There is a method of Christian advice giving and sermonizing that is very popular today that essentially involves claims of this sort: Don’t try so hard to over come sin, you’ve got to stop trying and just let God do it through you!
It’s a persistent notion and I’ve over heard it given as advice in coffee shops, in hall way discussions in seminary, at chapel messages, etc. It often finds its iteration, for pastors and the like, in phrases like this, “I just had to get out of the way and then watch God work.”
In my experience this has been very common amongst my more charismatic brethren (perhaps influenced by the Keswick movement), amongst generic evangelicals who attend mega-type churches, and folks who have a particular approach to Calvinism that is somewhat allergic to notions of trying.
I wish I had sources for this error, but it seems to rarely make it into writing in the circles of books I read. It does appear in at least one song I know, “Heroes Will Be Heroes” by Cool Hand Luke. Anyhow, for anybody who wonders, “How do I stop trying and let God do my sanctification through me?” or “Why should I feel guilty about trying to obey Jesus rather that just doing it out of joy and gratitude?” Here’s why it is okay to actually do the things Scripture says:
- Nowhere in the Sermon on the Mount does Jesus say, “Don’t try this stuff, but let me do it through you.” He is actually very clear that his hearers are obligated to “hear these words of mine and put them into practice.”
- Paul, for all his talk about the Spirit’s activity in believers, never once tells believers to “let God” do anything through them. He does tell believers that “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8:13).”
- One rationale I have heard for this advice is that “trying is still ‘in the flesh,’ you just need to get out of the way.” There are three reasons that this is mistaken.
- This metaphor doesn’t work. ‘Getting out of the way’ is still a form of trying.
- The works of the flesh in Scripture are represented as sinful behaviour in Galatians 5 and the grounds for boasting in the flesh is related specifically to certain practices of Judaism that some early Christians were attempting to require of new, non-Jewish followers of Jesus. Either way, the flesh, in these cases is not referring to trying so much as it is referring to human life opposed to or ignorant of God’s purposes in the gospel (so either sinful abandonment to the passions or misunderstanding the relation of the New Covenant to the Old Covenant).
- Jesus himself gives stark imperatives to people who are sinful: “Sin no more. (John 5:14)” If he meant for us to not actually try to overcome sin, I suspect he would have said, “wait upon God to deliver you of the arrangements you’ve made to allow for sin in your life.” Or he might have said, “The kingdom of God is at hand, DO NOT REPENT, rather let God repent through you.”
- The rest of the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, the apologists, the Nicene era Fathers, the reformers, the Desert Fathers, the Methodists, and C.S. Lewis all report that the Christian life requires a great deal of effort, self-regulation, self-denial, spiritual discipline, and rigorous reflection upon the gospel message.
All told, when Jesus came he not only preached the gospel, he was the gospel. Paul described that coming thus, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Tit 2:11-14 ESV)”
There’s a lot in there about God’s grace doing what we cannot do. But that does not discount the need for training and training means trying. So do it, go actually do the Christian life today. It’s what makes sense.