The Work Of God

In the previous articles, we've set the stage with all of the players. Now we will look at specific topics regarding Christianity. Here we will continue our discussion of Christians by addressing the work of God in the life of believers. Please understand that this is just a cursory overview and much more could (and will) be said on this topic.

What actually happens when one becomes a Christian? What we call "salvation" has several components. Basically, salvation for a person means that the person is saved from something. So, what are we saved from?

First, we are saved from God's wrath and judgment. This is done because Jesus, Who was perfect, died in our place. God's justice is satisfied because sin required punishment, which was done through the death of Jesus. If Jesus had sin of His own, His death would have only paid for His own sin. But because He was sinless, His death paid for everyone else's sin.1 It is said that when God looks upon a believer, He sees Jesus instead. The technical term for this is "imputation" - meaning that God impute's Christ's righteousness to us. This means we are no longer spiritual rebels, but are now in right relationship with God. We call this aspect of salvation "Justification". That is, justice was done in regard to us, through Christ's death. We stand forgiven of everything we've ever done, or ever will do.

Second, we are saved from sin. Whereas we were previously slaves to sin, we now possess the power to overcome sin. This is an important point: the Kingdom of God is a matter of power - not mere words.2 Thus, if we sin it is because we choose to - not because we can't help it. God has redeemed us as if sin was an earthly master that owned us - Jesus died to pay the price to set us free. Before we were enslaved to sin, now we are no longer subject to its mastery. This is done through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Baptism of the Holy Spirit
At the moment of salvation, we are given the Holy Spirit. That is, God's Holy Spirit comes to reside with us. This is not the same thing as being possessed, as with demons. God does not violate our will and we retain full control over our actions. Rather, His Spirit joins with ours in a non-separable way. It is like when you take an egg and scramble it in a bowl. When you are done, you cannot tell where the yolk ends and the white begins - they are irrevocably integrated with each other.

The Spirit also gifts us with some supernatural ability (or abilities), called the "gifts of the Spirit". These gifts are specifically for the purposes that God has for you in your life. We will talk about them in another article, but let me make an important point here. Just because a gift is supernatural doesn't mean that it is spectacular, which is what our selfish old nature wants. We are attracted to things that titilate, and we want things that bring glory and attention to us rather than God. The gifts of the Spirit are simply the tools for a job that requires the power of God to accomplish, and rarely are they "flashy".

The evidence of the Holy Spirit operating in our lives serves as a confirmation that we really are saved, because every believer has the Holy Spirit and only believers have the Holy Spirit. He serves as a guarantee of the promises that believers have from God.3 This is important to remember for those times when we may doubt our salvation. If God has sealed you with the Holy Spirit, you are forever His.

In some cases, when the Holy Spirit comes to live in a believer, it is done with some notable outward manifestation, and other times without. There is no formula to this. For instance when the twelve disciples received the Spirit, it was with the sound of a rushing wind, flames above their heads, and speaking other languages.5 In the case of Cornelius, it was with speaking in other languages and praising God.6. In the case of the Paul, he regained his eyesight.7 In the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, there was nothing particularly special.8 The Spirit is given to each believer in a unique way, as God chooses.

New Creations
We are saved from death. When the Holy Spirit comes into us, it raises our spirits to life. We are all spiritually stillborn. But at the moment of salvation, our spirits are made alive. Without a live spirit, how can the living Holy Spirit join with it? Life and unlife are incompatible. Once we've been spiritually raised to life, we are spiritually transformed. This isn't mere flowery poetic prose. Paul says that we have been made into new creations.4 For the present, we may still exist in the same physical body and same physical situations and relationships, but we have been made into a new person. Because we are spiritually alive now, we are able to comprehend spiritual things that were not understandable when we were spiritually dead. This doesn't mean that we know everything or that unbelievers know nothing. But there are things that can only be discerned spiritually, which means you need to be spiritually alive to be able to make sense of them.

As a consequence of receiving the Spirit, we are saved from ourselves. This is called "sanctification", which means we are literally made into saints. "sanct" used to be the spelling of "saint", and "sanctification" literally means "saintification". Unlike the Catholic idea that only special people recognized through the Pope are saints, the scriptural teaching is that all believers are saints. At the moment of salvation, many believers are immediately saved from an addiction, or depression, or even physical maladies. But not everyone experiences this - and even those that do will quickly find that there are plenty of other issues they have that they need salvation from. There are two points here: 1) for whatever reason, God doesn't fix every problem we have at the moment of salvation. Instead, He will gradually, but surely, move us from where we were toward being more like Jesus. This is called "progressive sanctification". The speed of this process depends upon how stubborn and resistant to change we are. 2) the experience of salvation is unique to each individual. There is no formula to it, as much as some people seem to think. As a pastor of mine once said, "God refuses to run His railroad on the tracks that we lay down."9 He does things His own way, and rarely in the same way.

