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Parable of an Unhealthy Soul: Why ‘Faith’ Dies Without ActionBy Jon Bloom — 1 year ago
How do works of obedience relate to the free, unmerited gift of God’s grace in the life of a Christian? This has been a recurring controversial and confusing issue since the earliest days of the church.
If we are justified by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ’s sufficient substitutionary work alone, and not by any work of ours (Romans 3:8), then why are we warned and instructed to “strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14)? If our works don’t save us, then how can our not working (like not striving for holiness) prevent us from being saved?
Before we turn to the apostle Peter for help, hear a parable of an unhealthy soul.
Diligence Reveals Real Faith
There was a man who was forty pounds overweight. Despite knowing it was dangerous to his health, for years he had indulged in too much of the wrong kinds of foods and neglected the right kinds of exercise.
One day, his doctor told him he was in the early stages of developing type-2 diabetes. Not only that, but his vital signs also pointed to high risks of heart attack, stroke, and various cancers. If he didn’t make specific changes, his doctor warned, the man would surely die prematurely.
So, the man heeded his doctor’s warnings. He made every effort to put new systems into place that encouraged healthy habits of eating and activity and discouraged his harmful old habits, preferences, and cravings. After twelve months, the man’s health was beginning to be transformed. He had lost most of his excess weight, felt better, had more energy, and no longer lived under the chronic, depressing cloud of knowing he was living in harmful self-indulgence. When his doctor next saw him, he was very pleased and said to the man, “Well done! You are no longer at heightened risk of premature death.” The man continued in his new ways and lived well into old age.
Question: Was the man’s health restored through his faith in the gracious knowledge provided to him pertaining to life and healthiness, or was it restored through his diligent efforts to put this knowledge into practice?
How Faith Works
Do you see the problem with the question? It poses a false dichotomy. The man’s faith and his works were organically inseparable. If he didn’t have faith in what the doctor told him, he wouldn’t have heeded the doctor’s warning — there would have been no health-restoring works. If he didn’t obey the doctor’s instructions, whatever “faith” he may have claimed to have in his doctor would have been “dead faith” (James 2:26) — that faith would not have saved him from his health-destroying ways.
This parable, imperfect as it is, is a picture of the biblical teaching on sanctification. In a nutshell, the New Testament teaches that the faith that justifies us is the same faith that sanctifies us. This faith is “the gift of God, not a result of works” (Ephesians 2:8–9). It’s just that this saving faith, by its nature, perseveres, and works to make us holy.
We passively receive this gift of faith freely given to us by God. But faith, once received, does not leave a soul passive. It becomes the driving force behind our actions, the way we live. By its nature, faith believes the “precious and very great promises” of God (2 Peter 1:4), and the evidence that real faith is present in us manifests, over time, through the ways we act on those promises. The New Testament calls these actions “works of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3) or the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5). True works of faith don’t “nullify the grace of God” (Galatians 2:21); they are evidence that we have truly received the grace of God, and are themselves further expressions of grace.
Now, let me show you one place where Scripture clearly teaches this. And as I do, imagine yourself as the unhealthy soul in my parable sitting in your doctor’s office — and your doctor is the apostle Peter. Dr. Peter has just examined your spiritual health and has some serious concerns. So, as a good physician, he gives you a firm exhortation.
Escaping Through Promises
[God’s] divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3–4)
Dr. Peter begins by telling you that God has granted to you all things. He agrees with his colleague, Dr. Paul, that God has granted you life, breath, and everything, including the day you were born, the places you’ll live, and how long (Acts 17:25–26). God has granted you regeneration (Ephesians 2:4–5), the measure of your faith (Romans 12:3), spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:7–11), and capacity to work hard (1 Corinthians 15:10). And God has given you his “precious and very great promises so that through them” you may escape the power of sin and be transformed into his nature.
Everything, from beginning to end, is God’s grace, since “a person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27).
Make Every Effort
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1:5–7)
Notice Dr. Peter’s words: For this reason (because God has granted you everything), make every effort (act with faith in all God has promised you).
In other words, prove the reality of your profession of faith, by doing whatever it takes to actively cultivate habits of grace, that nurture the character qualities necessary to live out the “obedience of faith” through doing tangible acts of good to bless others.
