Pastor John, you kept us hanging last time. There’s a debate happening in the church recently. How much of the Christian life is grace, and how much of it is obedience? Or, how does gospel centeredness and justification work together?
Oh, how I would love for the lovers of sovereign grace to be of one mind about how sovereign grace works in the process of sanctification, how grace relates to obedience, the process of our attitudes and actions becoming more holy by the grace of God. First Peter 1:15 says: “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” So there are controversies out there about the process of sanctification and the role of obedience and effort in it, the role of grace and Christ’s cross and justification in it. And I want to try to come at this in a way that maybe could bring these sides together.
All of us want to exalt grace. Grace is our only hope. None of us deserves heaven. We all deserve hell. Only grace will keep us out of hell and that grace flows to us from God through Jesus Christ, only through Jesus Christ who absorbed the curse and the wrath of God and who provided righteousness for us and enabled us to be forgiven so that God could be one hundred percent for us. All of us have in mind those glorious truths when we think about grace and we all agree and the people I am thinking about anyway would.
Future Grace in Sanctification
The debate is usually formulated in terms of whether human effort is needed to obtain the holiness or the obedience without which we will not see the Lord. And what I don’t see emphasized enough in the debate — and I think it would help if we did, though I could have missed it — is a strong biblical emphasis on future grace. That is the kind of grace that shows up this afternoon or tomorrow morning. It is new every morning, as Lamentations 3:22 says. And it empowers faith-filled effort that we make and that will in the things that we ought to do. This future grace is blood-bought grace. There is the link with the cross and with justification. The only reason God is gracious to me this afternoon is because Christ died for me in the past. And so depending on this future grace always glorifies the Jesus of the cross, the blood shedding Jesus. So let me illustrate how this works from a few texts and one text in particular is very, very key. And I would just love to get everybody in the same room and see how they would handle this text.
“Living by grace and making effort with my own mind and will are not exclusive categories in the Bible.”
The point I am making here is that living by grace and making effort in the Bible, those two things — living by grace and making effort with my own mind and will — are not exclusive categories in the Bible. Those aren’t either/ ors. You don’t say: I will either live by grace or I will either make an effort. If the effort is what the Bible calls a work of faith... so watch this happen in 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12. In fact, I would day this to people. Click stop right now on the episode and go get your Bible and open it up and I will wait for you. Okay, are you back? Good. Here we go. We always pray for you. This is 2 Thessalonians 1:11: “We always pray for you, that our God . . . may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you . . . according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now that is a massively important verse on the relationship between my resolving and my working and God’s grace and God’s power and my faith. So here are the eight pieces. Here are the eight steps of sanctification in that verse. I will just tick them off here.
We always pray for you that our God may fulfill in you. So everything starts with God.
2. God’s grace
The resolve for good, every work of faith are according to the grace of our God. Now that is future grace. So this afternoon I am supposed to resolve some good, do some work of faith. There is going to be grace there to help me make it happen.
3. God’s power
God fulfills every resolve for good, every work of faith by his power. So this grace is experienced as a power from God.
4. Our faith
This God-fulfilled activity is a work of faith. That is the phrase in the Bible. Work of faith. So the way God by his grace and his power is going to bring about the good work, the obedience, the holiness is by faith in that grace which is his power to do it.
5. Our resolve
May God fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith. This means that there is an inner motion of the soul to embrace the good that is about to be done. The soul moves. It is an act of the will. I am resolving something. This is a human act. But God is the one who by his grace, by his power, through our faith is bringing it to pass. Those are the dynamics that keep it from being legalism.
6. Our work
May God fulfill every good resolve, every resolve for good and work of faith by his power. So this is our work in the sense that our mind, our will, our hands are the actors of the deed. But the decisive cause is God, God’s grace, God’s power flowing through our faith, our resolve. First Corinthians 15:10 is just a great illustration of this: “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.” It is exactly the same as here in 2 Thessalonians 1:11.
The resolve is fulfilled. The work is done. May God fulfill every good resolve and work of faith. So when the work is done we know God has done it. He awakened my resolve. He gave the gift of faith. His grace and his power carried the work. And so when it is done, he fulfilled it, which is what it says in Philippians 2:12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you . . . .” So your working is really God’s working. He is the one that is bringing it to completion through the resolving and the willing and the working and the faith and the power and the grace. So it is your acting and his decisive doing.
8. Jesus is glorified.
May God fulfill every resolve for good, every work of faith by his power so that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you. So it is all going to glorify Jesus, because he is the one who bought all of this grace for us.
So by his grace and for his glory and in the middle, human resolve, human work and the link between this blood bought power and grace that carries all this human action, is my faith, my trust in him so that in the end, the work of holiness is a work of faith and a work of grace. It is visibly and partly our doing and it is ultimately and decisively God’s doing.