Part of the sanctification process is that the Spirit produces fruit in our life. He enables us to exercise faith, to experience peace, and to express His love to others, among other things. I'll delve more deeply into this in the future. We cannot bear this fruit on our own - God does all the work in us.

Another Part of sanctification involves emotional and spiritual healing, which may be immediate, or may also be gradual. The Spirit brings peace to the heart, a heavenly perspective that helps put past events into context of a loving God, the ability to forgive others for what they've done to us, and hope for the future in the place of despair. All of these things bring about healing of our past hurts. He refocuses us and renews our minds so we are not chained by our past, and He also enables us to endure whatever will come our way. One aspect of happy people is that they are not self-absorbed. Conincidentally, one of the things the Spirit does is get us to focus on Jesus rather than ourselves. Thus, a believer is going to be, all things remaining equal, happier than non-believers. Avoiding the health and legal consequences of immoral choices also tends to lead to a person who is healthier and happier. Of course, these are minor advantages compared to all the other aspects of God's work in the life of a believer! All of this is part of becoming more like Jesus, which is the main work of the Spirit in our lives. My heart is often broken by seeing people who are ruining their lives and rejecting the only One Who could heal them by renewing their minds so that they weren't so self-destructive.

Another thing that God does when He saves us is to adopt us as His children. Thus, we are not only in right relationship with Him, but we are now His sons and daughters. That makes us princes and princesses in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a close relationship that even the righteous patriarchs of the Old Testament did not enjoy in their lifetimes. There are a couple ramifications of this. First, we are now co-heirs with Christ.10 What does God own? Everything! Therefore, what are we heirs to? Everything! Second, as a loving Father, God will direct us to victorious living through the Holy Spirit - and disciplines us when we wander away. This should not be considered as vindicative punishment. The point of discipline is to make us more into the image of Jesus. Unfortunately, this isn't always a pleasant process - though the end result is highly to be desired. It is a reality that it often takes pressure or pain to truly effect change in our lives. But if we trust Him and yield to Him, He will use the most gentle means possible to accomplish this discipline. If we are stubborn, He must be less gentle to accomplish our sanctification. Far from being afraid of discipline, we should realize that it is another evidence that we are His children.11

Time does not permit me to say enough on this topic, but I need to make one observation. It is highly important that we understand our new position in Christ after we are saved. People tend to act in accordance with how they perceive themselves. If we perceive ourselves as "sinners" it will be hard for us to live victoriously. However, if we view ourselves as righteous apart from Christ, we are just as deceived and will become arrogant. The proper perspective is that in Christ we have His righteousness and are God's beloved children. If that is what we are, and we recognize that, we cannot help but rejoice and behave differently.

All the above work occurs at the moment of salvation and during the subsequent life of the believer. But there is one more aspect of salvation. We are saved from the coming wrath of God. We will not be condemned with the world or the Devil and his angels. The ultimate destination of those who are condemned is hell, whereas the saved get to spend the rest of forever with God. But there is more to it than even that.

In the future, after we enter heaven (either when we die or when Jesus comes back for us), we are glorified. One aspect of this is that we are given a new body. This isn't merely a youthful version of the kind of body we have now - it is a body that is so far beyond what we are used to that Paul strains to find words to explain it.12 It is like we lived our whole lives in a locked windowless prison cell. It may be a comfortable cell with overstuffed furniture, food, water, bookshelves full of books, and a phone to talk to other prisoners, but nonetheless it is our entire world. When we die, it is like the door is unlocked and opened, and we step out into a larger world that we couldn't imagine beforehand. But it is also like when we step out of the cell, we step into an immortal body with superpowers. Actually, the contrast is even more stark. If you want to read an article I wrote that goes into more detail on this, click here.

Another aspect of our glorification and new body is that our old sinful nature has been stripped away from us. At the moment of salvation, we are rescued from the mastery of sin. At the moment of glorification, we are rescued from even the influence of sin. Our struggle with selfishness finally ends! That alone would be worth more than any treasure we could have on this earth, but that isn't all that occurs.

We also receive rewards from God for the things we do during our lifetime. Before the world was created, God had each of us in mind, including work for us to do. The Spirit then enables us to do that work. Isn't that just like God? He gives us what we need to accomplish the work He prepared for us to do, and then rewards us for doing it! What, exactly, are these rewards? That is unknown and subject to a lot of speculation. I won't enter into speculation here, but we can reason that the rewards offered to us in the world to come will be far beyond any reward we could expect in the constrained and fallen world that we currently live in. Perhaps we are each given several galaxies to rule over. Who knows? But anything I could come up with would be inferior to the reality to come.

