I’m curious where you hear all of these things. Certainly there are some things you can’t do on your own. You can’t save yourself from sin; you can’t make yourself be born again or give yourself a new heart. Those are things God alone does. But where does it say you can’t pray or read your Bible, so you should just “let God take it over”?
“Let Go and Let God!” sounds deep, even spiritual, and it makes for a good bumper sticker. But it’s not in the Bible.
The New Testament consistently teaches that we are being transformed and that we need to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (see 2 Corinthians 3:18, Hebrews 10:14 and Philippians 2:12). Sanctification is an ongoing process in the life of every true believer. It is, as Wayne Grudem writes in his Systematic Theology, “a work in which God and man cooperate, each playing distinct roles.… Sanctification is a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.”
The fact that sanctification is a process means that our battle with sin continues after we are saved. There are no examples of humans who are saved one day, and then another, instantly set free from sin from that point forward. “We all stumble in many ways,” says James. And Jesus taught believers to pray daily for forgiveness for our sins. In Christ we are forgiven, declared righteous by God. This is justification. And we are called to take up our cross and follow Him every day, becoming more and more like Him. This is sanctification. Rather than being a straight-line journey from dead-in-our-sins ever upward to perfection, it is more likely a jagged line moving forward with little dips and rises on the overall move upward toward holiness.
In writing about Puritan theologian J.C. Ryle, John Piper talks about his efforts to counter the Keswick beliefs that were prominent in his day. He says,
Over against the perfectionism and Keswick quietism of his day, he [J.C. Ryle] was unrelenting in stressing that sanctification, unlike justification, is a process of constant engagement of the will. And that engagement is war.
He asks, ‘Is it wise to teach believers that they ought not to think so much of fighting and struggling against sin, but ought rather to “yield themselves to God” and be passive in the hands of Christ? Is this according to the proportion of God’s Word? I doubt it.’
‘True Christianity is a fight.’ He [Ryle] cites, 1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 2:3; Ephesians 6:11–13; Luke 13:24; John 6:27; Matthew 10:34; Luke 22:36; 1 Corinthians 16:13; 1 Timothy 1:18–19, and says, ‘Words such as these appear to me clear, plain, and unmistakable. They all teach one and the same great lesson…. That true Christianity is a struggle, a fight, and a warfare.’
‘A true Christian,’ he said, ‘is one who has not only peace of conscience, but war within.’ And this is true at every stage of maturity: ‘The old, the sick, the dying, are never known to repent of fighting Christ’s battles against sin.’
You’re right that you can’t become mature by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything at all. You have a role to play. Grudem says “the role we play in sanctification is both a passive one in which we depend on God to sanctify us, and an active one in which we strive to obey God and take steps that will increase our sanctification.”
The problem with the “let go and let God” mentality, says Grudem, is that it “is given as a summary of how to live the Christian life. But this is a tragic distortion of the doctrine of sanctification, for it only speaks of one half of the part we must play, and by itself, will lead Christians to become lazy and to neglect the active role that Scripture commands them to play in their own sanctification.”
He explains that there are Scriptures that tell us to yield to God (see Romans 6:13, 19; Romans 12:1, Romans 8:13) and to let Him work in us (Philippians 2:13). But the Scriptures also tell us to “Strive … for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord”; to shun immorality; to cleanse ourselves; and to make every effort to grow in godliness. We do this by the power of the Holy Spirit. But we do it.
For example, when it comes to your desire to be better at reading your Bible and praying, there is much you can do.
• Go to bed earlier. That may mean watching less TV, leaving social engagements before they’re over, and planning ahead. An earlier bedtime makes it easier to wake up in the morning.
• Set your alarm. And when it goes off, get out of bed.
• Grab a cup of coffee or tea, your Bible, a journal and pen, and head to a quiet place where you can read and study and meditate and pray without interruption.
• Don’t bring your iPhone or smart phone or laptop or Kindle or anything that is Internet enabled. Digital distractions are among the worst because they can, in an instant, break our concentration for the rest of the day!
These are some of the things you can and should do to make daily study of God’s Word a priority and a reality in your life.
A great place to start reading is the book of Philippians. I was reading and meditating on it last week having had a conversation with a friend who is frustrated that her battle against sinful thoughts is ongoing, and at times, feels overwhelming and frustrating.
“Why can’t I just take every thought captive once and for all?” we wondered together. It’s an acute frustration when we know we are saved for good works, but find ourselves striving against persistent desires to do bad works. Where is victory to be found?
Paul writes to encourage the Philippian believers who had similar frustrations. The letter urges them to keep striving, to persevere in godliness, to “make progress in the faith” (emphasis added). He says,
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).
In his letters to the Ephesians, the Colossians and the Thessalonians, Paul urges them to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.” It’s encouragement we all need. God gives us the grace to do it, but we must get up and start moving. May it be so for all of us who believe.
P.S. For a more detailed look at the theology behind passive sanctification, please see this helpful article, “Andy Naselli on Why ‘Let Go and Let God’ Is a Bad Idea,” by Kevin DeYoung at The Gospel Coalition.
Copyright 2014 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.