Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. -Colossians 2:6-7
We are knee deep into our new roles here on the field of Mexico and have been very encouraged to see how the Lord is working! As you know, we are involved on a few different teams, including being a part of the teaching staff at our national missionary training school here in Chihuahua, called The Ranch.
This past semester I taught a class on La Auto-Disciplina Bíblica or Biblical Self-Discipline.
This is a fitting class for missionary training, since most of our field ministries require us to work independently from direct oversight. While we may have coaches or consultants along the way, missionaries have to structure their own schedules during their time raising support, language and culture study on the field, literacy program development, Bible lesson writing and teaching, translation and the overall work of discipling believers and church planting. Because missionaries are normal people, feeling unmotivated versus being disciplined can be a real battle.
In this blog, I want to share with you a section of notes from my class, along with some additions, specifically charting out a gratitude based approach to self-discipline. The call for self-discipline in all areas of the Christian life has a Scriptural context, and if we’re not careful we can veer off course in our sincere desire to be good and faithful servants.
We know from Ephesians 2:8-9 that “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Then Paul continues in verse 10 that, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
I do not think there has been any topic in the history of the Christian church that has been more hotly debated than the subject of good works in the Christian life. Possibly more volumes than any other topic has been written that attempt carve out a path that balances both salvation by grace through faith and the role of good works in the life of the believer. Nearly every sermon I have heard on salvation by grace through faith seeks to balance it with the importance of good works, and nearly every sermon I have heard challenging believers towards good works balances it with understanding that salvation is by grace through faith.
My basic view of this tension is this: we are saved by grace through faith, and understanding that we are saved by grace through faith and not works is how we live out a life of good works. Good works flow out from a clear understanding of what ultimately makes us right with God- Christ’s work on the cross, to which our response is to be faith.
I am very careful to never hinge any believer’s salvation in Christ on good works- past, present or future. Some people in their zeal for holiness would suggest that the condition for salvation include some sort of promise of good works or commitment to a life of obedience. Obedience is crucial to Christian growth, but not a condition for justification (see Romans 3:21-5:1). If it were, than we would be talking about salvation by works. Some theologians have essentially come out and said as much, saying things like we are saved by grace through faith alone, but ultimately our final destiny will depend on whether or not we have persevered in good works. What’s the difference between that and saying we are saved by good works? It doesn’t sound very different to me.
In any case, I actually believe recognizing and living under Christ’s lordship flows naturally from understanding that our entire relationship with Him stems from Christ’s work for us, not our promises or commitments to Him. Herein lies the true power of the Christian life.
Most believers can identify that there are two inappropriate ways to live the Christian life: commonly referred to as legalism and license. Legalism is essentially trying to earn God’s ultimate approval or maintain His ultimate approval by what we do.
Here is my definition of legalism that I have shared before in other blogs: Legalism highlights good works and minimizes grace. It is as a position that emphasizes a system of rules and regulations in achieving both salvation and spiritual growth. Strict literal adherence to those rules and regulations is demanded. Doctrinally, it is a position essentially opposed to grace. Those who hold a legalistic position may even fail to see the real purpose for law, especially the purpose of the Old Testament Law of Moses (which is our “schoolmaster” or “tutor” to bring us to Christ according to Galatians 3:24, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith”). Lives are lived in accordance with an extensive list of “do’s” & “don’ts,” and God’s favor is earned by good performance. The hazard is that it tends to make God’s love something to earn rather than accept freely. It would reduce Christianity to a set of impossible rules and transforms the Good News into bad news. (Portions adapted from CARM and the Life Application Study Bible)
License, on the other hand, does not regard good works. It says, “I am in. There is nothing more I have to do. I will do what I want to do and no one can tell me no.” In terms of ultimate acceptance, we are indeed justified by God’s grace through faith at a point in time. But this highlights a form of grace and excludes any mention of good works or a moral framework for life in Christ. I say a form of grace, because it is hard for me to imagine that the grace that brings us to admit our sin and need for Christ would then lead us to not caring about the same sin that brought us to recognize our need for Christ. Sin is slavery, and to accept by faith Christ’s payment for our sins, and then to return open-armed to the sinful lifestyle that once enslaved us is strange. Does this actually happen if someone is truly saved? I would say it is possible, and would argue that the Bible even gives us examples of it and cautions against it. But it is bizarre in light of who we now are in Christ and it comes at a cost.
Regardless, I imagine if you’re reading this blog, and whether or not you agree or disagree exactly with every detail of what I’ve shared above, that you would agree in a general sense that both legalism and license are not appropriate or the way God intended us to approach our new lives in Him.
Why do I say all of this? Because it sets our context for a discussion on self-discipline- how we are to live our lives in Christ and how we approach what we practically choose to do each day.
The True Path Forward
As someone once told me, what we understand about what saves us determines the entire course of our Christian life. It impacts every choice we make every day.
How would you answer this question- “How do I know that I am accepted before God?”
One of our instructors when we were in missionary training who had worked among an indigenous people group in the Philippines shared that whenever he asked people in the United States how they know they are saved, they always respond with what they did. They prayed a prayer, they gave their lives to God, they asked Jesus into their heart. He shared that whenever they asked their believers in the tribe how they know they are saved, they always responded with what Christ did. Do you see the difference?
