us with any kind of discipline.
Would there be any additional means of grace than what we’ve mentioned so far that you’d like to commend to others?
Kevin DeYoung: The Lord’s Supper. Our church’s liturgy says that the Lord’s Supper is a feast of remembrance, communion, and hope. God condescends to us by giving us visual aids. People say we live in a visual culture. You need to see something. You need to taste it and touch it. Well, that’s true, and God thought of that, and so he gave us “sacraments” or “ordinances” for something to see as a tangible reminder.
As the Heidelberg Catechism says, “As surely as I can taste this bread and drink from this cup, so surely did Christ die on the cross.” When you come bearing the weight of your sin on Sunday morning, you may wonder, Can God love me? Can God forgive me? You should respond, Can I eat this bread? Can I drink from this cup? So there’s a precious means of grace for us at the Table that we often overlook.
John Piper: There is also the inspiration of other people’s holiness. I’m thinking right now of history and biographies. They can be a means of grace. For me, few things outside the Bible inspire me to want to be something that I’m not as biographies of people who, in all their sinfulness, have conquered some sin or conquered some weakness and have glorified Christ more because of it. So I’m stirred to want to press on and fight the daily fight of faith by stories that I read in history of people who have done it.
Russell Moore: And hymnody. I find that often the power of hymns and songs comes not in the moment in which I’m singing them but later when they just sort of show up some primal place inside of me — often very, very convicting. I found myself just a few weeks ago, as I was driving along, having a very difficult time in terms of self-pity and anxiety about something, and I had my iPod set to random music. All of a sudden an old hymn from my tradition came on, “Just As I Am,” which I’d heard every single Sunday — so many verses of it — at the end of every service as a child.
But it just pierced through to me because I thought, I don’t believe that right now I’m standing here just as I am without one plea except that your blood was shed for me. And I was moved to the point of repentance and conviction that I’m not sure simply thinking about it would have gotten to me so quickly. And so I think hymnody is significant and important with lasting hymns that reach to that deep place inside of you. I think that’s critically important.
John gave us a few categories of spiritual disciplines — feeding ourselves in the moment of temptation. Over lunch today we were talking about James 1. Let me read those verses and rehash some of that conversation on temptation.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being temped by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (vv. 13–15)
What kind of counsel do you give to Christians for the moment of temptation?
Russell Moore: Scripture shows that Satan works in two ways. One of them is deception. He deceives people into thinking their sinning won’t have consequences. “You will not surely die.” Or he leads them to think, “I’m special. God’s law doesn’t apply to me in this case.” So they’re deceived, and they don’t see what’s actually happening until it’s too late. The other way he works is through accusation. The Devil accuses us because of our sin. Both of those areas — deception and accusation — lead to the same place, which is ultimately death.
One problem we have in the moment of temptation is not being aware of the darkness around us. Scripture warns us consistently. The passage that Jarvis mentioned earlier about the cosmic powers of this present darkness — be aware of that. Be aware of your own fallenness. Be aware of your own tendency toward sin. But also be aware of the possibility of despair. One of the ways that Satan can pin us down in temptation is to have us start to think of ourselves as an animal. I don’t have any power over this. I don’t have any control over this. I’m just simply determined to walk in this way.
What we were talking about at lunch today is that I had a guy come to see me one time. I’ll never forget the conversation. He said, “There’s no way I can be a Christian because I’m just grappling with things all the time. I’m struggling all the time.” And I said, “Me, too.” He said, “Oh, no, you don’t understand. I’m always at war inside of myself.” I said, “Me, too.” He said again, “No, you don’t understand. Let me tell you. This is what I mean.
If you could prove to me today that the bones of Jesus are in the ground in the Middle East, I would leave here and get as drunk as I could get, have every drug I could find, and sleep with any woman that would let me.” I said, “Me, too. As a matter of fact, the Bible says that’s exactly what we ought to do if Christ has not been raised! But do you believe that the bones of Jesus are in the ground in the Middle East?” And he said, “No. That’s the reason why I’m constantly in this turmoil and fighting against this inside myself.” And I had to say, “What you’re living is the normal Christian life.”
What he assumed was that everybody else is living this life of tranquility and humming hymns to themselves internally. And he knew the kind of struggle that he had. Well, that’s evidence of the Spirit’s work. He wasn’t able to see the difference between temptation and sin. And God does promise you through the gospel and through the Spirit the power to escape from sin. God never promises us an escape from all temptation until our resurrection from the dead. And so if we don’t see temptation as something we’re going to have to take up our cross and fight against, then we’re not going to be armed and able to stand.
