One of the greatest gifts available to the born again Christian is the opportunity to be progressively spiritually transformed into the holy likeness of the God of grace as we daily rest in the finished work of Christ on the cross. (John 19:30).
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt.11:28-30).
What does resting in the finished work of Christ really mean?
To begin with, let us first look at what resting in the finished work of Christ is not. It does not mean that God has, with salvation, finished his work within us. Nor does it mean that the experience of salvation itself is all that is necessary for us to live a holy Christian life. The power to live a holy life certainly became available to us through salvation. But salvation itself is only the beginning.
Resting in the finished work of Christ means that since Christ has indeed finished His work on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, we may now participate fully in His resurrection life by taking advantage of the opportunity to be transformed into His image by the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3: 17,18).
Why does it seem as though so few Christians are actually experiencing this rest?
After their salvation, many Christians have suffered disappointment and disillusionment as they have struggled to live a holy Christian life, having never truly understood that it is the Holy Spirit’s function to produce the fruits of righteousness in their lives (Gal. 5:16-24; Rom. 8:12-14).
Instead, they have believed, having often been taught by leaders in their own churches, that holy Christian living after salvation is simply a matter of choices and efforts they need to make. Many Christians have suffered exasperation and confusion when they are told that they need only combine biblically based choices with some serious effort on their part in order to experience victory over repetitive sin patterns in their lives. They find that this combination does not work effectively in their lives, no matter how determined their efforts. This combining of various choices and efforts is represented to struggling Christians as faith, but it is often, in reality, self-reliance.
The continued dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit to develop the character of Christ within us, in order for us to experience victory over strongholds of sinful behavior, is conspicuously absent in these teachings.
This significant oversight, stemming from the performance/works mentality so prevalent in our society and in much of Christianity today, leads to a poverty of inspiration regarding the progressive nature of sanctification.
What is “the progressive nature of sanctification”?
God has made available to every Christian an ongoing process by which he or she may become more Christ-like. This process is referred to as progressive sanctification and it is meant to bring us into the fullness of the experience of rest that is revealed to us throughout the Bible (Lev. 23:26-32; Deut. 6:10-12; Psalm 95:8-11; Isa. 30:1-15; Heb. 3:15-4:11).
In examining sanctification, we see two prominent actions arising: separation from evil and dedication unto God. Progressive sanctification is what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives to bring us into the experiential reality of holy living. It must be viewed at once as past, present, and future; or instantaneous, progressive, and complete.
God has always been, is, and will be. This is a mystery. But, in a similar way, we have been sanctified, are being sanctified, and will be entirely sanctified someday as we stand before Him in heaven.
We must choose to cooperate in the process of sanctification by continually making decisions to keep ourselves from evil influence (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). But these decisions in themselves do not sanctify us. It is God who sanctifies us (Phil. 2:13; Ezek. 20:10-12;1 Peter 1:2).
Just like salvation, the progressive work of sanctification is available to all (that are saved), but it is not necessarily deeply and experientially apprehended by all. Just like salvation, it cannot be earned or purchased. And, just like salvation, sanctification is a gift of grace and must be received by faith. Yet, our faith is not in our salvation or our sanctification. Our faith is in the very person and finished work of Christ, and His plan for the transformation of our souls through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13).
How is this transformation begun?
It was by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ that we first began to experience our new life in Christ Jesus, and it is by continuing in the ways of grace through faith that we will experience this new life more fully.
We first experienced spiritual rebirth and the resulting new life by responding to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit within us. We were sorry for our sins, confessed our need to be saved through faith in Christ, and received God’s forgiveness. We were then spiritually reborn by the power of God made available to us through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Trusting in Jesus’ work (the crucifixion) and God’s power (the resurrection), our spirits were raised from the dead into new life. By God’s grace through faith, we literally became new creatures in Christ Jesus.
In a similar way, the transformation of the soul begins to take place through our willingness to submit our lives to God combined with a genuine sorrow for our current sins (James 4:7-10). We must confess our need to be sanctified in those areas of our lives in which we still believe ungodly lies and partake of sinful behavior. We can then invite and rely upon, by faith, the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to reveal and tear down any ungodly belief systems which have, within us, become rebellious strongholds of godless self-determination. Through this process, we can begin to experience significant transformation of our souls.
Certainly, at salvation, our spirits were born again, but our souls (that is: our mind, our emotions, and our will) still need to be transformed through God’s grace into the image of Christ, so that we might experience inwardly God’s promised rest.
What must I do first?
