Scholars often go to Philippians 2:12–13 in order to answer this question. Paul writes,
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Richard Gaffin keys in on the phrase, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”. He argues:
Here is what may be fairly called a synergy, but it is not that of a divine-human partnership, in the sense of a cooperative enterprise with each side making its own contribution. It is not a 50/50 undertaking (nor even 99.44 percent God and 0.56 percent ourselves). Involved here is, as it could be put, the ‘mysterious math’ of God’s covenant, of the relationship, restored in Christ, between the Creator and his image-bearing creature, whereby 100% + 100% = 100%. Sanctification is 100 percent the work of God and, just for that reason, it is to engage 100 percent of the activity of the believer (By Faith, Not By Sight, 83).
Before you brush Gaffin off as nonsensical, remember: this is not the only place where 100% + 100% = 100%. This is true in marriage when two people become one flesh. Similarly, Christ is one person but has two natures, and light is both a wave and a photon. So Gaffin’s “mysterious math” has close parallels in other covenantal contexts.
Gaffin explains the logic of Philippians 2:12–13.
Here the imperative, sweeping in its scope, comes first: you, the church, are to continue working out your salvation with fear and trembling, fully devoted and engaged. Then, equally sweeping, the indicative follows: God is at work in you, both to will and to work what pleases him” (By Faith, Not By Sight, 83).
The indicative provides the basis for the imperative. God’s work is what enables our work. The order of who is working cannot be reversed. Both are essential, but God’s work enables us to work.
And what an encouraging thought that is!
God hasn’t left us alone and merely commanded us to work out our salvation. He doesn’t say, “Just do it.” He doesn’t say, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” He doesn’t say, “Work out your salvation because you contain in yourself all that you already need to do it.”
No. God knows that if left to ourselves, we would fail miserably.
That is why this “mysterious math” is so precious. He is working in you if you are in Christ. And his working in us is effective. It is what fuels our fight for joy. It is what our putting to death the deeds of the body. And his working is going to be effective in bringing us safely home.
Image: Samantha Stock
When you’re in the middle of intense suffering, it’s easy to lose your bearings.
Questions arise reflexively: Is God really in control? How can a good God allow so much pain? Is God good?
The pain that we feel can make it hard to even think straight. We need anchors that keep us tethered to the truth so we do not drift when we encounter suffering.
God Controls All Things, Including Evil
When you are experiencing pain, one might be tempted to let God off the hook by saying he is not in control. The problem is that God doesn’t need or want to be let off that hook. Scripture is clear regarding God’s sovereignty over all things:
Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.” (Isaiah 46:9–10)
And Scripture is clear about God’s sovereignty over evil. “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6). And Isaiah 45:7 says, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.”
The Christian faith is not a dualistic yin and yang in which God and Satan are fighting it out evenly matched, uncertain who will win. No, Satan is a creature. He does not have power in and of himself, and he and all his works exist under God’s power and purposes. Even though evil may seem random in its irrationality, and feel like it might be out of God’s control, God does not let us take him “off the hook” over who is ultimately in control. God’s sovereignty extends over all things, including evil.
God’s sovereignty over evil does not destroy our moral responsibility for the evil we commit. We are responsible for our actions, and God is sovereign over them. The analogy of God as an author is helpful in explaining how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility relate, as Joe Rigney summarizes, “God is an Author. The World is his story. We are his characters” (“Confronting the Problem(s) of Evil”).
God Is Good in All He Does
So if God is sovereign over evil, does this mean that he is not good? This is a pressing question given the fact that immense human suffering is happening around the world. As we all know, this is not a hypothetical question for most of us, but intensely personal.
Scripture clearly says that God is perfect in all he does: “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). And Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Scripture affirms God’s goodness in the midst of a broken world. At the same time, it doesn’t turn a blind eye to the evilness of evil. It also affirms God’s sovereignty over all things, including evil and God’s goodness in all that he does.
Our Supreme Champion
It’s no wonder that many argue that the problem of evil is a mystery. And rightly so. There is much we do not and cannot know. Paul writes, “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways!” (Romans 11:33).
Yet evil does not have the final word. In fact, God has made evil dig its own grave. Henri Blocher explains,
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. (Matthew 6:16)
Perhaps Jesus’s words about prayer and fasting are more relevant than ever. Not that the human heart has changed. Quite the opposite — the heart has been, and always will be, apart from God, “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).
No, the condition of man’s heart hasn’t changed; there are just new ways, with every new app and social medium, for man’s desire for praise to express itself in public. No longer is the reach of our actions simply relegated to the street corner. Instead, in today’s world, the simplest of YouTube videos can make you famous.
Seeking Approval in All the Wrong Places
Seeking approval, and the personal satisfaction that results, is not what Jesus condemns; it is seeking it in the wrong source. John Piper writes,
Even if we do not have a strong sense of merit, we may crave the same result, namely the praise of men. Jesus warns us not to give charity or pray or fast in order to be seen by others. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5). “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:16). Jesus calls them “hypocrites” because in their praying and fasting they want to appear as if they treasure God, but in fact they treasure the praise of men. (What Jesus Demands from the World, 127)
The same misplaced desire for approval is why Jeremiah rebuked Israel: “Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:12–13).
