Becoming God's Spiritual Person
This chapter is entitled The Partnership with enormous hesitation. If the title in any way influences a person to think he or she is equal to God in the matter of causing salvation to exist, the title failed miserably and made a grave mistake. From that perspective, we do nothing as God’s grace and mercy do the unthinkable. In the matter of producing and extending salvation, the human or a group of humans has (have) no power to either produce salvation or extend salvation. When it comes to the existence of salvation, salvation exists and can save people from their sin dilemma as a result of God’s powerful acts. Salvation is not empowered through human acts. People accept salvation; they do not and cannot produce salvation.
If the title causes people to understand they must respond to God’s powerful initiative, then the title accomplishes its objective. The partnership any person has with God in the matter of salvation concerns the person’s appropriate response to God’s initiative in producing the possibility of salvation. The partnership between the person and God in human salvation concerns the responsibilities of a person who forms a salvation relationship with God. God brings into existence (a) the possibility of salvation from sin, and escape from Satan’s control. (b) A person responds to God’s initiative. If the person is to be saved from the existence and influence of evil, the person responds to God by obediently behaving responsibly. God through His grace and mercy does what the person could never do (under any circumstance).
The basic understanding: a person must respond to God and what He (God) brought into existence. It is in that sense that a person becomes God’s partner in accessing salvation.
Occasionally, a person says, “There is no way I can be a Christian.” If asked, “Why?” the person gives some form of this response: “Salvation focuses on perfection. I could never be perfect!” Correct! That person is insightful! Salvation does focus on perfection as a goal. True, no person can of his or her own doing become perfect. If human perfection produced by human behavior is required for a person’s salvation, then no individual can be saved. The impossibility of human ethical and moral perfection makes it essential for God to extend salvation to us.
Perfection is not within human ability. No one can make self sinless. Every person violates God’s holiness through ignorance more than through conscious rebellion. No one can stop doing wrong acts or having evil motives because no person realizes all wrong is wrong (or perhaps a person thinks some wrong is actually good).
The question quickly becomes, “Does the person wish to be wicked, or does the person seek to be righteous?” Even this question is too simple. Every person in Jesus Christ continues to be a person capable of being tempted (consider James 1:12-18). At the moment of temptation (whether we surrender to temptation or not) we entertain the thought of rebellion against God, and perhaps the desire to rebel against God. Thus the over-all issue does not involve the loss of the ability to be tempted. It involves the all- encompassing desire to be righteous. The issue involves the person’s desire to be godly in motive and behavior—in spite of the speed bumps of being human in an evil world.
Can the person who desires to be righteous become righteous through human effort alone? No! It is through that human inability that God’s grace is seen, encountered, and trusted. God’s grace not only involves a tolerance but an incomprehensible kindness. It is that kindness that motivates every Christian to accept the impossible standard of perfection. The thoughtful Christian accepts moral goals that he (she) knows cannot be attained by human effort, but accepts by faith that God will exist and work in him (her).
An “In Christ” Emphasis
Consider some scriptures. First, consider Ephesians 4:32. In the broad context of the book, Paul discussed the incredible things God accomplished for the person in Jesus Christ. (Read Ephesians 1:3-14, and make a list of all that God produced for the person in Jesus Christ.) In the immediate context of Ephesians 4:32, read Ephesians 4:17-32. Note the “before conversion” situation in Ephesians 4:l7-19. Note the “learning about Jesus Christ” section and its objective in Ephesians 4:20-24. Note the enormous change in behavior that should occur in them in Ephesians 4:25-32.
The “before conversion and after conversion” contrast is striking! Notice that this transition was still in progress! Question: what would motivate any person to make such fundamental changes? Answer: the kindness (grace) of God shown to them in Jesus Christ! The standard was divine kindness, not human kindness! They would seek to be kind in an uncaring society, tender-hearted in a calloused society, and forgiving in a devouring society because God in Christ was kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving to them.
Second, consider Romans 8:31-39. In the broader context, Paul discussed the importance of living by faith. The Jewish people looked at belonging to God in a way that was entirely different than Christians consider living by faith. Jews lived by placing confidence in lineage and in possessing God’s law. Idolatrous gentiles lived by seeking to “push the correct buttons” of the gods in efforts to manipulate those gods.
