This is Part 2 of 3. In Part 1, I expressed the consternation I had experienced over Scriptures about “resting” and “striving” that seemed like they didn’t fit with each other.
So what do those “resting” verses really mean?
The Lord used several means to help me in my understanding: my Bible studies—especially Galatians, Romans, and Colossians—a sermon, and some key books. Even though I didn’t understand at that time the importance of asking the Holy Spirit to open my eyes to the Scriptures, still He had mercy on me.
The resting (in case you had as much trouble getting it as I did) is NOT about becoming a couch potato, lol.
It’s about zero striving to accomplish my own sanctification/ godliness/ holy life.
It’s about resting in the finished work of Christ in order for me to be the recipient of God’s pleasure.
It’s about refusing to try to fight and strive and struggle against my own heart sin myself (which will always fail), but to look to Him, stand in Him, and let Him do the fighting.
When I learned this in 2004, really learned it, it was absolutely electrifying to me. Resting from works didn’t mean not doing anything, or just doing whatever I wanted.
It meant resting from needing to do anything to become more pleasing to God.
In 2005 I wrote
This [the 1994 note I quoted in Part 1] shows me MYSELF, almost twelve years ago. This was eleven years before I learned the truth: that the divine nature is secured not by imitation, but by faith. Eleven more years, and I am in tears about it even now. I stand in astonishment of my own blindness when I was searching the Scriptures so diligently for so long, but I have to say I have also wondered where in the world were the people who should have been teaching me this. I would have been electrified by it. (And I was, when I finally understood.)
And I ask the Lord, “Lord, why so long? I was asking for help. I wanted to know. I sensed the wall. Why so long?” It seems that all that time, though there were many bright spots, there was still in the midst of it, too often, darkness and despair. I sensed that there was something missing, but I didn’t know what. I just didn’t understand.
But the Lord has never been in a hurry. History shows that abundantly. Now that I do understand, though, I want to be used by Him to trumpet this great truth to all those who are trusting in imitation in order to secure the divine nature, Christ in us the hope of glory. Not imitation, but faith!
Heath Lambert’s excellent thoughts
In his book A Theology of Biblical Counseling, Heath Lambert (Executive Director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, and heir apparent to Jay Adams, whom I quoted in Part 1) devotes a significant section to the topic of sanctification. Though he says some things there with which I vehemently disagree, on page 291 he also quotes this beautiful verse:
2 Corinthians 3:18
And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.
Then he says (boldface mine),
Paul indicates here that we grow in holiness over time and by degrees and that we do so as we look to Christ (cf. Heb. 12:1-2). This process of becoming like Jesus by beholding Him will continue until we die or Christ returns and we are made fully like him because we shall see him in his fullness (1 Jn 3:2).
These are good words, with which I agree. There is no “striving” in looking to Christ and beholding Him. In fact, in that, there is rest, and the “becoming like Him” happens naturally.
In this blog post, I explained how I would offer alternative “Biblical counsel” to “Jane,” who reported sexual assault at The Master’s University:
Her Christian growth will come by faith in the living Son of God who has accomplished all her sanctification for her, who invites her to stop striving to fulfill her own holiness and come to Him for rest, through time spent with Him—in prayer, in the Word, and simply learning to enjoy Him, as David did. I’ll tell her that just as the battle is a cosmic one, on a battlefield that is not to be seen with this eye of flesh, so this transformation that is to take place in her life will not be by her fleshly efforts, but by faith.
And what do those “striving” verses mean?
As you can see, it took me years to get it. (Maybe because I wasn’t used to asking the Holy Spirit to open my eyes to the Scriptures.) But finally there came a time when I understood. Here are the Scriptures I referenced in Part 1.
Then someone said unto him, Lord, are there few that are saved? And he said to them, Strive to enter at the narrow gate; for many, I say to you, will seek to enter in and shall not be able. When once the husband of the house is risen up and shall have shut the door, and ye begin to stand without and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not from where ye are, then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say unto you, I know you not from where ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity.
Jesus wasn’t referring here to sanctification. He was, in essence, saying to those hard-hearted Jews, “Make it your serious business to find out the true way of salvation. Don’t take this lightly!”
And when it comes to Paul, in every case in which Paul talked about striving or laboring, he was describing the outflow of the river that Jesus promised would flow out of us in John 7:37-39, the highly-charged battery filled with divine power. These are the truths from which my blog was born and is the reason a waterfall is the motif. There is so much energizing power in a waterfall!
Him [Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
Paul “endeavored with strenuous zeal” according to the “supernatural energy” that “energized” him with “miracle working power.” He was filled with the waterfall of God, and it poured out naturally to others. None of what he did was in order to accomplish his own sanctification—it was the natural result of the Spirit’s work in his life.
Paul wasn’t talking about working in order to defeat sin or obtain God’s pleasure. He was talking about God’s pleasure already being in him and flowing out of him in energizing power.