Here is one of my favorite quotes:
“The gospel is not man accepting Jesus as his Saviour, but that God accepted the Lord Jesus as the perfect and only Saviour two thousand years ago. The gospel is not man giving his heart or life to Jesus, but that Christ gave His life, His whole being, in the place of sinners. The gospel is not man receiving Christ into his heart, but that God received the Lord Jesus into Heaven as the mediator of sinners. The gospel is not Christ enthroned in the human heart, but that God enthroned the Lord Jesus at His right hand in Heaven.
“Do we see the great distinction between these two messages? One is subjective and puts the emphasis on what man must do. The other is objective and puts emphasis on what Christ has already done. The sinner is only to trust in what has already been done on his behalf. The Lord Jesus cried, “It is finished…” He did it all. He took upon Himself the load of sin, the full responsibility for the sin of mankind. Because Christ paid the debt, God raised Him from the dead and accepted Him into Heaven. The resurrection was God’s sign to all that He accepted the Lord Jesus Christ forever as the perfect Saviour. God is satisfied. Is the convicted sinner? Will he rest the whole weight of his soul’s salvation on Christ’s acceptance by God as the perfect Saviour? Will the sinner cease once and for all trying to do anything to save himself? Will he trust in God’s Son for salvation?”
-Trevor McIlwain, Building Firm Foundations
The entire Christian life is meant to be lived out from what Christ has done for us. We are saved by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. In the Christian life, we can confuse what Christ has done for us with what we do for Him. If we are not careful, we can wander into a place where we connect our acceptance before God with our service to God.
So, where does the choice to live for God come into play?
When we believe the Gospel we are forever changed. In Jesus Christ we have new resources for how to live our lives and how to serve the Lord. For example, we have been freed from the control of sin (Rev. 1: 5) we are new creations (2 Cor 5:17), we also have the Holy Spirit living within us (2 Cor 1:22), all because of what Christ has done for us and in us. So we are different now and our situation is completely different than before, when we were not believers. We can now say that, by faith and by means of the resources we have in Jesus Christ, which I have just mentioned, we can see success in the area of a life of self-control.
As I mentioned above, it is hard for me to imagine that the grace that brings us to admit our sin and need for Christ would then lead us to not caring about the same sin that brought us to recognize our need for Christ. Sin is enslaving, and to accept by faith Christ’s payment for our sins, and then to return open-armed to the sinful lifestyle that once enslaved us is bizarre.
Romans 6:1-12 lays out the reality within which the believer in Christ now lives, having died with Christ and raised to new life in Him. We are free in Him. We can say then that grace is not meant to free us to do whatever we want. It means that we are now free to do what we could never do- that is, live a life pleasing to the Lord.
So, here is how I would say it: the context of obedience and daily self-discipline for the believer is that it is to be seen as a natural response to the Gospel when we understand what Christ has done and who we are in Him. I can truly say in my own life it’s not that I feel like I am obligated to live for God (though God does call us to obedience), but that I want to live for Him. It is a privilege I joyfully accept.
I believe this Paul’s point in Romans 12:1. He challenges believers, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Paul called them to give their lives to God based upon what had already happened to them by God.
What is one of the secrets, then, to the true path forward in daily self-discipline and living for God? A grateful response to the Gospel that leads naturally to personal sacrifice. Gratitude.
This is easy to see in family life. My children are most happily obedient when they have grateful hearts. As the song goes, a grateful heart is a happy heart. In the family of God, the life we live for Him flows from a heart of gratitude for who He is, all that He has done for us, who we are now in Jesus Christ and the communion we now have with Him. This is true worship. I can imagine no better way to say thank you to God for all He has done for us than to completely give my entire life, my whole being, to Him as a sacrifice. My life is a response to who He is and all He has done for me. It is a response of gratitude.
It is worth asking- am I trying to gain or maintain God’s favor or am I grateful for already having God’s favor in Christ? As believers, we can struggle with this, trying to get something from the Lord instead of being grateful for what we already have in Him. It is a very subtle difference, but makes a world of difference.
Of course, we want to be pleasing children for our Heavenly Father. The Lord wants us to grow; to obey Him. But speaking of our identity, who we are- as believers we are saved, loved, accepted and have security in what Jesus Christ did for us. This has to become like the anchor that holds a ship in place amidst the waves. Because if not, consequently we are going to wander into trying to win His favor.
The Fruit of a Grateful Heart
We can say that the life we live for God flows, or must flow, from a heart of gratitude for who God is, all that He has done for us and who we are now in Jesus Christ. How do people act when they have a grateful heart? Or to put it another way, what is the fruit that stems from the root of gratitude in the life of a believer? I believe that a grateful heart brings humility, patience with others, forgiveness towards them, is more sincere, authentic, open, honest and in the end lends towards graciousness and mercy. We could say that they are in a state of spiritual rest.
People who are trying to win the favor of God worry, they are upset, they are always comparing themselves with others, restless, insecure, fearful, judgmental, keeping a record of sins, centered on themselves. The spiritual state of this person is that they are always working, never satisfied; there is always more to do to secure their acceptance.
I am convinced that as a believer, a heart of gratitude helps us to be more self-disciplined. It helps us in the way we approach the work God has given us. It frees us from the bondage of connecting our performance with our acceptance and makes obedience an act of joy rather than an obligation.