Grace-driven effort & Sanctification


Every truly sane person can agree something has gone wrong with the world. The problem comes from within. It is the self-centeredness of the human heart. The Christian calls this problem sin. The Bible teaches that everyone is a sinner by nature. We are what is wrong with the world. In fact, these evils that come from the heart make us so unclean that Jesus tells His disciples:

“And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'” – Mark 9:43-48 (ESV)

Sinful behavior (the reference to hand and foot) and sinful desires (the reference to the eye) are like a fire that has broken out in your living room. Let’s say a cushion on your couch has ignited. You cannot just sit there and say, “Well, the whole house isn’t burning – it’s just a cushion on the sofa. We’re all safe and sound.” If you don’t do something immediately and decisively about the cushion, the whole house will eventually become engulfed. Fire is never satisfied. It can’t be allowed to smolder; it can’t be confined to a corner. It will overtake you eventually. Sin is the same way: It never stays in its place. It always leads to separation from God, which results in intense suffering, first in this life and then in the next. The Bible calls that hell. That’s why Jesus uses the drastic image of amputation. There can be no compromise. We must do anything we can to avoid it: If our foot causes us to sin, we should cut it off. If it’s our eye, we should cut it out.

“People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, genuine care for their neighbor through acts of kindness and generosity, prayer and obedience to Scripture, faith and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith; we cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.”

Grace-driven effort is violent. It is rage-filled and violent. And those are not the words that usually accompany Christianity. Now this isn’t violence towards another person; this is violence towards that residual sin inside of us. For those who have been made alive in Christ, our nature is a holy nature, and it hates the residual effects of sin. It wants it to die. It wants to put it to death. It’s not going to give it quarter, it’s not going to give it room, it doesn’t just want to starve and control it, it wants it dead. This is the one situation where the Christian can just channel a little Al Capone; because they want their sin DEAD, they want the motives of their sin DEAD, and they want every thing that leads to sin burned to the GROUND. Grace-driven effort wants to murder (which is this word in the Greek that means to murder) and put to death these things. It wants to murder sin in our heart and will be diligent to put said sin to death until it is dead. It is very serious about mortifying the flesh. It is very serious about putting to death wicked thoughts and wicked ambitions, both seen and unseen. And for the bulk of you, most of what you will wrestle with will be unseen. Most people won’t see it.

What I have found is that the legalist more often than not doesn’t necessarily want to put their sin to death; they just want to control it. They want to train it. They don’t necessarily want it to die. Here is how it shows back up. Because you don’t want to murder it and because you want it to be your pet, when you get tired and frustrated and angry or when you feel entitled and somebody isn’t giving you what you think you are owed, you run to that sin for comfort rather than to the God of the universe for comfort. This is why so many of get stuck in this cycle of sin where you do really well for a season and then you fall back into it. It’s because you haven’t tried to kill it and put it to death. You have simply tried to train it.

So here’s what happens. It’s almost like when the trained animals turn on their trainers in an episode of “When Animals Attack.” We have a little pet sin, and we think we’ve got it controlled. Then it turns on us and destroys us and we are thinking, “This is crazy. Where did this come from? How did this happen?” Well you gave quarter to something that you can’t really control in the end. And for all the bravado, “I’ve taught him to sit. I’ve taught him to roll over. I’ve taught him to beg. I’ve taught him to shake. I’ve taught him to speak.” For all the “I’ve controlled him,” it only takes the right circumstance or the right setting for him to turn and do what he was created to do, which is deceive you and destroy you and kill you and lie to you. You buy in, and you’re right back to square one. So grace-driven effort is violent, because it understands that the lion is out to destroy. The lion is seeking someone to devour. The man of the house understands that if he is devoured, there are other people that are wounded by him being devoured. There is collateral damage to his failure as a man. So he puts the lion down. He doesn’t just starve him; he starves him to death. He doesn’t strike him once; he strikes him and strikes him and strikes him and will not quit hitting until he’s dead. He doesn’t just assume he is dead, he then rips out the heart and cuts off the head. Next he piles on the wood and gasoline, and he burns what is left until nothing remains. He fiercely and mercilessly destroys the lion until there is literally nothing left to kill. This is how we are to address the sin in our lives.

Because again, grace-driven effort is violent. I think some of the reasons that a lot of us have been stuck in frustration for a long time is that we are simply not violent enough towards our sin. We have somehow said that these sins are respectable sins or they will fade away in time. You have said, “These things I can deal with.” But you forget that out of the same heart that would harbor anger, malice, and slander comes murder, wickedness, lust, and deceit. An idolatrous heart leads to idolatrous actions. It explodes like a volcano that’s dormant if you’re not careful.

