This little series comes as a result of watching the Clarus panel discussion with Fred Zaspel and D.A. Carson a few weeks ago, I’m giving it a Carsonian phrase like, ‘Effort? Yes, and No!’” The actual title of the panel discussion was ”Rest in the Gospel or Strive Unto Holiness?” To which I want to answer: “Yes and yes… and it depends on what you mean by striving.”
As someone who spent a number of years putting in a lot of effort (much of it vain) into sanctification or striving unto holiness, this subject is very near and dear to my heart. Even more so because it happened during an important season in one of our children’s lives, an impressionable age in which this child started believing that in order to be “godly” it meant doing X,Y, and Z. Except that the X,Y, and Z that we were holding up as true holiness were actually matters of Christian liberty. We were not holding up the gospel—to our shame. However, the Lord is faithful, even when we are not, and he restores the years which the locusts have eaten. So, all this to say that whenever someone starts talking about “effort” even if they use a statement like “gospel-fueled effort” my heart still stops for a minute and my stomach does a slight twist. So… in light of some of the goals of this blog I thought it would be fruitful to have some discussions on this thing we call “effort” in the Christian life.
The question here is—or should be—one that is very important for Christians to think through: Should we as followers of Christ rest in the gospel or should we be striving toward holy living? What does resting in the gospel mean? What does striving unto holiness mean? Where does effort come into all this if it comes in at all? Is it really an either/or? These are some questions I would like to explore with you.
Before we go to verses like “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” Philippians 2:12 (which when used woodenly is apt to bring on legalism hard and fast), let’s talk just a bit about what it means to rest in the gospel (something I have struggled with for years and years). At the heart of the gospel is the cross, and the cross is “the most unqualified display of God’s love.” (A phrase borrowed from Carson.) That is, the cross is where God’s love is most powerfully demonstrated. We can’t stop there, however, in order to understand how the love of God relates to “resting in the gospel,” we have to tease out what we mean by the concept of “resting.” Is resting like laying on the couch for an afternoon nap? Well, no, it’s not that kind of resting. What if you’ve been out on a lake in a storm and you finally get to shore and your feet touch land and now you can walk on land, your feet are “resting” on the ground? Yes, that’s a little more like it. So now you can imagine going about your daily life: eat, work, play, etc. all the normal human activities, including activities where your feet are not necessarily right on the ground (e.g. going to bed, riding in a car, etc.) but you are essentially on land. (I understand this is not a perfect analogy.) Maybe we can think of the concept of “resting in the gospel” as the idea of our feet being on the ground. Think of, “for in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). So whatever we go about doing, we are on this solid ground, if you will.
I believe that we can then logically say that resting in the gospel is resting in the love of God, or better yet, resting in the fact that God really and truly loves us. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6.) And, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8.)
Resting in the gospel is also a trusting, it is taking God at his word. It means we believe him when he says things like “I love you,” “I have called you,” “you are mine,” “there is no other savior beside me,” “I lay my life down for the sheep,” and so on and so forth. I think this is one of the linchpins of real gospel living and growing. There is something that is fundamentally and palpably different about our faith when we truly believe that Jesus loves us. I know this because my life changed dramatically when I started really believing that Jesus loved me. I could feel it in my soul and in the orientation of my heart.
There cannot be long lasting fruit of the Spirit or consistent outward godliness without a resting in the gospel. Next time we’ll talk about “effort.” What it may or may not mean and what it looks like in a maturing Christian.
I would love to hear from you, whether you have an experience to share or thoughts on this question of resting in the gospel and/or striving unto holiness. How does this play out in your life as a woman, as a wife, as a mother? How are you modeling this, or are you modeling this to your children?
I’m not going to pretend that I have the last word on this. If there is a Priscilla or Aquila out there, please do not hesitate to comment, I invite theological sharpening. With grace and kindness of course.