Rebuilding the Foundations
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You can obey Jesus. You can live a holy life. It does take effort, and it does not just happen. If you will give that effort, however, you can live a holy life.
Grace gives us the power to obey Jesus as soon as we are saved. It even teaches us how to obey (Eph. 2:8-10; Tit. 2:11-12). For the rare few, the power we receive by grace is so compelling that they are thrust into a life of obedience to Jesus. For the rest of us, the Bible gives clear, practical steps for growing in obedience and holiness. Holiness does not simply happen; we have to work at it. Thus, step one is effort.
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to do and to will of his good pleasure. (Php. 2:12-13)
Pursue peace with all men and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14)
Brothers, I don't regard myself as yet having taken hold, but one thing I do: forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things that are before, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Php. 3:13-14)
Be diligent to make your calling and election sure because if you do these things, you will never stumble. (2 Pet. 1:10)
What are "these things" that Peter wants us to do so that we never stumble? Now that we have seen four of the many places that the New Testament calls us to effort. Let's chart our course with what Peter calls "these things" that will prevent us from stumbling, then look at the seven tools God gives us to continually ramp up our power. You cannot be a powerful or holy Christian without them.
When people talk about the plan of salvation, they usually mean a formual for becoming Christian. Peter also has a plan of salvation that we must live out as Christians. If we do not, then we will become "short-sighted to the point of blindness" and "forget that we were ever purged from our past sins" (2 Pet. 1:9).
The life-long plan of salvation Peter gives begins with the power God gives us when we are saved. Once we believe and are baptized, without any effort or good of our own, he gives us "everything that pertains to life and godliness" (2 Pet. 1:3). He also gives us "great and precious promises," so that "through these," we can become "partakers of the divine nature" and "escape the corruption that is in the world through lust" (2 Pet. 1:4)
So step one is to be saved and thus have everything we need to live a godly life here on earth. Step two is to use his great and precious promises to partake of God's divine nature and escape the corruption that is in the world through lust. Peter gives us steps to do that as well.
Peter begins with faith. If you are a Christian, you have faith. To that faith, you must add virtue, then knowledge, then self-control, then perseverance, then godliness, then brotherly kindness, then love (2 Pet. 1:5-7). While this is an amazing sequence, as I will explain next, all of those things should be growing in us we mature as Christians. Peter promises that if they are, we will be "neither barren nor unfrutful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 1:8). This is a huge promise because our ultimate goal is to become just like him (Rom. 8:29; Php. 3:10).
The reason for the sequence that Peter gives in verses 5-7 is as follows:
At the very outset of our Christian life, when we have nothing but faith, we nonetheless have a basic sense of right and wrong. We have an idea that some actions are virtuous and others are wrong. Peter says, "Get started. Be virtuous. Add virtue to your faith." Our sense of right and wrong is not innately the same as God's. Thus, we need to add knowledge, by reading the Bible and listening to other Christians. Of course, knowing what is right is of no use unless we have self-control. Perseverance is next, which is ongoing self-control. As the New Testament says several times, we must not grow weary in doing good (Rom. 2:6-7; Gal. 6:8-9).
If we are increasing in the knowledge of God's will and persevering in the doing of God's will, then godliness will be the result. What we have been doing through self-control and perseverance will become part of our character. Godliness will increase your brotherly kindness, and as that grows, you reach the pinnacle of holiness: love.
Of course, these things are not only a sequence; even love, the end of the sequence, will begin to grow in you from the day of your salvation (if you let it). As Peter says, "If these things are in you and increasing, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 1:8).
As you see, holiness is a process. Don't be surprised if you find self-control, and especially perseverance, difficult at the outset. God will help you in two ways: he will put you through trials that will teach you perseverance (James 1:2-4; Rom. 5:3-4). Holiness is a process, and both God and you will be working on it.
These seven biblical provisions for holiness and the power to obey Jesus are not in order, except that the Holy Spirit is the most important provision of the New Testament. We need all of these on a daily basis.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the difference between the Old Covenant and the new one. Under the new covenant, the Holy Spirit is promised to every believer (Acts 2:17-18) and every Christian will know God (Jer. 31:34). Romans 7 describes how people under the Law of Moses but without the Holy Spirit find themselves unable to obey the law. Romans 8, however, explains that the Holy Spirit, who came to us because of the offering of Jesus Christ, delivers us from Romans 7 (Rom. 8:2-4). We are promised that if we walk in the Spirit, then we shall fulfill the righteousness of the law (Rom. 8:4) and have "life and peace" (Rom. 8:6).
