In Part 1 of our study of this text we discussed that verse 16 is the key to life. Getting to a place where we WILL NOT carry out the desire of the flesh solves most problems in life. We went through the rest of the text to find out how to walk by the Spirit and what it means on a daily basis.
One of the things we found is that it appears the walk is variable – we can walk by the Spirit more one day than the next. We based this on verse 17 which tells us the Christian life is one of conflict and that there are times when our sinful nature restrains us from doing the good our renewed minds want to do. Here is how we described it in the notes from Part 1: “Walking by the Spirit does not mean our fight with sin is over – the fight goes on for as long as we live. And if we fight, it makes sense that we occasionally lose (…so that you may not do the things that you please). And if we lose, it follows that perhaps our walking by the Spirit is not the same every day (since if it were we would never give in to the flesh). Therefore, walking by the Spirit must have a human component and the walk is not simply a default setting that happens outside of the believer’s will.”
If walking by the Spirit is not a once-for-all state then it must be affected by something other than God’s perfect and unvarying strength. And if that is the case, what does it mean to the daily life of the believer? Does the Christian control his own walk? How much of walking by the Spirit is up to me and how much is up to God? This is the topic of Part 2 – the relationship of human effort to God’s strength in avoiding the deeds of the flesh and producing the fruit of the Spirit.
Here are some questions we may struggle with – if we are honest – as we live as children of God. If we carry out the desires of the flesh – is it our fault? If we walk by the Spirit – is it to our credit? Who is to blame if I fall to temptation? Who is to blame if I do not? If I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me, is it my fault if I do not have the strength to do all things? Who is responsible for bearing the fruit of the Spirit – me or the Spirit? Does God choose who is fruitful and who is not? Is my sanctification a matter of my own effort or of God’s power? Or is it both?
Human Effort or God’s Work?
The text itself seems to point in both directions. The bad things Paul discusses in verses 19-21 are called the deeds of the flesh. These are clearly human works. The good things he lists in verses 22-23 are called the fruit of the Spirit which sounds like man is not involved at all. BUT – Paul also says in verse 24 that WE (those who belong to Christ Jesus) have to crucify the flesh with its passions and desires. This puts the responsibility to do something good on us. And in verse 25 he says “If we live by the Spirit let us also WALK (a different word than in verse 16 – this means ‘follow the lead’) by the Spirit” – as if it is something we decide to do.
This means that perhaps the answer is not one or the other but both. If you think about it, this makes sense when reading verse 16. Paul wants us to walk by the Spirit. The verbiage itself really becomes the answer. WE walk, but we walk by the Spirit. We act but always in the power of the Spirit. We walk but we follow the Spirit’s lead (vs 18). The result of our effort in the Spirit’s power is that we do not carry out the desire of the flesh but instead bear the fruit of the Spirit.
We would not say, “I by the Spirit.” (“How are you doing?” “I’m by the Spiriting!”) It makes no sense to say by the Spirit without adding what we DO by the Spirit. By the same token, it makes no sense to simply walk and expect to have success by the standards of the kingdom of heaven. We must walk, but if we walk alone we will fail. We must depend on the Spirit but if we refuse to walk there is nothing for the Spirit to do. We must do both – walk and do it by the Spirit.
It is a great mistake to suppose that our whole duty lies in passive submission to the Spirit’s control, as if all we had to do was to surrender to His leading. On the contrary, we are ourselves to ‘walk’, actively and purposefully, in the right way. And the Holy Spirit is the path we walk in, as well as the guide who shows us the way. – John Stott
So the text as a whole and specifically verse 16 give us the answer. Do we walk by effort and self-discipline or as a result of God’s power? YES! It is both. We act and obey but only in dependence on the Spirit. We never act alone but we also do not sit back and assume the Spirit will change us without any effort on our part.
