Saturday, November 21, 2020

Sanctification: Dependent Responsibility

Suppose you are riding in a plane at thirty-five thousand feet. If you had to make a choice, which of the two wings would you rather have fall off? That’s a silly question, isn’t it, for the obvious answer is, neither one. An airplane simply cannot fly with just one wing. Today, engineers can build a two-engine passenger plane that can continue to fly and land safely with only one engine working. But we cannot not build a plane that will fly with just one wing.

Yet, we Christians often try to “fly” the Christian life with just one wing. In fact, I’m afraid often is an understatement. It would probably be closer to the truth to say we usually try to fly with just one wing.

Think of the two wings of an airplane as representing two complementary truths, both absolutely necessary for our growth in sanctification: (1) we are personally responsible for our Christian growth, and (2) we are absolutely dependent upon God for our Christian growth. For short, I call these two truths dependence and responsibility. Right now, visualize in your mind’s eye an airplane representing your Christian life. On one wing write dependence and on the other wing write responsibility.

I’ve already said we usually try to fly with just one of these two wings. Sometimes we focus almost entirely on our responsibility to read the Bible, or to deal firmly with some besetting sin in our lives, or to be more faithful in prayer. We, so to speak, clench our fists and jut out our jaw and, like a rental car advertisement, we “try harder.” When we do that, we’ve lost the wing of dependence.

Then there are times when we despair of our own resolve and personal discipline, and we admit we can’t live the Christian life on our own. We say, “Lord, I can’t do it. You’ve got to do it for me.” And then we simply turn it all over to God and, as the saying goes, “Let Jesus live His life through me.” When we do this, we lose the wing of responsibility.

But does the Bible support my analogy of a two-winged airplane? Are we indeed both responsible and dependent? The classic Bible passage on this subject is Philippians 2:12–13:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.”

In verse 12 Paul urged the Philippians to “continue to work out your salvation.” The tense of the verb continue to work out indicates continuous, sustained, strenuous effort.

The Philippians were not simply to “turn it all over to the Lord.” They were to recognize their own responsibility for their sanctification and to pursue it diligently.

Paul exemplified this continuous, sustained, and strenuous effort when he said, “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14). The picture Paul paints of himself is that of a runner with his mind totally focused on the race and straining every muscle in his body to cross the finish line first. Paul was surely conscious of his responsibility.

But Paul grounded his strong exhortation to accept responsibility on the confidence that God was working in them to enable them to obey, to “will and to act according to His good purpose.” Paul understood that sanctification was not a do-it-yourself project. He fully recognized that apart from the enabling power of the Holy Spirit within the Philippian believers, they could not work out their own salvation. Paul’s airplane of sanctification clearly had two wings.

We see this recognition of both responsibility and dependence in Paul’s response to various circumstances. In Philippians 4:11–12, he stressed that he had learned to be content whatever the circumstances. Learning implies something he had to work at. He was responsible. But then he added, “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (verse 13). Paul recognized he was dependent upon God for the inner strength to be content in any and all circumstances.

So we are responsible for our sanctification, but we must continually look to God to enable us to pursue it.

I suspect most people who read this blog post have accepted their responsibility for growing in Christian maturity. The wing of responsibility on your airplane of sanctification is firmly in place. But what about the wing of dependence? Do you consistently practice an attitude of total dependence on the Holy Spirit to work in you and enable you? I’m not asking if you accept the doctrine of total dependence, but do you practice it. Do you, even though you know you are responsible, renounce all confidence in your own spiritual strength and look to Christ alone to enable you to grow more and more into His likeness?