The Gospel needs to be the foundation for everything we know and believe; one major reason for this, is that the gospel creates a holy people. Because, as we know, people don’t just stumble into godliness; they don’t spontaneously wake up one day knowing Jesus deeply and pursuing the conformity that Jesus commands and the Spirit empowers. However, we should be very weary of giving people checklists and must refuse to lay a weight on people that Jesus didn’t. Paul uses great phrases to describe our growth into holiness and reflecting the Glory of God and His reign and rule over our lives. Paul talks about “training ourselves in righteousness” (1st Timothy 4:7), “laboring in prayer,” “running to win,” “counting it all a loss” (Philippians 3), and “beating his body” (1st Corinthians 9:26-27). This language doesn’t paint the picture of sitting on the couch and “falling” into godliness.

“… heaven isn’t a place for those who fear hell – it’s a place for those who love God…”

One of the biggest problems with most of those who claim to know and love God, and want to see sin lose its power in their lives and walk in greater intimacy with Christ is that they are exhausted and have been trying to mortify sin by promises and threats rather than through the weapons grace provides. By “promises” I mean they believe that they will have life to the “full” and get a great house in heaven if they behave in this manner or that manner. In the DFW area, this plays itself out with church attendance and comparing ourselves to others. If I go to church frequently and am better than I was a couple years ago or if I’m better than other people who attend my church then I must be good. We love to compare our strengths to others’ weaknesses and grow confident in our goodness. By “threats” I mean that many of us try to behave and modify our behavior because we fear hell and God’s wrath, not because we love Christ and desire more of Him. We try to modify our behavior so we can earn our way out of hell. The problem with this is that heaven isn’t a place for those who fear hell – it’s a place for those who love God.

Another very popular sport in the Bible belt is fighting residual sin with our own vows and resolution – these become our defense. In the end, you are simply pitting sin against sin and in that scenario you lose. We fight sin and grow in godliness by using the weapons grace provides. There are at least three:

Weapons of Grace:

1. The Word of God

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” – 2nd Timothy 3:16-17

The Holy Spirit illumines the Scriptures as the storehouse of weaponry in the battle against sin and for godliness; all that we need to stand and fight are found with in its pages. The reason I think so many people stumble about when it comes to residual sin and maturing in Christ is they have no idea what the Scriptures say when it comes to those subjects. The Scriptures are where we find and are trained to do battle in such a way that victory is found.

2. The Blood of Christ

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” – Ephesians 2:13

One of the reasons Paul constantly preaches the gospel to people who already know and believe it is the human tendency to run back to the law instead of trusting in the blood of Christ to cleanse them from all unrighteousness. You see this especially in Galatians 2:20-3:5. When we stumble and fall we run to God not from Him. This is made possible by having God’s wrath removed from us and absorbed by Christ and Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. A mark of Christian maturity and genuine Gospel understanding is not running away from God to clean yourself up and then come back but a broken and contrite spirit that runs to Him asking Him for forgiveness and strength.

3. The Promises of the Covenant

“Therefore He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” – Hebrews 9:15

If the 10 Commandments were a quiz or test I easily fail. I’ve been guilty of every one of them. One of the reasons the law was given was to be a diagnostic tool to show me I can’t be perfect, that I’m going to fall short, and that I am in desperate need of a Savior (Romans 1-7). When we stumble and fall the Spirit reminds us of the Scriptures that promise that there has been a death for those failures and that there is a new covenant resting on Christ now and not on my ability to obey the law. This allows me to pursue Christ without fear and by “beholding His glory I am transformed.”

[This blog consists of reflections and content that has been adapted from material and sermons by pastors Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian, and Matt Chandler of The Village Church.]

Related articles:

“Gospel-driven Sanctification” by Justin Holcomb

“Gospel-driven Sanctification” by Jerry Bridges

“Real Hope for Real Change” by Matt Moore

Related Video Discussions:

“John Piper and Tim Keller Wrestle with Sanctification: Part 1” by: Desiring God ministries

“John Piper and Tim Keller Wrestle with Sanctification: Part 2” by: Desiring God ministries


One thought on “Grace-driven effort & Sanctification

  1. Pingback: The Controversial Issue of Homosexuality & Gay Marriage | Treading Paper

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