John Piper: I Act the Miracle – Bethlehem College and Seminary Chapel, Minneapolis, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
The reason for this message is to give you a glimpse of how the gospel of Christ relates to the front-burner warfare with sin in my own life. These are some things that I have been thinking about and praying over and doing on the leave of absence and since.
So let me give you a summary diagnosis of some of John Piper’s most besetting sins. I have fought them, and I think my wife would say that I am winning more battles in the last year than in a long time. How that battle is being fought is what I want to talk about. But first, the diagnosis. Everyone should do this for their own soul. Those of you preparing to be pastors especially will know your people’s souls best by knowing your own. So be ruthlessly honest with yourself.
Diagnosing My Own Soul
My characteristic sins are selfishness, anger, self-pity, quickness to blame, and sullenness. Let me describe them in their ugliness one at a time. And hear me not as coolly analytical here, but sorrowful and remorseful and thankful for the cross of Christ and for grace.
Selfishness is virtually the same as pride and is the deep, broad corruption that is at the bottom of it all. I would give it six traits.
My selfishness is a reflex to expect to be served.
My selfishness is a reflex to feel that I am owed.
My selfishness is a reflex to want praise.
My selfishness is a reflex to expect that things will go my way.
My selfishness is a reflex to feel that I have the right to react negatively to being crossed.
And the reason I use the word “reflex” to describe the traits of selfishness is that there is zero premeditation. When these responses happen, they are coming from nature, not reflection. They are the marks of original sin.
Now what happens when this selfishness is crossed?
Anger: the strong emotional opposition to the obstacle in my way. I tighten up and want to strike out verbally or physically.
Self-pity: a desire that others feel my woundedness and admire me for my being mistreated and move to show me some sympathy.
Quickness to blame: A reflex to attribute to others the cause of the frustrating situation I am in. Others can feel it in a tone of voice, a look on the face, a sideways query, or an outright accusation.
Sullenness: the sinking discouragement, moodiness, hopelessness, unresponsiveness, withdrawn deadness of emotion.
And, of course, the effect on marriage is that my wife feels blamed, and disapproved of, rather than cherished and cared for. Tender emotions start to die. Hope is depleted. Strength to carry on in the hardships of ministry wanes.
How the Gospel Conquers
Now the question we are asking in these messages in Bethlehem College & Seminary chapel is: How does the gospel conquer such sins? Paul said there is a way of life that is “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). There is a gospel walk. He said there is a “manner of life worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).
The reason there is a way of life that fits the gospel is that what happened on the cross of Christ not only cancels the sin and completes the perfection that grounds our justification but, in doing that, also unleashes the power of our sanctification. And what I am most interested in today is how that power over my sins is experienced. And I want to illustrate that eventually from Philippians 2:12–13. But, first, some wider context to make sure we grasp the way the cross is the key to sanctification as well as justification.
The Cross: Key to Justification—And Sanctification
When Charles Wesley taught us to sing, “He breaks the power of cancelled sin” (in the hymn “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”), he was teaching the fundamental truth about how the cross and our battle with sin are related. The cross cancels sins for all who believe on Jesus. Then on the basis of that cancellation of our sins, the power of our actual sinning is broken. It’s not the other way around. There would be no gospel and no music if we tried to sing, “He cancels the guilt of conquered sins.” No! First the cancellation. Then the conquering.
There are many ways that the New Testament shows how this works. I’ll mention three. 1) In the death of Christ we died. 2) In the death of Christ we were bought. 3) In the death of Christ we were forgiven.
And in each of these cases, a power is unleashed from the cross that expresses itself through my volitional attack on sin. In other words, in each of these three cases, the way the cross becomes effective in my conquering cancelled sin is by empowering my will to oppose sin in my life.
1. In the death of Christ we died.
“We have been united with him in a death like his” (Romans 6:5; see also Romans 7:4; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:3).
“You also must consider yourselves dead to sin” (Romans 6:11).
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body,” (Romans 6:12).
2. In the death of Christ we were bought.
“You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
“Glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20).
3. In the death of Christ we were forgiven.
“God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another” (Ephesians 4:32).
So in every case, the decisive impulse for my holiness and my sin-killing is the death of Christ. Which means that the decisive power for our conquering sin is Christ’s canceling sin. That is, the only sin that we can defeat is a forgiven sin.
If we try to defeat an unforgiven sin—that is, if we try to conquer our sin before it is canceled—we become our own saviors; we nullify the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:4–5), and we head straight for despair and suicide.
The Link: My Empowered Will
But don’t miss this: In each of these three cases (in the death of Christ I died, I was bought, and I was forgiven), the link between the cross and my conquered sin is my empowered will. My will, engaged to fight sin with blood-bought power. I say that because in each of these three cases the statement of my death, my purchase, and my forgiveness was made the cause of a command addressed to my will. “Let not sin reign in your body.” “Glorify God in your body.” And “Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another.” Those commands are addressed to me. They engage my will.
And the power that engages and enlivens and carries my will, so that it will be clear that my willing is a cross-exalting willing, is the power of the Holy Spirit, which is given to me precisely because of the death of Christ for me. The Holy Spirit is a blood-bought, new covenant gift of God (Romans 8:35; 7:4; Galatians 2:20).
Which means that the link between the cross and my conquered sin is a Holy-Spirit empowered will. Listen to these texts that describe this reality:
Romans 7:6—“We died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” I serve in the newness of the Spirit.
Romans 8:13—“By the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body.” I put sin to death, by the Spirit.
Galatians 2:20—“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The life I now live . . . Christ lives in me.”
