Grace Driven Effort

How should we fight sin in our lives?  Download a PDF of Grace Driven Effort here.  This was originally published in two posts located here and here.

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The glory of God shines brightest through weak & feeble people

“Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!” Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.” (Nehemiah 4:1–5 ESV)

Sanballat is angry (and greatly enraged) that the Jews were rebuilding the wall.  Maybe this was motivated by fear?  Regardless of the motivation, he mocked the “feeble Jews.”  Being a feeble Jew undoubtedly was designed to be an insult, but how much more does the glory of God shine through broken, feeble and weak people?  The same is true of us.  It is often times not the most glamorous and gifted people of this world that are faithful.  We seem to think that if we could be at the top of our field (athletics, business, recreation, etc) then we could be so much more influential for God, but God is most glorified through the weak things of this world.  “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27 ESV).  Remember that it is the meek that will inherit the earth, not the powerful and strong.  God prophesied (and is acting upon) this reversal of fortunes – see 1 Sam. 2:1–8; Isa. 61:1; cf. Luke 1:52; John 9:39.

Tobiah joins with Sanballat in jeering the “feeble Jews,” but Nehemiah retaliates.  How?  By asking God to intervene.  How often do we respond in kind to those who mock us?  How often do we defend?  Nehemiah, again, knows that this project is about God’s glory and this is His mission so He is the one that will have to help the “feeble Jews” overcome this obstacle.  Lord, make us a people who see your glory as preeminent and ask you to intervene on our behalf when your glory is threatened by others.  Make us more accurate reflectors of your glory.

The role of scripture is to reveal God to us

“Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work.” (Nehemiah 2:17–18 ESV)

Was it a surprise to anyone that they were in jeopardy because of the disrepair of the wall?  No.  A city’s wall was an integral part of its defense from outside invasion.  It provided safety, security and a place where people could live and prosper without fear.  So why hadn’t they rebuilt the wall before now?  Perhaps fear, perhaps a lack of leadership or resources, perhaps opposition.  But, why rebuild now?  Was it because Nehemiah was inspirational or especially gifted.  Maybe.  It seems more likely that it was because the “hand of my God had been upon me for good” (verse 18).  God had appointed the reconstruction for this time and Nehemiah to lead the effort and God’s hand was upon him in this effort.  Avoid the risk of running to scripture looking for self-help tips for being a better dad, husband, father, leader or worker.  You will find some help for these areas of your life in scripture, but that is not its intent.  We need to run to the scriptures to see God, plain and simple.  We need to ask God to incline our hearts toward Him and to obey Him (Psalm 119:36, 112).  Without a doubt we ought to be better men, husbands, fathers or leader’s, but that is not the end game.  The end game is an all satisfying pursuit of God that as our ultimate treasure in life.

Whose agenda are you pursuing – yours or God’s?

“So I prayed to the God of heaven.” (Nehemiah 2:4 ESV)
“for the good hand of my God was upon me.” (Nehemiah 2:8 ESV)
“my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 2:12 ESV)

Nehemiah surveys the disrepair of the city wall at night (on the Southern & Eastern side) Nehemiah 2:11-15).  It is worth noting how Nehemiah views the task before Him:  “my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 2:12 ESV).  Nehemiah has a clear understanding of Who is driving the bus, Who is directing the show, Who’s work this is.  We often times seek out Nehemiah for leadership tips, but let us never forget that first and foremost Nehemiah is about a man who understands that he is utterly dependent upon the Creator for everything.  He is a model for us on what being faithful to God looks like – but Nehemiah seems to always remember that the work was not his to accomplish, but God’s.  If our service to God (whether formally or informally) is not marked by God’s divine intervention then we need to evaluate if we are pursuing our agenda or God’s agenda – and in who’s power we are trying to accomplish it.

The fuel for being bold

“In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.” And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.” (Nehemiah 2:1–8 ESV)

Nehemiah takes a bold step by “being sad” in the king’s presence.  Part of his job was to be uplifting and positive, not sad and downcast.  The king notices and asks what is the cause of Nehemiah’s sad heart.  Nehemiah instantly prays before responding to the king – Nehemiah was acutely aware that this was God’s mission not His.  The king asks what he is requesting and Nehemiah boldly lays out his request for his endorsement and safe passage and all of the resources that will be required to complete the rebuilding of a wall.  He wants time off, with the king’s blessing & support and the king to provide the resources required to rebuild Jerusalem.  What a bold request!

