I don’t need self-improvement. I need Jesus!

October 27, 2016

This Sunday I’m preaching on Luke 17:3-10, a collection of teachings that seems, at first, like a hodgepodge. N.T. Wright, however, believes that they are linked by our need for humility. Regarding the disciples’ plea for greater faith in verse 5 and Jesus’ response, he writes the following (emphasis mine):

Perhaps not surprisingly, the disciples realize in verse 5 that all this [i.e., what Jesus has said in vv. 1-4] will require more faith than they think they have. Jesus is quick to respond. It’s not great faith you need; it is faith in a great God. Faith is like a window through which you can see something. What matters is not whether the window is six inches or six feet high; what matters is the God that your faith is looking out on. If it’s the creator God, the God active in Jesus and the Spirit, then the tiniest little peep-hole of a window will give you access to power like you never dreamed of.[1]

So faith, like most things related to the life of the spirit, is not about us; it’s about God. Of course.

Anyway, in today’s devotional from The Mockingbird Devotional, John Zahl shares a related thought about faith (emphasis mine):

Faith means trusting Him to be all the things you need Him to be, despite your own inadequacies, and, for that matter, in light of the fact that you don’t actually know what you need or what success actually looks like. He won’t give you strength; He will be your strength.[2]

Finally, I tried to make a similar point in a sermon earlier this month about the power of the Holy Spirit in Acts 4:1-22:

Consider Peter… Even though he seems so brave and strong and powerful in today’s scripture, he wasn’t so different from that scaredy-cat that we saw the night that Jesus was arrested. He hadn’t changed that much in a just a couple of months! Especially if we consider what Paul writes about Peter in Galatians 2.

There, Paul describes a situation in which, he says, he confronted Peter “to his face” for his hypocrisy.

Why did this happen? This was a time in the early church when Jewish Christians weren’t so sure how they were supposed to relate to their non-Jewish brothers and sisters. Many of them believed that these Gentile believers had to first become Jewish—by being circumcised and following other Jewish customs. And unless or until they did these things, Jewish Christians wouldn’t mingle with them. They wouldn’t sit down at a table and share a meal.

Paul, of course, would have none of this: As he writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And Peter was on Paul’s side—at least at first. When Peter came to visit Paul’s church he enjoyed table fellowship with Gentiles.

Until some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem showed up—then Peter stopped associating with them. Paul says in Galatians 2:12 that Peter did this because he was “afraid of the circumcision party.”

So let’s get this straight: In Galatians 2, years after the events described in today’s scripture, this same Peter, who wasn’t even afraid of being killed as he stood before the high priest and the Sanhedrin, was afraid of other people’s opinions—he was afraid for his reputation; he was afraid of what others might think about him!

So much for brave and fearless Peter!

I’m not saying this because I think Peter is a bad guy. Not at all. I’m saying this because Peter isn’t so different from us! Aside from being filled with the Spirit in today’s scripture, he was mostly the same old person he always was!

I know it seems obvious to say out loud, but Peter’s success as an apostle isn’t because he—to whatever extent he had been sanctified—had become a much holier person; it was because of God’s power working in him.

Our Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification, while true and fitting, is also potentially dangerous, as I’ve discussed in the past. “Yes, yes,” we say, “even sanctification is a gift of God.” But is it really? Or is it something we achieve as we apply ourselves to the task? Is it, in other words, self-improvement by another name?

I don’t need self-improvement. I need Jesus! At every moment! Because I’m a disaster left to my own devices. Because I’m utterly lost and helpless without him.

I’m not kidding. I have enough emotional scars to prove it. Scars on top of scars. And so do people who get closest to me. Thank God many of them still love me!

1. N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 204.

2. John Zahl, “October 27” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 362.

15 Responses to “I don’t need self-improvement. I need Jesus!”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    This is very interesting and helpful, but I think there is some reason to think that our standing with God is affected by our own “heart condition” or “efforts” to some extent. Enough to consider at least.

