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Is It Our Job or God’s Job? Both Actually

Jun 19, 2018

As always, there can be some rather fuzzy thinking on how the Christian is meant to operate in this world. We must avoid various extremes here. Some Christians more or less expect us to just act and think like the world, without any supernatural help and any of the Spirit’s enabling. They are way off the mark.

But there are also those Christians who may hyper-spiritualise everything, and dismiss anything that may not appear to be spiritual – such as learning, studying, preparation and the like. That too can be a recipe for disaster. Both errors can be quite unhelpful – and quite unbiblical.

And sometimes these faulty extremes can be based on rather faulty understandings of some key passages. Often for example a believer will point to a passage such as John 14:26. It says, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”

There happen to be other passages like this, including:

John 16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

Matthew 10:17-20 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Luke 12:11-12 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.

Luke 21:12-15 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.

All these verses offer us wonderful promises of God being with us, of his Spirit enabling us, and of the confidence we can have as we go out and minister for Christ. But these verses can be misused and abused – as can almost every other passage of Scripture!

Some believers will appeal to texts like this and say: “See, this proves it. We don’t need to waste time studying or reading, or going to Bible college, or doing theology. We just trust God – end of story.” They may not put it in exactly those words, but that is what they are thinking.

So how might we respond to such folks? The broad answer is that we must consult all of Scripture, and not just select a few verses to the exclusion of all the rest. The whole counsel of God must be appealed to here. Let me offer a more specific reply that I actually offered recently.

Someone had come to one of my articles and did in fact quote John 14:26. The article was about the need for all believers to be apologists, or defenders of the faith. In addition to citing that verse, the person said this: “Why don’t the Christians pray and ask God to help them with the answers?”

I thought it to be a good comment and worth spending a bit of time on, so I replied as follows:

Thanks for that. It of course goes without saying that we always pray and seek God’s help as we try to deal with tough questions from non-Christians and others. But that is NEVER to take the place of proper study and a willingness to learn. Everywhere in the New Testament we are told to ‘study to show ourselves approved’ and the like. We are told about teachers given to the Body of Christ and the need for good teaching. So prayer is never a substitute for actually using our minds for the glory of God, but a supplement. We always need to do both, in other words.

A university student for example who might be overly hyper-spiritual may think that he or she does not need to study for the exam, or even read any of the required textbooks, but just pray and presto: 100% top grades on all assignments and exams. Sorry, but it just does not work that way. God requires of us to do the hard yards – in this case, to study and read and prepare. He never blesses laziness, even if we over-spiritualise things.

It is of course the same in every area of life: God expects us to be responsible and to use our brains as well as pray. If a Christian wants to buy a new car, he or she will of course do some homework first. They will shop around, compare prices, look at options. Sure, they will pray as well, but God normally does NOT bypass our minds – he works with our minds. That is how he made us.

In the same way you might be preparing a fancy dinner for some very fancy guests, and making a very fancy and sophisticated meal. Any normal Christian will not JUST pray and then start cooking. They will pray AND carefully consult some good recipes and use some good cookbooks. Once again, God expects us to do both, not choose between one and the other.

So yes thanks, yours is a good reminder to always make prayer and dependence on God a crucial part of our apologetics and evangelism. But we are always to do both in the Christian life: totally rely on God in all things, but also do those things that He requires of us. In this case that means actually doing some reading and some studying so that we are better equipped to answer the hard questions we may get, and to more accurately portray the beauty and truth of biblical Christianity.

And this is true of other areas, not just evangelism and apologetics. We can mention things like theology and Bible study as well. The same principles apply. Yes, we need the Holy Spirit to guide us as we read and study the Word of God, and as we do theology.

But that does not mean we exclude or downplay vital basics in doing theology and seeking to understand the Word of God. That is, we will of course make use of various Bible study aids, such as Bible dictionaries, commentaries, Bible atlases, and so on.

These helpful tools are not a replacement for the role of prayer and the help of the Spirit, but a supplement to them. God works through them, in other words. But some zealous Christians will seek to argue that we do not need any of those tools, we just need the Holy Spirit and he will guide us into all truth when it comes to understanding the Scriptures.