It is only by our recognition that God, through His great power, must do for us what we cannot do for ourselves that we are able to apprehend the grace necessary to experience this transformation of our souls. Though we may have an ardent desire to be surrendered to God’s will, our desire does not sanctify us. Though we may zealously do many great works of service, which bless many people, we are not sanctified by our efforts.
Holy Christian living is not just how much we desire to please God, it is also how much we allow the Holy Spirit to sanctify us, so that our desires may originate from a truly godly motivation. Christian living is not only about what we must do – though we must certainly make every effort to separate ourselves from evil influences that may lead to temptation and sin. But, even more importantly, we must continue to believe and receive by faith in what Christ has already done for us, making available to us the power for godly Christian living!
This seems too simple. I’ve heard so many sermons and taken so many notes on what it takes to live a victorious Christian life, and now you seem to be saying, “Just believe and receive!”
Many of those sermons could be likened to the advice of a father, if he were to give his young son a new puppy and then launch into an elaborately detailed explanation regarding the procedures of puppy care, without ever explaining to the boy the simple fact that the puppy must be given certain food to eat in order to grow into a healthy dog. Many elaborately detailed sermons are being preached on how to “do” Christianity, but very few are truly focused on accessing the necessary source of power to experience fully our new life in Christ. What is being preached is not, in itself, necessarily incorrect. It is just, as the saying goes, “putting the cart before the horse.”
Let’s stop esteeming the eloquent of speech and begin looking at the fruit in the life of the individual Christian. Is the Holy Spirit transforming your soul? Are the sinful patterns in your life really being overcome or are you just accumulating lots of information about God? The apostle Paul says, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:4-5). Our faith – resting on God’s power!
In his book, The Wonderful Spirit-Filled Life, Charles Stanley describes the impact this simple, but profound, truth had in his own life. “It dawned on me that I had been like a branch straining to produce fruit on its own. No wonder their was so little fruit in my life. Branches were not designed to produce fruit – they were designed to have fruit produced through them! I had been going about the whole thing backward. In Galatians, Paul contrasts the deeds of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. My approach had been to try to do deeds of the Spirit. How foolish!
When I finished the section on Hudson Taylor, I dropped to my knees there on that cold concrete floor and began to cry. I was so happy. I kept thinking, That’s it! It’s the vine that does the work. The fruit is a product of the sap that runs from the vine into the branch. I couldn’t get over the fact that the Holy Spirit was willing and able to produce through me the very fruit I had been trying so hard to produce on my own.
I was on my knees for almost three hours just crying and thanking God for opening my eyes to this wonderful truth. When I got up, I was a new man. My whole perspective on the Christian life was different.” 1
God’s power – simply received – but profoundly transforming!
Hmmm, I can see that it is difficult for us to believe that complex problems don’t always require complex answers.
Yes, and this difficulty causes a spiritual blindness to the simplicity of God’s solution. Galatians 3:3 reveals mankind’s propensity for complicating God’s plan of Spirit-based holy living: “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Holy Spirit are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Yet, sadly, this is the behavior of much of Christianity today!
Charles Stanley said that he “had been going about the whole thing backward!”
That’s right! But 1st Peter 1:1-2 reveals the proper order and perspective:
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, – To God’s elect, strangers in the world…who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.” (Italics added).
First, we are sanctified; then, we are able to be truly obedient! Only as we continue to be sanctified will we continue to increase in our sincere obedience to the Lord.
Further enlightenment on both the source and process of sanctification is found in First Thessalonians 5:23-24: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (Italics added).
Philippians 1:6 guarantees us that, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Italics added)
What is the experience of God’s rest like? Is it something I can feel?
Yes, in a very real sense God’s rest is something we can feel. When we stop trying to earn what God has freely given us, God’s rest can be realized each and every day. When we are free from the burden of striving to overcome sin and laboring to earn God’s recognition, acceptance, and love, we can then experience the inner peace and joy that accompanies His rest.
I experience unpleasant feelings of anxiety, conviction, and desperation because of the sins I keep committing. Will those feelings go away?
Sin draws us away from God’s rest. When we sin, we will sooner or later feel bad about it. All of us, in this life, may continue to sin, but as we sin less, the unpleasant feelings associated with past sinful activity in our lives will be greatly diminished.
Also, though the Holy Spirit will continue to convict us of our sins, we will become better able to identify the difference between righteous conviction of the Holy Spirit and our own shame-based self-condemnation. This distinction grows more evident as we become more Christ-like and gain confidence in God’s attitude of love and mercy toward us.
What will I have to give up?