    With respect to faith, Jesus says: “Why did you doubt, oh you of little faith.” Paul says, “If I had great faith, so that I could move mountains.” The saints of old are eulogized for their faith in Hebrews 11. In other words, they had something to be “commended” for. If everything was “all of God and none of man,” then there would be no reason to set them out as examples. So, while I agree that God is the necessary object of our faith and He who makes faith “work,” I don’t think our “level” of faith is irrelevant to God’s choice to work or not. “And Jesus could do no mighty works there, due to their unbelief.” “The fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” I don’t purport to know how that all “works out” as a practical matter, but there does seem to be some relationship between the degree of our faith and God’s working.

    More generally, I don’t think sanctification is all of God either. There are too many NT passages (including by Paul) that suggest the need to “work at it.” Peter says, “Add this to that.” Jesus’ parables of the talents and minas indicate “putting what God gives us to work to earn an increase,” as a result of which He says, “Well done thou good and faithful servant.” Jesus says that he who teaches and obeys the commandments will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus says, “Work, for the night is coming.” Ezekiel quotes God as saying, “Even if Daniel … were in this town, he would save only himself.” Gabriel tells Daniel he is “greatly loved” (or, “highly esteemed”). Paul talks of rewards being based on how we build on the foundation. All these are indicia of our “status” with God having something to do with our own efforts or heart condition.

    What about Peter? I agree that his faith was of a “waffling” nature. But that is generally true of most of us. This does not detract from the point that we all generally have some “shining moments.” Luther said, “Here I stand” in helping start the Protestant Reformation, and we rightly commend him for doing so, even though he had some flaws as well (such as drowning Anabaptists). I don’t think it is correct to say that “only” God is or was “working” to bring those moments to pass. Otherwise, why speak of them? One action would in essence be no different from another. Nehemiah says, “REMEMBER ME for these things I have been doing.” So, the good things accomplished through us are indeed largely of God, but that does not mean we have “nothing to do with it.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      As always, I’m not exactly saying “only God.” I’m not a monergist; I believe we cooperate with God. I’m just trying to place the emphasis where it properly belongs. If we’re truly humble (not saying I am!), we wouldn’t want to emphasize anything other than what God has done through us.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        We are advised not to think of ourselves “more highly than we ought to think”–not to not think of ourselves at all. “Use sober judgment.” While we are also told to esteem others as greater than we are, this is like Jesus’ parable about the dinner party where the one who advanced himself was demoted and the one who accepted a lower position was elevated. So there was a “difference of position” based on the people themselves. (Consider Moses when challenged by Aaron and Miriam.) But, “He who would be great among you must be the servant of all.” Note that Jesus did not say no one would be great; rather, how to get greatness was counterintuitive. Go down to be raised up. So I don’t think it is wrong to consider our own contribution, though of course we appreciate God’s role as much greater than our own. Thus, as an analogy, I may be pleased when I write an exceptionally good brief, but simultaneously I recognize God gave me the brains and made possible the education I got to assist in that–but, I “put it to good effect.”

      • brentwhite Says:

        I don’t disagree; it’s just a question of emphasis.

        Have pity on me, Tom: I’m Methodist. We really, really like to talk about sanctification—so much so that, despite our theology, we place the emphasis on human effort more than the activity of the Spirit. Not for nothing that we’re often accused of (at least) semi-Pelagianism.

        Maybe in your church experience, you have the opposite problem.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Yeah, mostly I get “all of God” from my compatriots.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    “It’s not great faith you need; it is faith in a great God.”

    What an awesome truth!

    Tom, I must say that you never waiver. You insist on a value being placed on what man contributes in “achieving salvation”. (And, you make good arguments.)

    But, for myself, I am more accurately described by Isaiah:

    “….and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”

    Without the righteousness of Jesus, being imputed to us as believers, we would all surely perish.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Well, in this instance I am talking about sanctification as distinct from salvation. While I don’t dispute your characterization of my position about salvation, I think at a minimum we at least we get some “personal glory” from out “contribution” to the “works of faith” post-salvation, though we see that this pales in comparison to God’s role. Why else is Chapter 11 in Hebrews?

      • brentwhite Says:

        While I’m more sympathetic with Grant’s position, as Tom knows, I deeply appreciate that when Tom disagrees, he does so because of what the Bible says. I promise I would have asked many more questions in seminary, and I would have raised some of Tom’s objections—using the Bible.

