Progressing In God

 

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The New Testament contains much marvellous teaching on how believers mature or progress in God. The progressive nature of our walk with Jesus Christ after our becoming babes in Christ at conversion can been seen in Philippians 1:25: “And being confident of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress…”

 

The wonderful work of the Holy Spirit and our response

 

The New Testament places enormous emphasis on the work God is doing in believers by His Holy Spirit within them. The original Greek New Testament balances out its wonderful emphasis on God’s gracious work in us as believers by His Holy Spirit, by many times using words which relate to our disciplining of ourselves, laboring, self-control and striving against sin. Such discipline, self-control, laboring and striving will not be truly effective and acceptable to God if it is done by reliance on the power of our flesh instead of on the glorious energy of the Holy Spirit. Discipline, self-control, laboring and striving can be done in flesh-empowered ways. But those who think these four things are always associated with fleshly religion, show they know little about the teaching of the New Testament.

 

Disciplining ourselves

 

In the original Greek, the word “gumnazo” relates to the disciplining of ourselves. The word “gumnazo” means “to control oneself by thorough discipline” [1] or “to exercise, to train the body or mind”. [2] A form of “gumnazo” is translated as “exercise” in 1 Timothy 4:7: “…exercise yourself rather to godliness.” Are you and I continually disciplining or training our minds and bodies in godly living through the Holy Spirit’s power?

 

Laboring or working through the Lord

 

In many New Testament contexts in the original Greek, the words “kopos” and “kopiao” relate to laboring or working through Jesus Christ. The word “kopos” means “work, labor, toil”. [3] “Kopos” or Greek words from it are used in 1 Corinthians 3:8, 15:58, 2 Corinthians 6:5, 11:23, 11:27, 1 Thessalonians 1:3, 3:5, Revelation 2:2 and 14:13. In 2 Corinthians 11:23, Paul compared himself to the false “apostles” who had led the Corinthians to believe in a false gospel and in a false Jesus. Note Paul here said he had far more labors than these false “apostles”.

In relation to our working or laboring through Christ's power, the Greek word “kopiao” means “work hard, toil, strive, struggle”. [4] Greek words from “kopiao” are used in Romans 16:12 (twice), 1 Corinthians 15:10, 16:16, Colossians 1:29, 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 1 Timothy 4:10 and 5:17. Note in 1 Corinthians 15:10, Paul stresses that he worked more than any of the other Apostles and he did this by God’s grace and not self-effort: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”

In Colossians 1:29, Paul again emphasises that he labored or worked hard and strove according to God’s or Christ's mighty power operating within him by the Holy Spirit: “To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily.” Therefore, the New Testament teaches believers can work hard, strive or struggle in laboring in and for the Lord without this being fleshly self-effort and self-reliance.

 

Beware of extreme passivism

 

One subtle but very deceptive set of attitudes which has resulted in many Christians over the centuries declining spiritually and becoming apathetic is extreme passivism. Extreme passivism refers to a state of being in which we are supposedly so resting in God and in Christ that our will no longer exists and any good actions are regarded as legalistic or at least unnecessary.

There are many Protestants in the 20th century who teach forms of extreme passivism. They talk much about faith, resting in God, resting in Christ, what Jesus has achieved on the Cross and salvation being by God’s grace and not by human effort. These are all wonderful Biblical teachings, but extreme pacifists turn these things into an “excuse” to avoid actively aiming to obey by God’s power many of the things He has commanded in the New Testament.

These Protestants often sound so spiritual and godly. Commendably, they are always talking about resting in God, avoiding works of Law and ceasing self-righteous self-effort. But they emphasise these things so much, they fall into the opposite unbiblical error. They attack human activity so much, they give the impression the only way to defeat temptations to commit known sin is to enter a totally passive faith state in which the Holy Spirit forces us to stop sinning. They often misuse the expression “Let go and let God” to mean this.

The Biblical view, however, is that the Holy Spirit will empower us to resist a sin as we in faith passively receive His strength and actively resist the temptation in our mind, will and spirit (see 1 Corinthians 10:13, Philippians 4:13, James 4:7 and 1 Peter 5:8-10). Romans 8:13 speaks of the correct thing when it mentions us by the Spirit putting to death the sinful deeds of the body.

Some sincere but misguided Christians may say, “Do not strive or struggle against sin after you are born again. Let the Holy Spirit do it all. He will stop you if you cease striving or struggling against it. He will repent for you and stop you from doing it when you learn to yield yourself to Him in totally passive trust.”