I once saw a sign in front of a church, which read, “Jesus built a bridge between heaven and earth using three nails and two pieces of wood.” That bridge between heaven and earth is, of course, the cross of Christ. We might also look at the expanse between heaven and earth as representative of the distance between a personal experience of holy living and the present state of our souls. While in this life, we must cross over the divide between heaven and earth on the cross of Christ. This journey is a process by which our souls are renewed through the surrendering of our old ways of thinking. It is sometimes referred to as “dying to self” (Eph. 4:22-24; Gal. 6:14-16; 2:20, 21; Rom. 8:13,14).
Though we have been given new life in our spirit through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our souls must continually die to self in order to be raised up into new life. This is how we grow up to be healthy Christians. It is how we cross over to the daily experience of God’s rest.
Okay, in order to experience this rest, I need to die to self. But how do I do that?
We begin to experience this dying to self as we, before God, consciously identify and reject the lies we believe regarding our prideful predisposition toward self-reliance. We have come to believe many lies derived from worldly ideas and based on the prideful concept of godless self-determination – not a reliance upon God, but, instead, on our own strengths and capabilities. 1 Corinthians 4:7 says, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”
Self-reliance is considered a personal strength and an admirable quality by most of society, but it is poison to the soul that would depend on God. The soul that is self-reliant is neither led by God, nor truly submitted to God. The one who trusts in self certainly does not want to die to self! He will not allow God to do this necessary sanctifying work within him. Thus, for the self-reliant, there is no rest (Heb. 3:16-4:11).
But, when we are willing to identify and reject the lies we believe that encourage our self-reliance, the Holy Spirit can begin the inner work which brings rest to the soul. The essence of this work is the progressive, spiritual deconstruction and simultaneous reconstruction of our soul, as it is re-formed into the image of Christ Jesus. It has been said that “Satan builds a man up so that he can tear him down, while the Lord tears a man down so He can build him up!”
The Holy Spirit will respond to our desire for truth and repentance by increasing our awareness of the many strongholds of self-based unbelief in our soul. Then, our soul can find rest in the immediate experiential realization of the very life of Christ through the voluntary surrender of our whole being to God.
We experience the blessing of God’s rest as we continue to die to self by following these steps:
1. Embracing the truth regarding our utter dependency upon God (1 Peter 1:18-21).
2. Identifying the many self-reliant lies we have believed and ungodly behavior that has accompanied them in our lives (James 4:13-17).
3. Confessing and repenting of our fear-based, shame-based and pride-based striving to be in control of our lives.
4. Forgiving everyone who has offended us, recognizing that not forgiving them is a means by which we try to feel like we have more control of the circumstances of our lives (Matt. 6:14-15; 18:21-35).
5. Inviting the Holy Spirit to circumcise our heart, separating us from the self-centered ways of our old nature (Rom. 2:28,29).
I see that to enter God’s rest, we need to have an attitude of dependence upon God and not be dependent on ourselves. But what about the good works we are to do? Doesn’t James say, “faith without deeds is dead”?
That’s right. We cannot under-emphasize the necessity for godly choices to be made on a daily basis in our lives and the accompanying efforts required to put our faith into action. As James 2:18 declares, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” Faith does require action. If we deny this imperative and still claim to be living a holy, obedient Christian life, we are deceived. There is much we are called to do while God is doing His work within us. In fact, holiness cannot be perfected within us unless we are earnestly trying to do the things we know are righteous and pleasing to the Lord.
Yes, faith without deeds is dead. But, on the other hand, a deed without faith is not pleasing to God! Romans 14:23 tells us that “everything that does not come from faith is sin.” Since faith in God is neutralized by self-reliance, our faith is only truly active when we are dependent upon God’s plan for our lives. As we become more like Christ through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, we become more dependent upon and obedient to God’s determinations for our individual lives. From this dependence and obedience, we are able to glorify God with ever-greater works!
If we would enter His rest, we cannot deny the essential, life-giving requirement of receiving grace by faith in the finished work of Christ. What this means is that we must, first, trust in the finished work of Christ by choosing to actively believe in the availability of God’s power to transform us instead of primarily depending on our own efforts to live a holy life. Secondly, we must actively choose to invite the Holy Spirit to set us free from the roots of our self-reliant unbelief. Then, as we die to self and become more like Christ, we will experience the blessing of His rest. From this rest we may do all that God has called us to from the proper motivation – selfless love.
Trust in the finished work – die to self – become more like Jesus. This is how we enter His rest.
Will you respond to His invitation? “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened… and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt.11: 28-29).
- Charles Stanley, The Wonderful Spirit Filled Life, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee) 1999, pp. 57-67
Copyright © 2000 by R. Thomas Brass All rights reserved.