The Jews were confident that divine assurance and acceptance rested on a foundation of “we descended from” and “God gave us.” Paul declared that the spiritual person lived on the basis of (a) what God did in Jesus and (b) God’s Spirit living in the spiritual person.
In the immediate context, possessing Jesus Christ and God’s Spirit made a person spiritual (Romans 8:9-11). Even if this resulted in rejection by people and personal suffering, faith in Jesus Christ and the work of God’s Spirit still made them spiritual. Paul affirmed (a) God was with such people, (b) God would not abandon such people, (c) God justified such people, and (d) God would not allow anything to separate such people from His love. It was not a matter of who you were by lineage; it was a matter of placing one’s faith in God’s acts in Jesus. It was not a matter of what you possessed for centuries; it was a matter of allowing God’s Spirit to exist in you for the purpose of directing you. If God’s assurance were to be paraphrased, it would be this: “If God says you are okay, you are okay.” Lineage, suffering, hardship, or physical limitations do not have the power to make you “not okay.”
Third, consider Philippians 2:12, 13. In the general context, Paul discussed (a) the importance of the Jesus Christ factor in Paul’s personal decisions, and (b) the need the Philippian Christians had for mutual acceptance of all who placed their confidence in Jesus Christ.
Few of today’s Christians realize the tremendous difficulty found in the demand that first-century Christian Jews and Christian gentiles accept each other. It would be difficult to exaggerate the pre-conversion background differences that separated the tradition-bound, monotheistic Jews from the polytheistic, idol-worshipping gentiles. The two groups differed in mindsets and lifestyles. A common faith in the fact that Jesus was the Christ did not erase those differences! Those differences had existed for generations! The differences produced centuries of barriers! A mere common faith in Jesus did not eliminate those practices and barriers. As an example of the problem, consider 1 Corinthians 8.
The truth was that they of themselves were not capable of producing mutuality. That mutuality existed only if they allowed God to be at work in them. They would accept responsibility, God would work in them for His purposes, and mutual acceptance of Jewish and gentile Christians would occur with time. Mutuality would occur only because (a) they accepted the responsibility to be spiritual people, and (b) God worked in them.
Partnership in the Old Testament
This concept of God being at work in His people was a common understanding of the writers in both the Old and New Testaments. God’s presence in a person was often declared by the presence of God’s Spirit, the Spirit, or the Holy Spirit. There often was a distinct contrast noted when the person functioned by God’s Spirit and by some other spirit. The purpose of the following is NOT to make a detailed study of each scripture cited, but to note an obvious fact: God’s purposes were accomplished when God’s presence was (is) in people’s lives. No accomplishment was merely a human accomplishment. It was accomplished through a partnership of God’s presence in the person and the person’s commitment to being a responsible, righteous individual.
This emphasis is common throughout the Bible. It began early (Genesis 6:3). The reason given for the flood occurring was severe conflict between God’s Spirit and the human spirit; God’s presence had no place in human existence (Genesis 6:5). The Pharaoh (king) of Joseph’s period recognized when a person possessed the spirit of God (Genesis 41:38-40). Much later, the Pharaoh (king) of Moses’ conflict provided a contrast between a person in whom God’s Spirit did not live (Pharaoh) and a person in whom God’s Spirit did live (Moses). Bezalel and Oholiab were placed in charge of producing God’s holy things for Israel because they were filled with God’s Spirit (Exodus 31:1-11; 35:30-35). [Because God’s presence was with them, they could see what God wanted—they could see the designs only described by Moses’ words. Do you realize how difficult it is to describe a picture with words?] Moses’ seventy assistants could assist Moses because the Lord allowed them to share the Spirit He gave Moses (Numbers 11:24, 25). Balaam was enabled to serve God’s purposes because God’s Spirit came upon him (Numbers 24:2). [His eye was opened, he heard God’s words, and he saw the Almighty’s vision (Numbers 24:3, 4).] Joshua succeeded Moses (Numbers 27:18, 19; Deuteronomy 34:9); the Judges judged (Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:24, 25); the kings of the United Kingdom of Israel reigned (1 Samuel 10:6; 16:13); and prophets prophesied (1 Kings 18:12) because God was present in these persons through His Spirit.