2 Corinthians 5:9
Therefore, whether we are present or absent (from the body), we labor [we are zealous, we produce with vigor] to be well-pleasing to Him
The fruit that the garden produces is well pleasing to the farmer. But it isn’t because each plant works so hard to produce the fruit—the fruit is a natural outgrowth of having good soil, plenty of water, and sunlight. For us, our “soil, water, and sunlight” are to be found in Jesus Christ alone, by faith. Out of this, the Holy Spirit produces the fruit (not only the character traits mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23, but the energy to actually accomplish things that He wants us to do, such as Paul’s mission trips). This natural fruit, then, is well pleasing to God the Father.
Paul worked hard, always energized by the Spirit, not because he hoped somehow God would finally be pleased with him if he tried hard enough. Rather than working in order to somehow finally measure up to God’s standard and get God’s pleasure, he was talking about working because God’s pleasure was already energizing him.
So my beloved, as ye have always hearkened, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out [accomplish, produce] your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in [energizes] you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
Those two words for “working” aren’t the same.
James 1:2-3 uses the first word. “My brothers, count it all joy when you fall into diverse trials, knowing that the proving of your faith works [accomplishes, produces] patience.” The word indicates something coming out naturally, like fruit comes out of a productive plant, the natural produce that comes from whatever is worked in. As our faith in Him is tested under trials, our willingness to wait for Him will be an outworking.
The fruit comes out because God is the one energizing, flowing the sap up from the roots to the branches, causing the fruit to grow the way it should.
This is not about our working to try to overcome our sinfulness and finally gain God’s pleasure. It’s about God’s pleasure already being in us and flowing out of us.
This is not about accomplishing godliness in our own strength; it’s about working as Paul worked, with great energy and vigor, pressing forward to take the cool water of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to thirsty souls. The pleasure God experiences in that kind of work has nothing to do with our sanctification (godliness, holy life), which is already secure and greatly pleasing to Him in Jesus Christ as we look to Him in faith.
And yes, there can certainly be fear and trembling involved, because of where God calls us to go and what He calls us to do in faith. (I’ve written about that before.) But he will energize us for that work.
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto 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 the throne of God. 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.
Was the sin they were warned they would be striving against “unto blood” their own heart sin? No, the context of the persecuted heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 and the context of our Savior who died for us at the hands of those who shamed Him, all indicate that the striving is against the evil in the world.
Would shedding of our own blood help us in any way to strive against our own sin? This would contradict everything the New Covenant teaches. But the New Covenant often indicates that those who love Jesus Christ will be persecuted unto the shedding of blood.
The sin they will be “striving against” is the evil in the world, as Paul did on his mission trips, energized by the Holy Spirit. This is very different from “striving against” one’s own sinful heart.
But . . . Lambert’s definition of sanctification
In spite of the excellent thoughts Heath Lambert gave above, in the very same section of A Theology of Biblical Counseling he apparently contradicted himself, with words that reminded me of the teachings of my youth. In spite of saying that our sanctification would come by beholding the face of Jesus Christ, he says the following on page 290 (all boldface are mine):
Sanctification is the lifelong process in which Christians strive by divine grace to grow in Christlikeness in their entire person.
And this on page 292.
Sanctification involves Christian effort and striving. Christians are called to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12; 1 John 3:3). . . .
When it comes to our continuation in the Christian life we are called to make effort that is in keeping with our profession of faith. (2 Cor. 10:5; Eph. 2:10; Col. 1:10; 2 Thess. 1:8; Heb. 5:9; 1 Peter 1:2). In fact, when James says, “Faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26), he is talking about the effort of those who have been justified by faith. His point is that justification that flows from faith in the merit of Christ will always produce moral effort in sanctification.
Obviously he is expressing here something very different from what I’ve been expressing (and what he appeared to be expressing earlier). In Part 3 I want to look at all the Scriptures he puts forth, but for today I’ll close with a quotation.
An expression of the alternative view
The book that has communicated to my own heart perhaps better than any other the truth of “no striving for sanctification/ godliness/ overcoming sinfulness / practical holiness” is How to Live the Victorious Life, by an Unknown Christian.
This quotation applies to the “moral effort” Heath Lambert espouses.
Have we grasped the fact that the Victorious Life is not secured . . . by effort and striving on our part? We know that a partial self-control can be obtained and IS obtained for a time by men who give no thought to pleasing God. An athlete will “flee youthful lusts” and to a great degree “keep himself unspotted from the world” simply to gain victory in the world of sport. A business man or a shop-assistant will “control” his temper merely to secure orders, or keep a situation. A society lady will remain “sweet” even if you ruin her smartest dress by upsetting your tea over it. A Christian man may “school” himself in the same manner — but this is not necessarily the Victorious Life. . . .
A few more quotations from the book, with Scriptures . . .
It is true that St. Paul exhorts us to “fight the good fight” — but he hastens to add “of faith.” Now a “fight of faith” cannot be a struggle [of moral effort]. It is true that James said, “Resist the devil” (James 4:7). How? With your hands? Surely not. “Whom resist, steadfast in the faith” (1 Peter 5:9). . . .
