By N. Trevor Brierly
Understanding how God works in us, through the Holy Spirit and other means, can be difficult. The details of the process are not laid out explicitly in the Scriptures to the extent that we might like. I contend that completely understanding how God works in us is impossible without undergoing the process itself throughout an entire lifetime. This is disconcerting to those who like to understand something completely before entering into it, but the nature of this subject is that it cannot be learned primarily by study, but rather by experience.
Our walk as followers of Christ is something to be done rather than studied. As believers who not only hear the Word of God but do it also, we are expected to "jump right in" and begin to live as God wishes. Throughout the journey we develop and grow, and we find that our communion with God increases also. We find (or rather, God supplies) the resources we need as we go along. If we seek to understand everything completely before setting out, we will always remain where we are.
Study of Scripture is not an end unto itself, but a means (though not the only means) toward an end. Paul mentions that end in 2 Timothy 3:16. The point of Bible study is "righteousness". By "righteousness" we don't mean the kind of righteousness (perfection) which means that God "owes" us salvation. It is clear from Paul and others that this kind of righteousness was achieved by only one person (whom we should note did have the Holy Spirit abundantly, as well as an intimate and enviable knowledge of Scripture) and cannot be achieved by any of the rest of us (otherwise we would have no need for the atonement of Christ). The righteousness we need in order to stand before God, is provided through the process of justification, through belief in and appropriation of the saving work of Christ through his atonement. When we have faith, and act upon that faith, the saving "righteousness" of Christ is imputed to us. We are then no longer under condemnation, but have instead moved to being adopted sons and daughters of God (Romans 8:1-18). Therefore, in a sense, we can then say that we are “saved”.
However, we are only "legally" justified when Christ's righteousness is credited to us. We still remain sinners who are not righteous in word, deed or thought. We still have a long journey towards the kind of righteousness that God asks of his sons and daughters. We are not travelling towards salvation, but journeying while in salvation, though our salvation is tentative. Our journey is towards righteousness. We should note that there are many ways to trip and fall, and remain down. When we do fall, and don't get back up, then we are no longer in Christ, and we have lost our salvation. (For this reason we cannot accept the "once saved, always saved" doctrine. Christ's saving righteousness cannot continue to be credited to those who have rejected Christ. It is gained by belief and baptism, but it is kept by continuing to walk in Christ.)
Since each of us begins as a sinner, whose words, thoughts and deeds are controlled by sin and our selfish natures, each of us has much room to grow in righteousness. We may never attain the ideal of perfection, but it is a goal to grow towards always, since the work of the believer is never done until the return of Christ.
Since righteousness is the goal of every serious follower of Christ, we should be aware of the entire wealth of resources which are available to help us. The process of sanctification is a cooperative venture, an interactive process between God and the believer. We provide part of what is needed, and God provides another large part of what we require.
The goal of righteousness can daunting and discouraging to the believer, particularly the disciple who fully understands the vast scope of what God means by righteousness, and how very far we all begin from this end. The Law of Moses was primarily concerned with proper actions. And a small number of people achieved something close to perfection in obedience to the Law of Moses.
The Law of Christ asks for much more. We must not murder our enemy, but we must love him or her. Adultery was forbidden under the Law of Moses. Under the Law of Christ, lust that could have lead to adultery was also forbidden. The Law of Christ demands that our actions be right, but also that our thoughts and heart be pure. Such a transformation will seem daunting to the believer who is earnest about obeying God.
We have been given an enormous task, and we have also been given enormous resources to accomplish the task.
1. As creatures with reason and understanding, we have been given Scripture.
2. As beings who crave contact with others like ourselves, we have been given the encouragement and fellowship of other believers.
3. We move through time and space, and have experiences, thus God uses our circumstances and experiences to teach us.
4. All of these are not enough, so we have been given access to nothing less than the power of God, which is able to accomplish all things.
