Effortless Victory? – By Dr Roland Chia (Dated 14 Aug 2021)
Rev George Ong’s Comments:
After reading Dr Roland Chia’s well-written article (see below), you may wish to refer to my resources as follows:
Effortless Victory? – By Dr Roland Chia
The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy … The life of Luther might suffice to give a thousand instances, and he was by no means of the weaker sort … His very deathbed was not free from tempests, and he sobbed himself into his last sleep like a great wearied child.
These words were written by one of the most influential preachers in the nineteenth century, Charles Spurgeon. They are found in a sermon which explores the struggles of the servant of God, aptly titled ‘The Minister’s Fainting Fits’. The sermon describes the challenges that the minister faces as he seeks to faithfully obey God’s call.
But the sermon also alludes to the struggles of every Christian who wishes to honour and glorify God in his life and service. Victory is indeed assured to the Christian who presses on with faith and perseverance. But Christian victory is never achieved without effort and struggle.
The new antinomians, however, paint a very different portrait of the Christian life. They believe that once an individual has put his faith in Jesus Christ, his life will be always smooth-sailing. The Christian life is a walk in the park and the victory that the Christian experiences will be achieved effortlessly.
John Crowder poses a few provocative questions to bolster this erroneous picture of the Christian. ‘Does happy, effortless Christianity sound scandalous to you? Does a daily walk of joyful, sinless existence seem like an impossibility?’ If your answer to both questions is Yes – Crowder is here implying – then you need to change your understanding of how grace operates in your life. You need a new theology of grace!
Joseph Prince is another ardent advocate of the effortless Christian life. The triumphalism of the title of his book says it all – Destined to Reign: The Secret to Effortless Success, Wholeness and Victorious Living. Prince grounds his teaching on the victorious Christian life on what Christ has accomplished on the cross. The basic idea is since Christ has done everything for us on the cross, those who put their faith in him do not have to do anything to live victoriously. Prince writes:
Let the Holy Spirit teach you to start depending on Jesus’ finished work and to start receiving by his grace. This is God’s effortless way to success, wholeness and victorious living!
Later in the book, Prince provides what is surely his clearest statement on the basis of effortless victory. This is how he puts it:
Are you struggling to live the Christian life today? Your rest is found at the cross of Jesus. If you want to experience effortless success, then realise that it is no longer about you doing this or that right. It is about depending on what Jesus has done for you.
Let Go and Let God
Before we plough through the Bible to see if there are any Scriptural warrants for this teaching, we need to take a glance at the history of the Church and trace distant echoes of this doctrine. The wise author of Ecclesiastes has said: ‘What has been seen will be again, what has been done will be done again; and there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
He is right!
We turn firstly to the seventeenth century during which there emerged a movement in the Roman Catholic Church in Spain and France which scholars call Quietism. This brand of mysticism is associated with spiritual writers such as the Spanish priest Miguel de Molinos (1628-1696) and the French mystic Madame Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon (1648-1717).
As the name of this movement suggests, Quietism promotes an approach to the spiritual life which encourages Christians to passively (i.e., quietly) surrender or yield to the work of the indwelling Spirit.
Spiritual growth, according to Molinos and Guyon, is not achieved through struggle and strive, for human efforts would only hinder the work of God’s Spirit. Spiritual growth takes place when Christians merely allow God to transform their lives by passively surrendering to the work of divine grace.
Quietism seems to teach that when believers yield their lives in this way, Christ takes over and – as it were – ‘lives’ the life of the believer for him, granting him victory at every turn. The believer should never exert any effort in this spiritual quest but must simply put his trust in Christ to enable him to live a holy life.
Fast forward a few hundred years, we find the same line of thought in another movement – this time emerging from Protestant soil – that has considerable influence in evangelical Christianity. I am referring to the Keswick, Higher Life, Movement in the 19th century, whose origins can be traced to the publication of William Boardman’s book, The Higher Christian Life (1858).
The family resemblances between Keswick’s understanding of sanctification and Quietism’s portrayal of the Christian life are indeed striking. Keswick rejects human effort in sanctification, teaching instead that it is God who does everything in the believer. Sanctification is a gift, it teaches, and personal holiness is never appropriated by effort or struggle.
