John Newton, “I’m a great sinner, but Christ is a great Savior!”
Salvation is a miracle. By a miracle of God’s grace, a rebel sinner is forgiven, transformed, and brought into God’s presence.
It is a miracle in every tense—past, present, and future.
It is a miracle when those who are dead in their sins are made alive together with Christ and forgiven of their sins.
It is a miracle when the Spirit works in us transforming us from one state of glory to the next unto Christlikeness.
It is a miracle when Christ transforms the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory.
Sanctification is no less a miracle than justification or glorification. None of them are possible apart from God’s grace and the inner-working of the Spirit of God.
According to Ephesians 4:22-24 sanctification involves the putting off of sin, the renewing of the mind, and the putting on of Christlikeness.
But here’s the problem. Sin is too tenacious and overwhelming of a foe. Christlikeness is elusive and impossible for us as an objective.
The Christian life is sometimes compared to a race that we are to run. To run with endurance. But it is impossible for any of us to run the race with endurance were it not for God working in us.
The Christian life is sometimes compared to a good fight to be fought. There is the need to finish the fight and keep the faith. But none of us could ever hope to do that apart from the inner working of God in our lives.
We are prone to think of our Christianity on the horizontal plane. That it is up to us in our own strength to do certain things not do certain things to reach our objective. We need to try harder to be and do better. But that’s not the way that God has designed things to work. Apart from the Lord Jesus we can’t do a thing. The Christian life is instead a walk of faith in which we walk by the Spirit in submission, yieldedness, trust, and obedience.
Fortunately, it is not up to us to do the work. God is at work in us to will and to work. God is at work in us to will. That willingness when it comes to the things of God comes from Him. He planted that there in your heart. You see others living their lives as if there is no God. They have no concern for Him or desire for Him. God did a good work in you when He brought life to your soul. Not only did He implant in you a willingness, He is even now at work in you to direct you in His will. The Spirit Himself, the Helper, indwells you. And He speaks in a still, small voice leading you in the will of God.
And God is at work in you to work. He is at work in you. Not on you. Not against you. In you. This impossible task of sanctification is possible because God is at work in you.
- God is at Work in You
“It is God”
It is God, the creator of all things, who is at work in you. When it comes to your salvation, others—fellow believers, church leaders, etc.—have a role. But ultimately it is God who is at work.
And how incredible is this truth! The God of all creation is at work in you. The One who raised Christ from the dead is at work in you. The One who works all things according to the council of His will is at work in you. Look, how vast is His universe! He rules over it all. Yet He has taken a person interest in you and me as His children with respect to our salvation.
Note what it says—“He is at work IN you.” Note that it does not say that He is at work ON you. Or, TO you. Or, TOWARDS you. Or, even FOR you.” It says IN you.
This work of salvation is not a religious thing. It is not about going to church and doing other religious things and being conformed on the outside to some kind of religious template of what we think a religious person should be.
It is the inside-out transformation into Christ’s image that works to change every part of us—body, soul and spirit. 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
He is at work in us by the Spirit who indwells us. And make no mistake about it—this work of sanctification is a Spirit-led and empowered work. There is no other way by which it can happen. But by the Spirit God has purposed to take us, rebel sinners that we were, and transform us into conformity with Christ and His glory. 2 Corinthians 3:18, “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”
God is at work in you. The term translated work is related to our word “energy.” It means “to energize, to work effectively.” He is at work in us. He is effectively working in us to accomplish His purpose with respect to salvation. In Ephesians chapter 2 we read of the grace and mercy of God. How He has taken us, who were dead in our trespasses and sins, and saved us. He made us alive together with Christ (2:5). We are reminded in verses 8-9 that salvation is by grace through faith, and not of works. And then in verse 10 we have this wonderful statement, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.”
