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As we go through our Christian life, one question that troubles us is about what God is going to do from His side and what He wants us to do. Some people take the position that He will do everything for us because He has promised, and all that we have to do is to simply believe. Others are of the view that there are many things God expects us to do and that unless we do them God will not be able to fulfil what He has planned for us. But as we will see when we examine God’s word, both God and man are involved in the work of salvation.
There is no doubt that God is sovereign. He does whatever He wants (Psa.115:3) and no one can stop what He does or tell Him what to do. He has created all the universe, including us, and it is He who is in control of everything from the massive galaxies to the tiniest atomic particles. There is nothing He cannot do, and the only ‘limitation’ to His almighty power is that He cannot do anything against His own nature.
When He created man, He created us in His own ‘image’. A part of this image is sovereignty, and so we were created with a limited version of sovereignty which is called our free will. Obviously, our free will is limited by the boundary that God has decided, and He still holds the authority to intervene in our lives if He sees fit. In other words, God holds complete control even though He has granted us some freedom within our domain. It is because we have this free will that we are accountable to God for everything we do.
It was the misuse of this free will by Adam and Eve that led to the first sin. They chose to disobey God imagining that they would become sovereign like God with their own knowledge of good and evil without having to be dependent on God (Gen.3:5). Our salvation cannot be complete until we choose (exercise our free will) to revert to submit to the kingship of God. So it is not sufficient for God to forgive our sins, He also needs to help us to take ownership or responsibility for our behaviour. It will be obvious that He cannot do this if He does everything for us while we ‘just believe’!
We can learn a lesson from the way God led the children of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land because this is a picture of our being taken out of a life of sin to the promise of making us like Jesus. When they faced the crisis of being caught between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army pursuing them, what God told them was to stand still and see the salvation of God (Exo.14:13). The next time, as they faced the walled city of Jericho in the Promised Land that they had to conquer in order to occupy, what God told them was not to stand still but to walk around the city seven times (Josh.6). The next time, with the city of Ai, what they had to do was to actually fight a battle (Josh.8).
This is a picture of our spiritual growth. When we are newly born again it is as if God carries us in His arms like a baby and does everything for us. But as we grow up He expects us to take more and more responsibility for our lives. He wants us to learn His ways and make decisions in life just as He would. He does not want to treat us like horses which have to be directed manually at each step to do what we want them to do but to think and make more and more of our decisions without passively waiting for God to take action (Psa.32:8,9).
Even as we are growing up spiritually there may come special occasions in our life which might look formidable. It may be that at some such times God might tell us to just stand still and see what He will do for us. What we should avoid is to make this the regular pattern of our lives. One mistake we can make is to pray and leave the matter in God’s hands, and not do what we need to do from our side. For example, if we are in debt it is not enough to ask God to clear our debt without trying to learn from looking at how we got into the debt or taking steps to cut down our present expenditure and to pay back our debt at least in instalments.
“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Php.2:12,13). As God is working inside us, we need to follow His leading and actually do what He is telling us to do in order for our lives to be transformed. No change will take place if we keep expecting God to change our lives without cooperating with Him as He seeks to do that. “If by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom.8:13). We can partake of the divine life only if cooperate with the Holy Spirit by denying ourselves when we are tempted and preventing our body from carrying out what it wants to do (1Cor.9:27). When we see the life of Christ as we read the Bible, we see ourselves in that mirror and see how different we are from Him, and that helps us to become more active in denying all the ungodliness in us and in doing what He wants (2Cor.3:18;Tit.2:11,12). God supplies strength both to choose to do His will (and deny our own will) as well as to actually carry it out.
It is sure that without God’s grace, merely by our efforts to choose God’s will and do it we will not be able to actually carry it out. Therefore, knowing that we are dependent totally on God’s grace, we learn to cry out to God earnestly for help (Heb.5:7). And then we actually use that strength we actually deny ourselves and do His will! The earlier we learn this lesson, the better. But many learn to lean on God only after thorough failure from their own efforts. That was how Jacob, Moses, Peter and many of us learnt this!
All Christians are familiar with the fact that when Jesus died on the cross, the sins of the whole world were placed on Him; that was why He died. He died on the cross for us. But another death also took place on the cross. That was when we were crucified with Him (Gal.2:20). This happened in God's mind when He placed us in Christ when He died on the cross, even though we didn't physically exist at that time. We didn't die for our sins; Christ died for that. What was this death that we died with Him? It was our death to sin. God says that Jesus not only died for us – our sins (1Cor.15:3), but He also died to sin (Rom.6:10).
When Jesus died for our sins, He paid the penalty for our sins so that we could be forgiven. But when He died to sin, that was to give us an attitude of hatred towards sin, just as He has, so that we would no longer like to sin but we would hate to sin. This is what we experience when we are born again through faith in Him (Rom.6:1,2). Our response when this happens is that we place our flesh on the cross from our side, because it was through the desires in the flesh that we were being tempted to sin (Gal.5:24).
God tells us to consider ourselves now as 'dead to sin' (Rom.6:11) because that is the new attitude He has given to us. Now we are not to yield any part of our body to commit sin (vv.12,13), because God's grace has taken away our old willingness to sin and given us a hatred for sin instead (v.14).
Now we see that whenever we are tempted to sin, we need to put that desire to death on the cross by the strength the Holy Spirit gives us (Rom.8:13). That is the meaning of taking up our cross daily, denying ourselves and following Jesus (Lk.9:23). In this way we work out our salvation daily, because God is working in us to hate sin and want to do His will, and also giving us help to do it (Php.2:12,13).
We know that our salvation has three phases -- justification, sanctification and glorification. Jesus died on the cross for our forgiveness from which we get justified before God (Rom.5:1) and accepted as His children. He has then started us off on the way of sanctification by giving us a heart that hates sins and wants to do the will of God. When we recognise this, we respond by seeking to keep the flesh crucified and placing each lust on the cross to die as we are tempted daily. This is the process through which our life is being transformed from our old sinful nature to the nature of Jesus Christ. We can see that without the above response from our side, God is unable to provide us this sanctification.
To summarise, we see how far off we are from God’s goal for us and we try our best to do what He wants us to do, only to find that we are quite inadequate in ourselves to do that. Then we learn to cry out in desperation for grace (help), God gives us grace, and now we are able to do those things which were impossible for us earlier!
As we have seen earlier, some people are confused between what God has already planned and prepared for us and what is real in their lives. As a result, they keep claiming that God has already done those things or that God will do them in their lives, not realising that they need to do certain things in order to make them come true in their practical lives. For example, when we read that God has predestined us to be conformed to the image of His Son (Rom.8:29), that is what He has planned and prepared. But it is not going to happen automatically and there are certain things from our side that we need to do in response before we can experience the reality in our life.
Some other people argue that since our salvation is only by the grace (unmerited favour) of God, we do not, and should not, have to do anything from our side because they will be ‘works’! According to them, we just have to keep believing and God will complete His work. But when grace works in us, we work it out (Php.2:12,13), and grace instructs us to deny ungodliness and fleshly lusts and to live godly lives (Tit.2:11,12).
A balanced understanding can avoid these kinds of confusion.
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