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Walking by the Spirit

by Alex Wilson

Is It Resting or Wrestling?

“It is important to understand the nature of the power that God has given us,” wrote Eric Fife. “To expect nothing supernatural from Him is to rob ourselves of one of our greatest joys and resources in the Christian life. On the other hand it is important that we not expect from God things that have no scriptural support; doing so can lead only to frustration and cynicism.”

An example of these two errors showed up in a Bible class I taught. After we had studied about the Holy Spirit and obedient Chris­tian living a young lady in the class wrote me a note telling of lessons she had learned. “I remember being quite surprised after I received Christ to find out that I was not automatically perfect in my conduct. Our recent studies about holiness helped me realize that being a victo­rious Christian is a growing process that’s never really finished in this life.'”

So her first mistake was in expecting too much. As a new convert she had thought that God would somehow transform her into a sinless person, just as you might convert a cassette-recorder from using alter­nating current (electricity) to using direct current (batteries) by turning a knob. Becoming a mature Christian is not that simple or that quick.

Her note continued: “The class helped me realize more that the Holy Spirit is a person and what that means. I have never really thought of Him as One who helps me in the growing process; there­fore, I have often considered the task hopeless.” That was her second error–expecting too little and thus feeling hopeless about overcoming sin and being holy.

 

COMMON MISTAKES

Such mistakes seem quite common. On the one hand, many Chris­tians feel that Christian living and service depend entirely on their own efforts. Their attitude is, “If I can only try harder and put forth greater effort, surely I’ll become a better Christian.” So they grit their teeth and clench their fists and try harder to do their duty, at least for a while.

But there is little growth and less joy and it all seems useless in the end. Often they give up. This kind of Christian living is very sad. Surely being children of the Living God is meant to be better than this.

On the other hand, some Christian teachers who realize the total inadequacy of such a self-dependent attitude tend to go too far in the other direction. Here are some typical quotations: “Christ is living the victorious life today, and Christ is your life. Therefore stop trying. Let him do it all. Your effort and trying can have nothing to do with vic­tory.” Another writer declares, “In our sanctification and service, God must do all, and you will take no part in it but to accept what He will do for you.” And a third teacher agrees, writing, “The abiding life is an effortless life; true New Testament living is effortless. Why do we need to try? Only because we are not abiding.”

Those ideas contain some truth (Christ is our life) and they sound very spiritual. Many Christians, including myself, have been attracted to such views. But as time passed, two objections arose in my mind. First, how is it possible to “stop trying” or to live an “effortless” life? What do such expressions mean in practice as far as resisting tempta­tion and practicing righteousness are concerned? To say “stop trying” only confuses people, for it is impossible.

Second, this viewpoint is not biblically balanced. As the co-­authors Robinson and Winward point out, Scripture certainly does tell us to believe, receive, abide, trust and rest. But it also urges us to fight, run, work, suffer, endure, resist and put to death. The earlier commands stress our need to depend fully on our Lord apart from whom we can do nothing. But we should remember that second list of commands too.

 

A BASIC PRINCIPLE

The Bible’s teaching is summarized in Gal. 5:25, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (NIV). Or, “if the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct our course” (NEB). In other words, God imparted spiritual life to us when we were dead in sins. He thus enabled us to become holy; that is His part. Therefore we are obliged to be holy, to keep in step with the Spirit; that is our part. The Christian life is at the same time GIFT and DUTY, a divine provision and human response.

Notice two major applications of this principle. First is the DAN­GER OF SELF-DEPENDENCE. Christian living depends on what the Lord has done and continues to do for us. Therefore any kind of do-it­-yourself attitude is disastrous for us disciples. However, what the Bi­ble warns us against is not effort: nothing can be done without effort. What it tells us to beware of is self-confident effort. If we rely on our own efforts, or knowledge, training, experiences, abilities and suc­cesses instead of on the power of God we shall be as weak as Samson after his haircut. We might have outward success, but no eternal re­sults to the glory of God.

We quoted Gal. 5:25 above. The context of this important verse is Paul’s teaching about the fruit of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit is the source of our life” (v. 25), and He is also the source of the 9-fold fruit listed in verses 22-23. Left to ourselves, we cannot make ourselves loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, etc. These qualities result from His presence in our hearts. Just as we cannot save ourselves from sin’s guilt apart from Christ’s redemption, so we cannot save ourselves from sin’s power apart from the Spirit’s indwelling.