Think about the metaphor Paul uses in this text. He says the result of the Spirit’s work in our lives is fruit. How does fruit grow? Someone who owns an orchard may plant the trees, prune them, weed around them, water them and fertilize. That is all human effort. But who ultimately causes the fruit to grow? God. Can the orchard owner cause the tree to bear fruit? No – only God can cause growth. But will God cause growth from a tree that is not tended or pruned or watered? Typically no. Both are required for a successful harvest.
If we look at other texts we can test our theory:
Romans 8:12-14 = So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. Who puts to death the deeds of the body? We do. How do we do it? By the Spirit. And how do Christians live? Being led by the Spirit of God.
Philippians 2:12-13 = So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Who obeys? We do. Who works out their own salvation? We do. Who is at work in us to enable us to do this? God.
II Corinthians 6:18-7:1 = “I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” says the Lord Almighty. Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. As a result of being the sons of God and living in fearful communion with Him we cleanse ourselves from all defilement.
I Timothy 4:6-7 = In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness. As we are constantly nourished on the words of the faith we discipline ourselves for godliness.
I John 3:2-3 = Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. As God’s children, the hope of glory that we have in Christ causes us to purify ourselves in preparation for the great day.
There is not a single instance in New Testament teaching on holiness where we are taught to depend on the Holy Spirit without a corresponding exercise of discipline on our part. – Jerry Bridges
The Danger of Extremes
As believers we continually run the risk of going too far one way or the other with this teaching. We can read the scriptures and determine that our sanctification is all of God – Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (I Thess 5:23) – and that we have no responsibility at all. This thinking can lead to lawlessness as we wait for God to complete us. It does not matter how I live because the responsibility for my purity lies with God. It can also lead to dangerous assumptions about God. If I fall to temptation, is it my fault or God’s since He apparently has not given me enough strength to resist?
[As an aside – we never have an excuse when we fall to temptation. Paul says if we walk by the Spirit we will not carry out the desire of the flesh. He says in I Cor 10:13 that God will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able to resist and that we always have a way out. James says we fall because we are carried away and enticed by our own lust (1:14), and that if we resist the devil he will flee from us (4:7). God also says repeatedly throughout the Scriptures that He longs for our communion. If we are in communion with him – which means we walk by the Spirit – we will not fall to temptation.]
On the other hand, deciding that I must progressively sanctify myself through self-discipline – Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong (I Cor 16:13) – can lead to pride, self-righteousness and legalism. It is all about me and when I am righteous it is because I am strong and follow the right rules. And if I can be righteous why can’t you?
The one who passively waits for God can develop a life that varies little from the non-believer. The one who thinks it is all about his own effort can become incredibly discouraged as he fails repeatedly to live up to his own standards. In both cases the end result can be someone who leaves the faith because he has no understanding of or experience with the power of God.
We must remember that it is not one or the other but both. We discipline ourselves for godliness but we never discipline in our own strength or according to our own standards. We do not sit back and wait for the Spirit to work but we never work without the Spirit. The fact that we can find scriptures that back both human effort and God’s work in sanctification means both are valid.
Depend on the Spirit
It seems that perhaps the bigger danger to the American Christian is to assume our sanctification is all about us. We live in a culture that celebrates self-reliance (and is becoming more and more self-absorbed) so it follows that we might take that approach to our faith. We may not verbalize that we think it is all up to us, but our basic approach to holiness is all about discipline and effort and celebrating our works.
From the perspective of self-discipline it pays to remember the deeds of the flesh that Paul lists in verses 19-21. This list shows our default setting. We do these acts naturally – we do not have to try to do them. It is why you do not have to teach a child to lie. Righteous living therefore is the opposite of every natural inclination we have. It is why Paul says repeatedly throughout the letter how foolish it is to seek justification through obedience to the Law. Thus to believe we can obey God’s commands in our own strength is to believe we can alter every natural impulse we have and do it repeatedly. It is like trying to change how we blink.