They are right in saying we should not strive or struggle against sin by own power or fleshly abilities. But Hebrews 12:3-4 refers to us striving against sin: “For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.” In the original Greek, the word “striving” in this verse is “antagonizomai” which means “struggle”. [5]

When talking to many with extremely passive attitudes, you find they have convenient excuses why the theories do not work. For example, after a few years of passively surrendering their sexual desires to God at the front of the church meetings week after week while still regularly actively being involved in sex outside marriage, they may claim the Holy Spirit will one day in future force them to stop doing this sin. This is supposedly once they learn how to cease struggling against it and instead totally passively yield it to Him. As we saw in Chapter…….“Errors about repentance”, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit do not repent for us or force us to stop sinning. Instead God the Holy Spirit gives us His power which enables us to repent.

Many modern Christians talk about yielding or surrendering their wills to God, but they only mean this in a passive sense. Such attitudes are Biblically imbalanced. True yielding to God involves by faith continually passively receiving His power in Christ which is then used actively by faith in resisting temptations to sin and in doing His known will in various good works.

Extreme pacifists are always condemning works, but fail to see that while the Scriptures oppose works of Law (see Galatians 5:19-21) and works of the flesh (see Galatians 2:16), the Bible teaches the importance of Christians doing good works by the power of God (see Ephesians 2:10 and Colossians 1:10-11).

 

Both motives and actions are important

 

One form of extreme passivism argues that it is only our motives and not our actions which are important in our Christian walk. This view says the Pharisees generally had good outward actions but poor motives. The Bible, however, teaches that both our motives and actions are important (see Matthew 5:21-28, 6:1-6, 6:16-18, 7:21-27, 23:5 and John 14:21). If for example, someone has starving children and he kills his neighbour in order to feed them, his good motive of desiring to feed them does not make his evil act of murder right. Our actions should be based on faith in and love towards God and love towards others.

 

God’s rest and active Holy Spirit-empowered living

 

Many churchgoers are full of their own self-efforts, self-help philosophies, self-goals, self-trust and self-inspired dreams and visions. Hebrews 4:9-10 has an important message for any of us who fall into such bondage: “ There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.” God’s rest involves having our efforts motivated by His power, love and wisdom and having goals, dreams and visions inspired by Him.

Hebrews 3:18-19, 4:1-3 and 4:6-12 refer to believers entering God’s rest. Hebrews 4:3 says: “For we who have believed do enter that rest…” Because this verse says we enter God’s rest by faith and verse 10 states those who enter God’s rest have “ceased from his works”, someone may wrongly infer that resting in Him involves doing nothing except passively believing in Him and Him doing everything else. The expression “ceased from his works” refers to new converts ceasing from their own self-empowered good works, but does not mean Holy Spirit-empowered good works are contrary to resting in God.

It is true that a large part of conversion involves new believers receiving God’s salvation by grace through passive faith. Eternal life, justification, a righteous nature in Christ, adoption, union with Christ, initial sanctification by the Holy Spirit and so on are things only God can give to believers. Believers cannot create or impart these things to themselves. But turning from sin to God and repentance at conversion involve active usages of our human will done through trusting faith in God and Jesus Christ.

In 2 Peter 1:10, Peter instructs believers to be diligent to make their calling and election by God sure: “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things you will never stumble.” In Greek, the expression “be even more diligent” above is a form of the word “spoudazo”. “Spoudazo” means “to hasten to do a thing, to exert oneself, endeavor”. [6] Peter’s use of “be even more diligent” here shows walking in Christ is not some state of passive do-nothingness.

In Philippians 3:12-14, Paul speaks of pressing on towards the goal for the prize. Such language is not passive but active: “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” In the original Greek, the word “press” used here in verses 12 and 14 is “dioko” which means “to pursue…used as a metaphor from a footrace”. [7] A footrace is not a totally passive state but a striving activity.

In 1 Corinthians 9:25, Paul says: “And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” In the original Greek, the word “competes” is a form of the word “agonizomai” which Bauer says in the above verse means “engage in a contest”. [8] Commenting on 1 Corinthians 9:25, Kistemaker says: “Paul describes the activity of the individual with the Greek verb agonizomai (I fight, struggle), from which we derive the verb to agonise. In the sports arena, the athlete subjects himself or herself to a severe struggle of body and mind. The contestant must practice total self-control to compete and to be victorious (II Tim. 2:5). Paul adds the words ‘in all respects’, which evoke images of lengthy training, arduous drills, proper diet, and sufficient rest. The athlete keeps mind and body focused on one goal: the winning of the prize.” [9]

A form of the word “agonizomai” is also used in Colossians 1:29 and is translated “striving” in the New King James Version: “To this end I also labour, striving according to His working which works in me mightily.” Note Paul here shows that such striving is done according God’s mighty power working in us.

