Christians cooperate with God in their growth:
Let me preface my remarks with a few qualifying words. First, this will be a rather brief piece. I am on the road again doing some speaking and things are rather busy. So I only have time to do a quick post. Also, I have discussed these matters elsewhere in more detail. See these two articles for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/22/sanctification-cooperating-with-god/
I write on this again because I had a discussion with a Christian the other day about living the Christian life. He was keen on insisting on grace – only. Now I am a huge fan of grace – how can any Christian not be? But what so often happens is that some believers will say the Christian life is all of grace, and we have basically nothing to do with it.
The biblical position however highlights God’s grace and initiative in our salvation, but also highlights our role and responsibility in cooperating with God as we live out that salvation. In theological terms, we are justified (as a once off affair) by grace through faith. We cannot procure or earn our salvation. How can we when we are dead in our trespasses and sins?
But once justified, the remainder of our Christian life involves cooperating with God as we grow in grace. We call this sanctification. We grow in obedience and holiness, and we have our role to play in this. We must obey God, resist sin, put off the old man, crucify the flesh, and so on.
These are all things we must do. Sure God helps us every step of the way. So I am happy to give him the credit, although he does call me to work with him as I grow as a Christian. As I told this brother the other day, God’s grace certainly enables my obedience, but I still have things to do to make it happen.
Since I am reading through the Pentateuch again, let me make use of some passages there. One text that highlights this cooperative endeavour is Leviticus 20:7-8: “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy.”
God makes the people holy, but the people are to make themselves holy. It is a cooperative effort. We see this especially played out in taking Canaan. Over and over again God tells the Israelites that he will give them the land of promise.
But over and over again the Israelites are told to take the land, to go in and possess the land. It is a cooperative effort. There are so many passages on this. Let me share just a few of them:
Numbers 10:9 When you go into battle in your own land against an enemy who is oppressing you, sound a blast on the trumpets. Then you will be remembered by the LORD your God and rescued from your enemies.
Numbers 13:1-2 The Lord said to Moses, “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites.
Numbers 21:34-35 The Lord said to Moses, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have delivered him into your hands, along with his whole army and his land. Do to him what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon.” So they struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army, leaving them no survivors. And they took possession of his land.
Numbers 32:6-7 Moses said to the Gadites and Reubenites, “Should your fellow Israelites go to war while you sit here? Why do you discourage the Israelites from crossing over into the land the LORD has given them?
Deuteronomy 2:30 But Sihon king of Heshbon refused to let us pass through. For the LORD your God had made his spirit stubborn and his heart obstinate in order to give him into your hands, as he has now done.
Deuteronomy 4:1 Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.
Deuteronomy 4:5 See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it.
Deuteronomy 7:1-2 When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you – and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally.
Deuteronomy 9:23 And when the Lord sent you out from Kadesh Barnea, he said, “Go up and take possession of the land I have given you.”
Deuteronomy 10:11 “Go,” the Lord said to me, “and lead the people on their way, so that they may enter and possess the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.”
Deuteronomy 11:8-9 Observe therefore all the commands I am giving you today, so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, and so that you may live long in the land the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to them and their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey.
There are far more passages than this, but I will stop there. Deuteronomy has many more such texts, as does Joshua, Judges, etc. So you get the point. God gives the land, but God’s people must take the land. It is the same in the Christian life: God gives us new life and the ability to fully enter into all that entails, but we have a role to play in taking that spiritual land.
Yes, at the end of the day we thank God for his marvellous grace, but we also thank him for enabling us to cooperate with that matchless grace. Let me finish with two quotes from Sinclair Ferguson on this:
“Sanctification is by no means a mystical experience in which holiness is ours effortlessly. God gives increase in holiness by engaging our minds, wills, emotions, and actions. We are involved in the process. That is why biblical teaching on sanctification appears in both the indicative (‘I the Lord sanctify you’) and the imperative (‘sanctify yourselves this day’).”
“We are personally responsible to put sin to death. It will not simply vanish on its own accord. . . . Yes the Spirit enables us. Without him we are powerless. But he never turns us into automatons. He never relieves us of the responsibility of living for the glory of Jesus Christ. Since he is holy in himself, he wants us to be holy in ourselves (but not by ourselves). And holy people do holy things – such as resisting and mortifying sin.”