Perhaps the most striking examples in Jewish scripture were King Saul, King David, and Isaiah the prophet. When King Saul was directed by God’s Spirit, it changed him as a man (1 Samuel 10:6; 19:23, 24). There was a distinct difference in Saul’s behavior when he was directed by God’s Spirit and when he was directed by an evil spirit.
From his anointing, David was guided by God’s Spirit. David demonstrated that God’s Spirit guided, not controlled. After years of being led by God’s Spirit, David rebelled against that guidance when he committed adultery with Bathsheba, killed her husband, and married her. About a year later, Nathan, the Lord’s prophet, confronted David for killing Uriah and marrying Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12). Psalm 51 was said to be David’s plea for God’s forgiveness in that matter. In verses 7-13 he asked for cleansing, a renewal of joy and gladness, healing, the re-creation of a clean heart and steadfast spirit, the restoration of the joy of salvation, and the ability to teach those who rebel against God’s ways. Among David’s requests was the plea to God not to remove God’s Holy Spirit from him.
Isaiah the prophet was also a striking example. Read Isaiah 6. Note these things: (1) Isaiah saw God’s holiness. (2) Seeing God’s holiness caused him to see himself—honestly, without excuse. (3) Seeing himself honestly caused him to see his sins, his flaws, and his unworthiness. (4) Isaiah was cleansed (atoned for, forgiven) by an act of God. (5) He was immediately ready to accept a difficult mission.
Partnership in the New Testament
In the New Testament writings, the Spirit descended on Jesus when he was baptized (Matthew 3:16), and he was led by the Spirit to be tempted (Matthew 4:1). A part of our spiritual birth involves being born of the Spirit (John 3:5). Our worship must be offered both in spirit and truth (John 4:24).
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) preceded the first preaching about Jesus Christ in fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32. A qualification of the seven men who directed the feeding benevolence of the Jerusalem congregation was that each was full of the Spirit (Acts 6:3). The Spirit directed Phillip’s work (Acts 8:29, 39), informed Peter to do the forbidden (Acts 10:19, 20, 28, 29), and guided Paul and the group with him (Acts 16:7).
The Spirit made congregations diverse (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). In fact, all Christians were baptized by one Spirit into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13). The fact that those in Christ shared a partnership with God as they sought to be God’s people did not sound strange to anyone familiar with God’s work throughout history.
Therefore, statements like those in Romans 5:5, “. . . the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us,” or Galatians 4:6, “. . . God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” or Titus 3:5-7, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life,” or Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace have you been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast, for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them,” stressed this partnership to those who knew God’s nature.
The challenge was NOT to ignore the partnership between the person willing to accept responsibility and the God who can save. The challenge WAS for the spiritually responsible person who wished to be righteous to trust the Partner! No one can be “good enough” to be saved. No one can place God in debt. Yet, anyone can have opportunity for salvation because of God’s mercy and grace. Salvation can occur if the person can trust what God did in Jesus Christ!
In the American society (and many other societies), we like for people to “owe” us. We like the sense of security we feel when someone else is indebted to us. We enjoy being able to “call in our favors.” We feel too vulnerable, too much at risk if (a) we need someone to act in our behalf, and (b) we have no significant leverage to exert on them. We like to “know” someone will act promptly when we make an “important demand” because that person is “indebted” to us.
God is not indebted to us. However, it is not a part of His character to lie. He keeps His promises. He, by His nature, does what He says He will do. When He makes a promise, He does what He promised. Why? He said He would.
The writing of Titus opens with these words:
Paul, a bond-servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago . . . (emphasis mine, Titus 1:1, 2).
He makes incredible promises to those in Christ! In Christ, He will reconcile with us. In Christ, He will justify us. In Christ, He will redeem us. In Christ, he will sanctify us. In Christ, He will forgive us. Why? He promised that is what occurs to those in Christ! Is He indebted to us? No! In His kindness (mercy and grace), He promised.
The sum of God’s work in Jesus Christ for us: Do we trust God’s promises? That is a major reason our salvation is declared to be by faith. Do we trust what God did in Jesus’ death and resurrection? Do we trust God to keep His promises made to us on the basis of what He accomplished in Jesus Christ?
Those in Christ who trust enter a partnership with God. It is an unequal partnership. In this partnership, people in Christ behave responsibly, and God saves.