In Philippians 1:27, Paul says: “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for faith of the gospel.” In Greek, the expression “striving together” is a form of the word “sunathleo” which means “contend or struggle along with someone”. [10]

Note also the New Testament references to fighting the good fight (see 2 Timothy 4:7), running with endurance the race set before us (see Hebrews 12:2), finishing the race (see 2 Timothy 4:7), competing as an athlete (see 2 Timothy 2:5) and being a soldier (see 2 Timothy 2:3-4). Such phrases also express the active aspects of our walk in Jesus Christ after conversion.

Philippians 2:12-13 says: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” Here we see God is working in us, inspiring our will and actions to be according to His purposes. But this is not something which manifests in our lives by our reverting to some type of totally passive mystical state of non-action.

Verse 12 qualifies this truth about God working His will in us by saying we must continue to co-operate actively with Him. This is what “work out your salvation” means. Note in verse 12, Paul is commanding us, not God, to work out our salvation in our lives. But this working out of the salvation which God already put within us in Christ, must be one in total dependence upon Him living with us.

 

 

Bible Study Questions

 

1.         The New Testament emphasises the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in believers. But what does the New Testament also stress as a balance to this?

2.         What does the word “exercise” or “gumnazo” in Greek in 1 Timothy 4:7 mean?

3.         Explain what the following verses mean:

a)                  1 Corinthians 15:10 and

b)                  Colossians 1:29

4.         What is wrong with having an extremely passive attitude to our resting in God and Christ?

5.         Is there anywhere in the New Testament which teaches we should strive against sin?

6.         What does the phrase “ceased from his works” in Hebrews 4:10 mean?

7.         Which New Testament verses refer to believers being diligent, striving or being active in other ways in our relationship with God?


 

 

One form of extreme passivism was the Quietist movement began by the Spanish Roman Catholic priest Miguel de Molinos in the 1600’s. Molinos taught that the goal of all Christian experience was the perfect rest of the human heart in God. He said such a condition is only possible if a person totally abandons himself to God in a way that the human will is completely passive. Molinos argued prayer instead of obeying God in practical living is the means to attaining this absolute rest in God. Molinos also taught that in this state of mystical passive meditation on God or Christ, the person is unaffected by sin and has no need to do any good actions. What was regarded as sin in others, was not called sin in the Quietists because of his mystic death to self and his supposedly very deep union with Christ. Quietists aimed to reach a state of mystical passive union with God through Christ in which they no longer cared whether God saved them or sent them to hell.

Charles Finney said the following about believers entering God’s rest: “To cease from our works is to cease attempting to do any thing in our own strength.

Everyone who has entered into rest knows, that whatever he does in his own strength, will be an abomination to God. Unless Christ lives in him, unless God worketh in him, to will and to do, of his good pleasure, nothing is ever done acceptably to God. To set himself to do any thing in his own strength, independent of the Spirit of God, is forever an utter abomination to God…Many Christians make themselves a great deal of trouble by trying to help the Lord Jesus Christ in his work. They weary and worry themselves with one thing and another as if everything hung on their shoulders. Now, the Lord Jesus Christ is as much pledged to the believers for all that concerns him, as he is for his justification; and just as absolutely bound for his temporal as for his eternal interests…Entering into this rest implies the yielding up of our powers so perfectly to his control, that henceforth all our works shall be his works… The apostle Paul says, “I laboured more abundantly than they all; yet not I, but the grace of God in me.” And he frequently insists upon it, that it was not himself that did the works, but Christ in him. Do not misunderstand it now. It is not said, and it is not so to be understood, that the believer acts upon compulsion, or that Christ acts in him without his own will, but that Christ by his Spirit dwelling in him, influences and leads his mind that he acts voluntarily in such a way as to please God. When one ceases from his own works, he so perfectly gives up his own will and places himself so completely under guidance of the Holy Spirit, that whatever he does, is done by the impulse of the Spirit of Christ…God influences the will, not by force, but by love, to do just what will please him.” [11]

 


 

[1] Louw and Nida, page 752.

[2] Vine, page 216.

[3] Bauer, page 443.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bauer, page 72.

[6] Vine, page 169.

[7] Ibid, page 485.

[8] Bauer, page 15.

[9] Simon Kistemaker, “1 Corinthians”, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1993, page 313.

[10] Bauer, page 783.

[11] Charles Finney, “Victory Over the World”, Kregel, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1966, pages 112-115.


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