What Negligence Reveals
For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. (2 Peter 1:8–9)
“Diligence will reveal genuine faith because that is how faith works.”
Dr. Peter’s prescription is clear and simple: if you cultivate these holy qualities, they will foster spiritual health and fruitfulness; if you don’t, you will experience spiritual decline and demise. Diligence will reveal genuine faith because that is how faith works: it leads to action. Negligence will reveal your lack of faith because “dead faith” doesn’t work.
Now, this is a warning, not a condemnation. Peter knows well that all disciples have seasons of setbacks and failure. But he also knows, with Paul, that some disciples “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (Titus 1:16) — their profession of faith is not supported by the “obedience of faith.” Peter doesn’t want you to be one of those statistics, so he ends his firm exhortation to you on a hopeful note.
Pursue Diligence by Faith
Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10–11)
Just so you’re clear, Dr. Peter emphasizes the organic, inseparable relationship between God’s grace and your “works of faith.” He says, “Be diligent to confirm your calling and election.”
You don’t call yourself to Christ; Christ calls you by his grace (John 15:16). You don’t elect yourself to salvation; God elects you by his grace (Ephesians 1:4–6). But you do have an essential contribution to make to your eternal spiritual health. You confirm the reality of God’s saving grace in your life through diligently obeying by faith all that Jesus commands you (Matthew 28:20) — or not.
“You can confirm the reality of God’s saving grace in your life — or not.”
This is Dr. Peter’s prescription for your assurance of salvation: your diligent obedience through faith, your making every effort to pursue holiness, is evidence that your faith is real and that the Holy Spirit is at work in you to make you a partaker in the divine nature.
This is why Scripture commands us, “Strive for . . . the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). It’s not that our striving, our “making every effort” to obey God, somehow merits us salvation. Rather, our striving is God’s gracious, ordained means — fed by his promises and supplied by his Spirit — to make us holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:16) and to provide us “entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
God’s grace is no less gracious because he chooses to grant it not only apart from our works (in justification) but also through our diligent “works of faith” (in sanctification) — especially since these works are evidence that our faith is real.
Ten Words That Changed Everything About My SufferingBy Joni Eareckson Tada — 2 years ago
God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.
I remember it like it were yesterday. I was fresh out of the hospital, barely out of my teens, and sitting at our family table with my friend Steve Estes with our Bibles and sodas. We had become acquainted when he heard I had tough questions about God and my broken neck. He also knew I wasn’t asking with a clenched fist, but a searching heart.
So, Steve made a bargain with me. I’d provide sodas and my mother’s BLT sandwiches, and he would provide — as best he could — answers from the Bible. Though I cannot reproduce our exact words, the conversations left such an indelible impression on me that even now, over fifty years later, I can capture their essence.
“I always thought that God was good,” I said to him. “But here I am a quadriplegic, sitting in a wheelchair, feeling more like his enemy than his child! Didn’t he want to stop my accident? Could he have? Was he even there? Maybe the devil was there instead.”
Decades later, Steve would tell me, “Joni, when I sat across from you that night, I was sobered. I mean, I had never met a person my age in a wheelchair. I knew what the Bible said about your questions, and a dozen passages came to mind from studying in church. But sitting across from you, I realized I had never test-driven those truths on such a difficult course. Nothing worse than a D in algebra had ever happened to me. But I looked at you and kept thinking, If the Bible can’t work in this paralyzed girl’s life, then it never was for real. So, Joni, I cleared my throat and I jumped off the cliff.”
God Permits What He Hates
That night, Steve leaned across the family table, and said, “God put you in that chair, Joni. I don’t know why, but if you will trust him instead of fighting him, you will find out why — if not in this life, then in the next. He let you break your neck, and perhaps I’m here to help you discover at least a few reasons why.”
Steve paused and then summed it up with ten words that would change my life:
God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.
The sentence hit me like a brick. Its simplicity made it sound trite, but it nevertheless enticed me like an enigmatic riddle. It seemed to hold some deep and mysterious truth that piqued my fascination. “Tell me more,” I said. “I want to hear more about that.” I was hooked.