We are made “members” of Christ — a part of His body. So that Christ’s life becomes our life, and we can say, “Christ Who is our life” (Colossians 3:4). Get hold of this truth. . . . “This is the victory that overcometh the world –even our faith” (1 John 5:4). . . .
Are we willing to look to Him and trust Him to conquer our sin for us? He has conquered sin and Satan. HE – the Conqueror — is willing to come and fill our hearts and be our life. “Sin shall NOT have dominion over you,” says God’s Word (Romans 6:14). We may be “more than conquerors” — not by struggling, but entirely “through HIM that loved us” (Romans 8:37). What does it mean? Not only that the besetting sin will be conquered — but the very desire to sin will be taken away. . . .
Blaze it out in letters of fire, that [as we look to Him in faith] Christ can, and will, save us from the power of sin every day and every hour without struggling, striving, and agonizing.
Through Jesus Christ all our sanctification/ godliness/ practical holiness have been accomplished, not just “on paper,” but in actual practice, as we look to Him in faith.
Then the rest of the gospel will produce the outflow of the Life.
Part 3 coming, with further response to Heath Lambert.
Part 3 is now available to read, here.
Oh Rebecca, this contradiction of faith v. striving has enshrouded my spiritual life also. God Himself removed the darkening garment and has been granting me experiences in His faith freedom, and now He’s enriching my understanding as well by the light of His Word. I thank Him for His work in your life. Amen
That’s a blessing to hear, Sandra. Thank you.
Good study Rebecca.
The idea of striving brings the expectation of purity and holiness to the forefront, while rest allows us to see how it is good for us to “draw near to God, I have put my trust in the Lord God, that I may declare all thy works” (Psalm 73:28).
Yes, we must strive against the wicked seeking to thwart the truth of Christ. It is very important to understand, as you point out. We are not to strive, fight against yourself in adding to the work of the gospel in our hearts. The Holy Spirit is our Comforter, our Helper against the fleshes temptations. We are called to pursue, be diligent against our flesh.
In respect to our life against the world: we will have to strive in our ‘training in godliness’ because the world disapproves it (1 Timothy 4:10). We sadly have to strive to enter the Sabbath rest because the world works pushes against us in unbelief (Hebrews 4:11).
In respect to our life with fellow believers: We should strive to exhort one another to stay steadfast, fully assured, in the work of Christ and will of God (Colossians 1:29, 4:12).
The idea of striving does bring the expectation of purity and holiness to the forefront for many, but alas, no amount of striving will help us to be pure and holy. All our purity and holiness must come through Jesus Christ alone, as we look to Him.
Regarding striving to enter the Sabbath rest, here’s my extended commentary on Hebrews 4:11. https://heresthejoy.com/2014/08/finding-that-elusive-sabbath-rest/
We are in agreement….
I am stating why we have to ‘strive’ against the world because they want no part of Christ’s purity and holiness.
In respect to the Sabbath rest, the context of the passage clearly points out that Christ is our Sabbath rest. The verse here uses the Greek word for ‘diligence’ that you have been ‘defining’ for us in what in our effort. We must be ‘diligent’ to allow our souls to find their complete rest in Christ. We are prone to wander way from the Gospel truth even as believers that Christ has finished the work so that we can come and draw near to God the Father.
You are bringing out what many have struggled with in the ‘religion’ of Christianity, but find a hard time applying the ‘liberty of the gospel’!
Yes, excellent, thank you!
Sanctification, also called transformation, requires us to rethink how we think. It does not just happen by merely being a serious Christian (whatever that means). It has been wisely said by someone who greatly struggled with a destructive habit that found him in AA, “in church we hear about miracles but in here (these AA meetings) we see them.” Effort is required. Rest becomes easier (more anxious-free, if you will), when we understand and live in the reality that Christ actually does provide all the empowerment we need to live a godly life – but we are responsible to utilize that gift within the kingdom of our own lives; aka, take action, make effort. While grace is not earned, it naturally produces/requires effort of action. But personal change, the partaking of Christ-like nature, cannot happen outside of being a disciple of Jesus – which in today’s culture is not the same thing as profession of faith. Striving and resting do not quarrel with one another, but rather represent the epitome of a life of one following Christ. There’s a plethora of examples from lives of those who’ve gone before, such us Brother Lawrence, and many others whose lives demonstrated the power of the marital relationship between striving and resting/sanctification and transformation.
By “being a serious Christian,” I meant one who actually wants to have a transformed life, who wants to be like Jesus, who wants to experience practical holiness. Sorry I didn’t make that clear enough.
My understanding is that “moral effort” means “trying to be good.” The resting comes in finding out that “being good” is found in Jesus Christ alone, and the striving comes about when we live out of the truth that is already true in our lives, rather than trying to make it more true. Hudson Taylor is an excellent example of this, as I quote in Part 3 of thise series.
So i am here again… reading, searching and asking and trying to understand. But in the “trying” am i striving.??? Lord, help me to see.
You’re asking Him to open your eyes of understanding. “Striving” would be doing works and then saying, “See God? I’m doing a good job, right?” This is different. This is asking for HIM to do the work, within you.