Mark Howard, assistant to pastor and minister to youth at Trinity Presbyterian in Covington, GA, offers this insightful article in our series about the tension between preaching grace and the pursuit of holiness. Rooted is glad to have Mark as a new contributor to The Rooted Blog.
I appreciate the current discussion between Hood and Ortlund concerning “effort and action” and our sanctification, but I think the focus shouldn’t be so much on how “effort and action” relates to our sanctification – but from where the strength to overcome emanates. Once we know where this power comes from, then our “efforts and actions” should be directed towards being filled with the source. This reality is particularly true in the space of student ministry.
Thus, I believe the fundamental question is this: Are we responsible to muster up the energy and will to put forth the effort and action to overcome sin, or does the power to overcome sin come from God working Christ in us through the Holy Spirit?
If the strength comes from us, then we truly should be preaching the “do more and try harder” way to holiness to students. Our effort is central. But if the strength comes from God through the Holy Spirit’s working Christ in us, then our self-effort in pursuit of holiness is misdirected. Rather, our pursuit should be more of the Triune God in whom the power resides.
So, where does the power to overcome sin and evil originate?
To answer this question, I think its helpful to look at Jesus in his humanity. Born without sin, I believe that he is a good comparison to how someone like Hood views the newly created Christian in Christ: truly able to overcome sin and temptation, free from sins slavery.
And Jesus did face real, painful temptation. The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was “like his brothers in every respect” (Heb 4:17) and that he “suffered when tempted” (Heb 4:18). In fact, the author describes Jesus as “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 5:15).
So when we look to Jesus’ pursuit of holiness and overcoming sin what do we see?
We don’t see someone relying on his own strength or his own ability to persevere, rather, we see Jesus crying out to the Father for strength through the Spirit. As the author of Hebrews tells us, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Heb 5:7).
Jesus’ strength to overcome came from the Father through the Spirit manifest in his human body. Our effort and action must follow the example of Christ: we are to cry out with every fiber of our being to the one who is able to save us, knowing that he has already saved us in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
The apostle Peter in his first letter reminds the Christian that if you are in Christ, you should “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Peter knew his hope wasn’t in himself. It couldn’t be. He knew his limits – even the limits of his “already and not yet” newly created self.
Each time I prepare a sermon, each time I teach or work on a lesson, I have this one question staring me in the face: Mark, where are telling these kids to place their hope? In whom are you asking them to trust?
If I’m asking them to trust in themselves, I’m giving them false hope. Dead hope.
But we have a living hope – the resurrected Jesus, who has in love, graciously united himself to us. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb 10:14).
A tree does not bear fruit because of its own effort. Rather, the tree bears fruit because it is firmly rooted in fertile soil with the power to bring the seedling to maturity. This is why rather than telling those under my teaching to “do more and try harder” to overcome sin, I follow Paul in his exhortation to the Colossians: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col 2:6-7).
Likewise, a newborn infant cannot bring itself to maturity, rather it must be fed and nourished by its mother. This is why I follow the apostle Peter in his pleading: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet 2:2).
Scripture says that “God is light” (1 John 1:5). If we turn to him, abide in him and cry out for more of him, he will fill us with this light. And “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). I cannot overcome, but the Spirit’s working light within me can – and will. This is the good news of the gospel, not heresy. This is exactly what students needs.