John Piper: Do you ever sing the hymn “Blessed Assurance”? The second verse says, “Perfect submission, all is at rest. I in my Savior am happy and blessed.” I mean, this is a serious question. I stumble over the hymn wondering, Can I think of an instance where that’s true so I could with some integrity sing this song? Because I like the tune, and I like most of the words. But perfect submission? All is at rest? I in my Savior am happy and blessed? My answer is that there are moments like that, I think. So do you agree with that?
Russell Moore: I think those moments are small and fleeting, and yet the whole of the Christian life is one of battle because there’s always the presence of sin, and there’s always the presence of the world, the flesh, and the Devil around me that I’m to put to death inside of myself. And so I think that if somebody is expecting a life of tranquility rather than a life of peace — in Scripture, peace in this age doesn’t necessarily mean tranquility (“the God of peace will crush Satan beneath your feet”) — if you’re expecting that kind of lack of self-crucifixion, you’re expecting something Jesus doesn’t promise.
And I think so many of us do, and we want that to be the case. This may largely be due to some of the ways that we have given testimonies in our churches, in our conferences, and in our evangelistic crusades. We want to encourage people, so we want to say to that drug addict out there, There’s hope for you. So what do we do? We put up an ex-drug addict who says, “Previously I loved heroin. Then I met Jesus. Now I’m totally free from that. I haven’t thought about heroin in years.” And we think that’s going to be an encouragement.
The problem is you have that guy who’s sitting out there who says, “I’ve been following Christ for fifteen years, and every morning I get up and have to fight against this pull toward heroin.” He thinks that’s a sign of lack of godliness, when in reality that’s a sign of godliness. The ones who are tranquil and simply marching forward with no thought of anything going on internally — I think Hebrews 12 would tell us they are those who are being left alone. The Devil is not disturbing them. They’re on their way to destruction and not being disciplined by the Spirit.
As long as you see that second verse of “Blessed Assurance” in an eschatological sense — I have this rest, I have this peace, I have this tranquility in Christ seated at the right hand of the Father — but don’t translate it into our own kind of prosperity gospel where God’s favor with you is seen as an absence of any kind of conflict, then I think we can sing it with integrity.
Ed Welch: Since you guys say so much packed into a little bit, let me try to make some of the links, because I think they’re important. We’re talking about temptation. The first thing Russ talked about was Satan, which was brilliant. That’s the way we’re to be thinking. And then you come up with this song which says, as far as I understand what you were saying, we know his devices. And what’s the way to do battle with Satan? It’s to humble ourselves before the Lord. Perhaps if there’s one short statement summary of how to do battle, it’s this: God, you are God, or God, you are holy.
To submit ourselves to the Lord encapsulates so much of the battle. John and Russ, the two of you are saying all kinds of things that are very important. And then you’re coming back and reminding us that we’re perfectionists at heart. That’s our theology. It’s on-off. We once sinned, and now we’re perfect. And this whole conference is moving us toward what’s called “progressive sanctification.” Sin doesn’t let go of its clutches immediately. And that wonderful phrase we move from an affection for sin to sin being an affliction — and that’s a process. So, thanks. You guys are saying lots of helpful things in just those short comments.
Kevin DeYoung: Let me just give the J. C. Ryle line, that the Christian has two great marks about him — his inner peace and his inner warfare. And both of those things are true. When we read from 1 John, “His commands are not burdensome,” do we not think, Really? But they’re not. And the yoke is easy, and the burden is light, and the warfare is long and unceasing. And that’s the whole Christian life: how all of those things fit together.
I love what Russ is saying about temptation, because I think a lot of Christians are rather unaware of temptation, so they fall into sin. If you’re not aware of temptation in your life, it’s not because you’re not being tempted. You’re just sinning. You’re just giving in to it. But, on the other hand, I think Christians could have a lot of false guilt and think, I’m unclean because, man, there’s this part of me or there’s Satan coming at me and making me feel like I want to do these things that I know are not good.
And as I said, assuming that King David was not going onto the roof because he knew what was coming, he went onto the roof, sees Bathsheba, something clicks, and there’s temptation. There’s some moment. Maybe it’s just a split second there for David that’s not sin but is very pregnant with sin, and it becomes sin very quickly. We need to realize there are those moments of temptation all the time in our lives and address them and flee from them. Being tempted doesn’t mean we have sinned, but if we don’t fight, if we don’t resist, we will sin.