Another result of glorification is that we finally see Jesus face to Face. We see him clearly in a way that we cannot, this side of heaven. We get to live in His Presence forever. There is no environment or scenary on earth or in the universe which compares to the glory and beauty we shall behold in our new home. It is truly paradise. Sorrow and sin are done away with. There is no hatred, death, depression, sickness, conflict, imperfection, or entropy. Not only that, but I believe that God will reveal to us the mysteries of what He was doing through history that we have wondered about - or been completely unaware of. Maybe he'll explain to us exactly how the universe works - and we'll have minds capable of comprehending it. It will be so far beyond wonder and astonishment that there are no words to describe it. No wonder our brief views into heaven, as presented in the Bible, show saints and angels in constant praise and worship. I can't imagine the music that will be in heaven, but I know that my favorite songs and symphonies of the masters will pale in comparison. Everywhere we look, we will see a new revelation of the power, glory, and love of God. As He is infinite, our wonder will never cease, throughout the everlasting ages. Once we get to heaven, His works are not going to end. As a sunset changes in appearance over time, and each sunset varies from another, so will His works. God doesn't create static works of art and Time is merely one medium in which He paints His Masterpieces.

We also gain some sort of authority and standing as royalty in the heavenly Kingdom. Paul tells us that we will judge angels,13 which means we are exalted to a position with more authority than even these celestial beings which are so awesome to us now that men's initial reaction to seeing them is one of abject terror! We will be seated with Christ,14 meaning that we be ruling with Him. Again, I don't know all that this means. Doubtless there are many aspects of the life to come that aren't just hidden, but probably not within the grasp of our current ability to comprehend.

So we see that becoming a Christian starts with a choice, but God then does an amazing work in the believing heart, providing His Spirit to guide, reassure, empower, and transform us. We are not left to our own strength, ability, and understanding. Nor are we left to wallow in our past sin. We have been forgiven and we forget what is behind to press on toward the future that God has prepared for us. And what an incomprehensibly glorious future that is!

Let me make a couple concluding points. First, this is all God's work in our lives, not ours. We cannot claim any credit. Without the Holy Spirit, we are not sanctified, healed, adopted, or glorified. Rather our selfish nature is to harm ourselves and others. Left to ourselves, the only thing we can do is to resist the Spirit, which make the process more painful and take longer. Rather we need to make the choice to surrender to Jesus and acknowledge Him as our Lord, and continue to do that for the rest of our life. Even that choice is only enabled by God so we can't even claim to have been good enough to make the right choice. All we can do is humbly and gratefully thank Him for loving us so much that He saved us.

Second, because we are incapable of sanctifying or healing ourselves, we cannot think that we are better than non-believers. Consider this scenario. Two men are on a sinking ship and escape on separate rowboats. They are identical in all respects: social status, finances, morality, how they treat others, and so on. In every way they are the same. Except one man's boat sinks before he reaches land, while the other man makes it to shore and is saved. Which man is better? They were the same, so neither of them was better. But the one who made it to land is better off. And that is how believers are. They are better off - not better. In fact, in many respects, a believer may have been a worse person than a non-believer. But as a child of God, he is in a better situation. So believers cannot have a "holier than thou" arrogant attitude. All that we have as believers is a gift from God.

Finally, if you are a Christian, the Holy Spirit is active in your life and it will show. If you think you are a Christian, but there is no evidence whatsoever of the power of God operating in your life, you may want to reconsider your assessment. Just because you pray, and/or read the Bible, and/or go to church, and/or have a high opinion of Jesus, and/or preach the gospel, does not mean that you are a Christian. As some have observed, "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger." This applies to all the "Christian" things you can do.

Unless you make a whole-hearted commitment to Jesus, you cannot be saved. You cannot be saved if you insist on holding onto past hurts, addictions, and grudges. If Jesus isn't your Lord, He is not your savior. There is a difference between acting like a Christian and being a Christian. But if you are one, even when you fail, the Holy Spirit living within you is a reminder that you truly belong to God. And He will never abandon you.

1 II Corinthians 5:21
2 I Corinthians 4:20
3 Ephesians 1:13-14
4 II Corinthians 5:17
5 Acts 2:2-4
6 Acts 10:44-46
7 Acts 9:18
8 Acts 8
9 Pastor Bud Palmberg, 1980
10 Romans 8:17
11 Hebrews 12:5-6
12 I Corinthians 15
13 I Corinthians 6:3
14 Ephesians 2:6