1 Peter 4:11—“Whoever serves, let him do it as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” I serve, but in the strength that God supplies. And it is a blood-bought supply.
1 Corinthians 15:10—“By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” I worked. But it was the grace of God that was working in my working.
In every single case, I am working. I am willing. I am serving. I am putting sin to death. My will is engaged. But in every case, my will is empowered by another will, the will of the Spirit, the will of Christ, the will of God, the will of grace.
Conscious, Willed Opposition to Specific Sins
So I say it again, the link between the cross and the conquered sin in my life is my Holy-Spirit empowered will. And that empowering by the Spirit is blood-bought. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:5–6).
In other words, God intends that part of our experience of sanctification be the conscious, willed, opposition to specific sins in our lives. I only say “part” of our experience of sanctification because this is not the whole work of sanctification. In some areas of sin, God simply takes away the desire and the temptation is gone, and we don’t have to fight that fight any more.
But none of these commands I have referred to (for example, to serve and to put sin to death) would be in the Bible if God did not intend that some sins be defeated by conscious opposition from our wills in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Fighting Other Sin Like I Fight Lust
Now here is what God showed me on this leave of absence: I have applied this truth valiantly to sexual temptation and hardly at all to the sins of anger, self-pity, blaming, and sullenness. I have engaged my will head on with sexual lust. I have heard Jesus say, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). Nobody spontaneously tears out his eye. That is an act of will overcoming all kinds of natural disinclination. That’s what I do when any illicit sexual thought tries to gain the ascendancy in my mind.
I go on the attack with A N T H E M.
Say NO! within five seconds.
TURN to something magnificent, like Christ crucified.
HOLD the pure thing in the mind until the dirty thing is gone.
ENJOY the greater pleasure of the blood-bought promises of God.
MOVE on to meaningful Christ-exalting activity.
There is nothing passive in my will when the lion of lust comes out of the bushes. I don’t lie down and wait for a miracle. I act the miracle. I will explain that phrase in just a moment.
What I realized was that I was not applying any of this same gospel vigilance—what Peter O’Brien calls “continuous, sustained, strenuous effort” against my most besetting sins. I was strangely passive, victim-like. I had the unarticulated sense (mistakenly) that these sins (unlike sexual lust) should be defeated more spontaneously. It should all happen naturally from the inside out. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). And if I tried to attack them with my will the way I did sexual lust, it would produce external conformity, not internal change. But I never let that thought stop me from attacking lust.
Broken by Philippians 2:12–13
The text that broke through was Philippians 2:12–13,
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
I saw three things in a fresh light.
1. I saw afresh that the verb, “work out you salvation” (Greek katergazesthe) means produce, or bring about, or effect. And Peter O’Brien in his Philippians commentary sums it up with the phrase “continuous, sustained, strenuous effort.” As dangerous as this language is, it is biblical. “Bring about your salvation.” “Produce your salvation.” “Effect your salvation by continuous, sustained, strenuous, effort.”
I knew that was one key strategy that had given me victory in the area of sexual temptation. So why not in the other sins of my life?
2. I saw afresh that the salvation I was to work out was not only the large reality of total deliverance, but also the concrete reality of salvation from anger, and salvation from self-pity, and salvation from blaming, and salvation from sullenness.
So I resolved that I would work out my salvation from these sins. I would bring about deliverance from anger and self-pity and blaming and sullenness.
3. And third, I saw afresh the connection between “fear and trembling” on the one hand and God working in me on the other. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
“Fear and Trembling”
Why should there be “fear and trembling” as I attack my sin and bring about salvation from self-pity? The reason given in the text is not a threat. It’s a gift. Work and will to kill your sin, and do it with fear and trembling, because God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, redeemer, justifier, sustainer, Father, lover is so close to you that your working and willing are his working and willing.
Tremble at this breathtaking thought. God Almighty is in you. God is the one in you willing. God is the one in you working. My “continuous, sustained, strenuous” effort is not only being carried out in the very presence of all-holy God, but is the very continuous, sustained, strenuous effort of God himself. I am not waiting for a miracle. I am acting a miracle. My action is God’s action in fighting my sin. My willing is God’s willing.
Now let me close with an illustration.
Super Nanny and Sin-Fighting
Last Sunday evening, it was cozy and snowy and Noël and Talitha and I were home alone. I was looking forward to something we would all do together. Talitha came in from the dining room and said, “Mommy and I are going to watch Super Nanny on the computer.” They set it up on the stool across the room in front of the love seat and started watching. Without me.
Now at that moment the temptation for anger, self-pity, blaming, and sullenness were as dangerous to my soul as a sexual temptation. So I immediately said NO to the rising temptations and quietly went upstairs without any flair of woundedness.
Waging War—Through the Gospel
In my study, I waged war. I turned my mind and heart toward the promises of God, and the surety of the cross, and love of the Father, and wealth of my inheritance, and the blessings of that Lord’s day, and the patience of Christ. And I held them there. I beat down the anger and self-pity and blaming and sullenness. And I kept beating till they were effectively gone.
Later that night I mentioned to Noël in a non-condemning tone, that I was surprised that we didn’t do anything together. We worked it out. It had been largely a miscommunication. And compared to the way things used to go, it was a great victory.
Breaking the Power of Canceled Sin
Yes, it would be far better if there did not have to be any war at all. That will come. But until then, I thank God that he cancels sin at the cross and that he breaks the power of canceled sin and he does it sometimes through my Spirit-empowered will that fights with all its might, trembling, because it is God himself willing in my willing.