John should chime in here about the 1 Corinthians 10 escape from temptation.
John Piper: I’ll just draw attention to the word endure: “No temptation has befallen you but what is common to man, and with it the Lord will make a way of escape that you may endure it.” I’ve always thought it’s a really provocative way to end — with the word endure — just after he’s used the word escape. A way of escape is made that you may endure? Wouldn’t it seem that if you found an escape, then you wouldn’t need to be enduring anymore?
But my conclusion is that the escape is the power to endure. So the temptation keeps coming. A temptation is being pressed upon you, but you’re not being crushed. I’m feeling pressed by an external or internal something, and endurance means I’m not giving in. I’m not going to squash. And that’s the escape. The Lord gives that.
Ed Welch: One other comment on God’s commandments not being burdensome. Perhaps one of the things we could add to our struggle with temptation is something like this: one of the most human things we can do is experience temptation that is palpable and say no in such a way that it’s painful to say no. So we can add to the escape and the endurance, “And we’re going to love it,” because that’s who we were created to be. We’re going to love that particular battle. We can. That’s the way we can invite people to the battle. It’s not burdensome. It’s a delight because you will know what it means to be fully human, and you’ll love it.
What is the role, or not the role, of commandments in sanctification? Would anyone want to address “the third use of the law”?
Kevin DeYoung: Theologians talk about the law being used in different ways. One way is as a restraint on wickedness. God gives us his commandments, and there is with them a kind of common grace that restrains us from doing everything we might want to do. Second, what we think of most in distinguishing between law and gospel is that the commands show us what we don’t live up to. I don’t love my neighbor as myself. I don’t love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. I don’t obey the Ten Commandments. I need a Savior. The law shows you your need for a Savior. You run to Christ.
The “third use,” which we find in the various historically Reformed confessions — and also in the Lutheran ones, which is sometimes overlooked — is that the law is also given to us as the perfect rule of righteousness (how we should live). There are many difficult theological layers, like, what do we mean by the law? For example, the law could mean the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. It can mean the Mosaic covenant. It can mean just commands. And what do we mean as an “instrument” of our sanctification?
The law does not give us the power to obey, but it does give us the blueprint. It is pointing us along the path. It is telling us how we ought to live, so that in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul can do this back-and-forth about not being “under the law” but being “under the law of Christ.” He’s saying the Mosaic covenant is not our covenant.
We’re not “under law,” and yet the new covenant doesn’t do away with commandments. We’re still under “the law of Christ.” So when Paul gets to Romans 13, for example, he talks about love. He says, “Love is fulfilled in these commandments.” And for “these commandments,” he lists half of the Decalogue as fulfilled in love.
So if people want to know what it looks like to love your neighbor, you have to go to some of the commandments. And if you really want to obey the commandments, you have to talk about loving your neighbor. You shouldn’t quite say they’re interchangeable, but you have to talk about both if you’re going to talk about either in a truly biblical way. That is the heart of the third use of the law.
As for commands — the New Testament’s full of them. God still gives commands in the new covenant. We just need to obey them as one hoping to live out all that we are in Christ and not as one hoping to prove ourselves or hoping to earn some sort of status before God. So the law leads to gospel. But if you look at the exodus, the gospel also leads to law, because he set them free from Egypt. God didn’t tell them clean up your act. He didn’t say, “Obey the Ten Commandments for four hundred years, and then I’ll set you free.” He just set them free, and then he led them to Sinai and said, “Now you’re going to worship me, and here’s what it looks like.”
What is the role of striving in the Christian life, and how are we to think about the Christian “striving” when we come across biblical texts that command it?
Russell Moore: Kevin got at this very well in his message this morning [chapter 2]. There is a tendency, and there is a danger, because we as Christians tend to ping back and forth between extremes. We tend to react to whatever was the last bad thing that we encountered. So people who grew up in churches for which the gospel was for unbelievers (and then everybody else was living according to rules or principles or however this was laid out in that congregation) tend to want to move away from that and say we have the gospel.
We are received in Christ. We’re accepted in Christ. We believe the gospel. And so everything else just comes almost organically, reflexively, and so there’s a tendency to not want to talk about pleasing God or about obeying the commandments of God. And then those people’s children react to that. They say, We really have to have holiness. Let’s have rules and regulations and eclipse the gospel.