Craving human praise is a cistern that cannot hold water. That is why Jesus tells his disciples how to pray and fast. Our hearts are so sinful that we can twist the purest of activities — even prayer and fasting — into something that conjures praise from our fellow man.
Find Your Fill in Christ
So how do we kill this desire for human approval? Piper says,
Grace is at the heart of the Christian faith. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than at the cross of Christ. It is grace that the Son of God took on flesh, and grace that he taught us how to live — but it is especially grace that he died on the cross in our place.
Moreover, this climactic grace shown at the cross has a specific shape — it has edges. These edges help us see what exactly happened when Jesus died. And it’s important that we see because seeing leads to worship — you can’t worship what you don’t know.
So in hopes of more clarity — fuel for worship — here are five biblical truths about what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
1. The death of Jesus was for his enemies.
God’s love is different than natural human love. God loves us when we’re utterly unlovable. When Jesus died, he died for the ungodly, for sinners, and for his enemies. Paul gets at how contrary this is to human nature when he writes, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person one would dare to die, but God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7–8).
2. The death of Jesus purchased a people.
The death of Christ was effective in its purpose. And its goal was not just to purchase the possibility of salvation, but a people for his own possession. Hear Jesus’s words: “All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out… And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:36, 39).
If we say that Christ only purchased the opportunity of salvation for all men we gut biblical words such as redemption of their meaning. John Murray writes: “It is to beggar the conception of redemption as an effective securement of release by price and power to construe it as anything less than the effectual accomplishment which secures the salvation of those who are its objects. Christ did not come to put men in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people” (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 63).
3. The death of Jesus is on our behalf.
Jesus’s death was substitutionary. That is, he died in our place. He died the death that we deserved. He bore the punishment that was justly ours. For everyone who believes in him, Christ took the wrath of God on their behalf. Peter writes, “[Jesus] himself bore our sin in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
What Jesus Demands from the World is probably one of the most over looked books John Piper has written. Yes he has written quite a few books over the years, but this book deserves a wider reading than it has received.
In hopes of wetting your appetite for further reading, here are twenty excerpts from What Jesus Demands from the World I’ve gathered after a recent reading:
- The gospel – good news – is that the rule of God has arrived in Jesus to save sinners before the kingdom arrives at his second coming in judgment. So the demand to repent is based on the gracious offer that is present to forgive and on the gracious warning that someday those who refuse the offer will perish in God’s judgment (43).
- The demand that we come to him [Jesus] is… like the demand of a father to his child in a burning window, ‘Jump to me!’ (46).
- [I]t is possible to trust a fireman that you do not admire. He may be an adulterer and drunk in his time off. He doesn’t ask you to believe in him for all that he is, or to receive him, or to savor his life. But Jesus does. He is so much more than a rescuer. Therefore, believing in him is more than trusting in his rescue skills” (51).
- Our love for Jesus is awakened when our hearts are broken because our sin… and when we taste the sweetness of Jesus’ forgiving love preceding and awakening our love for him (55).
- [L]oving God is not a mere decision. You cannot merely decide to love classical music or country western music, much less God. The music must become compelling. If you don’t love it, something must change inside you. That change makes it possible for the mind to experience the music with a compelling sense of its attractiveness. So it is with God. You do not merely decide to love him. Something changes inside you, and as a result he becomes compellingly attractive. His glory – his beauty – compels your admiration and delight (77-78).
- Loving God is most essentially treasuring God. And loving him with all the heart and all the soul and all the mind and all the strength means that every faculty and every capacity treasures God above all things and in such a way that our treasuring of any other thing is also a treasuring of God (81).
- Every joy that does not have God as the central gladness of joy is a hollow joy and in the end will burst like a bubble (82).
- Prayer is designed as a way of relating to God, so that it is clear we get the help and he gets the glory (106).
- [O]ur persistence in prayer shows both confidence that God is our only hope and that he will act in the best way and the best time in response to our persistent pleas (108).
- Prayer has nothing to do with deserving. It’s all mercy (110).
- [W]e do not begrudge the absence of recognition if the world does not value what Jesus calls us to do. We must not fret over being thought lowly and even foolish by worldly standards. Instead we must ‘believe’ in Jesus the way a child believes. We must find our security and meaning and joy in Jesus and all that our heavenly Father is for us in him (132).
- Is not the most effective way of bridling my delight in being made much of, to focus on making much of God? (136).
- The demands of Jesus are only as hard to obey as his promises are hard to cherish and his presence is hard to treasure (185).
- There are people, especially in our day, whose worldview is so relativistic and whose personality so morally flaccid that they do not even have a category for evil, lest they find themselves offending the demand for tolerance of all views. Jesus would say: Tolerance of all views is the opposite of love. It condones what destroys. We cannot read the words of Jesus with an honest heart and conclude that he denies the existence of evil that destroys and good that leads to everlasting joy. Therefore, to minimize the existence of evil, rather than hating it, makes on partner to the destruction of human persons. This is not the love that Jesus demands (224-225).