What is the fuel behind Nehemiah’s boldness? Nehemiah understood that this was God’s mission, not his.  Nehemiah knew it was not up to him to accomplish it, he was just a tool in the hand of the Almighty.  Nehemiah knew that the king’s heart is in God’s hand – “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” (Proverbs 21:1 ESV)  Just like a skilled farmer who directs an irrigation stream wherever he wishes so it is with God and the hearts of man.  Regardless of what you face, remember that God is in absolute sovereign control of all things – even the hearts of man.  Yes, we have free will, but only inasmuch as they are subject to the Sovereign will of God.  You have no reason to fear any man – regardless of power, prestige, or position – because no man has anything without it being allowed by the Creator and Sustainer of all things!

Are you obeying well enough to be accepted?

“And I said, “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.” (Nehemiah 1:5–7 ESV)

The Israelites current situation (verse 7) was due to their disobedience to the covenant relationship that God had established with them.  The Mosaic Covenant was given at Mount Sinai to the Israelites (Exodus 19:4-6) and it said that if they would obey then God would bless them.  The Old Testament chronicles a people who consistently failed to obey God’s commands because they had defective hearts (their hearts were stained with sin and lacked the ability to fully obey).  A major hope for the Israelites was the day when God would give them new hearts – hearts upon which His laws would be written (Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:16, 29:4, 30:6; Jeremiah 31:31–34; Ezekiel 36:26–27).

But, we are no longer under this covenant (Rom. 6:14–15; 7:1–6; 2 Cor. 3:4–18; Galatians 3:15–4:7).  He has written His laws on our hearts (Romans 2:25-29, 8:14; Galatians 5:16, 18, 25; Colosians 2:11; Hebrews 7:18-19, 8:8-12, 9:9, 14, 10:1, 15-18, 10:22).  We do not live under performance based righteousness; we do not earn additional favor from God when we obey.  Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly so God’s blessing toward us is based solely on the finished work of Jesus Christ – not on our performance or obedience to the law.  The old covenant said, “If you obey then I will love and bless you”; the new covenant says, “you are loved and blessed because of the sacrifice of Jesus – now obey”.  One attempts to earn favor with God, the other is a reflection that we already have God’s favor.

Hope is the fuel for joy in the midst of hardships

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:3–11 ESV)

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself; Jesus is our model.  When it comes to suffering, hardships and difficulties, we need to reflect on Jesus and all that He endured on our behalf – and not only the physical difficulties that He endured.  Jesus was the center of worship and He made Himself nothing, Jesus was the sovereign Ruler of the cosmos and He became dependent upon humans as an infant, Jesus was the Maker of all things and He became like created man, Jesus had never experienced limitations and He put on flesh and was bound by it, Jesus had never experienced pain and He lived life in a broken world, Jesus had never known the rejection of His father and He became separated from Him as our sacrifice, Jesus never knew sin or wrath and He took on the sins of the elect and the due wrath of God.  Regardless of how difficult things are or become, our struggles have not yet resulted in martyrdom, so persevere with Jesus as your inspiration.  Our focus is to remain on Jesus, who endured the hostility of his creatures; He is our pursuit and inspiration.  God has called us to nothing that He was not willing to undergo Himself – and much more!

Remember that you have not only been forgiven, but adopted as sons and daughters of God.  We are more than servants – we are now sons!  We are children, and children receive their father’s discipline.  However, this discipline is not punitive, it is corrective.  We should be encouraged by our difficulties because God is using them to cause growth in holiness and to authenticate our sonship.  God loves us so much that mere surface happiness that is devoid of soul level holiness is not an option.  We all have been disciplined by our earthly fathers and it was painful for a season, but we ultimately learned that it was for our good.  What father would let his kids play in the street because they wanted to?  How much more, the discipline of our Father in heaven – who is conditioning our souls for holiness that “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 ESV).

