by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 8:49am

In part one we began discussing this question: If baptism results in death to sin and rebirth to new spiritual life, then (1) why do some unimmersed people seem to exhibit this new life and new lifestyle; and (2) why do some immersed believers not do a very good job of living a committed life?

The “new lifestyle” that follows conversion is what we usually call “sanctification,” or the lifelong process of becoming more and more holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). This is another area where synergism (“working together”) is required. In sanctification both the human agent (the Christian) and the divine agent (the indwelling Holy Spirit) must work together, simultaneously.

On the one hand you, the Christian, must “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12b). This does not refer to doing good works in order to earn salvation or as a condition for forgiveness. Rather, it refers to the second part of the double cure of salvation,i.e., the sanctification process. It refers to our holy living, to the life of“good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). To accomplish this we must consciously use our knowledge of the Word, our free will, our will power, and our spiritual energy for the purpose of walking in holiness, obeying the New Covenant law code, resisting temptation, and fighting sin and Satan in every way.

But how can we do this without God’s help? The bad news is that we cannot. Indeed, “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom.8:7-8). The good news, though, is that God does provide this help! Paul not only says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12b), but also immediately thereafter says, “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

How does God work within us, so that we both want to do what pleases him and also can do so? He does this in two ways. First, he works in us through the power of his Word. His Word includes both the teaching of the gospel, which powerfully convicts us and moves our hearts and wills to action (Rom. 1:16-17; 10:8-10,17; Heb. 4:12); and the teaching of his law, which reproves us, corrects us, and instructs us in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Second, God works in us is through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, which we received in Christian baptism. The very purpose of this indwelling is so that the Spirit may do what Philippians 2:13 says God is doing within us. He is giving us the internal spiritual energy and power to put sin to death (Rom. 8:13), and to live a life of love and obedience (Eph. 3:14-21; see especially v. 16).

How then does this relate to the questions raised by our inquirer? I.e., how can some unimmersed persons live committed lives, and why are some immersed believers still living in spiritual weakness and immaturity? To answer these questions, I will identify three things that are needed for any human being to live a life of obedience that is pleasing to God. These things are knowledge, power, and motivation.

Every accountable human being has the inherent foundation and capacity for all of these by virtue of creation, and we use them every day in various contexts. Inreference to our spiritual life, the general revelation given through creation gives us a basic knowledge of God (Rom. 1:18-21) and of his law (Rom. 2:14-15). The fact that we are created with free will means we are inherently able to honor God and do what is right. Our awareness of and awe before the Creator are sufficient to motivate us to do these things (Rom. 1:21).

The presence of sin, however, has worked havoc in all these areas. Sin has distorted our knowledge of God and his law. It has short-circuited our will to obey. It has rewired our motives to desire and pursue selfish preferences rather than the things of God. This is why we now need significant help from God, and why he has made it available to us. In reference to our spiritual life and salvation, God now supplies the means by which our capacity for knowledge is given right content, by which our ability and will to do right are empowered, and by which we are motivated to pursue what God desires. God does these things through two significant means: his Word and his Spirit.

Through the special revelation of God’s Word, he gives us clear and undistorted knowledge of his law, showing us how to worship and serve him (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Through his Word he also gives us the facts, promises, and commands of the gospel, showing us how to become and to stay saved, and motivating us to do so. Then, ever since Pentecost, God has given believers the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, specifically to empower us “to will and to work” (Phil. 2:13), i.e., to live a life that is holy and pleasing to him.

How does all this help us to answer the questions posed by our inquirer? First, we know that the Word of God may have a tremendous impact upon a sinner’s heart, before and without the Spirit’s indwelling. We can see, for example, how the Word of both law and gospel brings individuals under conviction, and how it motivates them to believe, to repent, and to submit to Christ’s Lordship. Such instruction and motivation were at work throughout the Old Testament age, when there was no gift of the indwelling Spirit, even for men like Moses and Isaiah. This is how I believe we can explain the surrendered lives of unimmersed people today. God is working in them through his Word. Whether they are saved or not is God’s call, not ours. Jesus has warned us, though, not to conclude that we (or any others) are saved, based on observable external works (Matt. 7:21-23).

How, then, can we explain the fact that some Christians, who have both been exposed to the Word and have received the Spirit’s indwelling in Christian baptism, do not seem to be living a born-again lifestyle in full-blown commitment and surrender to Jesus? Let us remember that three things are needed for vigorous obedience: knowledge,power, and motivation. All who have believed and repented, and have confessed and been baptized, have the knowledge needed for holy living available to them in the Bible, and they also have the power of the Spirit within them. But they are often lacking in two things.

