The Will of God and the Means to Do it (Part 3)

 “…for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find” (Rom. 7:18b).  In part 1 of this series we gave some general thoughts concerning the truth of this verse, and in part 2 we discussed the first half of the verse: the will or inner desire to do red-clouds-3good.  Where does this “will” come from?  The Bible says the will to do good comes from God Himself: “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Php. 2:13).  We now want to deal with the second half of the verse—namely, how to perform what is good, and specifically in this post we want to examine the wrong way believers often will try to accomplish this end.

As we begin to explore the means by which we perform the Lord’s will, we must ask an important question based on Rom. 7:18b.  If the first part of this Scripture (the will or desire to do good) is a work of God in us, then what is the second (how to perform what is good)?

To will what is good = God’s work in us by grace

To perform what is good = ? ?

If the will or inner desire to do good comes exclusively from God by His grace, then where does the means to do it come from?  Does it come from our self-effort or strength?  Does it come from our determination and grit? Or like the first part, does it come from God?  In Romans 7 we see the struggle of one who could not find the means by which to do good.  For what I am doing I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (Rom. 7:15).  Paul could not find how to perform the good he wanted to do. He rather found himself practicing evil despite willing to do good. It was a vicious cycle that he could not stop.

We should let this sink in for a moment.  If the great apostle to the Gentiles, the one who saw the glory of the risen Christ, the one who received revelation from the Lord Jesus Himself, the one who was caught up into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2), and the one whom the Lord used so mightily in spreading His Gospel could not find the means to carry out the will of God (and “do good”), then what about believers today?  Have we found the solution?  If we look at the majority of Christian books and resources today, they will boldly proclaim they have found the means for victory and that there are many, many of them!  For Paul, the solution to his problem was not in a technique or quick fix.  It was not in some popular program or “how-to” method to achieve victory.  These things abound in the Christian world today! We list several of them below.

1) Gritting you teeth and forcing yourself to obey God

2) Keeping the (Mosaic) law—its rules and regulations

3) Listening to high-power “praise and worship” music to be more submissive to God

4) Attending high-emotion church services to bring about a more obedient heart and spirit

5) Making vows or “resolutions” to God to do good (i.e. the Promise Keepers movement or the popular movie Courageous)

As we look at this list (especially number 5), it might remind us of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai.  Moses laid before them the law of God—“all [the] words which the LORD commanded him” (Ex. 19:7).  The people heard the law and responded, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8).  What boldness!  What desire!  We should not doubt their sincerity here in wanting to “perform what is good.”  But almost immediately after this noble resolution, Israel stoops to worshiping the golden calf (Ex. 32), and the historical record of the Old Testament shows them again and again disobeying the LORD.

On the verge of the Babylonian captivity for such persistent disobedience, the inspired historian in 2 Chronicles says concerning Israel, “Moreover all the leaders of the priests and the people transgressed more and more, according to all the abominations of the nations, and defiled the house of the LORD which He had consecrated in Jerusalem” (2 Chron. 36:14).  They went from “we will do” what the LORD has said, to sinning “more and more.”  This ought to be a warning to us as believers. Our zeal, our “resolve,” and our vows to the Lord to do what is right do not amount to victory in our Christian walk. The law is “holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12), but we are “carnal, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14).  We must recognize that “this body of death” (Rom. 7:24) each of us possesses is utterly incapable of producing anything good.  Thus, will alone is not enough.

Browsing through a recent Christian books catalog the following advertisements can be found, which are representative of the whole of the catalog. We quote these simply to show that the professing church lays claim to many methods (shown in bold) for “how to perform what is good” in our Christian lives:

      • “Defeat your doubts and worries! Meyer shows you how to stop damaging thought patterns, effectively use spiritual weapons, see the truth, find peace—and win the battle!”

      • “’Idle speech’ isn’t harmless when our words can wound and divide. How can ‘smart talk’ heal and unite? Meyer helps you tame your tongue, avoid corrosive complaints, and more.”

      • “Are you speaking defeat into your future by talking negatively? Here’s a sunnier script! Osteen offers 31 daily “declarations” affirming God’s providence in family matters, health, decision-making, and more.”

      • “Do you feel trapped? Dr. Anderson’s updated bestseller gives you a proven strategy for breaking free from Satan’s stronghold and the bondage of habitual sin. Claim victory today!”

      • Helping you overcome your fear, negative self-image, broken dreams, and more, Furtick challenges you to claim the greater calling God has placed on your life.”

      • “Tap into the power of fasting! Offering simple suggestions, Franklin shows how abstaining from food will leave your spirit uncluttered so you are free to seek God’s will in prayer.”