The readers of this epistle had endured much suffering and persecution (10:32-36) as a result of their faith.  And yet, they were compassionate and “joyfully accepted the plunder of their property” (Hebrews 10:34 ESV).  What was the fuel for that joy?  Hope.  Hope that a better, eternal, perfect inheritance was in store for those who believe.  Hope is the fuel for joy.  Hope helps us to see that this world is fleeting and short, like a mist (James 4:13).  In light of this, endure, persevere, stay faithful, make your salvation sure, stick with it, do not lose hope – because “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6 ESV).  The righteous live by faith and do not shrink back:  “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (Hebrews 10:39 ESV), “but we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (Hebrews 10:39 ESV).

In light of a good, sovereign heavenly Father who disciplines His kids, we are called to endure suffering and hardships and to view them as discipline.  Viewing them as discipline forces us to understand and recognize that the difficult circumstances in our lives – whether brought on by our own doing or not – were specifically designed by God for our good and for His glory.  If we can grasp this truth, we are better able to walk freely and joyfully in the midst of great difficulties.  It is easy to think that difficulties are only for a season – and sometimes they are – but, more often than not, they do not quickly go away.  Sometimes our suffering & hardships last our entire lives.  These take on all sorts of flavors:  a persistently difficult marriage, a wayward child, a hard hearted parent, a difficult or unsatisfying job, difficulty in finding close friendships (feeling alone), persecution for your faith or countless others.  Viewing these as God’s loving discipline reveals to us at least four things:
1)  The world is broken and no part of it is unaffected by sin,
2)  The things that we are really trusting in to make live work, provide significance or create or identity.  It reveals our idols – those things that hold the ultimate affections of our heart,
3)  It forces us to spend more time dwelling on ultimate, eternal realities instead of temporal, trivial things,
4)  It causes us to long for a better kingdom where life is not broken and we are uninhibited in our love for and obedience to Jesus.

Regardless of the difficulties that you are walking in (and many are walking through horrifically hard things), find rest in God’s sovereign goodness.  He is using them for your good and His glory – even though you may never understand it this side of glory.  View them as God’s good discipline and allow them produce holiness in you and fuel an increased fervor and passion for Jesus and His kingdom.

Are you living under law or under grace?

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1 ESV)

In Galatians 4:21-28, Paul is making the argument that the Galatians are no longer under the law (subject to slavery), but under grace (free).  The church at Galatia had struggled with adding requirements, rules and regulations to the gospel.  They said Jesus + a list of things must be done in order to earn God’s acceptance and approval.  This is a dangerous, slippery slope that we all wrestle with.  Being accepted completely by God based solely on the work of Jesus seems too easy so we naturally want to add some qualifiers to it.  But, that distorts the beauty of the gospel and enslaves those who adhere to it!  You can tell if you are living with a law oriented faith if you believe that God’s approval, acceptance and affection is based on your behavior or performance.  Behavior modification does not set you free to pursue an intimate relationship with the Creator of the universe!

It is for freedom that Christ has set you free!  What is freedom?  Freedom is doing exactly what you want to do and it being what God wills for you.  This is a condition of the heart – our behaviors are only symptomatic indicators to what is going on inside.  Rules and formulas have never liberated the heart to love and obey God.  Only grace sets our hearts free.  Let us reflect upon the greatness of how a holy, perfect & sovereign God would make a way for rebellious, wicked & weak creatures to be reconciled with Him.  We are justified (made right before God) and adopted as His children because of the atoning work of Jesus.  Dwell on the fact that you are not worthy, but He made the prevision for you and your heart will begin the be set free.

The Gospel Centered Life

Yesterday, I briefly posted a quote from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion which said “men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.”  Calvin wrote this after reflecting upon the godly men in scriptures:  “Hence that dread and amazement with which as Scripture uniformly relates, holy men were struck and overwhelmed whenever they beheld the presence of God.”  Let us look at a few passages that show the response of men when they are duly confronted with the presence of the Almighty:

  • Isaiah was likely the most holy man of his day, and he was reduced to speechlessness when he was in the presence of the Lord:  ““Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips…

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