We believe, that the work of regeneration, conversion, sanctification and faith, is not an act of man’s free will and power, but of the mighty, efficacious and irresistible grace of God. (Charles H. Spurgeon)
I continue this week with the topic of will power. Here is a short summary of the main points I made last week: The exercise of our will power is always a prideful act. When we use will power we are relying upon our own initiative and perseverance to achieve a goal. However, anything done apart from, or indifferent to, God’s will is an act of pride, regardless of our reasons for doing it. In effect we are saying, “I know best.” Having good intentions does not make it any less an act of pride, nor does the worthiness of the cause for which we labor. If the Lord is not directing us to participate in an event or project then either he has someone else in mind or he has not given his blessing to the work in question.
As employers, employees, students, spouses and parents we all must take on work and respond to situations in accordance with our job or role. I am not suggesting we cannot take any action without first praying about it. That is not practical. But as we go about our lives, day by day, we are to seek continually the Lord’s guidance and honor and serve him in all things. Pride enters in when we assume, apart from God, we know best. God doesn’t need our good intentions. He requires, instead, our faithful obedience.
But it is not always easy to sort out the difference between the exercise of will power and the kind of disciplined effort every Christian needs to employ in this life if he or she is to grow in faith. I’m taking up this topic now in response to my friend, Siri’s, timely question about how to distinguish between the two: the act of self will and faithful effort in obedience to God’s will. Some people use the terms will power and disciplined effort interchangeably. But for the Christian, they are very different in meaning. Disciplined effort involves initiative, choice and action, but all are exercised under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The word, “discipline” takes it’s origin from the word, “disciple.” A disciple is someone who is under the authority of a teacher. If we are under our own authority, the term becomes “self-discipline” which is the same as will power. However, if we are operating under the authority of Jesus Christ, then our efforts are being disciplined. We are submitting our intentions to him and we are relying upon the Holy Spirit to empower them. So the problem is not in the effort; it stems from the source which motivates, determines and strengthens the effort.
We all must exercise effort, initiative and choice in order to stay focused on Jesus and his will for our lives. If not, we will begin to revert to our natural condition and instincts, which are riddled with sin. The goal of the Christian life is to become more and more like Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18) as more and more of our fallen nature is transformed. However, this goal is not ours to accomplish. We are not in charge of our own transformation. Instead, it is the role of the Holy Spirit to see to it that Christ is formed in us. Our role is to respond, cooperate and continue to make choices and take steps in keeping with this work of sanctification begun in us when we turned to Jesus and accepted him as our Savior.
In his letter to the Philippians Paul writes, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (2:12-13). The image Paul uses is that of an athlete working out in a gymnasium. The Philippians (and Corinthians, too) loved to exercise and train for games of sport, such as the Olympic and Isthmian games, so the metaphor was an appropriate one for them. What Paul means here by using the term “work out” is that Christians must exercise effort (but not will power) in order to grow in Christ-likeness – and can do so safely because God is the one who is in charge.
If we want to continue with Paul’s metaphor, we could say that the Holy Spirit functions as a kind of trainer, to whom we must listen, lest we put forth effort out of pride. But like any reputable athletic trainer, the Holy Spirit does not supply us with a “quick fix” which will instantly transform us. Without our cooperation and disciplined effort, in conjunction with the prompting and guiding of the Holy Spirit, our journey into Christ-likeness is at a standstill.
Peter makes this point about disciplined effort in his second letter: For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control*; and to self-control*, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. (1:5-9).
A better translation of the term “self-control” is temperance (or sobriety) which is used in the King James Version of this passage. To be intemperate is to lack restraint – to act on what you want when you want it. The exercise of will power is, in a sense, lacking in restraint because it is not done are under the discipline of the Holy Spirit. Surrender must always come before action. Next week I’ll address some of the warning signs which may indicate you’re under the influence of will power.
Next week: How to tell when you’ve left God behind.
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