Faith and Effort


One of the theological challenges of thinking about sanctification (growth in grace) is the relationship between faith and effort.  There seems to be an irresolvable tension between activity (effort) and passivity (faith).  Without recognizing this tension we can easily succumb to the dangers of on the one hand self-generated

effort or on the other hand cheap grace.  We need to repent of both. Self-generated effort is the number one cause of legalism, pharisaism and moralism.  It is Avis theology, i.e. “try harder or Nike theology, “just do it”.  It appeals to our pride.  It deceives us into thinking that just putting out a little more effort and discipline will do the trick.  To think this way is to way underestimate the power of residual indwelling sin and to way overestimate our ability to keep the law. The outcome of this mindset is death.  To be fleshly minded is death, to be spiritually minded is life and peace (Romans 8:6).  Self effort, if “successful” leads to the bloating of pride and if “unsuccessful” to the depths of despair.  This is no way to live.


Cheap grace on the other hand is also an ever-present problem.  Grace is free and not cheap.  But we cheapen it when we turn the grace of God into lawlessness.  Easy believism, which embraces forgiveness without repentance is the essence of cheap grace.  Cheap grace deceives us into thinking that discipleship, commitment and obedience are somehow optional in the Christian life.  There is little knowledge of sin and even less of deep repentance.  The hard work of self examination and confession of sin are unknown.  Cheapening grace leads to a lifestyle of tolerating today what was reprehensible a year ago.  The ultimate outcome of this mindset is a drifting away from God, a floating sense of guilt and bitterness, and a hair-trigger response of resentment and hostility toward accountability and loving confrontation.  This is also no way to live.  There is a better way.


We know that justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is exclusively the work of God.  We are passive receivers who look outside of ourselves and trust in Christ’s active and passive obedience.  We do nothing.  But sanctification, while rooted in God’s gracious activity involves our responsible participation.  Put another way, justification/regeneration are monergistic (one working; mono/one, ergo/work) and sanctification is synergistic (working with; syn/with, ergo/work).  The emphasis of the New Testament on sanctification is upon commands addressed to our will (Philippians 2:12-14; 1 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 12:14; Ephesians 5:1-2, 4:20-23; Colossians 3:1-17, etc).  We are to strive, labor, struggle, fight, pursue, put to death, put off, put on, etc.  So, we are actively engaged in our growth in grace.


However, we can no more sanctify ourselves by our own strength than we can justify ourselves by our own works.  We are sanctified by faith, not by our own self-reliant effort which the Bible often refers to as our flesh (Galatians 3:1-5).  In John 15 Jesus uses the metaphor of the vine and the branches.  God is the gardener, Christ is the true vine and we are the branches.  By faith we draw from our organic connection to the true vine and fruit is produced.  Note that without, or severed from the union we can do nothing.  Yet, on the other hand we are not plants we are people whose will and actions either helps and cooperates or hinders and obstructs renewal.  So, here is the tension in sanctification—God works and we are to work.  Now let us explore this in a deeper way.  Are we to be active or passive in sanctification?  Who works first, us or God?  How do we know when God is working?  How do we know that our working is self-reliant effort rather than the fruit of faith?  If I cease working does God stop working?


The dangers in our growth in grace are twofold.  We can be too passive and we can be too active.  Historically, being too passive coined the term Quietism and being to active coined the term Pietism.  First, let us consider Quietism.  This rather mystical view was originally popular among the Quakers, but it has been adopted by some forms of Perfectionism.  The work of sanctification, says the Quietist, involves no effort on our part.  Indeed, our striving and effort can even hinder our sanctification.  Our part is simply to surrender ourselves to God and let Him give us victory over sin.  The surrender usually comes at a crucial point subsequent to conversion, although the believer must maintain it as a daily attitude.  While we are in this attitude of surrender we live victoriously.  We fall into sin only when we cease to trust Him completely.  Words like surrender, yield and abandonment recur frequently, as does the slogan “Let go and let God”.  The Quietist believes he must choose between faith and effort and the way of holiness is to choose faith.