We are His workmanship. We are His “work of art.” We are His “masterpiece.” The same term translated “workmanship” here is used in Romans 1:20 in describing God’s creation. And as God’s creation works to display His eternal power and divine attributes, so God is at work in you to that same end. We are His workmanship. You are His workmanship. You have been born again to that. And He is at work in you that His glory might be revealed in and through you.
And when it comes to this matter of salvation all the resources of the Godhead have been availed to the believer. In His working God has left nothing out. 2 Peter 1:3-4, “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who has called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.”
So, beloved, God is at work in you…
- He’s at work in you according to His plan. Romans 8:28-30. “God causes all things to work together for good.” He’s at work in you. Note the repetition here in verses 29-30. And note here God’s grand objective for you—to be conformed to the image of His Son. But God is working in you. He foreknew. He predestined. He called. He justified. He glorified. He’s at work in you and there is no one who can stand in His way (8:31). He’s at work in you and He will give all and do all necessary to finish the work that He started (8:32).
- He’s at work in you by His grace. Read Ephesians 1:3-14 and 2:10. Look at all that God has done in you by His grace! To His glory! The riches of His grace being manifest in you. It’s all by grace. Your salvation. Your spiritual gifts. Your Christian growth. The grace prepared for you in His coming again. Every good work that you will ever do. “All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe it all to thee.” He is even now working by His grace in you. 1 Corinthians 15:9-10.
- He’s at work in you according to His power. Ephesians 3:19-21.
- He’s at work in you as a loving father. Hebrews 12:1-10. Earthly fathers discipline their own children as seems best to them. Our heavenly father is at work in us. He disciplines us according to His love that we might share His holiness.
- He’s at work in you as a great physician. Jeremiah 17:9-10. Hebrews 4:12-13.
- He’s at work in you as a master potter. Jeremiah 18:1-4.
- He’s at work in you as a divine husbandman. John 15:1-5.
- He’s at work in you by the Spirit. This work of Sanctification is a work of the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18. 2 Thessalonians 2:13. Philippians 3:3.
Joel Hemphill, “He’s still working on Me, to make me what I ought to be. It took Him just a week to make the moon and stars, the sun and the earth and Jupiter and Mars. How loving and perfect He must be, cause He’s still working on me.”
- God is at work in you to will
Verse 12 speaks to an obedience to the Lord that is at the heart level.
Verse 14 speaks to how we are “to do all things without grumbling or complaining.”
The verse is speaking to a God-given, Spirit-imparted, willingness and affection for the things of God.
Note that we did not previously have such a thing. Colossians 1:21. Rebel-sinners have no interest whatsoever in doing that which is pleasing to God. Something must be done to change that.
God is the initiator in all things spiritual. John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” It is the Spirit who convicts of sin and presses upon the sinner the need to find salvation. It is the Spirit who opens blinded eyes to the glory of the Lord Jesus. It is by the Spirit that a person is born again. And that person is, from that point forward, indwelt by the Spirit.
Years ago, that great Theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote a book entitled “The Religious Affections.” In that book he addressed the affections for the things of God that give evidence of a person’s born-again condition—a desire for obedience, for the Word, for fellowship, etc.
A great example of what we are talking about is evidenced in what happened at Pentecost. The Apostle Peter delivered his great sermon to a group of Jews. Amongst his hearers were some who had previously mocked and insulted Jesus. Peter indicted them, saying that they themselves had nailed Jesus to the cross (Acts 2:23). And as Peter preached the Spirit was working to convict of sin and open the eyes of these folks to the glory of Jesus. And they believed in Jesus and were saved. And the first thing we read about these new believers is of their devotion to Jesus (Acts 2:42). They had previously cursed and mocked Him, but now they love Him and are continually devoted to hearing His Word, fellowshipping with His people, and sharing in His communion. God was at work in them to will.
Now when it comes to the things of God we need to understand this simple dynamic. “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). The flesh has no interest in the things of God. And we still, as believers, have the flesh. There is a part of us—having to do with self-interests and self-wisdom and self-effort—that has no interest in the things of God. Romans 7:18, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” In writing to believers, Paul said, “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17).
