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After a person is born again (John 3:7), he becomes a Christian, where he spends the rest of his life progressively transforming into Christlikeness. We call this progressive sanctification—a process that we never perfect though we’re always changing. The lifelong process of progressive sanctification is an inside-to-outside operation, a reliable and straightforward way to think about how we live. Of course, different camps posit their perspectives on how our ongoing transformation happens.
Another way to think about the passive obedience crowd is a “sitting and soaking” method for change. This movement has been picking up steam the first part of this century because of a “gospel transformation movement.” Everyone is talking about the gospel. We live in a gospel-hyphenated world. Some of this “gospel talk” has focused too much on the internal, e.g., preach the gospel to yourself every day. Though this is a good and needful language in our Christian culture, some sectors have created unintended negative consequences because of this hermeneutic.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).
There has not been enough clarification about what preaching the gospel to yourself should mean. Passive obedience is the act of believing God and, based on your ability to trust Him, will be the proportion that determines your obedience, purity, and transformation. According to this view, sanctification is primarily about believing in the Lord.
In a very good sense, they are correct. All of our growth flows out of our belief in Him. There is no other place from which we can derive our transformation. Everything we do in life flows out of what we believe about God, even if a person is an atheist, agnostic, unbeliever, nominal Christian, seeker, new Christian, growing Christian, or mature Christian. All of us live out our theology—our personal experience with the Lord, regardless of what that experience may be.
The more time you spend with your Bible and your God, meditating and reflecting on Him while building a robust, sound, and comprehensive theology, the more profound your sanctification will be. There is no reasonable argument against this. I have counseled hundreds of people whose lives were dysfunctional, and without exception, there was always something wrong with their internal, personal relationship with the Lord. They did not practice passive obedience. These attributes did not describe them—things we all should say.
If those things are not happening, you are not passively obedient. The animating center of your life should be a growing, wild, rugged, satisfying, reciprocal relationship with God. If you are not incrementally heading in that direction, please stop and turn around because you are going the wrong way.
Some folks love the passive obedience teaching so much that they scoff at the notion of doing something, per James 1:22. They will say it’s the gospel plus nothing equals salvation, and the gospel plus nothing equals our sanctification. This type of sloganeering is poor communication. In our effort to make a memorable point, we dip our toes into theological hyperbole.
Nobody disagrees (or they should not) that our salvation and sanctification are all of grace. For by grace, we are saved and sanctified. But you don’t want to forget that we are to add stuff to our passive obedience, i.e., be doers of the Word. Of course, we know that we can only do these things because we find our empowerment from God’s kind grace to us. It’s an empowering favor.
If our obedience is not active, we have no way of putting Jesus on display in our culture unless we walk around, letting our little light shine through our teeth. Standing on a street corner makes us no different from the next person who stands there. We are to be different from our culture, which means we must do things. We take our passive obedience and externalize it into objective actions that transform us into being Jesus to our neighbors.
At the end of most of my articles are “call to action” questions or CTAs. I hope the reader will do more than pray about what they just read. Mental reflection is good, but activating your faith with clear, specific, and practical action items is better. How many times does a person “like” something on a social media platform and move on to the next thing? That process is neither passive nor active obedience. One social media curse is that we don’t take the time to entrench anything into our long-term memories.
There is a war going on in our souls, in our relationships, and in our world. While the teaching of 2 Corinthians 3:18 is excellent and needful, there are scores of Scriptures that talk about the need for working out our faith (Philippians 2:12). The recipients of Paul’s letters (Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, etc.) found themselves entangled in all kinds of things, and he appealed to them about how to overcome their sin problems. Paul’s solution was knowing God (passive), but there was also an active element that he gave equal time to in his letters.
An excellent example of this is the book of Ephesians. The first half of the book (three chapters) talks about God, who He is, what He has done, how He thinks about us, His overall trustworthiness, and the multifaceted benefits of His great salvation. These three chapters should always be clearly understood when we talk about obedience because God is our foundation. As important as this is, and it is, Paul did not stop his teaching. He then gave us a three-chapter call to action that began with Ephesians 4:1.
In chapter four, Paul launches into applying the gospel, as mentioned in the earlier chapters. There is no doubt from reading these passages that sanctification is hard, active work. There are things we must do to mature in progressive sanctification. Paul urged his readers to walk in a manner that is worthy of the calling. Rather than saying all we need to do is believe, we should say,
Because of the great love in which He loved us, we are motivated and empowered to obey (walk) Him in all ways and, thus, we work out our obedience by doing things.
This statement is better for gospel sanctification, which puts the gospel first, foundational, and fundamental. The gospel comes before our obedience (Ephesians 1-3), and it’s because of the gospel that we are motivated and empowered to obey (Ephesians 4-6). A wrong view of passive obedience teaches:
The only thing to think about and the only thing to put your energy and resources into is a belief, and if you do this, you are not going to fail. And if you do fail, it proves you do not believe in the Lord the way you should.
Passive obedience undersells and weakens our views on temptation, sin, the enemy, and our depravity. This person does not see the proportional responsibility to do stuff. Our obedience is more contoured than just a belief system or our identity or how we think about the Lord. Carefully think through these “active belief statements” to examine how your life reflects them in your day-to-day affairs.
This list continues. You will find many “calls to action” in the New Testament, which does not imply that salvation is works-based. The gospel is the foundation of our salvation and our sanctification. Any response to the gospel is only because of the Lord’s unmerited favor that enables us to respond and do these miraculous things.
Here are four examples of people who need more than belief in God. These illustrations come from my life narrative. They were times of crisis. I needed more than a “trust God” mantra in the moment of each of these tragic circumstances. Yes, I know that “Jesus has me,” and I will be okay ultimately. But when a crisis comes, I need more than “Jesus love me! This I know.”
In each of these illustrations, I had to do more than trust God, believe in Him, and rest in Him. This process was more than a mental mind game of shaking myself until my belief was strong enough to keep me from sinning. Many years of wrestling with God and repenting from sin against others helped to bring my soul back to Christian normalcy.
The most vital key to your sanctification is for your obedience flowing from a heart that is “head over heels” in love with Christ. If a deep affection for Jesus does not energize your soul, your works could be rote—legalistic. If you have a profound love for God but are not mobilizing it into objective obedience, your impact on your sphere of influence will be nil.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).