Grace Driven Effort (part 1)

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:1–3:10 ESV)

There is no doubt that the scriptures call us to kill (mortify) sin in our lives – and to take radical steps in this pursuit.  Matthew 5:29 reminds us of the seriousness with which Jesus views sin and the radical steps we should be willing to take in order to eradicate it from our lives.  The problem often times is how we go about this.  We normally view the spiritual disciplines as the primary means by which we kill sin in our lives.  Common advice is to pray more, read one’s bible more and get some accountability.  But, if we are honest, we know that these are powerless, in and of themselves, to victoriously kill sin in our lives.  They may help us manage sinful behaviors, but they won’t kill sin at its source.  What we need is not more us driven effort, but rather grace driven effort.  Grace driven effort requires a significant shift in our thinking and theology.

A 17th century Scottish Presbyterian minister named Ralph Erskine wrote a great article entitled The Difference Between Legal and Gospel Mortification which is very helpful in helping us to abandoning us driven effort and replacing it with grace driven effort.  In this article, Mr. Erskine compares us driven effort versus grace driven effort.  I have summarized his thoughts on his first four points below (we will look at the last four tomorrow).

1.  Grace driven effort is fueled by gospel principles, such as the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13), Faith in Christ (Acts 15:9), and the constraining love of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14).  Us driven effort is often times fueled by the approval of others, self-righteousness, fear of judgement (temporal or eternal), our own conscience, the example of others, and frequently the power of sin itself.  The last one is all too common in our modern evangelical experience; we use “lesser” sins to battle “greater” sins.  For example the man who struggles greatly with pornography or alcoholism, exerts his own self-righteous discipline to suppress the “greater” sin.  So self-righteousness now wars against lust; sin is wrestling against sin and sin is never killed, just managed and replaced by a more “acceptable” one.

2.  The weapons which are engaged are different.  Grace driven effort fights with the gospel truths such as the blood of Christ, the word of God, the promises as children, and the source of our righteousness in the death & resurrection of Jesus (Galatians 3:1-3, 6:14).  Us driven effort focuses, instead, on the law to beat sin.  This is manifest in our lives when we make vows and resolutions to overcome our sin, these become the strength that we depend upon to deliver us.  But Paul reminds us that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:14 ESV).  Our best efforts will never kill sin in our lives because our best efforts are rooted in law which is powerless to redeem and restore – the law only reveals our sin, but it will never deliver.  That is the point in Jesus, grace redeems and restores.  The law is useful in diagnosing the disease (like an X-Ray or MRI), but it will never cure the disease – only grace can cure.

3.  The sins they attempt to kill are different.  Us driven effort focuses especially on “external” sins like pornography, alcohol, profanity, and gossip to a lesser degree.  This is because us driven effort relies upon us to kill these so we deploy the only weapon we have on our own to defeat these sins:  sin.  We become disciplined, and dependent on our best efforts to win the war so we use sin to fight sin in an effort to manage our behavior.  Grace driven effort fights these sins, but also asks much deeper heart level questions in an attempt to determine the root causes of idolatry that exist from which these sins spring.  Grace driven effort is driven to bruise the head of the serpent and longs with Paul for deliverance (“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24 ESV)).  Grace driven effort persistently reminds us of God’s great ability and our utter inability.

4. The motive for killing sin is different.  Us driven effort is motivated by the consequences of sin in our lives.  Things like being found out, damage to our reputation, natural consequences like marriages being damaged, divorce and a host of other uncomfortable consequences.  Comfort, reputation and self will are in focus when we employ us driven effort.  Grace driven effort is different; it realizes that sin dishonors God, opposes Jesus, grieves the Spirit that dwells within and separates us from God.  Us driven effort avoids sin and attempts to kill it because it hurts us and causes discomfort, not because it offends the Creator and tarnishes the image of God that Jesus came to restore.

Colossians 3:1-10 is dripping with grace driven effort.  Follow the rhythm of this passage.  It starts with a conditional statement that the balance of the passage is built upon.  The conditional statement is if you are a Christian then you have been raised with Christ (see Romans 6:1-11) and are to set your mind on eternal things, not temporary things.  The text then reminds us that we have died (to sin and its dominion over our lives) and are alive to God and to the things of God and that we will appear with him in glory.  The text then tells us that in light of the truths that preceded it we are to put to death the sin in our lives.  Don’t miss that – the fuel for killing sin is found in what God has done for us and our right standing relationship with Him.  You will never successfully beat sin in your life if you are not wowed by the fact that the Creator of the universe loved you, pursued you and brought you into a relationship with Him of His own doing and choice.  Being wowed by this increasingly drives our affections toward God and eternal things as lesser (albeit often time good) things hold less appeal in our lives.

Grace Driven Effort (part 2)

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