Walking in the Spirit is not necessarily easy! While Paul says, "Walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh," he also says, "The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary to one another, so that you cannot do the things you want to" (Gal. 5:16-17).
I will assume that you, like me, understand this dilemma. You have experienced the transforming power of the Spirit, but you have also experienced struggles, maybe even addictions. You have regularly and knowingly disobeyed God in some area despite knowing that you are sinning and despite the fact that your actions embarrass you. Fortunately, God foresaw in advance that even with the Holy Spirit, sometimes "you cannot do the things you want to" (Gal. 5:17); therefore, he provided us power even beyond what we have from the Holy Spirit.
Make no mistake. It is not just a theory that you need your brothers and sisters. When the apostle Paul says, "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you'" (1 Cor. 12:21), he is not just being poetic. We need each other.
James tell us, "Confess your faults to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed" (James 5:16). If you have sin in your life that you cannot overcome, this is very likely what you are missing. This verse does not say, "Confess your sicknesses to one another," yet it talks about healing. Sometimes, you need to be healed from the ultimate sickness, sin in the soul, and you need prayer to obtain that healing.
How often does this confession need to be done? Until you are healed. Hebrews 3:13 says, "Encourage one another day by day ... lest any of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." Part of the provision God has for our obedience is the exhorting one another.
I have to pause here to explain "exhortation." In the New Testament, the word translated "exhort" is a huge word. In most translations, it is also translated "encourage," "comfort," and even "console." The word literally means "to come alongside." I believe the best definition of the word is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, where Paul writes, "Warn them that are unruly; comfort the faintheanted; help the weak; be patient with everyone." Exhortation can be all those things.
We need to do all those things for one another "day by day." If you find yourself in sin that you just cannot overcome, get help!
Please understand that by church, I mean the people of God, even if there are only two or three others. Hebrews 10:24-25 does tell us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves, but it also tells us what to do there. We are to "consider [or know] one another to provoke to love and good works" and be "exhorting one another." Remember, 1 Thessalonians 5:14 lists the kind of things we need to be doing in order to "exhort" one another. Going to a building on Sunday morning and singing and listening to a sermon does not fulfill Hebrews 10:24-25. You will not find the power you need in a modern "church service." You will find the power you need in a few brothers and sisters who are exhorting you day by day and considering you so that they can provoke you to love and good works.
Of course, you also need perhaps just one or two so that you can confess your faults to one another and pray for one another. Accountability groups like this are popular nowadays. If you cannot find one, use 2414now.net to find a discipleship group near you.
Everyone knows we need the Scriptures in order to have the power to obey Jesus, but most have a limited understanding of how that power comes.
First, the Scriptures are every bit as much for use towards each other as they are for reading ourselves. Paul says that the Scriptures are profitable for "doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16). These are things we do with each other, not alone. "Doctrine" is literally "teaching." "Reproof" and "correction" are two levels of correcting one another: gently giving advice and directly correcting wrong behavior. "Instruction in righteousness" is a wider word for teaching, meaning the kind of training a mother or father would give to their own children over time. In each case, we need others to use the Scriptures in the ways Paul prescribed.
It is important to point out that the final purpose of teaching, reproving, correcting, and training in righteousness is that "the man of God be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:17). The Bible is not a book for arguing about shades of doctrine; it is a book to train you in obedience to Jesus. If we are ever going to have unity among Christians, it will be because we have adopted an obedience-based approach to the Bible, not a knowledge-based one.
Finally, we must always remember that the Bible directs us to Jesus, not to itself (Jn. 5:39-40). Only Jesus can give us life. The Bible itself is not our master; Jesus is. The Bible contains his words, but not nearly all of them. The Bible itself says, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that is proceeding from the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4). God is always speaking to us by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes he speaks through us through the Bible, sometimes through others, sometimes through circumstances, and sometimes by a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:11-13). The Bible directs us to Jesus. If we want to be the Sons of God, we must be led by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:14). We cannot obey the Bible apart from him (Jn. 15:5).