Again, yes and no. Without the Spirit’s leading we will fail, but without using the means God has appointed (including teachers given to the Body, etc), we will also fail. Consider reading and understanding the Bible. On the one hand the Bible can be read and understood by a child, but on the other hand, it contains much which can be difficult to grasp and properly interpret.

Even Peter said that about Paul and his writings: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16). And we see the early disciples asking for help to understand Scripture properly, such as in Acts 8:30-31:

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

The truth is, not everything in the Bible is crystal clear, and often we can get things quite wrong as we read the Bible on our own. So we need others, and there is a place for teachers, for basic principles in studying and understanding Scripture, etc. Let me share something I wrote some years ago on this issue:

If the Bible really is so clear and simple to understand, then presumably the meaning of the following passages and ideas should be apparent to all:
What is baptism for the dead? 1 Cor. 15:29
Should women teach? 1 Tim. 2:11-12
Who are the spirits in prison that were preached to? 1 Pet. 3:19
How do you explain the Trinity?
How can people make free choices if God knows the future in every detail?
Can God create a rock so big that even he can’t lift it?

I dare say that if just one of these passages were given to a group of twenty people, and they were told to go away and come back with the meaning, there may well be twenty different understandings and interpretations of the passage given. Being a spirit-filled Christian, in other words, is no guarantee that one will always interpret Scripture properly. The tools of theology help us as we approach God’s word.
billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/26/in-defence-of-theology/

Once again, the main point is this: yes, we must rely upon the Holy Spirit, and yes we must pray as we witness or evangelise, or engage in apologetics, or teaching, or preaching, or Bible study, and so on. We would be seriously amiss if we did not pray much and routinely depend upon the Holy Spirit.

But all that does NOT mean that we are just passive and do absolutely nothing. I already gave various examples above about this. Let me offer one more. Any pastor worth his salt knows that he must spend quality time during the week to prepare his Sunday sermon.

Thus most have days set aside during the week devoted just to this task, often with a “do not disturb” sign pinned to the door. A pastor or preacher would be irresponsible and derelict in his duties if he refused to do the necessary homework and preparation.

He will spend quality time in sermon preparation: he will have a topic selected, consider some relevant verses, perhaps consult the original languages, and at least have a rough outline ready. Some will write out their entire sermon. Of course to do all this preliminary work does not mean he will be closed to the promptings and leadings of the Holy Spirit.

He will pray and seek the Spirit’s guidance not only as he prepares his sermon, but as he delivers it as well. The Spirit-filled pastor will present his message as he planned it, but if he senses a strong urging from the Spirit to perhaps go off message a bit, or point out some specific issue, or slightly change gears mid-stream, then he will do so.

He fulfils his human responsibilities while simultaneously always depending on and being open to what the Spirit is saying. In other words, it is NOT a case of being forced to choose one or the other. He will do both. He will study to show himself approved as Paul commanded (2 Timothy 2:15), AND he will pray and seek to be sensitive to how God might lead him.

So we rejoice in the passages that I mentioned earlier on. But we must take care in not misusing them. They contain terrific promises, but they must be read and understood in light of all the rest of Scripture.

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12 Responses to Is It Our Job or God’s Job? Both Actually

  • Hi Bill,

    Thanks again for a well researched encouragement to us to “do both”, study and pray depending on the Holy Spirit to guide us and teach us in all truth. I was challenged a while back by some well meaning Christians, and a few who thought they were Christians, over some rather basic Scriptural teachings. I was quite surprised at how distorted a view some folks have of basic doctrine. In sharing these truths with them and explaining scripture with scripture I could see how they have latched onto some of the worldly beliefs and felt sure they were right, until they read for themselves the truth of the matter. This will be an unplanned but ongoing work.

    This caused me to have a good look at myself and my beliefs and decided to examine my strongly held doctrines to see if they lined up with scriptural reality. It has been an excellent case study for me and the further study reinforces what I hold to be true. If it isn’t in the scriptures, and reasonably explained, then I suggest we have a good look at why we would believe something, including the old cliche’ sayings we are all familiar with, but are found nowhere in the Bible.

    I sincerely want to thank you for your work here @ CultureWatch and your books. You are indeed providing a very valuable service to all of us who seek to better know The God we serve, and our duties in His service. You have challenged me many times and instructed me countless more. Please continue to stand strong for us who depend on you, when those harsh winds blow your way. We appreciate you and your work.