Unfortunately, religious self-effort (the flesh) is man’s fallback position when it comes to doing the things of God. The church of Galatia, having been misled and deceived by false teachers, gravitated towards this. Galatians 3:3, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” They were trying to do that. But to do such a thing is impossible because, as we have already noted, the flesh has no interest in the things of God.
This approach, attempting to substituting religious self-effort for that which can only be done by the Spirit, characterizes the day in which we live. The Apostle Paul spoke to this when he wrote of the nature of things in the last days. He said that people would be “holding to a form of godliness (or, religion), although they have denied its power.” In other words, they would be externally religious, but their faith in God would be lacking and so would be any divine spiritual power associated with it.
Webster’s defines “willing” as being “inclined or favorably disposed in mind.” From the divine perspective God has done and is doing everything necessary that we, as believers, might be “inclined and favorably disposed in mind” to the things that he is doing. Having been indwelt by the Spirit of God we have a Helper who is with us, in us, always working lead and empower us. He is the divine cheerleader when it comes to the things of God. And He resides in us. He mediates the presence of Christ to us and through us. He is well able and divinely motivated in love in what He is doing. He is purposed to transform us into the very image of Christ. And if there is a problem when it comes to our own willingness, the problem lies on our side of the equation, not God’s.
The Spirit is at work in us not just to make us willing, but to lead us in the particulars of God’s will. Romans 12:1-2. As the Spirit of God works through the Word of God to renew our minds, he works that we might “prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” He leads in our prayers. Romans 8:26-27, “And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” God is at work in us to will. The Spirit not only makes us willing, when it comes to the things of God, He leads us in the particulars of God’s will. He is able to put that in our hearts so that we know and do His will.
We’ve said it before. Everything that God has given for us to do as believers is to be done “by the Spirit.” And, according to that reality, it is important that He have the freedom to do what He has purposed to do. To be filled with Him and to walk with Him is to put ourselves in a position of reckoning ourselves dead to self and utterly dependent on Him to lead and empower us.
How thankful we should be for this reality—that God is at work in us “to will.” Were it not for His work how could we ever make the journey. The journey is too long, the obstacles too great, our frailties too many. We’d long ago have given up. But we find in the Spirit One who is always working to turn out attention back to Jesus. In a still small voice He speaks to us in our discouraging times. He kindles afresh a love for Jesus in our hearts so that we might say to God, when it comes to the things of God, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
What if you are not in this place? 1 John 5:3 says, “His commandments are not burdensome.” But what if they are to you. What is there is no willingness? What if everything has become nothing more than religious obligation. You’ve tried harder to be better, but you have no heart for the things of God—no desire for the Word, or fellowship, or prayer. No yearnings for God. No heart for truth. Then it’s time for some Spirit-led self-examination. Are you born again? Have you sincerely trusted in Jesus for salvation? And if you have, have you grieved or quenched the Spirit? Have your sins piled up without confession to God (1 John 1:9). Don’t be satisfied with a form of Christianity that is nothing more than going through the motions, God has designed and equipped us for something far better than that.
- God is at work in you to work
In verse 12 we are exhorted to “work out our salvation.” But verse 13 makes it clear that there cannot be any working out without God working in.
Not only is God at work in the sense of “willing” us to do, He is at work in the “doing” part also.
Any work done by us can be traced ultimately back to God. Apart from His intervention there are no “good works” done by man (at least in so far as God defines good). Romans 3:12, “There is none who does good, there is not even one.”
But the born-again believer, the child of God indwelt by the Spirit, is a new creation of God. He’s been saved by God’s grace to do good works by God’s grace.
The same Greek term is used here as is used earlier in the verse. God is working effectively in you to work effectively for His good pleasure. And it is important to understand that this is all by God’s grace. Every aspect of salvation is by God’s grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 speaks to the justification side of things when it says that salvation is by grace through faith. Ephesians 2:10 speaks to the sanctification part of the matter. And note what it says. The good works that God has for us to do are good works prepared ahead of time by Him. We can take no credit for the doing of them.