Instead, we have both of those things. We have a gospel that frees us, and it tells us who we are in Christ. It tells us what has been done for us. But the grace that has freed us has freed us to live out a life in Christ that is defined by the Word of Christ, by what it is that he tells us to do. We believe, and because we believe we’re obedient.
John’s book Future Grace is one of the most helpful things in print about the fact that because we believe, we believe God has spoken to us about how we can be freed from condemnation and how we’re made right. We also then believe him when he tells us what is best for us as we move toward the future that he has for us. It’s both of those two things put together.
Jarvis Williams: Paul uses the language of striving in Philippians 2:12–13. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” That’s the language of striving, fighting, because God has worked in us. There is a consistent motif that God’s work in us is the foundation underneath our striving. We strive and fight in the pursuit of holiness.
John Piper: As I’ve thought about this most recently, what’s been helpful is to notice that the phrase “by faith” is a definer of the verb “live.” For example, Galatians 2:20: “The life I now live . . . I live by faith.” The living and the faith are not the same. This is the reductionism we want to avoid. The Bible says, “Strive to enter by the narrow gate.” Some try to just take that word strive and say it means “believe harder.”
Well, it doesn’t work that way, because you have descriptions of the Christian life that use verbs of doing or of living by faith. So faith becomes the instrument, or the empowerment, of this other thing called living or doing. “We walk by faith, not by sight.” The walking is not the same as the believing. I’m walking by believing.
What that means practically is that the way the will is engaged in obedience is not simply by believing. For example, you’ve decided to do the command of visit this person in prison or welcome this refugee into your home, and it involves the motion of your body. The legs have to flex, and you must get up, open the door, get in the car, turn the key, take some time. These are all physical actions that have, in and of themselves, no moral significance whatsoever. But they are what you’re called upon to do. They’re getting you toward doing something.
Now, the question is not merely believing. I must do that by faith. That’s why I wrote the book Future Grace. What does it mean to open the door by faith, turn the key by faith, drive a car by faith, go to a prison by faith, or visit a sick person by faith? It also means your will is telling your muscles to do things. And you’re doing them, and that takes some exertion that Ed rightly said is painful. It’s hard to deny yourself a comfortable evening at home when you think you should go to the hospital.
Or here’s where the rubber meets the road for me. The alarm goes off. I’ve had the grace to set it a half-hour early for meeting God in the morning. When the alarm goes off, I am absolutely dead tired. My mind and body make an absolutely compelling case for why sleep is more needful than the Bible.
What do you do at that moment? By faith you get out of bed. For me that would mean believing the promise that it is more blessed to be with my Bible than to be in bed. Believe it! Having believed that, now what? Believing that will get you out of bed, but not until you say to your legs, “Flop over the edge of the bed, legs. Flop. Do it now! Do it.” That really is what it comes down to when you’re getting up in the morning.
After you believe, your will tells your body to do things or not. That’s why I think it is over-simplistic and flattening to say that striving is only believing. It’s reductionistic to say that the battle is only fought in terms of believing the gospel more or believing the promise more. It is believing the promise. Convince yourself it is more blessed. That’s going to produce the motivation to get you out of bed.
But then when your legs say back to you, No. I’m not, your will responds, Yes, you are. It really is interesting — you should try it sometime. You sit there, and you watch yourself talk to yourself and watch your muscles work in obedience. I mean, I just find it interesting that I can make that happen. I can say, “Go up, hand.” Look at that. Phenomenal thing. Go up. It just obeys.
Ed Welch: I’m thinking two ways as you’re talking, John. One is, I’m thinking theologically about striving. I talk about that, and I encourage people to do it. But then I’m also thinking personally of what happens in my own life. I’m not a good flopper. I say, okay, just put the leg out of bed, and I only win, like, a quarter of the time. I really appreciate those of you who are skilled in flopping like that. Really. I’m serious.
What is it? It’s the striving. This really is consistent with what you’re saying, John. Striving for me, I think, is opening my eyes. Don’t you see? Don’t you see who you are? Don’t you see you’re not your own and you’re bought with a price? Don’t you see who your God is? Open your eyes. Don’t be deaf, dumb, and blind. And it’s that. That step, I find for myself, is utterly essential. Then it flops pretty easily.