        I say this because, when I was in systematic theology class, scripture wasn’t discussed nearly so much: It was always about the logic of the theology, regardless whether there were passages of scripture that couldn’t be so easily reconciled to this logic.

        And it’s not just because I went to a liberal seminary. The most famous systematic theologian of all, Thomas Aquinas, gave the church universal the dubious doctrine of God’s “impassibility,” which most of us accept unblinkingly today—as if most of the Bible doesn’t speak against it. By impassibility, I mean the idea that God doesn’t have emotion—that whatever the Bible says about God’s emotions are nothing more than anthropomorphism or an accommodation to our human limitations.

        Aquinas and all those “scholastic theologians” said that emotion implies change, and since God can’t change, he can’t have emotions.

        It seems like utter nonsense when we look at scripture!

        Anyway, there are more biblical and nuanced ways of understanding impassibility—C.S. Lewis has a description of it that I can live with.

        My point is, any theological conviction—including the ones we Protestants hold dear, like Sola Fide or Sola Gratia—must be based in scripture. Tom reminds me of that.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Thanks!

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Wow! I don’t see how you can study “systematic theology” without going constantly to Scripture. The Letter to the Romans, in particular. The more I learn, the more I doubt the relavance of Candler.

    Don’t worry Tom. I’m sure the Lord will forgive for wanting some of the Glory. He knows you mean well. 😉

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Interesting. From a “strict” Calvinistic perspective, not only will God “forgive” me–He it is who placed such an erroneous thought in my head. Which is why my perspective on free choice is such a wise one. If I am wrong, then God made me wrong, so how could he punish me because of my “error”? Whereas, if I am right, then I will be commended. So, I am making the “wise” choice in the debate. For that matter, one may wonder why God would “ordain” His children to “misunderstand” His election. What is the point of that?

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    The answers to your “whys” are all found in “the fall of man”.

    What God created perfect, was warped by man making the wrong choice. (There’s your free will).

    Every man/woman since then was born corrupt. But, they were born according to God’s design. They were born with a personality and tendencies. Every “choice” we make is really not a choice at all. We always “choose” the alternative that we feel will bring the most comfort or the least pain. From our point of view we are making a lifetime of choices. But, could we really ever have made any other choices?

    The tension between “God made us that way”, and “God gives everyone the chance to “choose” Him is what the debate is all about. I find Tom’s arguments compelling, but I find the arguments of Piper and Sproul, for example, even more compelling.

    I wouldn’t be a “good lawyer” for the case though. 🙂

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Grant, I recognize many scholars are “more compelling” than me. However, I thinks the question comes down to, what is it that God “controls”? Does he control only the choice of coming to him for salvation? Or does he not control all things, including all decisions? If the former, I still have a serious problem with it because it makes the destination of Hell to be totally that of God. However, that would at least leave open our input in sanctification. If not, however, i.e., all decisions are of God alone, then we would be hard pressed to find a basis for various “commendations” of persons for their faith (as in Hebrews 11 most particularly, but elsewhere as well, as I have noted). So, my “logical point” is based on the fact that I “win” for believing and arguing for free choice, because if I am right, then there is a basis for my commendation, Whereas, if I am wrong, then all choices would be being made by God, even my own choice to argue for “error,” so there would be no basis for either commendation or condemnation for any thought or action. Which, as I noted, leaves open the notable curiosity of why God would input into HIS CHILDREN the ERRONEOUS belief that they were free from God’s absolute control.

      My belief system is based on what I see as “honoring” God as a moral being–in fact, the ultimate epitome of morality. God does as he does for his “name’s sake” (i.e., the honor due to him because of his character). So, I find the “intellectual” difficulties with free choice to take a second seat to the “moral” difficulties of absolute predestination. That is the “pair of glasses” that I bring to my study of scripture, always open (I hope) to be contradicted by the text as ultimately properly read.

  5. Grant Essex Says:

    There are a lot of heathy reasons to commend your view. It certainly encourages you to always do your best, and I find nothing to condemn it, as long as God get’s the glory.

    Also, good works are encouraged by both Calvinists and Armenians, with regard to increasing the amount of your treasure (reward) in heaven. So, keep laying up treasure brother.


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