From these we can easily see that the problem of indwelling sin is very real in the believer’s life.  Perhaps many of these authors are sincere in their desire to help believers who struggle with sin.  The methods they employ though to solve such problems are contrary to New Testament teaching for the believer.  And further, they are powerless to help the believer!  Note what the Spirit of God says in the epistle to the Colossians: “These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23). These methods and how-to formulas APPEAR to be wise in giving the Christian victory, but in actual fact the Word of God says they have NO VALUE for the believer in warring against the flesh. They have the glitter of godliness, but they do not profit the believer in any way!

Yet sadly, these methods are preached and practiced as the true means by which the Christian can obtain victory.  Inevitably they will fail though because they depend on us and our effort, ingenuity, zeal, and diligence.  The Bible will call all of this “the flesh.”

The FLESH = human effort or ability to be righteous or live righteously.

We thus read of Paul at one time having “confidence in the flesh” (Php. 3:4).  He was confident in his self-effort, diligence, and zeal to keep the Law. He trusted in his own strength and what he could accomplish.  After the Lord saved him, he realized the futility of this: “For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh (Php. 3:3). The Lord would have us put zero confidence in our flesh! “Self-help” methods are just this: trusting ourselves that we are able to do those things that please the Lord.

Further, the Word of God will often contrast the flesh to the spirit. The Lord says, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak(Matt. 26:41). The flesh has no power to “perform what is good.”  And again, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing…” (John 6:63).  Notice the Lord’s assessment of the flesh, that is, our human effort or ability: it profits nothing.  There is no benefit the flesh can give the believer. There is no advantage we gain by acting in the flesh, for it is entirely corrupt and incapable of doing good. Paul said by the Spirit of God, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwells no good thing…” (Rom. 7:18a).  There is nothing good to be found in our flesh, and it cannot bring about any good in the believer’s walk.  In fact it brings about just the opposite!  Look at the “works of the flesh” in Gal. 5:19-21.

The story of Abraham and the promised seed in Genesis 17 might help to illustrate.  God promised Abraham he would have descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven (Gen. 15:5).  But time passed. AStars Skybraham and Sarah were getting old, and God’s promise had not come to pass.  So Sarah thought that something had to be done to help the process along.  She perhaps thought, “God helps those who help themselves,” or, “I’ll do my part and God will do His part.”  So she came to Abraham and suggested that he go into her handmaid, Hagar, to obtain the “promised seed.”  Is the supernatural promise of God to be fulfilled through human ingenuity and scheming? Does obtaining the promise depend on our energy and effort—“the flesh?”  Or does it depend on the faithfulness and power of God to keep His promise?

Abraham consented to his wife’s advice, and Hagar became pregnant.  Once Ishmael was born, note Abraham’s plea to God: “Oh, that Ishmael might live before you!” (Gen. 17:18). Perhaps we too quickly glance over the meaning of these words. According to Gal. 4:23, Ishmael was a product of the flesh—human reasoning and effort to try to accomplish God’s promise.  Abraham thus thought that Ishmael might be the fulfillment of that marvelous promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child together in their old age.  In a sense, Abraham was saying, “O that our fleshly conniving might fulfill Your grand promises, O God!”  God’s answer to him ought to resound deep within our hearts: “No” (Gen. 17:19).  God would have none of it.  His promises are not fulfilled by man’s fleshly effort.

Does this story not have a voice for us as believers in Christ?  Do we take the Lord’s supernatural will for our lives and try in our flesh to perform it?  Paul asked the Galatian believers a similar question: “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3).  Believers begin “in the Spirit” when by faith they trust the Savior.  We receive the Holy Spirit “by the hearing of faith” (Gal. 3:2)—that is, we hear the Gospel, by faith reckon it to be so, and then God in His grace sends His Spirit to dwell in us.  But what about the Christian life?  Do we start by faith “in the Spirit” (i.e. salvation by grace) and then for our daily life switch to a completely different principle—namely, living “by the flesh” (our own effort, exertion, strength, and ability)?  Are we made “perfect” (the word might be better translated as “mature”) by the flesh?  That is, does maturity come from our striving and strength in the flesh?  Paul calls being made perfect in the flesh “foolish,” for surely it cannot be done. If no good thing dwells in our flesh (Rom. 7:18a), if our flesh profits nothing (John 6:63), and if our flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41) then how can any good come from it? It is like expecting golden delicious apples to come from a thorn bush! It is not possible. God is finished with the flesh in the Gospel of Christ. It has absolutely no place in fulfilling His will.

In the next post, we finally want to examine God’s solution in the New Testament for how to perform what is good. God desires the believer to “walk worthy” (Eph. 4:1) and has graciously given the means to do it in the Gospel and Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a genuine Method and Solution—one that really works!

-d . wolfe

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