John Piper: No, it doesn’t flop easily. That is an essential step. It is absolutely an essential step because we come to believe the promises by seeing Christ for who he really is. The fight to see is the essential step. Otherwise the obedience is legalism. Getting up for your devotions is legalism if all you do is talk to your legs. But once I have seen, I still find it hard. And you said so. I’m just quoting you. It’s painful. It’s painful to do self-denial.
Yes, God’s commandments are not burdensome, but at that moment, there’s a burdensome element. But you’ve preached to yourself, It’s going to be better. You’ve learned this over the years. A half an hour in the Bible is going to make you a better daddy at the breakfast table. It’s going to make you a better pastor. You’re going to give thanks at the end of the day that you did this. Right now, though, my body is saying, I don’t want to get up. That’s why I balk at the word easy.
Kevin DeYoung: We can be in danger of striving, of working, of being diligent, and we can get it wrong in a couple of ways. One is to do it without faith — legalism. The other is to not be working at all the things we ought to be working at. Some people say so-and-so is a workaholic. Dad’s a workaholic because he’s at the office all the time and he never comes home, and when he comes home and he has nothing left, and then he’s on his phone or he’s on his computer. Dad’s a workaholic. Maybe, but he’s really lazy in some other areas. He’s not working at all of the things that are important.
So it’s not that God says just, “You don’t have to work hard at a bunch of things.” No. You do, but you can be working in the wrong way, not from faith, or you can be working at the wrong things or not working at all the things you should. To rest is hard work. To discipline yourself and set up those routines and have that rhythm in life where you rest can be hard work.
So anyone who has the idea that part of the Christian life is going to be striving and effort and diligence, and then part of it won’t, doesn’t have the full-orbed view of what the Christian life is. Every part of the Christian life requires faith, and it’s going to be a joy, so it’s not burdensome, and then you’re going to have to teach your legs to flop and it’s going to be hard to do it. And it’s going to be hard if you love your work, and you love the accolades that come from it, to spend time with your kids. Just saying you’re working too hard is not the answer. You’re not working at all the things that are most important to God.
John, some may sense a tension between Kevin’s critique (in chapter 2) of single-focused sanctification and your articulation of the pursuit of joy in sanctification. Can you help us with that tension
John Piper: Christian Hedonism says that we always want to be happy and that in all of our behavior and obedience we should be pursuing maximum joy in God. Always. No exceptions. Also, it says that every act of obedience, if it’s an act of gospel obedience, should be an obedience that comes from faith. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” Romans 14:23. And therefore I have a few alwayses. Every obedience is from faith. Every obedience is in pursuit of maximum joy.
Now, what is Kevin critiquing? It seems to me he’s critiquing the onlys, not the alwayses. I was doodling as he was talking earlier, trying to draw the difference, and here’s what I came up with. I’m listening to Kevin’s list of forty incentives for obedience, not just one but forty — forty kinds of motivations. Things like God’s wrath and imitation and duty — forty of them. I’m hearing that list, thinking, Amen. Amen. Amen. They function that way for me. That’s exactly the way they work. And I say, Why? I thought you were just a joy and a faith guy. Why all these others? And why is that not a contradiction? It’s easy to get a category confusion in your head.
What I’m doing in emphasizing joy is asking, given every deed that we’re called to do, what makes it a good deed, not a legalistic deed and not a deed done for show or whatever corruption can ruin the deed? What makes it a good deed? God says it’s good. Anybody would say it’s good biblically. But what makes it good? And my answer is that essential to the obedience is the pursuit of joy.
Essential to the obedience is the reliance upon the promise — an act of faith. That’s what makes it what it is. Then you have forty, fifty, a hundred kinds of things God does to help make that happen. So I’m not taking joy and putting it as one of the forty, or taking faith and putting it out here as one of the forty. I’m saying no, no. That’s always there; the joy of faith is always there. That’s what makes obedience to be true obedience. Then if God says I’m going to put you in hell if you don’t do that, it works. And the that is rejoice.
God loves a cheerful giver. I don’t regard the cheer as one of forty reasons for giving. I’m saying that’s what makes the giving pleasing. Or whatever is not from faith is sin. So any act that doesn’t have faith in it is sin. It’s not obedience. So faith is not one of those forty. It’s part of the essence of what makes the obedience to be obedience.