I think it is worth pointing out that I said we cannot "obey" apart from him. We are far too consumed with theology. The primary thing you want from the Bible is guidance so that you and those who are with you can do good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17). As 2 Timothy 2:22 says, "Flee youthful lusts, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart." Shortly before that line, Paul wrote, "Shun profane and useless babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness ... but the foundation of God stands firm, having this seal: 'The Lord knows those who are his, and let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from unrighteousness'" (2 Tim. 2:16,19). The only useful approach to the Bible is an obedience-based one. We are learning to do good, not to argue questionable doctrines.
That said, all my experience, both in reading the Scriptures, studying history, and interacting with other Christians, tells me that the most powerful and holy Christians I have met were disciplined men who read the Scriptures regularly, usually daily. 2 Timothy 3:14 says they are able to make you "wise to salvation," and "wise to salvation" in Scripture always means pleasing to God in your behavior.
Know the Scriptures, especially in this day and age, where most teachers teach traditions of men that violate the Scriptures. For example, in all your attending of church, has anyone told you that the assembling of yourselves together specifically says we should be provoking "one another" to love and good works and exhorting? Almost everyone uses Hebrews 10:24-25 to tell you to attend a meeting on Sunday morning where no one will provoke to love and good works except one man who will do so generally without "considering" any individual.
In some churches, "grace" is used as an excuse not to repent or stop sinning. One brother might admonish another—which, as we have seen, is one of the more important ways we can serve each other—and the other will reply, "Remember, we are under grace." What that means is, "Don't tell me what Jesus says to do, grace allows me to continue sinning without punishment."
The surface problem is that "grace" is often confused with "mercy." One of the God's "graces," his "favors" toward us, is mercy, but grace is not mercy. When God forgives our sin, that is mercy. When God delivers us from sin, that is grace. We used to be slaves of sin, but now sin has no power over us, because we are under grace (Rom. 6:14). Grace teaches us "to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age" (Tit. 2:11-12). It is false teachers who turn the grace of God into a license for sin (Jude 1:4).
The deeper problem is that such a brother is either not really saved, in which case he does not have grace teaching him to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, or his fear of the Lord has been erased by false teaching about God's forgiveness. Many have been taught the heresy that all their future sins are already forgiven because of Jesus' death. We have already gone through 2 Peter 1:3-11. Just that passage makes it clear that our future sins are not already forgiven. In fact, if we want them forgiven, then we need to walk in the light, repent, and confess our sins (1 Jn. 1:7-9). If we walk in the darkness, and those who are not interested in being admonished are walking in darkness, then we have no fellowship with God (1 Jn. 1:6). God will not be mocked. If we continually sow to the flesh, we will perish rather than reaping eternal life (Gal. 6:7-8).
With that false teaching addressed, let's get to how you can obtain more grace than you already have. This is of course possible, since at one point God gave "great grace" to the church in Jerusalem (Acts 4:33).
If we are Christians, we already have grace. We have been saved by grace (Eph. 2:8), and our faith gives us access to the grace by which we stand (Rom. 5:2). We can always use more grace, and the apostle Paul blesses his readers with grace at the start and end of almost all his letters. The writer of Hebrews tells us we can get more grace by coming "boldly" to the Throne of Grace. There we can find mercy, and we can also find "grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16). If we are struggling with sin, then we are in a time of need!
This access to the Throne of Grace is something the Scriptures teach us to take boldly in faith. Ephesians 3:12 says we have bold and confident access to God because of our faith in Jesus, and Hebrews 10:19 says we have boldness because of the blood of Jesus. As guilty as we might feel after we sin, and as much as we might be appropriately lamenting, mourning, and weeping (james 4:9), we are believers. We are children of faith. Jesus died for us, and as repentant children we have "bold" and "confident" access to throne of grace. Jesus is our advocate before the Father. This does not mean he is our lawyer; the Father wants to forgive us and forget our wickedness every bit as much as Jesus does (cf. Ezek. 18:20-30 and Isaiah 55:7). We do not need a lawyer to convince the Father to forgive us. We do need faith in Jesus, and we need to acknowledge the blood that gives us bold access to God's mercy.