First, they have not been taught the truth of God’s Word about why they have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. They have been taught lies about this, e.g., that He is within us to enable us to speak in tongues, or to give us special inward “guidance.” They have not been taught that he indwells us to give us power to live a holy life, and they have not been taught how to access this power. They are like people who live in a house wired with electricity, but do not know how to turn on the lights and how to use the appliances empowered thereby.

Second, many saved individuals who have adequate knowledge and power to live a holy lifestyle have not been motivated to make a deep commitment thereto. This may happen because many who are preachers and teachers often devote most of their evangelism efforts to teaching sound doctrine about salvation (which is necessary), and as a result tend to neglect the heart and will and emotions. We educate, but fail to motivate. Or we may be short-sighted in another way. We may work hard to motivate a sinner to be baptized, but then neglect to lead that convert to the complete commitment and lifelong obedience for which he is now equipped.

This is why, in connection with some later post-conversion experience, a Christian may for the first time feel the impact of the gospel on his or her heart, and be sincerely moved to a level of love and commitment not experienced up to that point. Again, the power and potential to live on this deeper level have been there all along, but the motivation to use it needed a jump-start. In such a case God has already done what he promises to do in baptism, but for one reason or another the new Christian has failed to take full advantage of his gracious gifts and wonderful works.

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  1. Thank you for that excellent reply to Tom’s question. I think many Reformed-influenced Christians struggle with these same questions, and part of the reason I think is that they read Rom 8:7-8 in isolation and without due regard to its context. I include myself in that camp as I too was influence by Reformed theology teachings. It was because of various conflicting interpretations in Romans that spurred on my desire to devote so many years to finding the truth. This eventually lead to writing a commentary on Romans–a task I would never have otherwise sought out to do.

    Your point is “spot-on”. Paul was referring to obedience to the law. I would add the context indicates total obedience–as if one could attain righteousness through it. It’s not as if people can’t choose to do good, and it is not as if we are 100% totally depraved as many Calvinists would say (a misinterpretation from Romans 3). Anyway, it’s understandable why Calvinists have such a hard time with the idea of free will, as the concept permeates the Bible. In the New Testament alone, I’ve documented 220 references to a person’s ability to choose. The idea of free will must be incredibly difficult for anyone who reads scripture with a discerning mind to ignore, and I love seeing people like Tom at least question what he has been taught (Acts 17:11). As always, I enjoy your comments and get great insights from them. I read them regularly. Keep up the great work!

  2. Brother Cottrell, a lady in our class studing Acts says she was saved before she was baptised a second time, but not as a result of her first baptism as a child. Not wanting to embarrass her, i didn’t ask how she knew she was saved but figure she had some emotional experience. i find no NT examples of emotions as confirmation of salvation except AFTER water baptism. How say you?

    • You are correct, Brother! The key example is the Ethiopian eunuch, who “went on his way rejoicing” after his baptism (Acts 8:39).

  3. I consider myself a restoration-minded born again Christian but have also, recently, been struggling with the Reformed approach to free will (we have none) and the sovereignty of God (it’s all Him) in the salvation of mankind. I don’t believe their Calvinistic theology but struggle with some texts. Although this article is not dealing with that particular issue, a quote included in it, referenced below, seems to imply that apart from God’s acting on the sinner, the sinner cannot respond.

    But how can we do this without God’s help? The bad news is that we cannot. Indeed, “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom.8:7-8).

    Two other verses that contain the words of Jesus also seem to imply the same idea. John 6:44:“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them,….” and John 6:65: “He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.'”

    Can you elaborate?

    I just recently discovered your website and am extremely happy. I have a number of your published works. In fact I am currently reading in your Romans work regarding the sovereignty of God in Romans 9-12. I find your writings extremely scholarly yet understandable. Thank You!

    • Thank you for your sincere comments and questions. Romans 8:7-8 says that the unsaved sinner cannot properly respond to God’s LAW. This is not the same as responding to the GOSPEL. The gospel is God’s power unto salvation; faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. The gospel of the cross exercises a drawing power upon the sinner’s heart, and SOME sinners use their free will to respond to it. This is the point of John six; God must draw the sinner, but the drawing can be resisted. This is seen from John 12:32, which says that ALL MEN are drawn through the word. All do not respond, however. Here are the facts: sinners must be drawn by God (John 6:44, 65); all who hear the gospel ARE drawn by it (John 12:32); but only some respond to it. These facts are not consistent with Calvinism.

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