    Best regards,

    Ken Powell – Perth

  • Many thanks indeed Ken. Bless you.

  • I would like to hear your views on a somewhat related topic, viz., marketplace activism vs prayerful passivism. How far should Christians go in preventing the demise of their faith in an often hostile secular world?
    I once asked a Catholic bishop why his church was not more vocal both from the pulpit and in the public square during the SSM debate. I was trying to do my part but the heirarchy seemed to be asleep at the wheel. His response was that the outcome was in God’s hands!
    Frankly, I was shocked. While Jesus did not formally engage in fighting social justice issues one would have to ask how he viewed someone like Wilderforce who spent his life in Christian-based social activism. Where is the balance?
    Jesus also warned us about drawing children away from him in terms of millstones aroud necks so will we be harshly judged for being ‘lukewarm’ in not actively standing up against safe schools and gender theory?
    Had Christians looked at society through the lens of their faith rather than looking at their faith through the lens of society, SSM my not have come to pass.
    I accept that activism should not become our god since it can be quickly driven by pride but a better understanding of the balance between marketplace activism and prayerful passivism would be helpful.

  • Thanks Des. Yes quite so – I am with you. (Although you have me a bit puzzled by your choice of words here. “Marketplace” has to do with the arena of commercial and financial dealings. I take it you mean social and political activism rather than just marketplace activism.) If so, I have written on this plenty of times. I certainly think we must be involved in the issues of the day, fulling our biblical obligation to be salt and light. See here for some of the articles I have penned on this:

    http://www.billmuehlenberg.com/1997/10/10/the-case-for-christian-social-involvement/

    http://www.billmuehlenberg.com/2012/09/08/why-christians-should-be-interestedinvolved-in-politics/

    http://www.billmuehlenberg.com/2013/06/18/yes-politics-matters/

    So yes, we must pray, but we must work as well. Both are required.

    And you are absolutely right to be shocked by the foolish remark of the bishop that ‘the outcome of SSM was in God’s hands’. Of course in one sense every outcome is in God’s hands. He is sovereign. But that is NOT the issue here. God works through his people. As you rightly point out, he used human agents such as Wilberforce to see the abolition of slavery. There is no place for passivity here. See here for more on this:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2016/05/06/against-christian-fatalism/

  • Hi Bill, thanks for responding to my comment.
    I did not mean to infer that a Christian does not read or study the Bible but that like the verse says, the Helper will help us with the answer by bringing verses to mind. That in itself is implying, I think, that you have to have some Bible knowledge, don’t ya think?

    And I totally trust the Helper to teach me things, the scripture says He will. You also forget that God says not to trust in man. Why? Because man very often goes wrong. In the last days in fact, God warns us that some of us will fall away from the faith. One must be very careful as to who we allow to shape our understanding of scripture. But, with God…there is a great verse that I have often gone to Psalm 32:8
    The Lord will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; He will counsel you with My eye upon you.

    I think that God wants us to depend totally on Him, yes He gives us others to worship Him and to encourage one another, but that does not mean that we rely on each other for truth, we rely on God and His Helper the Holy Spirit to bring to our remberance the truths we read about in the Bible. We rely upon God to reveal His truth to us. Some of what I read in your response reads like we rely upon ourselves and others to know about God, but when I read the Bible, I read that God is the One who reveals Himself to us, and yes He can do it through others, but its God doing the leading.

    Thanks for answering me, Lisa

  • Many thanks again Lisa. Yes I hear what you are saying and I am more or less with you. However, it seems that you still may be making an unnecessary and in fact unbiblical false dilemma here: ‘Either trust in God or in man’. As I tried to explain, this is simply false (when properly explained). God works THROUGH his people. That is how he has chosen to accomplish his purposes on earth. We can learn from others of course while not ceasing in fully trusting God.

    So you are right to say we should only fully trust in and rely upon God. Of course, but whoever said otherwise?! What I HAVE been saying is we can fully trust in God while also benefitting from the God-ordained means of growing in the faith. Therefore, we recognise that God insists on using ‘mere human teachers’ and the like to help believers grow. Read again key passages such as Ephesians 4:11-13:

    “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

    So God himself has chosen to use human beings – yes fallen, finite and far from perfect men and women – to help us to grow and become more Christlike. That is how he chooses to work. Again, such human teachers (and other human means, such as books, and sermons, etc) are NOT something we use in place of the Holy Spirt, but alongside of the Holy Spirt. They go together, and what God has put together, let no man put asunder!

