“Without me,” Jesus says, “you can do nothing!” “Without Me working in you, both to will and to do for my good pleasure,” you are unable to do anything to better your spiritual condition. You are unable to respond to God, you are unable to believe in the gospel, you are unable to repent from your sins, you are unable to pray aright, you are unable to move your soul one micron closer to God without the free, unconditional, and omnipotent grace of Jesus Christ. You need Jesus to create within you the will and the ability to do any of these things. This is true before we believe the gospel (I imagine most of us are agreed there), but it is also true after we have trusted Christ in the gospel. Have you ever considered that? This is indeed a devastating claim (and a liberating one), and it is central to a religion based simply and purely upon grace.
I think most of us grasp this truth on the front end of salvation. Salvation, after all, belongs to God. It is His gift to give, and it is His gift to withhold. When God approaches man with the gospel, the condition in which He finds us— all of us— is one of Spiritual death (Ephesians 2:1ff). We are not sick. We are not paralyzed. We are dead. D.E.A.D. When Christ approaches us, we are not able even to look by faith in His direction. How could we, we are dead? Dead men don’t look, dead men don’t do anything. If spiritual life is to come into us, it must come from the only place from which it could come, it must come from God.
No doubt, there are many who would say, surely we must ask God for this spiritual life? But how would a dead soul make such a request for life? Would such a request not in itself be a sign of spiritual life? Many will surely object; if we are unable to come to God (as Jesus Himself plainly teaches, John 6:44), why then does God command us to come? Well the answer to that is quite straightforward: We ought to come, that is our duty. But we are unable to come, that is our problem.
But, you might again argue, if we are unable to come to Christ, why (and how) does God condemn sinners for not coming? Well, again the answer is not complicated. Our inability to come to God for mercy is itself blameworthy, rooted both in our perversity (we are sinners) and in our hostility (we are locked in a posture of implacable hatred towards God, Romans 8:7-8). We can’t come, because we won’t come; and it is precisely because we won’t come that we can’t come. If we are to come to God, therefore, God Himself must change us from the inside out. This change, the Bible calls regeneration, or the New Birth (John 3:3ff; Titus 3:3ff). This gift is God’s to give and God’s to withhold.
Any other explanation of how a sinner comes to Christ robs the gospel of its gracious character. If there is the slightest contribution left for us to make by ourselves, if there is the smallest condition for us to meet by ourselves, before Christ will clinch us in His saving embrace, then we are left with a gospel of works. To be sure the gospel is conditional upon faith (no one is saved without faith), but this faith is entirely the gracious gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-10). The same could be said of repentance (Psalm 23:3, “He repents my soul”— is the literal Hebrew verb David employs. Cf. Ezekiel 36:25-27)
So far so good. I trust we are all agreed there.
But have you also considered that we are just as unable after salvation as we were before. “Without me,” Jesus said to His saved disciples, “you can do nothing.” When it comes to living a well balanced Christian life, I cannot begin to tell you how important it is to understand this.
The Christian life is a 3 step of grace, response, and more grace. What do I mean? Well, perhaps I can sum it up like this: Whenever we desire to move in a Godward direction (whether in prayer, repentance, Bible reading, etc.) this desire, and the ability to bring that desire to fruition are themselves, in their entirety, the gracious gift of God. God is not waiting for you to do anything before He gives you this gift. This is exactly the point Paul makes in Philippians 2:13. If you don’t grasp that, you will inevitably fall into the trap of thinking that you must take the initiative to get God’s attention— it might feel that way sometimes, but it is NEVER that way in reality. If you make that mistake, you will inevitably always feel you are one step behind the receipt of grace. As if you must take the first step, you must pray (and pray well enough), you must repent (and repent thoroughly enough), you must believe (and believe wholeheartedly enough), before God will respond and give you grace. And, do you see, when you fall into that trap, you will always be left wondering, “Have I done enough?”
Such a christian life is a miserable, joyless affair, because it conceives of the Father as a conditional God, with a conditional love, and a conditional gospel— conditions He expects you to fulfill (on your own) before He will open the door of His heart and give you the help you need. And nothing, NOTHING could be further from the truth. Every thought of holiness, every desire for the things of God, ever flicker of spiritual life in your soul comes down from Him FIRST. We already have His attention, before we desire Him, before we turn to Him, before we call out to Him. For we would be doing none of those things without Him. They are themselves gifts of His grace, we have no part in generating them (though again, while it sometimes feels that way, it just never is that way).
Calvin puts it best when he says, “The ability to respond to grace is itself a gift of grace”— a gift God always rewards graciously. God, do you see, has not left one step of the Christian life for us to take on our own, by ourselves. It all comes down from Christ. Without Him, we really can do nothing. And we really can do all things through Him who strengthens us!
Few enjoy the liberating nature of this truth. Rather than living a life based upon unconditional grace (God gives grace, we respond, and He rewards our grace given response with more grace), we tend to think of it like this: We do something, we fulfill the condition (be that condition faith, endurance in the means of grace, etc.) and God rewards our fulfilling the condition by giving us grace. Such a life is tantamount to expecting a car without gas to move towards the gas pump before the attendant will dispense the gas it so desperately needs. Moving a gasless car is an exhausting effort. For a graceless soul, however, it’s even worse. For while you can conceivably push an out-of-gas car, there is no way to budge a graceless soul one inch. God must do it all before we can do anything. Think about that. It’s probably the key sentence in this whole piece. There is much for us to do in living the Christian life, but God must do it all before we can do anything.
Some of you are probably wondering: does this not lead to a let go and let God lifestyle? God forbid! Not at all. It simply means before we attempt to do anything for God (and I mean anything), we must first look to God, own our helplessness, and cry out for grace. Free Grace. Undeserved Grace. Unconditioned grace. Before you do anything for me, God says, open your mouth wide and I will fill it with my grace. By this grace, you live the Christian life in its entirety. I don’t know about you, but I find that a message of hope for a helpless soul just like mine!