The Balance between Grace and Effort – Part 2

Posted on June 9, 2014 · Posted in Sanctification

This is the second part of this series of posts.
Click here for part one.
Click here for part three.

Many Christians struggle with the balance between faith and works or grace and effort. When we recognize our continuing sins is the answer to just try harder or to believe more? Pastor Brian Hedges new book, Active Spirituality, helps to bring some clarity to these concerns. Brian has graciously consented to answer questions about this important topics.

Brian, thanks for you time and insight in responding to these questions.

SP: What does it mean to depend on the Spirit as comported to depending on my own effort?

Brian: That’s a great (and difficult!) question. Let me try a short answer and then a long answer.

Short answer: depending on the Spirit means that relying on him in such a way that our obedience is something more than merely mustering up will power. There is a qualitative difference between the obedience of a Christian, born of the Spirit, and a moral person, who is still dead in trespasses and sins, trying his best to do good.

But more has to be said, so here’s a longer answer. Sometimes theologians and pastors can be misleading in their rhetoric, drawing such a contrast between depending on the Spirit and depending on one’s own effort, that you get the idea that any expending of effort must therefore be wrong. There are lots of catch phrases and clichés that imply this:

  • “The Christian life is not my responsibility, but my response to his ability.”
  • “Let go and let God!”
  • “It’s not in trying, but in trusting; it’s not in running, but in resting, that we find the strength of the Lord.”
  • “Walk in the Spirit, not in the energy of the flesh.”
  • Etc.

The problem with all of those ways of speaking is that they wrongly imply that there’s some kind of psychological or volitional switch-off that happens when a person depends on the Spirit, so that once the Spirit takes over, the believer herself is no longer actively, willfully engaged in expending effort.

But that’s just not true, because it contradicts too many other texts, that command us to obey, exhort us to respond, and clearly expect from us some kind of effort that depends in some way on the engagement of our entire personality: mind, heart, and will.

So, what then does it mean to depend on the Spirit? It means to be commit ourselves to obedience to the Lord, while depending on his Spirit to enlighten our minds, fill our hearts with grace, and empower our wills with strength. How he does this is somewhat mysterious. I think it clearly involves prayer: asking for the Spirit to do these things (see for example, Ephesians 3:14-21). It also involves the ongoing renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2), so that we are transformed by the Spirit and progressively become more and more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18). But the one thing it clearly doesn’t mean is that our wills switch off and we somehow cease to expend effort.

One passage that seems to capture the balance concisely is Philippians 2:12-13:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 

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Jay Younts
Jay Younts is the Shepherd Press blogger. He is the author of Everyday Talk and other materials on parenting. He has been teaching and speaking on parenting issues for 30 years. Jay and his wife, Ruth, live in Fountain Inn, South Carolina. He serves as a ruling elder at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Moore, South Carolina. He and Ruth have five adult children.