The point of Christian Hedonism is not to decide which of the forty incentives is most important. It’s trying to decide what makes an act pleasing to God. “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him” is my way of saying every single act, in order to be maximally God-glorifying, must have in it a reliance upon all that God has done for me and what he’s going to be for me, so that I am content and restful, satisfied in him and pursuing the maximum experience of that in this act. And then God can do a hundred things to help me in that from imitation to wrath to duty. Yes, just like duty. Happiness is my duty. And on and on and on. So that’s the way I put it together.
Kevin DeYoung: That is exactly right and fits and melds all of that together. Just to clarify what I was saying earlier, I don’t want anyone to think that they can’t theologize with these incentives or that they can’t sort of spin them up and drill them down and do a lot of different things with them. One of my burdens is that we not rob the unique mood of the various scriptural texts.
Scripture comes at you with the truth and with a mood, so there’s a warning here. And maybe you take the warning, and 2 Peter asks, “What sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness . . . waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (3:11). You could take that and say, well, why do you want to be holy when Christ returns? Okay, because you don’t want to be judged. Why don’t you want to be judged? Because you want to live with him forever. And why do you want to live with him forever? Because you want to spend eternity with God.
I’m happy to have all of those connections being made. What I just don’t want is to rob the force of a text to hit you with the weight of a warning. I better feel something. There’s a mood here, and I want to so turn every one of those angles and edges in Scripture so that it hits you with a mood. Or as a preacher or as a small-group leader, you need to massage that mood into your hearers. I just want to let Scripture speak to us with all of the specificity and all of the unique emotional force that it has for us.
John Piper: Amen. Here’s an illustration from the end of 1 Corinthians 11. I just wrote a post on this a few weeks ago, because that very point clobbered me. Paul wants them to change their behavior at the Lord’s Table, and so he says,
Anyone who eats or drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. [That is, we wouldn’t be sick and killed.] But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (vv. 29–32)
So God kills us to keep us from going to hell if we abuse the Lord’s Supper — sometimes.
I can imagine a person who does not want that mood to be a part of any service. And so he just will not preach on this. He won’t talk about this. He won’t ever say that to his people, because he thinks that’s just going to make people unhappy or depressed or discouraged or scared or lose their assurance of salvation or confused or whatever. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I love Kevin because he’s just so Bible-saturated. That’s why I long for you to be Bible people.
So what I wrote recently was that I want to become the kind of person who feels loved by God by every way he loves me, including killing me. That’s what 1 Corinthians 11 says. He makes some of us sick (and eventually dead) so that we won’t be condemned with the world. That’s how much he loves us. And if I don’t feel loved when the Bible talks to me that way, I need to change. Not the Bible. I need to change.
I totally agree that the tone of the text, the point of the text, mustn’t be muted. Yes, we want to have the whole effect of Scripture. That is one of the incentives for a happy, faith-filled experience of Communion.
Final question. Hebrews 12:14 says that there is a holiness without which we will not see the Lord. What is the meaning of that verse, and how does that relate to us being fully accepted by God on the basis of another’s holiness?
Russell Moore: We’re called into the life of Christ. So when Jesus dies for us and is raised from the dead for us, he joins us to himself. So someone who does not share in that life, who isn’t joined to the vine — “I am the vine. You are the branches” — doesn’t have Jesus’s life coursing through his spiritual veins.
I thought it was interesting when John was talking about the legs flopping over the side of the bed and the mind having to speak to the legs in a person’s life. That’s exactly what Colossians says is going on in the corporate life of the body of Christ. The head, the energy that comes from the head, now goes to all the parts of the body.
So if I am alive in Christ, then Christ’s life is now coursing through me as part of the body of Christ. So if I am not experiencing that, I am not going to see the kingdom of God. It’s the same kind of language the apostle Paul uses to the church at Corinth: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? But such were some of you.” You share in Christ’s holiness, and that works itself out in the way that you live. If that’s not present, you’re not alive.
Kevin DeYoung: Christ is a gift to us — Calvin said a double grace of justification and sanctification, so that you could just as soon split Christ apart as split those two things apart.
At the end of the age, when there is this call for some sort of evidence or fruit, it’s not that you need to weigh out the balance; you just need something that indicates progress. It’s where you’re going. That’s what you talked about, Ed. And it’s a public vindication, I think, of both us and in a way of God at the end of the age. “Okay, here’s one that’s justified and going to heaven. You say there’s grace abounding in him or her. Can we see a little bit of it as confirmation?”