Self-dependence is folly, so reject it. Do not think you can make yourself holy in heart. It is impossible. But God can do it for you, so don’t despair. The Almighty is our Father; His Son is our living High Priest; His Spirit is our Comforter-Counselor. So trust Him to do for you what you cannot do for yourself. He can overcome our most deeply-rooted sins, our strongest habits, our all-entangled personal re­lations. He can cause the delicious, nutritious fruit of the Spirit to thrive in our lives, as we depend on Him.

How do we express our dependence on God? Basically, by pray­ing. This is one of the main purposes of prayer. We don’t inform God of anything He doesn’t know when we pray. Why do it then? In order to remind ourselves and to express to Him our absolute need for Him. Prayer is the primary demonstration that we really believe that apart from the Lord we can do nothing.

 

AM I LAZY OR DISCIPLINED?

We have seen that there is danger in self-dependence. But now no­tice the other side of the coin: The DANGER OF DISOBEDIENCE. All nine of the virtues called the fruit of the Spirit are also duties we are commanded to perform!

Love: “Put on love” (Col. 3:14).

Joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:1).

Peace: “Never be anxious but always pray and give thanks, and God’s peace will guard your heart” (Phil.4:6-7).

We are commanded to fulfill these conditions if we want the Spirit to produce peace in our hearts.

Patience: “Put on patience” (Col. 3: 12).

Kindness: “Put on kindness” (Col.3: 12).

Goodness: “Command those who are rich to do good” (I Tim.6:17).

Faithfulness: “Be faithful unto death” (Rev. 2: 10).

Meekness: “Put on meekness” (Col. 3: 12).

Self-control: “To your knowledge add self-control” (2 Pet 1:6).

From one viewpoint these nine virtues are the fruit of the Holy Spirit. That is, they are attitudes which God plants within our hearts and causes to grow there spontaneously; to some degree at least they are His work. If you are a genuine Christian you have surely experi­enced this. After your conversion you found a new love and joy and peace springing up within, didn’t you? God had imparted His nature to you, which resulted in transformed character (2 Pet 1:4).

But you did not become perfect. You probably discovered very soon that the new love within your heart needed nurturing, and that you still needed to put on meekness and to add more self-control. And this is Scriptural. For from a second viewpoint (and the Bible’s writers see no contradiction between the two views) these nine virtues are ac­tions which we are obliged to perform. . … .

We are commanded to speak the loving word, to perform the kind action, to persevere with faithfulness, and in meekness refrain from demanding our rights. If we are not doing these duties we are disobe­dient. We cannot say, “I admit I am not very loving, joyful, kind or persevering, but don’t blame me. It’s the Lord’s business to make me that way, so I won’t let my failures bother me.”

“Oh no!” As someone said, “Without the Holy Spirit we can’t. Without us He won’t.” That is, we cannot be holy without Him; but He won’t force holiness on us if we refuse it, nor automatically impart it to us if we neglect it. Victorious living is our duty as well as God’s gift. So we need to obey, and obedience requires self-discipline. We need to do what we should so the Holy Spirit can do what He wants. George Duncan of Scotland explains this point clearly as he describes the fruitful life:

“If we are to know the Holy Spirit in His fullness, we shall know Him not just doctrinally or emotionally, but functionally. A man who is filled with the Spirit is a man in whose life the ministries of the Spirit are being fulfilled. We quench the Spirit when we fail to allow Him to do in us that for which He has been given.”

 

For example, one of His ministries is to help us in prayer (Rom.8:26-27). And He does help us pray–as we pray! But if we neglect prayer, we keep Him from fulfilling that ministry in us. He also has come to bear witness to Christ. And He does–as we witness! “The Spirit will testify about me; but you also must testify” (John 15:26).

He has come to help us understand Scripture too (John 16:13). And He does that–as we open our Bible and prayerfully use our eyes and minds and hearts! But if we neglect to study, we shut the door on His teaching ministry.

Above all, the Spirit has come to glorify our Lord Jesus (John 16:14). This is His greatest yearning. But if we live Christ-dishonoring lives, we stifle that ministry of the Spirit in our lives–we are not filled with Him. Then we need to repent and seek a fresh filling.

WHAT A WASTE

We are like students who want to get a university education but can’t afford even the registration fees, much less the tuition, room and board, and transportation expenses. Then a gracious donor steps in and offers us a full scholarship. All expenses paid, even transportation! Wonderful! But the scholarship won’t help us even one little bit if we fail to attend any classes.

“Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit”.

Without God, we can’t. Without us, He won’t. With Him, we can.




2 Responses to “Walking by the Spirit”

  1. Ron Bartanen says:

    Alex, a very well-balanced presentation on walking in the Spirit.



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I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:33