So, when we struggle with sin, we must not shy away from God in guilt and embarrassment. We must rush into the light of our merciful God, acknowledging our wickedness, and he will give us grace to help in our time of need.
Paul once wrote, "Bad company corrupts good morals" (1 Cor. 15:33). We all know this to be true by experience. If we are parents, we work hard to attach our children to good influences. Reading about great men of God moves us to be like them. Spending time with God is just like that.
Never allow yourself to believe that prayer to God is your imagination. For the Christian, there is real fellowship with God. The more time you spend, the more real it will be. The more time you spend, the more you will be influenced by God.
Now it is true that those whose faith is not tempered by the Scriptures and the warning/comfort/help (1 Thes. 5:14) of the saints have wandered into delusion even when praying a lot. We need all of God's provision, not just some of it. Stay in the Scriptures so that you recognize the voice and ideas of Jesus and our Father. We have to be able to distinguish between spirits.
That said, if you read the Scriptures and stay away from deluding spirits, you will recognize the voice of Jesus. His sheep know his voice (Jn. 10:14-16). You will recognize the presence of God (Ps. 16:11), and you will be drawn to it. Praise, worship, intercession, quietness before God, and general time spent with him, heeding the Holy Spirit, will strengthen you. Draw near to the Holy One, and you will be more holy (cf. James 4:8).
The Scripture gives many commands to pray, but in this case, I am not talking primarily about prayer for kings and all in authority, for the church, and for those around us. I am talking in general about time with God. We should intercede for others, but in the context of power to obey, spending time with God, even in silent reverence is strengthening. "Build yourself up in your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourself in the loved of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ leading to eternal life" (Jude 1:20-21).
Time spent with God brings us to the next of God's provisions for us.
We are told to be transformed by the renewing our our minds (Rom. 12:2). The first and most important step of that transformation is to get rid of the idea that you are a "poor sinner." You were a poor sinner. You were "dead in your trespasses and sinss' (Eph. 2:!), "but God ..." (Eph. 2:4). We were "wretched men," wanting do good but not being able to do it (Rom. 7:18-24), "but" what the law could not do, God did! (Rom. 8:3). We are re-created, completely new: "Old things have passed away, all things are new, and all things are of God" (2 Cor. 5:17-18).
We are commanded to think of ourselves this way. "Account yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:11). I know of three people whose lives were turned around by that verse. One is the famous Chinese teacher Watchman Nee, who credits that verse with embarking him on a holy life.
We live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). We believe the things God has said about us, and if we are not living the way that someone dead to sin should live, then we have to ask what is wrong. I hope you have seen above that there are lots of places to ask. Your closest Christian friends are the best ones, but God does raise up elders and leaders who can give us more general advice as well. Often, though, what is wrong is that you have a wrong picture of yourself.
The commands of the New Testament are as much a declaration of who you are as they are commands for you to do something. John said that if we don't keep Jesus' commandments, we don't know him (1 Jn. 2:3). You are a new creature, "created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God has prepared in advance for you to do" (Eph. 2:10).
If you watch any movies at all, then you have seen the dejected hero, whether in war, sports, or just changing his life, be reminded of who he or she really is, then rising to the occasion and triumphing. We see that in movies because as humans, we know how much our image of ourselves matter. I had a rare form of leukemia. Early on in my treatment, a nurse told me, "We can tell who is going to make it as soon as we walk in a room. Attitude is everything." This is even more true in spiritual things because God responds to faith.
We have already looked at walking and being led by the Spirit. Walking by the Spirit is associated with how we think. "Those who are fleshly mind the things of the flesh, but those who are spiritual mind the things of the Spirit. ... to be spiritually minded is life and peace" (Rom. 8:5-6). Pretty easy first step to walking in the Spirit, don't you think? Just set your mind on spiritual things
This is long, but I should add one more passage. Paul was planning a trip to visit the Corinthians when he wrote 2 Corinthians. He told them what his approach would be to dealing with sin in their midst: "The weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds, casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, brining every thought into captivity to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:4-5). His warfare was all towards the mind; toward the way we think. No wonder, since he also told us to be transformed by the renewing our our minds" (Rom. 12:2).
I almost put "looking" into the same category as "thinking," but they are a little different, and seven provisions for restoration and the power to obey seemed a better number than six.