We work and act and obey – but we never try to do it on our own. Christ said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). A branch cut off from the tree does not bear fruit. So with us – to expect to bear the fruit of the Spirit without the Spirit makes no sense. Apart from Christ we can do nothing but the deeds of the flesh.
Remember too that God does what He does always for His own glory. Bearing fruit in our own strength does not bring glory to Him. In the Philippians 2 passage quoted above, Paul says God is at work in us for His good pleasure. Peter says in I Peter 4:11, “Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God; whoever serves, let him do so as by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” Jesus said in John 15:8, “By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.” Making our sanctification all about us takes glory away from God and makes us the center of our lives.
Human effort only comes AFTER acknowledging and depending on God’s strength. We do not act and then ask for God’s help. We act through and with the Spirit’s power – or else our acting is in vain. Here is how John Piper describes it: Let us acknowledge from our heart that we are unable to please God without the Spirit’s constant enablement. Let us pray for that enablement. Let us trust confidently in the Spirit’s power and promise to give that enablement. Then let us do what we know is right.
We also must realize all the Spirit does. He does not just give us strength to resist temptation; He actually changes our desires such that the temptation goes away (Ps 37:4). He not only prompts us to pray, He prays for us because we do not know how to pray as we should (Rom 8:26-27). He actually enables us to bear HIS fruit. Because of His working in us we can become loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled. Do we really meditate on what an incredible person that describes? Is there anyone who would NOT want to be described that way?
Another vital point to remember is how God works through His Spirit. While it may not be directly stated in the New Testament, God typically only gives us the strength we request and does not give us a one-time infusion that never needs replenished. God loves His children to depend on Him and He loves to be pursued. The widow of Zarephath was given enough food only for that day (I Kings 17) – she had to trust God anew every morning. So with the Christian. We depend on the Spirit continually and never get to a point where we need Him less. As we have stated before, Christian maturity is exemplified in a greater and greater understanding of our dependence.
That means that sometimes human effort is as simple as having the will to pray through times of weakness. There are situations when our responsibility begins and ends with a cry for help. How many times do we face temptation and choose to go it alone? Or believe the lies of the Enemy that we do not need to pray right now? Or – and this is one we do not like to admit – choose to face the temptation alone because we kind of like falling to it? Understand that the promise of I Corinthians 10:13 assumes we face temptation in the power of the Spirit.
The actual aid and internal operation of the Spirit of God is necessary to produce every holy act of our minds, will, and emotions in every duty whatsoever. Notwithstanding the power or ability that believers have received by the principle of new life implanted at salvation, they still stand in need of the divine enablement of the Holy Spirit in every single act or duty toward God. – John Owen
The primary sign that we understand our dependence on the Spirit is prayer. If we do not regularly pray we cannot claim to depend on God. A lack of prayer is our declaration of independence from God. If we need God we appeal to Him for strength. If we have the strength to handle things on our own we do not. The amount of prayer in our life shows the extent to which we depend.
God Gives Growth
Not everyone grows the same. Two farmers can put in the same effort and use the same seed and fertilizer and still have different outcomes at harvest. We are responsible for obeying and working in the power of the Spirit but we cannot make ourselves grow. We prune and tend and weed, but God causes the growth. This is why we should not compare our growth to others but simply measure ourselves by the scriptures.
If we are to make any progress in the pursuit of holiness, we must assume our responsibility to discipline or train ourselves. But we are to do all this in total dependence on the Holy Spirit to work in us and strengthen us with the strength that is in Christ. – Jerry Bridges
Let us consider what regard we ought to have to our own duty and to the grace of God. Some would separate these things as inconsistent. If holiness be our duty, they would say, there is no room for grace; and if it be the result of grace there is no place for duty. But our duty and God’s grace are nowhere opposed in the matter of sanctification; for the one absolutely supposes the other. We cannot perform our duty without the grace of God; nor does God give His grace for any other purpose than that we may perform our duty.
– John Owen