“God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.”
Over that summer with Steve, I would explore some of the most puzzling passages in Scripture. I wanted to know how God could permit hateful things without being in cahoots with the devil. How could he be the ultimate cause behind suffering without getting his hands dirty? And to what end? What could God possibly prize that was worth breaking my neck?
He Does Not Afflict Willingly
So, let me parrot some of Steve’s counsel to me that summer. He started off with Lamentations 3:32–33:
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men. (NIV)
In the span of a verse, the Bible asserts that God “brings grief,” yet “he does not willingly bring . . . grief.” With that, Steve was able to reassure me from the top that although God allowed my accident to happen, he didn’t get a kick out of it — it gave him no pleasure in permitting such awful suffering. It meant a lot to hear that.
But what about my question of who was in charge of my accident? When it comes to who is responsible for tragedy — either God or the devil — Lamentations 3 makes it clear that God brings it; he’s behind it. God is the stowaway on Satan’s bus, erecting invisible fences around the devil’s fury and bringing ultimate good out of Satan’s wickedness.
Buck Stops with God
“God’s in charge, Joni, but that doesn’t mean he actually pushed you off the raft,” Steve said. “Numbers 35:11 pictures someone dying in an ‘accident,’ calling it ‘unintentional.’ Yet elsewhere, of the same incident, the Bible says, ‘God lets it happen’ (Exodus 21:13). It’s an accident, but it’s God’s accident. God’s decrees allow for suffering to happen, but he doesn’t necessarily ‘do’ it.”
These were deep waters: God decreeing, but not necessarily doing? When I pushed Steve further, he smiled. “Welcome to the world of finite people trying to understand an infinite God. What is clear is that God permits all sorts of things he does not approve of. He allows others to do what he would never do — he didn’t steal Job’s camels or entice the Chaldeans to seize Job’s property, yet God didn’t take his hand off the wheel for a nanosecond.”
Then he added, smiling, “So, the buck stops with God, Joni, even when people think he had nothing to do with your accident, that it was all your responsibility for taking a careless dive into shallow water!”
Okay, I got it. God permits what he hates. But what about the next part — the part about him permitting awful things in order to accomplish what he loves? I still could not imagine what good and lovely thing would be worth the horrible cost of pain and quadriplegia.
Who Crucified Jesus?
When it comes to the old cost-versus-benefit problem, God first put himself to the test. He willed the death of his own Son, but he took no delight in the actual agony. God planned it, but Satan was the instigator.
Think of the treason, torture, death, and murder that led up to Christ’s crucifixion. How could those awful things be God’s will? Yet Judas Iscariot and the whole bunch, including the Romans who nailed Jesus to the tree, did “whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28).
So, God as much as said to everyone who screamed for Christ’s crucifixion, “Okay, so you guys want to sin? When you do, I’ll make certain you do it in a way that maintains your guilt, yet performs my will!” In short, God steered their devilish scheme to serve his own marvelous ends. A divine plan that would bring good to his people and maximum glory for himself.
“And the glorious plan that was worth the horrible cost of the cross was,” Steve said quietly, “salvation for a world of sinners.” I would soon learn how suffering and sin are related.
Defeating Evil with Evil
“Joni, he cares about your afflictions, but they are merely symptoms of a deeper problem. God cares less about making you comfortable, and more about teaching you to hate your transgressions and to grow up spiritually to love him.
“In other words, God lets you feel much of sin’s sting through suffering, while you are heading for heaven. And it should constantly remind you of what you are being delivered from. So, one form of evil, your pain and paralysis, is turned on its head to defeat another form of evil, and that is your bitterness, resentments, anxieties, fears, and I could go on — all to the praise of God’s wisdom.”
It was becoming clearer. God permitted what he hated on the hill of Calvary to accomplish what he loved — my salvation and his honor in saving me. So, Satan ended up slitting his own throat, because the world’s worst murder became the world’s only salvation.
Suffering for the Rest of Them
“Joni, this perfectly parallels your life,” Steve said. “God permitted what he hated — your spinal cord injury — to accomplish what he loves, and that is ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’” (Colossians 1:27).
