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Much of our Christian life calls for a balance between extremes. One area where this is needed is the balance between striving and allowing God to act in our lives. In most of our Christian life, we work and God works. There are times when we can strive too hard. Sometimes we need simply to get out of the way and let God do what he wants to do. And we should never try to do in our own strength what only God can do in his strength.
But there are also times when we need to put forth effort, sometimes quite strenuous effort, in order to achieve and receive the best that God has for us. In this and the next chapter, I want to emphasize that side of the issue. We American Christians, living relatively comfortable lives, need to be reminded of the importance of struggling against apathy and self-satisfaction. As always, I am speaking as much to myself as to anyone else.
There are a large number of energetic verbs in the New Testament, which speak of the effort we may need to put forth. They speak of very strenuous effort; putting forth all the energy we are capable of. Most are in a tense that speaks of continuing effort. We are exhorted to keep on making every effort, working, straining, struggling, pursuing, running with diligence the race set before us, fighting the good fight, waging war, persisting, resisting, standing, taking hold, guarding, and enduring to the end. These passages are not talking in terms of an “easy” Christianity!
One of the themes of this book is that, to a great degree, the Christian church has sat passively by while other forces have eroded the religious and godly basis on which our nation was founded. Evil has prevailed because, to a large degree, good people have done very little. In part, I believe, this is the result of some misconceptions some of us have had about our function as members of the body of Christ. In this chapter, I want to deal with some of those misconceptions, which have tended to encourage some to be passive. In the next chapter, I shall give some examples of what it means to press in vigorously to God.
In many parts of the Christian church, there has been, for centuries, a sharp distinction between clergy and laity. When we speak of “ministry,” many, today, think of professionally trained, ordained clergy, and perhaps also of lay “elders” who have been officially designated for a ministry function. This can lead to two attitudes.
This is not Scriptural. Peter referred to all believers as “a holy priesthood,” a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5, 9). Paul tells us that all believers are God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). He says that Scripture is useful “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). Every believer is expected to be thoroughly equipped to do good works.
Paul makes this very clear in Ephesians 4. I have quoted this passage before, but let us look at it again in this context, and in the New King James translation:
Two things are very clear from this text.
We see this second thought repeated elsewhere. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Paul compares the body of believers to the human body. Like the human body, the body of Christ has many parts, and each part, each believer, has a necessary function to play. Again, in Romans 12:3-8, Paul says that “we being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace given us, let us use them” (verses 5-6). Each member should use the gifts he has been given for the benefit of the whole body. In 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, Paul says that the Holy Spirit has given each of us different gifts for the common good. Peter says, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10 NIV). Each believer can administer God’s grace to serve others. Christ “died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Corinthians 5:15).
We need to expand our concept of “ministry.” Ministry is not just something that goes on inside the walls of our church buildings. There is a good deal of talk these days about the “ministry of the marketplace.” It’s a good phrase. The point is that every Christian, in whatever his occupation or activity, is called to ministry. Those who are in business, government, teaching, and the like are called to live daily by Christian principles, to embody those principles in all that they do, to be models and examples of those principles. Quite a few do so, but it is important to be conscious that this is a form of ministry that may be at least as valuable as anything that a pastor does behind his pulpit. I have a friend who is a former pastor, and now manages a group of retail stores. I believe that what he is doing now in managing these stores according to Christian principles, and modeling those principles for his customers and employees, is a ministry that is every bit as important as what he used to do as a pastor.
All of us can minister to those we come in contact with in terms of showing kindness and interest, giving a helping hand, spending some of our time and energy on their behalf. We can, as seems appropriate, pray for others, openly or silently. We can, as seems appropriate, speak to others about the gospel of Jesus Christ, always remembering that the witness of our actions and lives may speak much more powerfully than the witness of our words. The professionals are called on to minister in certain ways. But the whole body of Christ needs to minister in whatever way God is calling on them to minister.
FAITH AND WORKS
We are saved by faith and only by faith. It is the gift of God. No one can earn it or deserve it. Ephesians 2:8-9 and many other Scriptures make this abundantly clear.
But this does not mean that, once we have made a profession of faith, we can just sit back and relax. It does not mean that our actions, our works, have no importance. We are called on to press in vigorously to the kingdom of God. (See Chapter 21.) We are called on to grow and change. We are called on to do godly actions. Indeed, in the very next verse in Ephesians, Paul says, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10 NIV). If we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works, then should we not be very active in doing what we were created for?
Other Scriptures confirm this. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22 NIV). “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). James develops this thought in many ways in James 2:14-26. Jesus said much the same. He never accepted mere lip service; he asked for faith that showed itself in actions. “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say” (Luke 6:46). Then he went on to tell a parable of two men. One put Jesus’ words into practice, and the structure he erected stood against every storm. The other did not put Jesus’ words into practice, and the structure he erected was quickly destroyed by the storms. Is it not clear that, if we would stand firm against difficulties and obstacles, we need to be like the man who built his house on a rock? We need to put our faith into action; to demonstrate it by our actions. This means that we live an active Christian life, not a passive one.
Again, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Paul said, “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him…” (Titus 1:16 NIV). Our actions are the test of our faith.
Jesus expects us to bear fruit (Matthew 7:15-19; Luke 8:11-15; Matthew 25:14-30; John 15:1-6). “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). (Also see John 15:6.)
Why are our actions, our works, important? I think there are several basic reasons.
In our zeal to insist that we are saved by faith and not by works, let us not neglect the many Scriptures which tell us that, once we have been saved by faith, we are expected to do godly works.
SECURITY OF SALVATION
The security of our position as saved Christians is an important principle. I don’t intend to discuss it here. But one misuse of that principle has relevance to what I am saying here. Some have tended to act as if they felt that, once they have prayed for salvation, they are free to do or not do whatever they please, and are therefore under no obligation to put forth any further effort in their Christian life. This is not Scriptural. Paul tells us not to follow the desires of the flesh. (See Chapter 15.) And everything in this book emphasizes that our coming to salvation is only the beginning of a life of activity, growth and work in Christ. If all that our salvation means to us is our own eternal life in heaven, then our faith is very self-centered.
Jesus used the image of a gate and a path, or road (Matthew 7:13:14). We enter the narrow gate, and then proceed along the narrow path or road. Both are important. Both are necessary. Entering the gate (initial salvation) is only the starting point. It makes it possible for us to begin to grow to maturity, to be transformed, to learn to live by the Holy Spirit, to do the good actions we were created to do, and to do our part in the body of Christ. Our salvation should not be an excuse for inaction.
There are those who say that Jesus is coming soon, that when he comes he will take us out of the world (rapture), and that therefore we don’t need to worry about all the problems of the world around us. We can just sit back and wait to be taken up out of this world.
I have several problems with this idea:
William Tyndale was sentenced to be burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English. He spent the last days of his life working on translations and commentaries on the Bible, right up until the moment he was taken out to be burned. Is not that an example for us to follow? Should not we also be making the most of whatever time we have here on earth?