Why Work Now If God Will Do It Later?

progress-chart-mdIn my last post (last Wednesday), I argued that God wants us to work with Him in the dirty work of facing our sin and ridding ourselves from it. Like dead roots, sin has no life, but clings tightly to that which it penetrates. In this case, sin penetrates our being. God’s call to us is to deal with this deadness. In Ephesians 4, Paul reminds us that we are to “put off, concerning your former conduct, your old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts and be renewed in spirit” (vv 22, 23).

 Paul insists that this is not merely a forensic reality. This means that we are not merely to be declared free from our old ways, but we are to actively turn away from the old self by actively living in the newness that Christ affords us. We have been crucified with Christ; therefore we can now die to self. We have been raised with Christ; therefore we can now live in newness of His Spirit. While Christ has done it all for us and has provided us the grace to work through His Spirit, it is an active choice for us to continually submit to God in the ongoing work of salvation (see Phil 2:12).

 We must remember two things about Paul’s command to put off the former ways of sin. First, Paul is speaking to already reborn Christians. In other words, this is not about “salvation” as we commonly speak about salvation in the modern church, which really is a truncated view of salvation. What we commonly mean today by salvation is just the first step, justification, Christ taking our sin’s consequences upon Himself. As I argued last week, God not only wants to save us from the consequences of sin (justification), He also wants to save us from the presence of sin (sanctification), by remaking us after His image.

 To say it another way, Paul has recognized that he is speaking to those of us who have already been justified by Christ. Christ has paid our debt, which is something we could never do. So, this is not about works righteousness. This is about freedom to work with God by allowing Him to have our whole being in the process of sanctification. This is the process of not just being covered for sin, but being freed from its power in our lives.

 The second thing we must remember is that Paul is giving a directive to “do” something continually. In other words, sanctification is a process of real progress in which God continually helps us remove the deadness so that we become purer every day. Paul is, as I have been trying to argue, telling us there is value in discipline now.

 Now that we have talked about two of the three parts of salvation—justification, the forgiveness and covering for sin and sanctification, the process of purifying us from sin—we now must speak of the final part of salvation, glorification, the work of God in final salvation through the gifting of a glorified existence that transcends the finite, mortal existence we now have. The question that arises from this doctrine reissues the concern from our past three posts: Why be disciplined now?

 If God plans to remake us all at resurrection by gifting us with what we can only call a “perfect” self (glorification), then why do I work now on this life? Doesn’t God’s finally perfecting me at the end of this age and everyone else who has been redeemed (no matter where they stand in the process of sanctification) mean that progress doesn’t really matter?  What’s the point? It is as if we are being asked to remodel our house, only to have the master contractor come in later to tear it down and rebuild a better home. Or is it? Is that how we are to understand this doctrine?

 As I said last week, I think our biggest issue in the modern church in regards to this issue is our Western mindset. We have been so influenced by Greek philosophy that we import Greek definitions into a Hebrew context. Resurrection doctrine came to the world in a Hebraic context. It should be explained in those terms. In our mind, we think that if God is to “perfect” us, then our growth is over. Greek perfection, as spoken of by the philosophers, suggests that perfect means static, complete. If I am perfect, I am done. I need nothing added or taken away. But, the Hebrew community had a view of functional perfection. Perfection can be so perfect that it overflows and continues to spread perfection.

 We have to unlearn the Greek view of static perfection and learn a more Hebraic view. Perfection in Hebrew thought is multifaceted. Our perfection is perfect but not as perfect as God’s perfection in the scene of scope and degree, but it is perfect because it is as designed.

 Look back to the garden. In a way, the garden was not perfect, at least in our understanding of perfect. It was perfect in the sense that it was exactly what God wanted it to be. It was perfect in that it contained no evil, but it was not perfect in the sense of completion. God wanted humans to work in the garden to shape and create. Humans, likewise, had learning opportunity. They were perfectly in God’s will, but had room to grow. This is why many theologians believe God called creation “good” and “very good,” but not perfect in an absolute sense.

 Resurrection means that we will be restored to this state. Glorification will make us whole. It will separate us fully from evil and the roots of deadness that are clinging to us today, but we will still have stuff to do, things to learn, and the amazing truth is that we can begin that process now.

 While glory is yet to come, we are still, even now, in the midst of the salvation process. God is making us like Him right now, and that will carry over to the next life. What God does in us today will last for forever? It is not in vein that He works.

 So, what are we practicing for? Why be disciplined? We are preparing for the rest of our lives. In other words, we are preparing for eternity. While the process of salvation can be spoken of in stages, one stage does not replace the other. It is an order that progresses. We are learning life skills that will last forever.

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