“But it doesn’t stop with you,” Steve reminded me. “Just as Christ had to suffer to reach a lost world, you too will learn to suffer for the sake of others. It’s no secret. He wants your afflictions to be a platform to win others to Christ.” My story, then, is much like the story of Joseph and his wicked brothers.
Joseph flat-out said to them in Genesis 50:20, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Yes, God permitted my hateful paralysis, but his love goes far beyond Christ in me. He wants others to experience Christ in them, their hope of glory!
Fifty Years Later
It has been over fifty years since that summer when I spent so many nights with Steve by the family table. He is now senior pastor at Brick Lane Community Church in Pennsylvania, while I am a “Joseph” being used of God at Joni and Friends to save lives by telling people with disabilities the good news.
People are sometimes mystified by my joy, especially since I now deal with chronic pain. But God shares his joy on his terms, and those terms call for us, in some measure, to endure suffering, as did his precious Son. But that’s okay. For when I hold fast to God’s grace in my afflictions, the joy he gives tops everything. It’s how my so-called hateful paralysis now makes me so happy.
Yet nowhere near as happy as I will be in heaven. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
“God will exponentially atone for every tear, and will abundantly reward us for every hurt.”
True, God permits awful things, but (to paraphrase Dorothy Sayers) something so grand and glorious is going to happen in the world’s finale that it will more than suffice for every pain we experienced on this planet. God will exponentially make up for every tear (Psalm 56:8), and will abundantly reward us for every hurt (Romans 8:18). Best of all, God will make plain the mysterious ways of his will.
Has Horrible Happened to You?
So, I pass these ten words to you: “God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” If you are struggling as I once did, trying to understand how a good God could allow horrible things to happen in your life, let me jump off the cliff here.
God’s decrees have allowed your afflictions. I don’t know why, but if you will trust him instead of fighting him, you will find out why — if not in this life, then in the next. He permitted your hardships, and perhaps I’m here to help you unravel the beautiful riddle that will bless your life, enrich others, bring maximum glory to your Savior, and make your heavenly estate more joyful than you can now imagine.
Ten Great Books to Read TogetherBy Nathan Tarr — 1 year ago
As a young man, reading has exercised a formative influence over my own spiritual, moral, and intellectual growth. As a pastor and teacher, recommending books has been a consistent privilege. Here, I seek to recommend my current list of ten books for those who are eager to grow in their faith. An ideal book recommendation, in my experience, carries two marks; it introduces us to kinds of books and it fosters a community in which they can be read.
First, an ideal recommendation invites us into kinds of reading. By this I mean something more, though not less, than the genre of the work. I mean what the book is trying to do, as well as the way it sets about trying to do it.
For example, if I include a Wendell Berry novel, I have a value in view beyond simply the genre of narrative fiction. I am suggesting a winsome apology for a love of place, for creation care, and for the eyes to see the very real people God has placed around us as our neighbors. That is what the book is trying to do. If you do not care for Berry as an author, you still might be able to benefit from this recommendation by finding different authors whose work is up to the same sort of thing; a Leif Enger or a Grace Olmstead maybe.
Second, an ideal recommendation encourages us to read in community. By this I mean that books yield their richest treasures when we invite them into a circle of flesh and blood conversation partners.
“Books yield their richest treasures when we invite them into a circle of flesh and blood conversation partners.”
The goal of Christian reading, if it is to serve our discipleship, is more than the transfer of information. It is the transformation of the way that we see the world, and the way that we live within it. A community of friends and fellow readers serves this goal well by providing additional insight, accountability, and joy on the journey. We are meant to read together because we are meant to walk together after the Lord, the living Word.
Ten Books to Read Together
By God’s grace, and in no particular order, the following recommendations lend themselves to fostering the community of Christian conversation so vital for our spiritual growth. It is not a definitive list, nor a static list. I might recommend different titles next year. Each of these books, however, has proven especially fruitful for reading groups in our church.
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Enger’s first novel is a story of redemption told in a compulsively readable style. Woven throughout the storyline, moving it along as the means of that redemption, is a winsome study of family, a cherished community, and a vibrant faith flourishing in the pedestrian events of everyday life.