    You say that ‘God says not to trust in man’. Once again, of course, but only in the context of all of Scripture. We do not put full, complete, total trust in any man – only God. But to benefit and learn from a sermon, or listen to a Bible teacher, or read a great instructive book or commentary from a godly man is NOT fully trusting in him over against fully trusting in God. It IS using the means God has appointed to help us grow. So any time we listen to a sermon, read a Christian book, or go to a Christian conference, etc, we of course always pray, ‘God, help me to hear the truth you have for me. Help me to discern truth from error. Help me to get the benefit of what you have for me here.’

    That is how the noble Bereans acted: they assessed what the Apostle Paul had to say in light of Scripture. We are to do the same: we assess all things prayerfully and carefully in light of the Bible. That is just basic Christianity 101. It does NOT mean we are ‘trusting in man’ as opposed to trusting in God. It means we learn and grow the way God intended for us to do so – not as lone wolf Christians who have no need of others, but as part of the Body of Christ, as imperfect as it may be.

    Indeed, if you really meant what you said here about trusting in no one, then we should all take your advice, and not trust you! After all, you are also a mere man – or woman! If you really believed what you are saying here, you would not even send in comments, because we are not meant to rely on anyone else! Do you see what I am saying? But I am not foolish enough to think that because you are just a human being, I have nothing to learn from you. Thus I listen and prayerfully consider what you have to say, along with what every other Christian says. Once again, that is how God has chosen to work: he uses the Holy Spirit in all of us to guide us in all truth.

    In sum, to say that we must rely on the Holy Spirit is of course perfectly true. But it is false if it is taken to mean we have some kind of special direct pipeline to God, and that we have no need of our brothers and sisters. God made us to be part of a Body, not lone wolf Christians. God himself puts the Holy Spirit in ALL believers, so we can learn from others since his Spirt is found in them. Sure, since none of us are yet perfect, not all that we say or teach will be perfect, so again, we use discernment and we prayerfully consider all things.

    So again, you are right to suggest that ultimately only God gets our full trust, and not mere man. But no one here was ever suggesting anything to the contrary – certainly not me! But thanks again. And sorry for going on with another lengthy reply! But I think that these are quite important issues, and they deserve some careful discussion and some biblical clarity. Bless you.

  • The most difficult passage in the Bible is without a doubt- Romans 13:1-7. I am sure it can’t mean what you would deduce from a simple reading. Is it one of those passages that does not relate to what we understand as a government today?

  • Thanks Sarah. As I write in this article, I think that this passage is not so much difficult as it is often misunderstood and/or wrongly applied:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/12/03/difficult-bible-passages-romans-131-7/

  • An interesting article from an agnostic who concludes that Christianity is much more preferable, compared to atheism.
    http://www.pickeringpost.com/story/does-god-exist-does-it-matter-/8337

  • Hi again Bill,
    Thanks for clearing up what you meant, I guess I took it wrong in your first response. It seemed to me in that reply, that you were saying we were on equal footing with God and that we should rely upon ourselves or others as much as God. So, I was just trying to put God back on top where I felt he deserved to be, above us and in control, which is why I brought up not trusting in man and trusting in God for truth.
    And I do believe that there is a very real danger in being deceived and falling away from the faith so I do think that one should be very careful in whom they trust in learning from. It seems to me that in the world now, there are many false teachers out there just waiting to tickle ears and deceive people.

    And may I add one other thing…I don’t believe my original reply to you was wrong in John 14:26 because I have often called on the Lord to help me answer people and I have often had God bring verses to me when I needed them to answer someone. I rely upon Him doing that now. I don’t see where that is bad or a problem like you seemed to imply that it was, faulty understanding is what you called it.
    And I don’t think that bringing up that verse implies that people don’t need to read the Bible or study it. Obviously, the Helper can’t bring to someone’s remembrance verses that they’ve never read can He?
    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to reply, Lisa

  • Thanks again Lisa. Bless you.

  • Thanks, Mr Muehlenberg, I will read that article at Youth on Friday.

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