We close out the week with a question from a listener named Bob. “Pastor John, I struggle with understanding what the Bible teaches on grace and how I should live in light of this wonderful gift. I’ve been taught to be killing sin or it will be killing me. But I’ve also been taught to relax — that there is grace enough in the Holy Spirit to take care of us. This all makes my head spin and seems a bit dangerous for how comfortable I can get with my sin! I know that we should not sin so grace abounds, but then how ought we to live? What’s a biblical view of grace in our sanctification?”
There are some head-spinning things in the Bible, and one of the callings of teachers and one of the hopes I have for this podcast is I can keep his head from spinning off.
The first thing I think I should do is clarify what might be a slight distortion of the meaning of God’s grace in the way the question is posed. Bob asks or contrasts the work of killing sin with a kind of relaxation. He contrasts the work of killing sin with a kind of relaxation that seems to say that grace is what you are enjoying when you relax, but something else is operating when you are working or striving. He says: But I have also been taught to relax. There is grace enough in the Holy Spirit to take care of us. Well, yes, and a lot of people have that view.
“Grace is not just the gift of restfulness, but the power of God to enable us to work for holiness.”
The problem with it biblically is that grace in the New Testament is not just the gift of restfulness, but the power of God to enable us to strive for holiness and work for holiness. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:10, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” So, the first thing I want to say to Bob is: Don’t frame the question that way. Don’t say that the Bible sometimes teaches us to strive and sometimes teaches us to be relaxed in grace. Rather say how, Pastor John, do we put together the biblical exhortations to strive and work and fight by grace with the biblical exhortations to rest and be content in grace? That is the real head-spinner for anybody who reads the Bible carefully.
So, the New Testament says things like — and he knows this, he’s citing them — Hebrews 12:14, “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Romans 8:13, “By the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body.” And Luke 13:24, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Now right there in Luke 13:24, those words of Jesus, there is a clue. At least, it points to a clue of how it is that people who are justified by faith alone and who believe they are secure in Christ and will make it to heaven by God’s grace, how do those people go through the narrow door? How do they strive?
The reason I say it is a clue is because there is a parallel in Matthew 7:13–14, which says this: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Now that sounds, whoa, goodnight, like the Christian life is just: hard, narrow, work, strive. Yes.
“As long as you prefer this world and sin over Christ, the only way to conceive of the Christian life is killing sin.”
However, four chapters later in Matthew — that is why I think Matthew is the best help here, because you are dealing in the same Gospel with the same Jesus talking the same language: Matthew 11:28–30, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” You can just feel it being lifted, right? Verse 30: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” So, in Matthew 7:14 “the way is hard that leads to life” and in Matthew 11:30 the yoke of Jesus is “easy” and “light.” So, I get why his head is spinning. My head spins.
So, one of the greatest questions in life is how those fit together. And you may take a lifetime to live it, if not learn it. And here is my suggestion for how I put those together. And you can think it through on your own. The fight, the striving, the narrow, the hard, the work, the warfare is not a striving to get Christ or to earn salvation. It is a striving precisely to rest. Now, I know that sounds like a contradiction, but think of it this way: When Jesus calls us to come to him and rest, he means rest in him, find your soul resting in him. We are to find Jesus to be our rest. Or, to use different words — and it is important to use these words — find Jesus to be our contentment. Find Jesus to be our peace. Find Jesus to be our satisfaction. That is what Jesus is for us, and he is bidding us come and find him to be that for us. And when Jesus is becoming that for us in large measure, that is our victory over competing pleasures of sin.
Therefore, it is warfare. The way we kill sin, the way we successfully strive and work to put sin to death is by doing whatever it takes to be more happy in Jesus, more restful in Jesus, more content and satisfied in Jesus than in sin. So all striving, all working, all fighting is a striving and working and fighting to rest, to be content, to be satisfied, to be happy in Jesus. This is the only way of gospel sanctification. If you don’t put to death sinful temptation by a superior satisfaction in Jesus, but only by your willpower, then you are going to get the glory and not Jesus. And that is not biblical sanctification.
“All striving, all working, all fighting is to rest, to be content, to be satisfied, to be happy in Jesus.”
First Peter 4:11 says, let him who serves serve in “the strength that God supplies” so that in everything God may get the glory through Jesus. So, how do we strive and work and fight to serve God? Answer: by receiving power and grace from God so that God gets the glory. And that power flows through faith: faith in God’s promises. And the essence of faith in promises is being satisfied in the promises, trusting in the promises, resting in the promises, being content in the promises. And that satisfaction is the rest of Matthew 11.
So, the reason Jesus says it is hard is because we love sin. We don’t love to rest. We love to find our satisfaction in this world and in sin. And he says: As long as you are preferring this world over me, sin over me, then the only way for you to conceive of the Christian life is killing. You must kill that. But the goal of the killing is the rest. And if you are already at rest in Jesus and he is a superior satisfaction to you over all sin, he is not going to have to fight: you are there. But nobody is there. So, in this way, we fight, and every day God gives us measures of restfulness and we defeat sin.