One of the most celebrated authors of Keswick, Hannah Whitall Smith, whose book The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life sold more than 10 million copies and is still influential in some evangelical circles today, writes: ‘Let me entreat you, then, to give up all your efforts after growing, and simply let yourselves grow.’
In fact, Keswick even insists that the believer’s efforts are offensive to God. They signal a lack of faith on the part of the Christian, a failure to appreciate what Christ has accomplished on Calvary. Furthermore, Keswick stresses that sanctification is not a process but an instantaneous event.
Keswick spirituality has thus been famously encapsulated in slogans such as ‘Let go, and let God!’ and ‘I can’t, he can.’
It is not difficult to join the dots and to show the affinity between these two movements in the history of Western Christianity and the teachings of preachers like John Crowder and Joseph Prince. And it is also no surprise that those who promote the spiritualities of associated with Quietism and Keswickism (like Guyon and Smith respectively) are mostly antinomian – they believe that the moral law of God has no place in the Christian life.
Some readers may not know this, but the late evangelical theologian J.I. Packer had once supported the Keswick movement. However, he very quickly rejected it because of its erroneous view of sanctification and the Christian life.
In his book Keep in Step with the Spirit, Packer gives this assessment and critique of the quietist spirituality of Keswick:
Passivity means conscious inaction – in this case [i.e., Keswick theology], an inner inaction. A call to passivity – conscientious, consecrated passivity – has sometimes been read into certain biblical texts, but it cannot be read out of any of them … The Christian’s motto should not be ‘Let go and let God’ but ‘Trust God and get going!’
Soldier, Athlete, Farmer
I trust that this brief excursion in Church history has been helpful. It shows that what the new antinomians are proposing is in fact not new at all. It has distant echoes and these past attempts have been evaluated and roundly rejected by theologians.
We turn now to the Bible, and I think it would be instructive to begin with the metaphors that the New Testament writers – chiefly Paul – use to portray the Christian and what they might teach us about the Christian life.
The NT of course employs a number of metaphors to depict the Christian (light, salt, branches of the vine, etc), but few are more relevant to this discussion than soldier, athlete and farmer. Happily, they are all found in one passage in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, his young protege.
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops (2 Timothy 2:3-6).
Although much can be said about each of these metaphors and what they can teach us about the spiritual life, for the sake of brevity I would like to highlight some of the characteristics they all share and explore their implications to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
The first characteristic is discipline. It requires discipline to be a soldier, an athlete and a farmer. The soldier must not only train himself to endure the challenges of war, he must also be fully dedicated to serving his country. Paul specifically underscores the soldier’s willingness to undergo suffering and hardship. As one famous Christian author puts it:
A soldier has to suffer. War is not a picnic. A soldier does not go out to enjoy life, to see the world, and have many wonderful experiences of adventure and travel, despite what the recruitment poster say … If warfare breaks out, it is going to mean he is faced with ugly, arduous, uncomfortable living.
Similarly, the athlete and the farmer must learn discipline. ‘All athletes’, writes the apostle in another letter, ‘are disciplined in their training … So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should’ (1 Corinthians 9:25-27).
Discipline is required of the farmer as well. He has to work hard in order to reap the benefits of the harvest. Farming requires diligence and effort.
The second characteristic is perseverance. The soldier, athlete and farmer must persevere if they are to attain their respective goals. The soldier must serve his country with unswerving dedication, the athlete must train hard in order that he can run the race successfully (2 Timothy 4:7-8), and the farmer must, in the words of the New Testament scholar, C.F.D. Moule, press on in his ‘strenuous and prosaic toil.’
A simple, but clear and powerful message emerges from these metaphors. Just as it isn’t easy to be a soldier, athlete or farmer so it requires discipline, diligence, hard work, sacrifice, and perseverance to be a Christian. In a word, the Christian living requires effort – lots of effort!
Our efforts are of course aided by the Spirit of God who empowers us. But they are nonetheless our efforts. It is the Christian who fights the good fight; it is he who runs the race. And as he perseveres in obedience, he will encounter many obstacles, opposition, set-backs and challenges which take focus, resolve and perseverance to surmount.
