Some sins of the heart don’t want to budge.
Critics point out that evangelicals seem fixated on personal spirituality rather than with solving the big issues of systemic racial prejudice, sex trafficking, and various types of social injustice. It’s as though inner life concerns are to them the same as Nero fiddling while Rome burns.
Yet, all the world’s comprehensive evil springs out of the individual privacy of the human heart. The holocaust itself began in the secrecy of a man’s personal space, and with nothing spiritual to combat it, eventually grew into the chimneys of Auschwitz. We are therefore justifiably concerned with what goes on in the interior of people, beginning with our own selves.
The gospel of grace has entered our hearts, but it must find suitable soil there in order to properly grow.
Jesus warned about things buried within us that frustrate the development of spiritual depth. Consider the parable of Matthew chapter 13.
3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.
Then, a few verses later, he explains what this parable means.
20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.
This is a person, and the rocks are hardened places in his heart. He received the word with joy, but as the root of it reached deeper, it encountered unrelenting resistance. You could say these are entrenched sinful patterns, areas that won’t give in to God’s kind advances, places that forbid deepening downward growth. The root redirects, shifts, and looks for an alternate route where it won’t hear the word ‘no.’ But ultimately it can’t find a way, because it keeps encountering immovable objects.
Finally, running into so many of these stony areas, the seed has to back off and settle for living on the face of the ground, as though it were surface vegetation. But hostility in this world is so strong against faith, that eventually such a shallow life cannot survive. The shallow Christian won’t last. Eventually he or she gives up and becomes another one of those people who claim to be born again on their social media status, but nobody could tell it by looking at their lifestyle. Or even their social media posts.
I searched for high-profile examples of people, recognizable celebrity names who believed in Jesus and have had subsequent breakthroughs following their salvation. I couldn’t find many. In fact, most of their impressive anecdotes only revolved around their initial repentance. As I checked into what they’ve done since, I found that in some cases, these folks circled around and re-involved themselves in what they originally came out of. Many have fallen into other questionable behaviors, like extravagant living that led to bankruptcies, legal problems, and generally things that don’t resonate with spiritual maturity.
It reminded me how hard it is for our faith to thrive when we overlook the multitude of blockades in our heart–not just the big sins, the boulders, but the little ones that exist in us like layers of pea gravel. Many of those things we excuse–There’s a good reason why I do this; I have special circumstances. Some we defend–I have a right to pleasure and fulfillment; besides, this is normal. And some we quietly tolerate–I know it’s wrong, but this is just part of my life.
If you want to last as an active growing Christian, you can’t afford to overlook what is going on within.
What are we to do? Paul said, “Work out your own salvation.”
Phil. 2:12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
This does not mean to believe in yourself and save yourself. You are not the Savior; Jesus is. It means that since God has saved you, you are to work that salvation out, that is, work the soil of your own heart. Tend it like a garden. Participate in your Christian life. And do it with fear and trembling, because when the root of the word reaches a rock in your heart and seeks to get through, at that moment you can know God is at work in you. It is not to be taken lightly. His grace is reaching something lodged and hidden within you.
However, He is only working in you to make you work. He influences you to want to do it, and then he enables you to do it, but he will not do it for you. So this doesn’t speak of your saving yourself like the gloomy futility we find in Romans 7, where a person tries and fails only to come under a burden of condemnation. Nor does it call for passivity, where one waits for God to take care of it. No, we must accept the grace that he gives and then act on it. The outcome will be no less than God’s good pleasure. That is why after a believer obeys God, especially after a drawn out struggle, a fresh, powerful sense of revival occurs in him or her. It is the pleasure of God.
David Powlison, author of How Does Sanctification Work? described his entrance into Harvard as a brilliant young man. Full of the typical pride of youth, he was resistant to the gospel. His studies in social work consistently showed him that many problems both he and other people had were answered by the Christian faith, but he still kept Jesus at bay. Finally a friend spoke an honest word to him: “I respect you more than anyone I know, but you are destroying yourself.” With that word, God finally got through. The rock broke, and the young man came to Christ.
But Powlison didn’t live happily ever after. There’s always more than one rock in the human heart. The divine work of sanctification reaches down into us like a corkscrew, to progressively deeper levels. And so it found him again, at seminary, this time as a believer struggling with rigorous coursework, and pressing responsibilities. In the face of these new challenges, he did what came natural to him, which was to control it all with superior discipline and above-average intelligence. Regardless, anxiety issues began to crop up, with their myriad ill-effects. God was at work, and touching, no doubt, the rocks of pride, self-sufficiency, shallow belief in God’s ability, a flabby spirit of prayer, a certain blindness of the presence of God.
According to Powlison, God reached him through “a suite of complementary truths,” that is, a number of Bible verses, friends in church community, and of course the Holy Spirit in him. These provided the grace for him to break through to a completely new level of trust and power.
One way to move a rock is in a sudden explosive crisis moment when you dynamite it out. The other is to chip it away until it’s completely gone, because some things are slow to disappear and require lifelong dealing. God can use either approach and frequently uses a combination of both. On paper, the Bible describes a tidy, clean description of this working dynamic, but the Christian who is currently going through the process “struggles forward amid many variables, contingencies, and uncertainties.”¹
When you look back on your previous Christian life, you’ll see things in the rearview–now quite small—that loomed large and immovable at one point in time. But you got through them. How? God worked on your will. The Holy Spirit brought in the power of the cross of Christ and applied it to your heart, chipping away at your stubbornness, and then offering the power of resurrection so you could do and be what pleases Him.
Working out our salvation most always ends with something practical. For instance, the Lord touches you about your need to read the Bible more, but week after week it still doesn’t happen. Why? After practical consideration you might realize that dental appointments, grocery shopping, and household projects are all carried out on a regular basis, because they get written down on to-do lists. Bible reading has never made any such lists, so it keeps being forgotten. The problem then, is no longer purely spiritual, since God has already worked in you the willingness to read. Instead, it is a practical shortcoming, which in this case means you need a way of reminding yourself to do it, at least until it becomes a habit.
But this is not all. For an effective working out, you’ll need a generalized plan as well. What part of the Bible will you read? When and where will you read? How much? Once you answer these questions, you’ve made significant progress in working out God’s work in you. Finally, you may need a partner, or at least someone to update concerning your progress.
All of those things–consideration, planning, and accountability, are part of working out your salvation. The same goes for developing generosity, sharing the gospel, praying, and service. And of course, for nailing sins, like out-of-control internet spending, use of pornography, office or church gossip, road rage, political rage, and a host of other negatives.
Salvation only becomes consequential when we translate it into practical dimensions. Although God initiates and enables it, salvation ends up on the far end with a man or woman thinking, planning, and doing.
Or rather, digging out rocks and working the soil.
¹ Powlison, David. How Does Sanctification Work? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017) kindle book, chapter 9.