There are basically four ways to live the Christian life.
The first way is to attempt to do it entirely on our own, by our own effort and willpower. This way is doomed to failure. Jesus stated very plainly, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). If we attempt such a solo effort, some meager expressions of the life of Christ will remain in us, for, after all, we are still in union with Him. But in our daily spiritual life, we will experience mostly failure, frustration, and, very likely, unsatisfactory relationships with other people. The fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so on—will hardly be visible. Instead of growing vigorously in our lives, those gracious qualities will be stunted and withered. We may have lots of Christian activity and even apparent Christian success, but we will possess little genuine Spirit-produced fruit. Most of us have probably tried this solo approach to the Christian life and found it wanting.
The second way to live the Christian life is frequently a reaction to the first. Having experienced the futility of the self-effort way, we go to the other extreme, deciding to do nothing at all. We just “turn it all over to the Lord” and allow Him to live His life through us. We decide, perhaps because we have heard or read it someplace, that any effort on our part to live the Christian life is “of the flesh.”
We conclude that we should not work at living the Christian life but simply trust God, who does the work for us. Many of us have tried this approach and, if we are honest with ourselves, have discovered that this, too, is not God’s way.
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A third way is the “Lord, help me” approach. The chief characteristic of this way is a partial dependence on the Lord: the unconscious but nevertheless real attitude that I can of my own self live the Christian life up to a point but that I need the Lord’s help after that point. It is the assumption—unconscious, perhaps, but still very real—that there is a certain reservoir of goodness, wisdom, and spiritual strength within my own character that I should draw on for the ordinary duties of life but that beyond that, I need the Lord’s help. This may be the attitude of some people who like to quote the saying, “Lord, help me remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that You and I together can’t handle.” Sadly enough, this is probably the most common approach among sincere Christians today. It is the approach used by thousands of Christians who pray a prayer for God’s help at the beginning of the day but who proceed from that point onward as if it all depended on them—unless they meet a crisis situation. It is the attitude most of us fall into at various times if we are not watchful. As the great Puritan scholar John Owen wrote,
“We do not have the ability in ourselves to accomplish the least of God’s tasks. This is a law of grace. When we recognize it is impossible for us to perform a duty in our own strength, we will discover the secret of its accomplishment. But alas, this is a secret we often fail to discover.”[i]
The fourth approach to the Christian life is the abiding-in-Christ way. The believer who practices this approach knows that the self-effort approach and the “let go and let God” approach are both futile. He has also learned that he needs God’s help not just beyond a certain point but in every aspect of life. He doesn’t pray for help just during crises or stressful times. Rather, his prayer is, “Lord, enable me all day long, for without You I can do nothing.” To illustrate, let’s imagine that God has asked him to lift a heavy log (perhaps the log symbolizes a difficult circumstance he must go through or just the day-to-day demands of the Christian life). This believer doesn’t say, “Lord, I’ve got a log that’s too heavy for me to lift. If You will take one end, I will take the other end and together we will lift this log.” Instead, he says, “Lord, You must enable me to lift this log if I am to do it. To all appearances it will seem as if I am lifting this log, and I truly am, but I am doing so only because You have given me all the strength to do it.” This is what Paul was saying in Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” The log in that instance was the challenge of contentment in the midst of changing circumstances. Paul was able to meet that challenge, not with God’s help (God and Paul sharing the load) but with God’s total enabling.
John Owen again expressed this attitude of total reliance on Christ when he paraphrased Galatians 2:20: “The spiritual life which I have is not my own. I did not induce it, and I cannot maintain it. It is only and solely the work of Christ. It is not I who live, but Christ lives in me. My whole life is His alone.”[ii]
So the difference between “Lord, help me” and “Lord, enable me” is a matter of partial trust in our self-effort versus total reliance on Christ. When I emphasize this distinction, I am talking about heart attitude, not the words we use. God knows our hearts. If we say or think, “Lord, help me,” but our attitude is one of total dependence, God certainly knows what we mean.
The abiding-in-Christ approach (“Lord, enable me”) differs greatly from the “let go and let God” approach in its recognition that as renewed human beings we are called to use all the faculties of our being—our minds, our affections, and our wills—in order to live out the Christian life but to do so in total dependence on the Holy Spirit’s working in our minds, our affections, and our wills, empowering us with the power of the risen Christ. “Abiding in Christ” does not denote an absence of conscious effort on our part; rather, it indicates an all-out effort on our part, but an effort made in total dependence on the Holy Spirit to mediate the life of Christ to us.
In Colossians 1:28-29, Paul gives us a beautiful illustration of this all-out effort made in total dependence on Christ:
“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” In Paul’s gospel work, he labored; in fact, he struggled. Struggling in this passage means “agonizing.” Paul is saying that he labored to the point of agonizing in his effort to present everyone perfect in Christ. There is no doubt that he was conscious of sustained, intense personal effort. Yet he said that he did this “with all [Christ’s] energy, which so powerfully works in me.”
Paul was conscious of personal effort—vigorous effort, in fact—but he was also conscious of his union with Christ and of the life and power of Christ at work in him.
The awareness that we are in Christ and that through abiding in Him we will “bear much fruit” (John 15:5) should not promote passivity on our part. Rather, it should promote vigorous activity, but activity that is combined with total dependence on Him for the wisdom and strength to carry it through to completion. It is an awareness that all the conscious, visible things we do in the Christian life amount to nothing without His divine enablement. It is an awareness that “unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain” (Psalm 127:1). The person who understands what it means to abide in Christ knows that the builder must work and the watchmen must guard and that both must do so in dependence on Jesus Christ.
You’ve been reading from True Community by Jerry Bridges. Jerry was the author of many best-selling modern classics, including The Pursuit of Holiness and Respectable Sins. See all of Jerry’s books here.
[i] John Owen, Sin and Temptation, ed. James M. Houston (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1983), 99.
[ii] Owen, 83.
Chapter 3: Communion with God