This dynamic with respect to God’s working is best illustrated by what we see in John chapter 15. God wants us to bear fruit. In fact, the text speaks to fruit (15:2), more fruit (15:2); much fruit (15:8) and abiding fruit (15:16). There are two key terms in the passage: fruit and abide. Now when it comes to fruit we can relate this to varying aspects of the Christian life: salvation; the fruit of the Spirit; Christian growth; Christian witness; good works; love for one another—all things that flow out of our relationship with Jesus.
Now the illustration that is used to describe this relationship between Christ and us is that of a vine and branches. So, when it comes to fruit-bearing, in whatever sense we want to understand that, the key is abiding in Christ. It is our relationship to Him that makes the difference when it comes to fruit bearing. In fact, apart from that relationship there can be no fruit, as Jesus made clear: “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (15:5). But if we abide in Him, by abiding in His Word and abiding in His love (15:7-9), then we are in a position in which divine power and divine love can flow through us such that good fruit is produced—not by us, but by God.
So, the key to working out our salvation is never trying harder to be better in our own strength. They key is abiding in Christ and depending on Him and allowing Him to use us as He will.
This is all according to what Paul later wrote: “I’ve been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). So, Christ lives in me. I do not work in my own strength. I don’t have the strength. Apart from Jesus I can’t do a thing. Instead I work according to the “strength that God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11). I work according to the truth of Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Let me share with you another text that speaks to this dynamic. When it comes to this work of salvation, God is doing a work in you that transcends our ability to comprehend. He has purposed to fill you up—and I speak to believers in Christ—to all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19). Now that that is a reality that goes way beyond our capacity to imagine. What does it mean to be filled up to all the fullness of God? We’ll find out when we are in glory with Jesus. In the mean time we understand that God is doing a work that is exceeding, abundantly beyond all that we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). Now note in the text the means by which He is doing that work is “according to the power that works within us” (Ephesians 3:20). The term “works” translates the same term we find in Philippians 2:13. The term “power” translates the Greek term “dunamis” (which speaks to power, force, or ability). The same term is used in Romans 1:20 in speaking of the power of God by which He created all things. It is used in Ephesians 1:19 where it speaks of “the surpassing greatness of His power” that was revealed in His raising Jesus from the dead. So, His creative power and resurrection power is at work in us. He is working in us. And note this—what He has purposed to do in us could never happen any other way. Salvation, in every tense, is a miracle. And we don’t have to wonder as to God’s desire or ability to do it. The question is our we willing to trust Him? The question is our we on board with His dying to self and allowing the Spirit to fill us and to lead us and empower us. Are we willing to submit ourselves to Him in the work that He is doing? Are we willing to put ourselves in a position of absolute dependence on Him in the work that He is doing?
Now this work in you, to will and work, is to an even grander purpose. It is to His good pleasure.
The term that is used here is used 2X in Ephesians chapter 1 (1:5 and 1:9). There it is translated “kind intention.”
What is this good pleasure, this kind intention, of God? He’s doing all that He is doing to reveal in and through you the true nature of His character. To reveal His glory. Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14, 2:7; 2:10; 3:10.
His work in us pleases Him. We are His workmanship, His “work of art” (Ephesians 2:10). He is the Master Potter, we are the clay. He’s got a great purpose for us—to conform us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). That work, and its ultimate goal, is something that brings pleasure to Him. It is good inasmuch as nothing better works to reveal His goodness (Psalm 119:68) and glory of His grace than the salvation of sinners and their subsequent transformation, by His grace, unto Christlikeness.
Since it is God’s good pleasure to work in us in such manner, it is befitting that we should cooperate with Him in the work that He is now doing in us. So, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, seeking always to do that which pleases Him (2 Corinthians 5:9).