9-8 The Unlimited Christian Potential
And so we have seen the total freewill of man, and God’s way of accommodating Himself, even limiting Himself, within this- so that our freewill remains total. And we have seen that what was enabled by the cross, we can limit in its power by our preaching and pastoral work. The Lord died that He might break down the barriers between His people, and create one new body in Him. The Corinthians were reminded of this, and yet Paul had to remind them that there were divisions amongst them; they had limited the wonder of what Christ had achieved, so that it became a victory with no practical effect. And yet although sects and divisions should not be within the one body of Christ, in another sense there must be such sectarianism that they which are approved may be “made manifest” by their response to it (1 Cor. 11:29)- in anticipation of how we will all be “made manifest” (s.w.) at the judgment (Lk. 8:17; 1 Cor. 3:13). In this we see the Divine ecology; nothing is wasted. There must not be divisions; but even when they do occur, they are used by God in order to manifest the righteous and the principles of true spirituality.
We began by saying that our genuine choice and freewill is only one aspect of the final, now incomprehensible picture of God’s ways. His predestination, His foreknowledge, His will working over and above that of man, His Sovereign right to work as He pleases; none of these aspects can be omitted from the ultimate equation of God’s ways. All we know is that it all works out for good (and this is a wonderful thing) in the last and ineffable equilibrium. For each of us personally, salvation is at the very end by pure grace, not works- either our own, or the benefit of those of others. The utter purity and totality of that grace needs constant meditation. But what I am saying is that within all this, God invites us to understand that we have total freewill, and through our efforts of faith and action we can influence, eternally, the progress of His purpose and the salvation of others. I know I am contradicting myself here. We, as men, will find no paradigm, no trite philosophy or form of words, to reconcile these two divergent strands. It is one of those irreconcilable paradoxes which the believer is given to live with. The more we reflect upon it, the more irreconcilable it is.
By your efforts, you can bring men to salvation, both by preaching to them
and then devoting yourself to their care, by prayer and good works
of brotherly concern. When you flag in your bill distribution, shy
away from that witness you could make, hesitate in that generous
impulse to the Lord’s work...remember that if you hold back, the
Lord’s work in that sense is held back. By holding to the Faith,
doctrinally and in what it all means practically, you will save
both yourself and others (1 Tim. 4:16). And if you neglect to do
this, if you let that clawing laziness of our nature hold you back-
both your salvation and that of others, not to mention the glorification
of Almighty God, will be limited and even made void. And yet, on
the other hand, works have no ultimate value before an all-powerful
and all-gracious God. These things are wondrous. They are beyond
our finest intellects. But the response to realising our total freewill
and the total, gracious salvation of God without works is very practical.
We need to analyze the success of our efforts, knowing that the
more effective we are, the more we will fulfil and glorify the Lord’s
sacrifice. Perhaps this is why Luke gives progress reports on the
early Christian mission in quantitative terms, as if analyzing the
success of the work and possibly suggesting how it could be done
even better (Acts 2:41,47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1,7; 9:31; 13:43; 14:1;
17:4,12; 18:10; 19:26; 21:20). For us, for you and me: think how
you can reach out to more men and women, talk to them, distribute
leaflets, place newspaper adverts, tutor students, pray long and
earnestly and on your knees for your brothers and for your sisters,
write to them, warn them, ‘phone them, comfort them, visit them,
care for them in their distresses and loneliness, think ahead to
their likely needs, spiritual and material, feel for them, be with
them in spirit, give to them, go out to save them... for in doing
all these things, you will save both yourself and those who hear
you (1 Tim. 4:16).
Paul is perhaps one of the greatest examples of living out our
Christian potentials to the full. Paul's missionary journeys as
they lay neatly plotted on the maps in the backs of our Bibles were
a reflection of his free will choice to serve the Lord as He did-
the itineraries weren't sent down from Heaven for him to fulfil.
The following passages reflect this: "I shall come very soon,
if the Lord will" (1 Cor. 4:17-19); "If it should seem
worth while for me to go" (1 Cor. 16:3); "You can help
me on my way wherever I go next" (1 Cor. 16:6); "I had
intended to come first of all to you... I meant to visit you on
my way... you would then send me on my way to Judaea" (2 Cor.
1:5); "I am hoping to come to you before long" (1 Tim.
3:14); "It was out of consideration to you that I did not come
again" (2 Cor. 1:23); "I made up my mind that my next
visit to you..." (2 Cor. 2:1). Rom. 15:22 reflects his frustration
at the delays and changes to his plans which he endured; and 2 Cor.
2:13 indicates his restless determination to push on.
As a final thought, consider Is. 66:2: “All these things hath mine hand made… but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word”. The contrast is between what God has made, and the man who trembles at God’s word. It’s as if God is searching for something which He Himself has not created, in the sense that He created the physical world. Perhaps the implication is that when a human being responds to the word of God, then there begins a totally free creation by the believer in his or her own life. God in one sense is the author of the new creation of human hearts- and yet the parallelism in Is. 66:2 seems to imply that the difference between us and the natural creation is that we are in some sense not created by God in that same way, but rather have we allowed God’s word to mould us as, and to respond to that word, in ways which we have control over… and thus we offer ourselves to God as a creation which we have made, and in which He thereby takes extra pleasure.
Of course, we have
emphasized, purposefully, just one side of a difficult, irresoluble
equation. We have stressed human responsibility and possibility.
And yet we must factor in God’s sovereignty, His working of His
will. D.A. Carson comments in words of great insight into all this:
“The sovereignty-responsibility tension is not a problem to be solved;
rather it is a framework to be explored”(1).
The somewhat sad picture of the loving Father dividing between
his sons “his living” (Lk. 15:12), for them to go off and make what
they will of, to either squander in the world or selfishly and self-righteously
hoard to themselves, is a picture of the vast and genuine delegation
to us by the Father.
D.A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty And Human Responsibility
(London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1981) p. 2.