So that’s a vindication of what’s going on in us and also this public scene of God. God has done something in this person’s life, and God is right to have justified this person through faith in Jesus, and now something to show of this glorification that will be complete was begun in this. “He who begins a good work will be faithful to complete it.” And here it is. Yes, this is my child. This is one I love, and here’s what I’ve started. And now I have every right to finish it.
John Piper: So, to boil that down, the answer to your question is this: “Pursue the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” means there is a measure of holiness required in order not to justify us but to demonstrate that we’re justified, to give evidence that we are justified. And it is essential. You will be lost if you don’t have evidences that you are justified. Sanctification is not optional.
If you have no sanctification, you’re not born of God. Those who are born of God do not continue in sin, meaning they do not give up on the fight and surrender to the flesh and say, Once saved, always saved, I’m safe, and live like the Devil the rest of their life, thinking eternal security means that. It doesn’t. Eternal security means those whom he justified he will sanctify and, finally, glorify. And I think the reason God set it up that way is because he wants there to be a public vindication of his Spirit’s powerful work in the lives of these justified people at the last day.
About the thief on the cross — this may be helpful for those of you who are worried about quantification here, because that is where you start moving. Okay, how much evidence do I have to have? The thief on the cross had a very small file of good works and a very large file of bad works. So let’s just say he was forty years old. He was “saved” only two hours before he died on the cross. And I do believe he was saved, because Jesus said, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.” He had thirty-nine years and three hundred, sixty-four days of bad works. Everything he did was sin up till that moment.
So the file is jam-packed with bad works that are going to damn him to hell if he has to take the credit for those. And Jesus says he’s going to go to heaven. And I don’t believe he’s exempt from the judgment according to works. So at the last judgment, as he stands there with all the condemning demons around him accusing and laughing up their sleeve at this guy, he’s going to pass the judgment according to works?
God opens his file cabinet and goes to the back and pulls out this little, skinny file of good works, and he says, “When I touched him on the cross, he turned to his fellow thief and rebuked him and confessed his own sin before him and humbled himself and said, ‘We deserve to be here and this man’s done nothing. So why are you talking like that?’ And that’s the evidence I will put on the table of the courtroom that he’s mine.” And then he burns up the rest of the file or puts it under the blood. And that’s all it took.
What’s required is not a quantity but a reality. Is there a reality in your life that will be able to show on the last day that you’re born of God?
Ed Welch: Yes, and that can be a can of worms. That Hebrews 12:14 text is a tough one. I’m just trying to think where can I go with those things. I hear what you’re saying, and I look at myself and see so many ugly things — how do I quantify good works and bad ones and have assurance I’m in good standing with God? Also there are corporate means of grace, and church discipline is one of them. And if I’m not being disciplined by my church, then isn’t this evidence of their seeing the grace of God in me and my being in Christ?
Would something like the following be appropriate? I go to my elders and say, “Here’s my life. Do I need to be excommunicated?” And if I’m going to a church that does church discipline and I make my life available to them, and they say, “No, you are a member of good standing in this church,” I should have assurance about the verdict coming on the last day. It’s not quite going where you’re going with explanation of Hebrews 12:14, John, but am I allowed to bring some kind of hope like that into the explanation of this text?
John Piper: I don’t understand the question.
Kevin DeYoung: Ed is saying the elders of the church have the keys of the kingdom — to bind, to loose — and that assurance is a community project. So it’s significant when the elders of your church say they see evidences of grace in you. They don’t see disqualifying. You are a member in good standing. In other words, the church provides a precursor of the final judgment and evaluation to come, which should give the tender conscience some assurance.
And it seems to me the other piece of this is to remember that perhaps the most precious, rare, exquisite good work before the Lord is true repentance. And it’s not as if, well, everyday I just have bad works and good works all piling up. There’s repentance. The Puritans said that repentance is the vomit of the soul. That is a hard, ugly, nasty thing to do. It may be that among the most beautiful splendor of holiness in our life to ornament God’s gospel to say that he repented and he hated that sin. And that’s a huge part of the evidence.
John Piper: That’s helpful. Thank you.
John, would you close us in prayer?
John Piper: Father, in a sense everywhere we turn there are cans of worms that if we were not helped by you at every moment we could take almost every sentence in this conference and twist it into something hurtful. And so I’m asking that you help these folks not to do that. Just may every sentence be turned in its most truthful way, its most biblical way for the greatest good for every person. So give us rest. Give us sweetness in fellowship now. May Christ be the center of all of our conversation. I pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.
More Messages from Desiring God 2012 National Conference
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