He Finishes What He Starts
Some projects are hard to finish. I am in the middle of painting my house interior, sanding down a second-hand dining table, and refinishing our deck. I have been in the middle of some of these stalled projects for over a year. Life gets busy, things come up, and important projects do not always retain their important status.
You are a project to God, and God is better at finishing His projects than I am. Paul wrote to the Philippian congregation in verse six of chapter one, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
In one sense God’s work on you is already done, because when Jesus said, “It is finished,” He meant it. When someone repents and is baptized or returns to the faith of their baptism, they are by declaration forgiven and complete in Christ. This already-completed work has nothing to do with how mature a believer is, but has everything to do with who Jesus is, because His righteousness is declared to be ours by faith (Romans 3:22, 4:24). The work is done. This is for your comfort.
These words from the Augsburg Confession summarize the Scriptural teaching on God’s already-finished work in you: “In the first place, our works cannot reconcile us with God or obtain grace. Instead, this happens through faith alone when a person believes that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who alone is the mediator to reconcile the Father” (AC XX 9). We are reconciled with God through faith in Christ—the work is done!
But in another sense, God’s work on you is a continual process. While justification is a declaration, sanctification is a process. God the Holy Spirit is always with you during the process of sanctification, but even more than that—He is the one doing the sanctifying! He began the good work in you, and He will bring it to completion. Our salvation is by God’s grace from beginning to end.
Giving God the complete credit for saving and sanctifying us is the teaching of Holy Scripture. But our flesh still grasps for some credit. It is natural to look for sufficiency in our own efforts, but our sufficiency is from God (2 Corinthians 3:5). God started the work - God will finish the work - God gets all the glory.
If we can’t take credit even for our sanctification, is there anything for a Christian to do? This question naturally follows the sweet Gospel of God’s work in us apart from our merit. Even the Apostle Paul anticipated a similar question after writing the first five chapters of Romans. Yes, there is plenty for the Christian to do. Resist sin! Do good works! Repent and believe the good news!
In the June 2014 editorial in The Lutheran Ambassador, Pastor Robert Lee reminded readers that Christians do not cooperate at all in our conversion from spiritual death to spiritual life. After quoting Ephesians 2:5 he quipped, “What part of ‘dead’ don’t we understand?”
But when writing about the believer’s role in sanctification, Pastor Lee said, “Find a copy of the Book of Concord, if you don’t have one, and read the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, Article II [especially paragraphs 63-68]. Yes, we cannot cooperate in our conversion, for we are by nature dead. Yet we can and must cooperate after conversion in the works that the Holy Spirit performs through us. Even so we do so in great weakness. This cooperation is not from our carnal and natural powers, but from the new powers and gifts which the Holy Spirit has begun in us in conversion, and so our reborn wills are not idle. It is the identical balance of truth that we find in God’s Word when it commands us ‘to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,’ and then continues ‘for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:12-13).”
We certainly have work to do! Our newborn wills are not idle! In Christ we are new creations and the Holy Spirit empowers us to grow in love for God and for our neighbors. But as we cooperate with God in our sanctification (see also 2 Corinthians 6:1 where Paul uses the word cooperate or “work with”), we still give Him credit for what is being done in us. Our cooperation is done in great weakness because of our clinging sinful nature, so we still must rely on God working through us. If we begin to find our comfort according to our progress in sanctification, then the warning of 1 Corinthians 10:12 is for us, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
So we confess sin and rest in God’s daily mercy toward us in Christ. We rest in His work of justifying us by declaration and His work of sanctifying us continually. Resting in God’s work is what will produce good works in us for the benefit of our neighbors. Again, from Augsburg Confession Article XX paragraphs 35-39 on faith and good works:
“...This teaching [justification through faith apart from works] should be praised for teaching the performance of good works and for offering help as to how they may be done. For without faith and without Christ human nature and human power are much too weak to do good works: such as to call on God, to have patience in suffering, to love the neighbor, to engage diligently in legitimate callings, to be obedient, to avoid evil lust, etc. Such lofty and genuine works cannot be done without the help of Christ, as He Himself says in John 15:5, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
My projects at home are stalled, but God’s work in you is ongoing and will certainly be brought to completion when Christ returns. When you feel as though God’s work in you is stalled like my interior painting project, repent! When we confess sin and believe in Jesus for our forgiveness, God is sanctifying us. God will cause fruit of this repentance to bear, and that’s good news for you and for your neighbor. Rest in His work as you get to work, because it is He who is at work through you (Philippians 2:13).