Paul movingly describes the challenges that he and his fellow apostles have faced in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12. Jesus himself did not have it easy but had to learn obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8). Neither the apostle Paul nor our Lord experienced the ‘effortless success’ that Prince and his fellow antinomians seem to enjoy.
Make Every Effort
These metaphors also make it quite clear that the Christian life can never be lived passively. Neither can we say, together with writers associated with Quietism or Keswick, that it is Christ who lives our lives for us.
But this is exactly what the new antinomians are teaching. Christians can experience effortless victory in their lives because Christ does everything for them. All they need to do is put their faith in him – he will do the rest! This teaching is clearly articulated by Joseph Prince in his book The Power of Right Believing. Consider these words:
The transformation you will experience, when it is not based on your own discipline and self-control, is truly effortless. It is no longer, “How will I overcome this anger problem?” Or “How will I beat this cigarette addiction?” Or “How will I curb this habit of overeating when I am stressed and insecure?” Instead, it becomes, “How will Jesus in me overcome this anger problem, this cigarette addiction, this habit of overeating?” The fruits of your success will be effortless.
To put what Prince is saying here in the language and idiom of Keswick: ‘You don’t need to struggle to overcome your problems or to experience transformation. Just let go and let God!’
But this is obviously the exact opposite of what the apostle Paul teaches. Time and time again Paul exhorted the Christians that he wrote to not to be complacent, but to make every effort to live their lives in such a way that God is honoured. For example, in Ephesians 4:3 he writes: ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’ And in Romans 14:19 he exhorts the Christians in Rome to ‘make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.’
In 1 Timothy 6:12, Paul exhorts young Timothy to ‘Fight the good fight of the faith’. The Greek word that is translated as ‘fight’ in English is agaonizou (transliterated). It is the word from which English words like ‘agony’ and ‘agonise’ are based. Thus, the Christian life is a fight: it is a striving, an agonising and a struggle. It is not a relaxing cruise.
All this is summarised poignantly in Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he writes: ‘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 in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:12-13).
God is certainly at work in the Christian. But that does not mean that the Christian life is effortless. The Christian must co-operate with God. He must put in the effort and work out his salvation in fear and trembling.
Herein lies the problem with the new antinomians’ understanding of the Christian life or, to put it another way, their doctrine of sanctification. They understand sanctification one-sidedly only as the work of God. The Christian plays no part in this process.
To put this in technical language, their understanding of sanctification is monergistic (mono is Greek for ‘one’, ergasia is Greek for ‘work’).
The Bible, however, teaches that while regeneration is monergistic, sanctification is always syngeristic (syn means ‘with’ in Greek). This means that in sanctification, the Christian works with God even as the Holy Spirit transforms him into Christlikeness. This is the teaching of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin.
In 2 Peter 1:5, Peter exhorts the Christians in Asia Minor to ‘make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue …’ The apostle was writing to Christians who have been made spiritually alive (regenerated, born again) by the Spirit of God. Yet he urges them to make every effort so that they can progress in their walk with God.
Peter did not exhort the recipients of his letter to simply ‘let go and let God’. He did not recommend a spirituality that is characterised by passive resignation – ‘I can’t, he can.’ He did not say that progress in the Christian life is effortless (Joseph Prince). And Peter certainly did not say that it is Christ who will do all the work for them (Joseph Prince, again).
On the contrary, Peter exhorts them to ‘make every effort’ to live their lives for God’s glory. Commenting on this verse, the great sixteenth century Reformer John Calvin writes:
As it is an arduous work and of immense labour, to put off the corruption which is in us, he bids us to strive and make every effort for this purpose. He intimates that no place is to be given in this case to sloth, and that we ought to obey God calling us, not slowly or carelessly, but that there is need for alacrity; as though he had said, “Put forth every effort, and make your exertions manifest to all.”
The doctrine which says that we can live our lives victoriously as Christians without putting in any effort at all is biblically erroneous and dangerous. It will lead to spiritual sloth. It will result in a careless and cavalier attitude towards our relationship with God. And for those who are genuinely struggling with sin, it will only bring about frustration and despair.
Dr Roland Chia
Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine
Trinity Theological College
Theological and Research Advisor
Ethos Institute for Public Christianity