Is God At Work In Us?

I recently heard someone admit, while preaching on Philippians 2:13, that he has very little real sense that God is really at work in him. He sins, repents, confesses and receives forgiveness but has every expectation that within a short time he will need to go through the same cycle again. He doesn't expect to make much progress, yet knows that he ought to be far more hopeful of the possibility of change. Why does he find it so hard to believe what the Bible says? If an experienced evangelical pastor feels like this, what hope is there for 'ordinary' Christians?

This is not the cry of a weak man. On the contrary, having the courage to publicly admit a problem which many face can be a sign of strength. The only danger is that some listeners may treat it as an excuse to stay as they are; if the pastor cannot change than I don't feel so bad about my own lack of progress.

Why do many evangelicals find it so hard to believe the Bible when it says that God is at work in us? I would like to suggest some possible reasons.

We are not as evangelical as we think we are

Evangelicals more or less define themselves as Bible-believing Christians. There is a lot of truth in this claim, but it is not as absolute as we sometimes imagine. Like all other Christians, evangelicals believe a mixture of biblical truth and church tradition i.e. not everything they believe comes from the Bible. When compared with other Christians the balance of the two might be shifted towards the Bible end of the spectrum, but it is not the 100% Bible that they fondly imagine.

On the other hand, evangelicals don't necessarily believe everything taught in the Bible. The proportion might be 80-90% but it is not 100%. Some parts of the Bible are explained away by clever theologians. Provided they are sound enough to still call themselves evangelicals, then the rest will accept these pockets of unbelief as being valid parts of orthodoxy.

There is a strong streak of rationalism in modern evangelicalism

A rationalist wants to exclude supernatural explanations for phenomena. How can a Christian be a rationalist? Well, he can't because our faith rests squarely on supernatural events. However, people can still attempt to put some distance between themselves and the supernatural. There are two ways of doing this:

  1. Temporal gap: supernatural things like the Resurrection happened a long time ago, so I can believe in them without expecting similar things to happen today. This is a form of Deism: God acted but he no longer acts.
  2. Conceptual gap: I am happy to believe in supernatural things (in the sense of intellectual acceptance) provided I don't have to experience them myself. This is almost a form of Gnosticism.

The previous generation of evangelicals don't seem to have suffered from this problem to the same extent. They had an expectation that God was at work in us and through us. Although cessationism was the majority view, this was not as hard-line as sometimes seen today. Although most evangelicals believed the charismata were no longer on offer, they still expected clear guidance from God and saw miracles of provision happen from time to time. It may be that a perverse side-effect of the charismatic movement since the 1970's is that traditional evangelical churches now contain a concentration of hard-line cessationists unbalanced by those who believe in an interventionist God, as the latter now worship elsewhere.

Too much emphasis on the Cross

If you are a conservative evangelical than you may be shocked by this assertion. Aren't we supposed to concentrate on the Cross? Yes, but only provided we set it in context. If we concentrate solely on the death of Christ paying for our sins (as some evangelicals seem to do) then by contrast we may minimise two other truths:

  1. The Resurrection, which not only confirms that the due sacrifice has been made and accepted, but also offers both a picture of and the power to provide newness of life. The New Birth should never be merely a doctrine to believe, but also a reality to be experienced.
  2. The current priestly work of Christ, which reminds us that the work of redemption continues. The sacrifice is done, but the representational work of the High Priest is still going on. If we remember that we have a Priest in heaven, then we may become more aware of our priestly role on earth.

If we concentrate too much on the Cross as a past event then we can present a lop-sided gospel. We ask people to believe in an event, rather than to meet a Person. We become passive proclaimers of a fixed message, rather than active representatives of the living God. A little andecdote may clarify what I mean. During the Second World War, like many other Londoners my Mum spent some time in bomb shelters with her colleagues from work. She found that some of them wanted to stay near her during a raid. This was because they knew she was a Christian and they figured, rightly or wrongly, that she was less likely to be hit than the average person. Was this foolish superstition, or had they grasped something about the active love of God for his people which many modern Christians have forgotten?

Too little belief in the New Birth

For many evangelicals, Christian life goes something like this:

Exaggeration? Maybe, but it contains a kernel of truth. Is it any surprise that many Christians have such low expectations? Would it not be better to follow a different line:

Which of these looks more like the biblical picture of New Life in Jesus?

Little or no experience of the Holy Spirit

If God is supposed to be at work in us, which member of the Trinity is most likely to be involved? Well, it is a daft question; I have given my answer in the heading of this section. People who downplay or discourage subjective experience of the Holy Spirit in the conversion and life of the child of God should not be surprised if He seems to be unwilling to do the things in them which the Bible describes. We cannot say to Almighty God: "I don't mind a bit of peace and love, but I find joy rather childish and excessive. And don't give me tongues; I would much rather have the gift of administration. By the way, why aren't you making me more Christ-like as you promised?" No, the Spirit blows where he wills. He wants to develop in us all the flavours of the fruit, and give us the gifts of his choosing. If we try to restrict him too much then he will sit and wait for us to come to our senses. In most cases he will not force himself on us.

Part of the work of sanctification involves us cooperating with the Spirit. This means more than just obeying Scripture, although it certainly includes that. It also means hearing what God is saying to me now, and doing it. This is difficult for those who are not in the habit of listening to God, perhaps because they have been told that God has taken a vow of silence. If we never experience the Spirit at work in small ways, then we will find it hard to trust him for bigger things such as sanctification.

A vicious circle of unbelief

A vicious circle can develop. We don't see God at work because we don't expect to (lack of faith, which inhibits the work of God). We don't expect to because we don't see God at work (unbelief i.e. we look at experience instead of the promises of Scripture). Is this a contradiction of what I said above about experiencing the Spirit? No, our faith does not rest on experience but on the Word of God. However, our understanding of the Bible and our experience should match; we then can have a virtuous circle.

How do we switch from the bad circle to the good one? We start by deciding to believe the Bible, despite any experience which seems to contradict it. This may require careful study, thought and prayer as the aim is to believe what the Bible says rather than what we think it says or what other people tell us it says. Then from a position of faith we ask God to act in accordance with his Word, but also say that we are listening for his instructions. Sometimes there may be specific things we need to do; sometimes we may simply need to believe what God says. I will give an example, which is not specifically about sanctification but about a matter of faith. Someone I know has been a Christian for many years, yet still had a fear of death. My friend knew that this was not right for a child of God, yet seemed unable to change. We had several discussions but made little progress. One day I was praying about this, and God said to me "Does he/she believe my Word?" When I reported this to my friend the immediate response was not too positive, yet later it was admitted that several other Christians had said the same thing at around the same time. The result was faith. The cessationist would say this sort of thing doesn't happen (as God no longer speaks) and is unnecessary (as we are supposed to believe the Bible anyway); fortunately God loves us and remembers that we are dust, so like any good parent he does things which are not strictly necessary.

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created 10 Jan 2010