Pastor John, you have referred to the acronym A.P.T.A.T. in your books, sermons, and classes. It has been with you for a long time. It seems to be central to your understanding of how the Christian life should be lived each day. And I know lots of our listeners have probably never heard you explain A.P.T.A.T. and why it’s so important. So introduce us to it and explain the big issue it addresses.
Living in Christ
Here is the big issue: How do you go about living the Christian life in such a way that you are actually doing the living, doing the acting, and doing the willing, and yet Christ, or the Holy Spirit, is decisively doing the living, and doing the acting, and doing the willing in and through your acting, willing, and doing?
“How do I work hard and yet be able to say when I am done, ‘God’s grace was the worker in and through me’?”
That is the key issue, it seems to me, of the Christian life. That’s the way Paul says he lived. And he means for us to live that way. He says in 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.”
Everyone listening to me right now should ask, “How do I do that?” How do I work hard and yet be able to say when I am done, “God’s grace was the worker in and through me?”
Relying on the Spirit
Now that is what A.P.T.A.T., an acronym, is intended to answer. Or to put it another way, how do you obey Philippians 2:12–13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you”?
What are the strategies that we take to make sure we can say that with integrity about our Christian life? Or to put it another way, how do you serve others in a strength that isn’t your own? First Peter 4:11 says, “Whoever serves, [let him serve] by the strength that God supplies.” How do you do that?
Or Romans 8:13: “By the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body.” So how do you put to death the deeds of the body? (Yes, you put to death the deeds of the body.) You do it by the Spirit. Now what does that mean? How do you do it? That is what I am trying to get at. Or Galatians 5:16: “Walk by the Spirit.” Galatians 5:18: “[Be] led by the Spirit.” Galatians 5:22: “[Bear] the fruit of the Spirit.” Galatians 5:25: “Keep in step with the Spirit.”
So my answer to all of that is A.P.T.A.T. It is what I did hundreds of times sitting on the front pew in the sanctuary two minutes before I am supposed to preach. I did A.P.T.A.T. I walked through A.P.T.A.T. in my heart, because when I stood behind that pulpit, I wanted to preach by the Spirit.
I wanted to preach in the strength that God supplies. I wanted to preach in a way so that I could say, “Not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). I didn’t want to get up there and do nothing; it is my job. I am supposed to preach. I must preach. And yet the devil can preach. People can preach without the Holy Spirit. But that is not the Christian life.
So here is A.P.T.A.T. — each of letters stands for an action that I take. And you can do this in one minute before you face some challenge.
A — admit. I admit that without Christ I can do nothing. John 15:5 says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
“People can preach without the Holy Spirit. But that is not the Christian life.“
You, John Piper, “can do nothing.” So I admit that. I say that. I believe that. I am helpless to do anything of any significance, any eternal value, any spiritual worth whatsoever in any way without Christ.
P — pray. I pray. If you admit you can do nothing, you say, “O God, help me.” “Ask, and you will receive,” Jesus said (John 16:24). “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). “Call upon me in the day of trouble” (Psalm 50:15).
So I asked the Lord. I sat there on the pew, and I asked the Lord for freedom from self-consciousness. Give me liberty. Give me memory. Give me authentic emotion. Protect me from error. I don’t want to mislead these people. Give me a prophetic anointing so that words come to my mind that are miraculously penetrating and liberating and saving and purifying and emboldening for the people. I wanted all of that to happen by the Holy Spirit. So I am asking for it.
T — trust. I trust a specific promise. I think this is right at the heart of the matter. I trust a specific promise that God has tailor-made. It might not be just a preaching situation. It might be a financial situation, or a sexual temptation, or you name it. I need a specific promise to believe right now, because I want to trust him, and I don’t want to just trust in general. I want to trust that he promised to do something for me.
“We are helpless to do anything of any significance, any eternal value, any spiritual worth whatsoever without Christ.”
So I might say, “I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you” (see Isaiah 41:10). I have used that, in the last forty years, a thousand times as I have faced challenges in my life. “I will help you. I will strengthen you.”
“I will make all grace abound to you” (see 2 Corinthians 9:8). “I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10). “I will supply every need” (see Philippians 4:19). Or in preaching I might say, “My word will not come back to me empty, John Piper” (see Isaiah 55:11). “It is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit who speaks through you” (see Matthew 10:20). So I take a promise and I trust it. I consciously preach it to myself and put my faith in it.
A — act. I act in obedience to God’s word, expecting God to act under and in and through my acting so that it is decisively his acting. We act the miracle. We did a whole conference on this theme and wrote a whole book about it called Act the Miracle.
In fact, my book Future Grace is nothing but an unpacking, you might say, of A.P.T.A.T. So act. “Work out your own salvation” (Philippians 2:12). “I worked harder than any of them” (1 Corinthians 15:10). “I now live in the flesh . . . by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20). “By the Spirit . . . put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13). So we do the acting. We are the actor and God is the miracle-maker.
T — thank. And then, finally, when I am done, I sit down and thank God. I thank God for whatever good comes. I thank him and I give him glory. “[Give] thanks always” (Ephesians 5:20).
Trusting God, Not Self
But the key, the fulcrum, in this sequence where everything hangs, I think, is that point of trusting. Trusting God’s promised help — future grace for the next five seconds or five minutes or five hours. It is called living by faith in future grace. It is called God will help you.
“We do the acting. We are the actor and God is the miracle-maker.”
“I will help you. I will strengthen you. I will meet every need.” You trust him for that. That is A.P.T.A.T., and that is what I think it means to live by the Spirit, and walk by the faith by the Spirit, and work out your salvation, and act the miracle of the Christian life.
I will just say one last thing. I was thrilled — I don’t know how many years ago this was, maybe 15 years ago, because I have been doing A.P.T.A.T. for 35 years or longer — I was thrilled on page 126 of J.I. Packer’s Keep in Step With the Spirit to find these exact steps. It was uncanny. Go to the top of page 126, anybody, and look at how he describes Augustinian sanctification. That is, he gives A.P.T.A.T.
I just came out of my chair. He doesn’t use the acronym, but the steps are all there in sequence. So I just say that at the end here lest anybody think this is kind of a quirky Piper thing. But I think it is just biblical through and through, and it is one of the most central and important discoveries I have ever made. How do you walk by the Spirit?
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