Why Study the Past by Rowan Williams
Evangelicals often struggle with ambivalence toward history, and church history in particular. For some, to say that something is historical marks it as irrelevant. For others, history is a stock of anecdotes that support our current practice. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, urges us to engage church history in a more distinctly theological way. As we do so, we gain eyes to see God’s work in history, as well as ways in which we can (and should) be shaped by the heritage of our forebears in the faith.
Heidelberg Disputation by Martin Luther
The theological engagement of church history noted above is best carried out through the reading of primary sources. One significant, and extremely poignant primary source is the twenty-eight theses Luther prepared for the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. It is here, more than in his better known ninety-five theses in October 1517, that we tap into the theological heart of the Reformation; good works flowing from rather than striving for a believer’s gracious acceptance before God. I have benefited from engaging the text of the disputation alongside the commentary provided by Gerhard Forde in On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflection’s on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation.
The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield
In Romans 15:7, Paul instructs believers to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” The welcome of Christ in the Gospels was as warm as people were willing to acknowledge their need of salvation. It was a way of grace and truth; a wide-open, cross-shaped welcome. Butterfield’s book is a beautiful testimony to this cross-pitality as it first embraced her and now extends to others through her North Carolina home.
Echoes of Exodus by Alastair Roberts and Andrew Wilson
We believe the Bible to be God’s word, the self-revelation of the inexhaustibly interesting God. A corollary of this conviction is that we can expect always to be seeing new beauties, new depths, in Scripture. By tracing the theme of the exodus across the canon, Roberts and Wilson demonstrate that the Bible’s richness is often disclosed by noting how its smaller narratives fit into the grand sweep of the larger story.
Global Evangelicalism by Donald Lewis and Richard Pierard.
People often lament that “evangelicalism” has become so elastic as a term that all meaningful content has fallen out. But Lewis and Pierard have assembled a collection of essays arguing that reports of evangelicalism’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, especially if we are willing to look beyond the borders of North America. The first part of the book traces the historical development of the global gospel movement while the (larger) second part provides regional case studies inviting Western readers into the vibrant gospel work taking place around the world, a work as distinctly evangelical in content as it is un-American in culture.
The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders
Growth in our knowledge of God produces the worshipful fruit of humility and wonder. This is because the true God is far greater, and far better, than our creaturely minds can fully comprehend. No doctrine is more fundamental to the knowledge of God, or better positioned to cultivate in us a humble awe, than the doctrine of the Trinity. Fred Sanders’ book is a wonderful blend of just this kind of theology and doxology.
Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines by David Mathis
Many of us endure a tortured relationship with spiritual disciplines. We know we should be about them. We also often find them dull, unapproachable, or remote from our daily life. As a result, we give lip service to their significance, feel shame for not sticking with them, and then start the cycle over again. David Mathis’ book invites us into these means of God’s grace by opening our eyes to their approachability, relevance and, best of all, their promise of spiritual joy. This book is best read, and practiced, with a band of fellow believers.
Good and Angry by David Powlison
It takes a wise and winsome guide to help us consider what lessons we might learn from our anger. Anger, as we experience it, is often accompanied by a rush of self-righteousness that short-circuits any meaningful reflection on why we become angry and the negative impact our anger carries. David Powlison is such a guide; patiently and firmly pressing us to consider not only what is corrosive but, surprisingly, what can be constructive about our anger. He directs us ultimately to God’s own anger, reflecting on how we might die to the idols that provoke selfish anger and so increasingly imitate our Father who sacrificially works to make wrong things right.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman
The mores of our modern world have been described as “liquid.” The idea is that the rules we use to navigate our life together are in a constant state of flux. This moral flux is perhaps most visible in our shifting search for personal identity as expressed through our sexuality. Trueman’s book is a fascinating analysis of where this moral liquidity comes from. In putting our fingers on the historical pulse of our culture’s identity crisis, Trueman’s book resources believers to engage our neighbors with the winsome, stable, reasoned hope of the gospel.
Christian discipleship is a community project. So perhaps this new year, part of your maturity in Christ includes gathering a group, or simply another brother or sister in Christ, and reading one or more of these suggestions together, asking what is true, good, and beautiful, and holding each other accountable to following it in obedience to Christ.