Welcome back on this Friday. On Wednesday, last time we met, in APJ 1925, we looked at the “cloud of anxiety” that can encroach into our lives. It’s a feeling you sometimes get, but “cannot put your finger on” — one that makes you “just feel tense and anxious” that “something is going to go bad today.” Christians can find themselves inside such a fog of anxiety. In fact, some Christians struggle a lot with daily anxiety. But should we? Hasn’t the Holy Spirit delivered us from anxiety altogether?
As we saw on Wednesday, the apostle Paul claims that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). So why would any Spirit-indwelt Christian still struggle with anxiousness? That’s Eric’s question, a listener to this podcast. “Pastor John, hello. If God does not give us a spirt of fear, but of power and love and self-control” — 2 Timothy 1:7 again — “then why am I, as a believer, still struggling to overcome fear? Shouldn’t the Spirit’s presence in me be the end of all my fearing?”
One of the reasons I’m eager to tackle this question is because even though it is specifically about fear or anxiety, the principle that it’s wrestling with relates to almost every area of Christian ethics, or Christian virtue, or sanctification. It’s the principle, namely, of being made decisively new in Christ because of God’s legal act of justification by faith, and because of God’s transformative act in the new birth and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and yet in our actual daily lives realizing that we are not yet completely new, not completely transformed. That’s the tension that we all live with. That’s the reality of Christian living.
And even though we have addressed this, Tony, many times in this podcast, it is so basic and so important for every area of life that it’s hard to address it too often or too many times.
New and Not Yet New
All of us, not just Eric, deal with this both-and in our Christian lives every day: both decisively new — that’s who we are; we are decisively new creatures in Christ — and not yet completely new. That’s the reality. And learning how to live that way is the key to the Christian life.
What I mean by decisive — I like that word; it’s really helpful — is that God has done something for us (for Christians) and he’s done something in us that will never be taken away, ever. God has done it; it’s decided. The saving work he starts, he completes (Philippians 1:6). That’s what I mean by decisive. And yet some of that saving work in us, that newness, is not yet complete. It is crucial that we understand what God has done for us in justification, what he has done in us in the new birth, what he’s doing in us now by the Spirit, and what he will finally do for us as our newness becomes complete at the resurrection. That’s really crucial, and that’s what the question is ultimately about.
And what I’m trying to show is that Eric’s experience of both of those — having God’s Spirit of fearlessness within him and fighting to overcome fear daily in his life by depending on the Spirit — is what the normal Christian life looks like. So let’s get this clear because I think it’s through this basic structure of salvation that people, if they have a handle on this, can sort out what their experience is.
Salvation in Three Tenses
Let’s get clear that salvation, which God gives us, from guilt and sin and wrath and death and pain and hell — that full salvation into everlasting joy happens in stages, not all at once. It has happened in some senses. It is happening in some senses. It will happen in the future in some senses. There are texts that say each of those.
- Ephesians 2:8: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” That’s done. You have been saved.
- 1 Corinthians 1:18: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
- Romans 13:11: “The hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now” — like it’s not here yet — “than when we first believed.”
“Full salvation into everlasting joy happens in stages, not all at once.”
Amazing. You can fasten rich biblical words to God’s work in each of those three stages of salvation. It’s done; it’s happening; it’s going to happen in the future. You can fasten rich biblical words to those.
For example, what’s already done, what’s decisive? God’s act of justification is already done. It’s past and complete. There’s no process to it because it’s a legal declaration that happens all at once at the point of our conversion when we embrace Christ as our treasured Savior and Lord. God declares us righteous in his sight. Romans 5:1: “Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God.” It’s done — no process. The court proceeding is over. No double jeopardy. You don’t have to go back to court ever again on that issue.
Corresponding to this once-for-all legal act is the once-for-all transformative act called the new birth or regeneration. That, too, has no process. Unlike justification, it doesn’t happen legally as in a courtroom; it happens inside us, but only once. Babies are born only once. First Peter 1:23: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” It’s done only once. It doesn’t happen again. It’s not a process.
So justification (being counted righteous in Christ) and regeneration (being born again) are acts of salvation that are totally complete — once-for-all, decisive, unchangeable. God never reverses them. “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). No failures, no dropouts, no reversals — justification and regeneration once for all, decisive. And the reason I stress it is because that’s the ground we stand on. When we’re fighting to overcome anxiety, that’s where we’re standing.
Then there’s the saving act of God in process. And the key word here is being sanctified. Hebrews 10:14: “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” So we are being saved by the present work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, who is helping us to put sin to death and walk in paths of righteousness.
And then, finally, there’s this future completion of salvation. Peter says in 1 Peter 1:5, “By God’s power we are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” So one aspect of that future salvation is rescue from the final wrath of God. Romans 5:9: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” That’s coming in the future.
Another aspect is our complete glorification. “Those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). It’s as good as done, complete and final bodily resurrection into sinless glory. That’s not here yet; that’s coming.
Life in the Tension
Now what Eric’s question draws our attention to is that, between decisive justification and regeneration (at the beginning of our Christian life) and sinless glorification (at the end of this age), this present life of being sanctified is not one of sinless perfection, but of warfare against sin in the power of the Holy Spirit. God has his reasons. This is one of the things I’ve wondered about all my life. God has his reasons for why he does not perfect us instantaneously at the point of our conversion so that we never sin again. He’s going to do that at the resurrection — we’ll never sin again. Why doesn’t he do it now? He doesn’t do it in that way. Why? He has chosen to save us by enabling us through the Spirit, by faith in his promises, to fight sin as justified children of God.
“This present life of being sanctified is not one of sinless perfection, but of warfare against sin in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Maybe one reason God has done it this way is that every time we kill a sinful temptation in our lives (like the temptation to fear), every time we put to death a sin by trusting in God’s promises, we show the devil and the world and our own consciences that Jesus is more precious than any promise sin could make to us. That’s what God is after in the world: the open demonstration that Christ is glorious. He’s more to be desired than anything else.
So my final word to Eric is yes, you have not been given a spirit of fear, but rather of courage, of self-control. That does not mean you won’t be tempted to fear. It does not mean you won’t wake up in the middle of the night as I did recently, with anxiety about five things that have to be done tomorrow, and you wonder how you could do them. You’re not even sure how to do some of them. What it means is that God has given you the resources to fight that fear.
He has justified you: you’re forgiven, accepted, loved. He has regenerated you and you are a new creature, a new person in Christ, a child of God. He has given you his sanctifying Spirit. He has given you promises like Hebrews 13:5–6: “‘I’ll never leave you, Eric. I’ll never forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” And he has given you the promise that you are going to make it home to glory. Keep fighting so you can say with Paul at the end of your life, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).