Just as we are told to think about spiritual things, we are also told to look at certain things, primarily Jesus. "Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of God" (Heb. 12:1-2). In Colossians, Paul adds, "If, then, you are risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not things on the earth" (Col. 3:1-2).
As we are to set our minds on spiritual things, and on things above, so our spiritual eyes should always be looking toward Christ in the heavens, beholding God. Just as renewing our mind leads to transformation of life (Rom. 12:2), so changing where we look brings transformation: "We all, with open face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Cor. 3:16).
Following Jesus is not a formula. It is real life, real effort, real suffering, and real power to live a holy life. You can access and live by that power, but you must make the real effort and endure the real suffering to do so. You are not in this battle alone; it is God who works in you both to do and will of his good pleasure (Php. 2:13), and the One who has begun this good work is going to finish it (Php. 1:6), if you will stay the course (Col. 1:21-23).
That said, here is a simple recap of what I have written:
One of the things that has helped me most throughout my 37 years as a Christian is the following teaching from Watchman Nee. (You will find it in his book, The Release of the Spirit.)
According to the Bible, we are "spirit, soul, and body" (1 Thes. 5:23). The soul is who we are. "God breathed into Man the breath of life, and he became a living soul" (Gen. 2:7). Our body allows us to interact with the world around us and communicate with people. Our spirit allows us to communicate with the spirit world and commune with God. God's Spirit gives us divine life as he communes with our spirit. This is so real and so intense that Paul compares it to the joining that happens in marriage and makes us one flesh. "He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him (1 Cor. 6:17). It is that joining to the Lord that begins transforming us from the inside out. When we were dead in our sins, it was our spirit that was dead. It was spiritual death that passed from Man ("Adam" is Hebrew for "Man") to us all (Rom. 5:12). Joining ourselves to the Lord brings our spirit to life. This is why those who live according to the flesh are warned that they will die (Rom. 8:12; Gal. 6:7). Even those who live spiritually will die physically. Those who choose a fleshly life will die spiritually.
Our soul, Watchman Nee taught, is encapsulated in our soul that is accustomed to earthly life: to sin, revenge, lust, anger, and an aversion to all suffering. If we are going to overcome those things, the life of Jesus in our spirit must break through that hardened soul.
God does this in two ways. The life of God presses on our soul from the inside, and the trials of this life hammer our soul from the outside. Just as a seed must be pressed into the ground, where pressure and moisture work to soften it, and the life within presses its way out of the seed, so the circumstances of our life are geared by God to break our natural life, so the spiritual life of the Lord Jesus can be released.
This means we should rejoice in suffering. That suffering is crippling our natural powers, so that the life of God can break through and Christ can live in us. We can nourish this process by faith and by not complaining, but we cannot get out of the process. There must be suffering to produce patience, so that patience can have its perfect work (James 1:2-4; Rom. 5:3-4).
The biggest application of this in my life has been Watchman Nee's statement that we cannot speed up the process, we can only hinder it by resisting and complaining. We cannot make it happen in our natural strength; it is the work of God to break our natural strength, so that we rely only on the life of the Spirit in us. Paul knew this because he said, "When I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Because of this teaching, which came to me when I was only two months old in the Lord, I have been able to endure hardship with joy. "All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28) has been easy for me to understand because of Nee's teaching. That suffering is just as much of a gift as believing in Jesus (Php. 1:29) makes perfect sense to me. This is not to say that I did not complain, or even become furious with God as a young man. In his kindness, he did not kill me in my fury, but continued to mold me, continuing the shaping despite my complaints. I like to think that as an older man, I know better. I know, though, that God knows how to get to the deep things that he needs to transform in me, and I am sure that chisel has not departed from my life.
I like call suffering God's chisel because of the allegory Watchman Nee used. When Solomon built the temple, the stones were all chiseled at the quarry. Huge stones were shaped into blocks, then transported to the temple, where no tools were to be used on them (1 Kings 6:7). Tradition has it, though I cannot find such a reference in the Bible, that the stones fit together so perfectly that no mortar was needed (reference, see "Construction" section). We are stones in a spiritual temple (1 Pet. 2:5). We, too, are only axed, chiseled, and hammered here, in the quarry on earth. God is preparing us to be fitted perfectly to become a habitation fo God in the spirit (Eph. 2:22). The work must be done here.