- The second commandment seems to me to be an overwhelming commandment. It seems to demand that I tear the skin off my body and wrap it around another person so that I feel that I am that other person; and all the longings that I have for my own safety and health and success and happiness I now feel for that other person as though he were me. It is an absolutely staggering commandment. If this is what it means, then something unbelievably powerful and earth-shaking and reconstructing and overturning and upending will have to happen in our souls. Something supernatural. Something well beyond what self-preserving, self-enhancing, self-exalting, self-esteeming, self-advancing, fallen human beings like me can do on their own. (250).
- Pride is the pursuit of happiness anywhere but in the glory of God and the good of other people for God’s sake (257).
- Jesus’ death is both guilt-bearing and guidance-giving. It is a death that forgives sin and a death that models love. It is the purchase of our life from perishing and the pattern for a life of love. (266).
- Money enslaves either by greed or fear. We are greedy for more of it and fearful of losing what we have. Jesus wants us to be free. Sacrificial giving is one evidence that we have been liberated from the idols that money provides. It is also evidence that we have begun to love other people the way we should – that is, we are focusing outwardly on the joy of making others glad, not just the private pleasures that putrefy in the small world of selfishness (283).
- We are people of the cross. Our Lord submitted to crucifixion willingly to save his enemies. We owe our eternal life to him. We are forgiven sinners. This takes the swagger our of our protest. It takes the arrogance out of our resistance (335).
- Jesus does not call us to an easy life or an easy mission. ‘They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness´(Luke 21:12-13). There will be no wasted suffering. In the short run, it will always be an occasion to speak and show the reality of Jesus. In the long run, it will lead to eternal life. ‘For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s sake will save it’ (Mark 8:35). Therefore, in all your suffering for the advance of Jesus’ mission you are increasingly rewarded… That reward is the enjoyment of the inexhaustibly glorious Jesus forever and ever (374-375).
A free PDF copy of the book is available here.
The resurrection of Jesus is foundational to the Christian faith, and yet, oftentimes, we only give it real thought around the Easter season.
But the resurrection of Jesus is so important that Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). And later he says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (verse 19).
In the hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of this glorious reality, here are five truths about the resurrection.
1) Jesus had a bodily resurrection.
When Jesus was raised from the dead, he didn’t leave his body behind. In fact, after his resurrection his scars remained (John 20:27), he ate fish (John 20:12), he bodily ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9), and will bodily come again (1 Thessalonians 4:16). The Son of God will always have a bodily existence.
The fact that Jesus still has a body testifies to the dignity of the human body — both the ones that we have and the ones we will have after our resurrection. Matthew Lee Anderson writes, “The resurrection of the body means that to be human with God is to be with him not as disembodied souls, but as people with noses, faces, arms, and legs that are similar to those we currently have” (Earthen Vessels, 60–61).
2) Jesus had a justifying resurrection.
Perhaps the clearest instance of Paul connecting Jesus’s resurrection with his justification is obscured in most English translations. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:16, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” The word that is translated “vindicated” is typically translated “declared righteous” or “justified” elsewhere in the New Testament.
But if Jesus was perfect, how could he be justified, since justification implies guilt (see Romans 4:5)? The answer lies in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Richard Gaffin explains, “As long as [Jesus] remained in a state of death, the righteous character of his work, the efficacy of his obedience unto death remained in question, in fact, was implicitly denied. Consequently, the eradication of death in his resurrection is nothing less than the removal of the verdict of condemnation and the effective affirmation of his righteousness” (Resurrection and Redemption, 121–122).
Christmas is about the incarnation of Jesus. Strip away the season’s hustle and bustle, the trees, the cookies, the extra pounds, and what remains is a humble birth story and a simultaneously stunning reality — the incarnation of the eternal Son of God.
This incarnation, God himself becoming human, is a glorious fact that is too often neglected, or forgotten, amidst all the gifts, get-togethers, pageants, and presents. Therefore, we would do well to think deeply about the incarnation, especially on this day.
Here are five biblical truths of the incarnation.
1. The Incarnation Was Not the Divine Son’s Beginning
The virgin conception and birth in Bethlehem does not mark the beginning of the Son of God. Rather, it marks the eternal Son entering physically into our world and becoming one of us. John Murray writes, “The doctrine of the incarnation is vitiated if it is conceived of as the beginning to be of the person of Christ. The incarnation means that he who never began to be in his specific identity as Son of God, began to be what he eternally was not” (quoted in John Frame, Systematic Theology, 883).
2. The Incarnation Shows Jesus’s Humility
Jesus is no typical king. Jesus didn’t come to be served. Instead, Jesus came to serve (Mark 10:45). His humility was on full display from the beginning to the end, from Bethlehem to Golgotha. Paul glories in the humility of Christ when he writes that, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8).