The “power of God” may have more meaning to someone who realises how powerless he or she is in relation to a particular sin which has been struggled against for a long time. The fight usually takes the following form: the believer understands that the behaviour or thought is wrong, and earnestly desires to cease it. He or she may have tried many times to stop, but found it impossible to be victorious. Why? Because an equally strong or stronger desire to continue also exists, perhaps complicated by an actual physical or psychological addiction, or other compulsive pattern that exists in our corrupted minds. We honestly desire one thing, to be free of sin, yet we find ourselves sinning again and again. A self-perpetuating cycle sets in; guilt and self-hatred, followed by further attempts that fail, followed by more guilt. Often the attempt is altogether abandoned, accomodations with sin are made (which leads to buried, unacknowledged guilt) and the believer manages to rationalise the behaviour, ignore it or otherwise dispose of the problem.
Paul was no stranger to this struggle. He describes his own battle very vividly in Romans 7:18-19:
For I have the desire to carry out what is good,
But I cannot carry it out.
For what I do is not the good I want to do;
No, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.
Many believers who are engaged in the battle against sin understand Paul very well. Paul vividly describes nothing less than the cosmic inner struggle that takes place within each believer who is seriously attempting to follow Christ and be transformed. The transformation is not easy. We are attempting to change something that is very deeply embedded within us, something that has been a part of us, if not our very core, since the day we were born. From our first self-centred scream of shock when we are removed from the womb, we put ourselves first. Many believe that humans are basically good, with occasional lapses into evil. In reality, we are primally self-centred, though with a latent capacity to grow out of the dim realm of selfish existence.
How is that to be accomplished? For many the answer is to simply "try harder". Study harder, sweep out the house (and strain to hold the door against the seven new unclean spirits battering at the door), clamp down with a joyless self-control and build a shell of contempt and holier-than-thouness to try to keep out the "world" outside.
Paul, with his imposing optimism and enthusiasm has a better way. He not only diagnoses the problem, but he also prescribes a solution in the next chapter of Romans. He begins with the Good News that we are no longer "under condemnation". As believers, we are now "in Christ". We have moved from a realm of condemnation and law, to a realm of "adoption as sons and daughters" and freedom.
The Nazi concentration camps had an ironic sign at their entrance: "arbeicht mach frei" ("work will make you free"). Our entry into this world has a similar sign: "freedom is slavery". The paradox of existence is that what we commonly imagine as freedom is really nothing more than the freedom to enter into the slavery of our choice. What Christ offers is true freedom, freedom from sin, freedom from bondage to self-centredness and self-hatred.
And that freedom he offers is backed up with the power to make us free. Freedom cannot come from ourselves, our own poor unaided efforts. We are trying to fix ourselves with our own broken tools. The result will always be failure, to one degree or another. The way to victory lies in putting aside our tools, and living out the reality of what Paul says in Romans 8:9
You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.
The thought of being "controlled by the Spirit" is uncomfortable to many of us. We wonder what this means. Does this mean that the one who "belongs to Christ" becomes an automaton, losing free will and independent thought? We recoil rightly against this notion. But note that none of us feel as uncomfortable as we should with the reality that another spirit dwells inside us and controls us, our own spirit of self-centredness. This spirit truly makes us robots and subjugates real free-will and independent thought to the totalitarian directives of the sinful nature, to the law of sin and its wages, death. We imagine we have free will, but this is an illusion. Our capacity for self-deception is so complete that we imagine our cell to be an open meadow, and our chains to be golden bracelets.
I submit that we gain true freedom by submitting to the control of a different Spirit, a Spirit of Christ. We begin with surrender, with repentance. When we repent, we admit that we not only sin, but that we are sinners by nature. We acknowledge that our ways have failed, our attempts at freedom through selfishness have led us to disaster and ruin. This occurs throughout our lives as followers of Christ, though we should begin with a public expression of repentance through immersion. The process is continual, a constant putting to death of the old person. Only we can choose to want to destroy the old person, to relinquish ourselves. Before the Spirit can enter in, there must be at least this much: a recognition of our sin, and a strong overwhelming desire to change.
This is the minimum that God can work with, but having done so, we find that the vast resources of the Creator of the Universe are at our disposal. The same Spirit that brooded over the waters, and was God's instrument at the Creation, that same Spirit is available to us. Jesus assures us of this in Luke 11:9-13
So I say to you: Ask and it WILL be given to you: seek and you WILL find; knock and the door WILL be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door WILL be opened.
Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!