Is growth as a Christian a matter of God graciously changing us through His power?
Or, is it that we discipline ourselves?
The answer is that it’s not one or the other. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling. But it is God who is at work within us. (Philippians 2:12-13).
It is not an easy concept to understand. Many people try and grow by their own force of will. Others “let go and let God.” Either error ends in failure. We must grow in grace. We need to quit paddling the water with our hands and hoist our sails into the warm breeze of God’s grace.
The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges is one of the first 10 books I would recommend to any Christian. The reason that it is such an important book is because Bridges offers an extended meditation on the relationship between our effort and God’s empowerment / grace. In the below paragraph, Bridges summarizes the subject of this book.
We try to change ourselves. We take what we think are the tools of spiritual transformation into our own hands and try to sculpt ourselves into robust Christlike specimens. But spiritual transformation is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit. He is the Master Sculptor . . . Grace and the personal discipline required to pursue holiness, however, are not opposed to one another. In fact, they go hand in hand. An understanding of how grace and personal, vigorous effort work together is essential for a life-long pursuit of holiness.” (Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness, Colorado Springs (NavPress, 1994), 11,13).
Below is an excerpt from Unpacking Forgiveness in which I consider the relationship between our effort and God’s grace:
Think again of the invitation of Jesus. This time, read the following two verses.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30
Just for a moment now, block out all your concerns about whatever fight you may face at home or church or in the world. Consider Christ even more deeply. Even as I have reminded you that he is the Wonderful Counselor and Almighty God, notice that when Jesus invites you to come to him, he describes himself as gentle and lowly in heart. Though he is supremely exalted, Christ is not a vindictive taskmaster who would rub your face in your mistakes and beat you down over your failures. Such a combination isn’t possible in the Savior of the Bible! He stands at the ready to help. He is gentle and humble in heart. Why would you not accept his invitation to unload the weight of your burdens?
How to Accept Jesus’ Invitation
But, wait. Before you accept Jesus’ offer to find rest, read the invitation closely. Jesus does not invite worn-out people to take a nap. Nor does He does he suggest that if we will chant a one-time prayer, refreshment will be granted automatically. No; Jesus says to assume his yoke and learn from him. Jesus invites those who need rest to come work with him.
Jesus’ offer of discovering rest by means of a yoke is a paradox. A yoke is a harness used for labor. You might legitimately ask, “How is that in taking on Jesus’ equipment I would find rest?” The answer is that, as we follow Jesus and learn from him, the Holy Spirit graciously operates in our lives. This is how we who are weak can move forward—not in our strength, but in his. This is the kind of thing that Paul pointed to in Philippians 2:12-13 when he said, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling because it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” The reason Paul told the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling is that when they do, God will graciously work in and through them. God works in and through us as we cooperate with his gracious work in our lives.
A sailing illustration might help make this point. Suppose you are in a boat and you have to travel an incredible distance. And, to further complicate things, you don’t even know there is such a thing as sailing.
So, what would you do? You would try and propel the boat in all kinds of futile ways. You might lie on your stomach and paddle over the side. If you were a little more creative, you might use a stick as an oar and row in circles. But, soon enough, you would be worn out and frustrated.
But, then imagine that someone stepped onto your boat and said, “I see that you are exhausted. How about I teach you how to get somewhere?” He would then show you how to raise a sail and catch the wind.
You get the picture. Sailing is still hard work. There is a reason that sailors – – like Popeye – – have big forearms. But, it is not futile hard work. Hoist a sail into the breeze and soon enough you are gliding forward in a strength that is beyond yourself.
This is the invitation that Jesus gives. Are you tired of trying to work your way through forgiveness with one oar? Are you worn out from trying to paddle with your hands? Come and sail in the wind of his strength. Soon you will be gliding forward in the breeze of his grace.
Of course, that begs the question, how do I work in such a way that God gives me strength and grace? How specifically do I assume the yoke of Jesus and learn from him? How do I raise a sail into the breeze of God’s strength?” The answer to how is that God works in our lives through certain appointed means. Sometimes theologians call these “means of grace.” Means of grace are how God pours out his grace into the life of a Christian. These means of grace include his Word, prayer, fellowship with other believes, and worship. When you participate in any of these means of grace, you hoist your sail into the wind of God’grace. If you have been trying to work through forgiveness without consistent involvement in the means of grace then you are only paddling with your hands.
The way to accept Christ’s invitation to find rest is to be in his Word, to listen to biblical preaching, to pray, and to be sharpened by other Christians. While at first, it may seem that you are moving only a bit, before long you will be sailing forward—ridding yourself of the baggage that weighs you down.
You may object at this point! “I have already tried unpacking the Christian way of unpacking my burdens,” you may say. “And it didn’t really work. I tried Jesus! He didn’t give me rest.”
Did you really? Did you really assume Jesus’ yoke, his instrument of work, and learn from him?
- Have you been involved consistently in a local church where the Bible is preached? Have you participated in Sunday School or small groups or whatever Christian education opportunities your church offers?
- Do you pray consistently in a disciplined way? Not just talking about praying in the car on the way to work. Have you really gotten down on your knees and earnestly prayed?
- Are you involved in a Christian community or fellowship? Are you sharing your life with other Christians?
- Do you worship Christ on a regular basis? Do you listen to Christ centered worship? Have you identified with Christ in baptism? Do you faithfully participate in observing the Lord’s Supper at your church?
These means of grace are how we take Christ’s yoke upon us and learn from him. Christ’s way of unpacking forgiveness is not three easy steps. It is about a way of life, about following Jesus, learning from him, being involved in his Church, hearing his Word preached. Apart from consistent involvement in these disciplines, you are trying to paddle with a stick. It won’t work.
 The idea of “means of grace” may be new to you. But I assure you it is not something I invented. Berkhof writes, “Sanctification takes place partly in the subconscious life, and as such is an immediate operation of the Holy Spirit; but also partly in the conscious life, and then depends on the use of certain means, such as the constant exercise of faith, the study of God’s Word, prayer and association with other believers. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Fourth ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 534.
Grudem adds, “The New Testament does not suggest any short-cuts by which we can grow in sanctification, but simply encourages us repeatedly to give ourselves to the old-fashioned, time-honored means for Bible reading and meditation (Ps. 1:3; Matt. 4:4, 17:17), prayer (Eph. 6:18; Phil. 4:6), worship (Eph. 5:18-20), witnessing (Matt 28:19-20), Christian fellowship (Heb. 10:24-25), and self-discipline or self-control (Gal. 5:23; Titus 1:8). Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 755.
 If you would like to learn more about this area, I highly recommend Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace. It was an ECPA Gold Medallion Book Award. In it, Bridges wrote, “Grace and the personal discipline required to pursue holiness, however, are not opposed to one another. In fact, they go hand in hand. An understanding of how grace and personal vigorous effort work together is essential for a life-long pursuit of holiness.” This is what Bridges will help you understand: how grace and vigorous effort work together. Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994), 13.