This teaching has led to some extreme conclusions because it is a half truth.  For example, Galatians 2:20, especially the phrase “Not I but Christ”, is taken out of context to suggest that a Christian’s personality is to be virtually obliterated and replaced by Christ’s.  Expressions like “yield yourselves” (Romans 8:13) are taken to recommend a state of passive surrender to God in which we ourselves need offer no resistance to temptation; we should simply leave it to God to give us the victory.   The obvious objection that arises is who is at fault when the yielded Christian sins?  Whose fault is the failure?  If I surrender to God that means He assumes responsibility.  Is it His fault?  Of course not, they say.  It’s your lack of continuing to trust God.  Well, ceasing to trust God is in itself as sin.  We are still left with the question, whose fault is it that the Christian has ceased to trust?  The Quietist cannot give a satisfactory answer to these questions.  The positive aspect of Quietism is its genuine attempt to stress that salvation is of the Lord.  It has tried to show that people are as incapable of sanctifying themselves as they are of justifying themselves.  Christ’s work is sufficient and with that we all agree.  But Quietism is too one sided.  It does not do justice to the place of effort.


On the other hand, Pietism stresses human activity and moral effort.  The name comes from the movement in 18th century Germany which protested the dead orthodoxy of the Lutheran Church at that time.  It encouraged much that was good such as growth of Bible study groups.  Primarily it called for a practical Christianity, emphasizing the uselessness of belief which does not lead to good works.  The word Pietism represents for theologians an emphasis on diligence in practical Christianity and an insistence on self discipline and spiritual exercises (fasting, solitude, prayer, confession, penitence, meditation, community and some forms of asceticism).


There is a danger in Pietism every bit as harmful as in Quietism.  With an overemphasis on self effort a Christian could easily forget that it is God who sanctifies and that we must rest by trusting God and all of His promises.  Pietists are inevitably trapped by the results of their efforts.  If they fail they fall into despair and give up.  If they succeed they may succumb to self congratulation and spiritual pride rather than glorifying God.  God has certainly given us everything in Christ, but this does not mean that after His initial saving He leaves people on their own to purify themselves.  When we are commanded to work out our salvation with fear and trembling we are immediately reassured that God works in us (Philippians 2:12-13); the word works is in the present tense suggesting continuing action.  Certainly faith by itself without works is dead, but at the same time without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).


So faith and effort are not options to choose but complementary truths.  We err in neglecting either side.  I like the term active passivity.  God works in (passive); we work out what God works in (active).  Christians are active because God stimulates us to effort and diligence, and He impresses on our consciences the encouragements and warnings of Scripture.  So people who truly believe the Gospel with all its provisions for our need and look to Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”, will be challenged to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1-2).  We must live in the tension of exerting effort and resting completely in the sufficiency of Christ.  So what does this look like?  There are three truths that I think best preserve the tension between faith and effort.  They are relaxation, effort and despair.


First let us consider relaxation.  Isaiah 30:16 informs us that in repentance and rest is our salvation, and quietness and confidence is our strength.  Faith is a response to the forgiveness of sins.  It is an act where we step outside of ourselves and all of our experiences and look to the promise that is made to us from the outside and above.  It is resting as one who labors and is heavy laden comes to Jesus to find rest for our souls (Matthew 10:28-30).  I believe means I surrender to a new reality i.e. I am forgiven and righteous in Jesus Christ.  It is an act of humility and boldness.  It is humility because I despair of my own ability to ever attain righteousness.  It is an act of boldness because I dare to live contrary to all I feel in myself (i.e. at the same time righteous and a sinner).


Out of this kind of relaxation will come amazing motivation and effort toward obedience.  The man who is relaxed because of what God has done for him will through that relaxation lose his preoccupation with self and forget himself and be prompted to fruitfulness for others as an instrument of love from which he may live himself (Galatians 5:6).


Yet those efforts will show again and again how much he fails and how far his love falls short of God’s love.  This will lead either to despair or a grim determination to try harder unless he falls back upon his justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  This will not do away with his efforts: instead it will purify them, because he knows that in these efforts he need no longer affirm, prove and justify himself.  Only he who no longer needs to serve himself with his works is able, since he is free from himself, to do really “good works”, works that mean something for God and others.  This is how I live with the tension of faith and effort and I trust it will help you.


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