Big Idea: How do we grow? We grow when God works in us. And we grow when we work out what God is working in us.
I’m really excited. Today we’re beginning a seven-week series that will take us right to Easter. It’s a series that’s unlike any other series I’ve ever done, because we’ve created content that will be delivered to you six days a week by email, and we’re going to pair it with coaching. We’re going to back up what we preach with as much help as possible to make this stick in your life. Our desire is that this will be a series that changes our lives and changes our church. I pray that we will look back and say, “That’s when we took a big step forward together as a church.”
I want to tell you how this all began. In 2011 Charlene and I attended a workshop in Green Lake, Wisconsin. It was a conference for ministry couples in transition. I had begun to sense God calling me to something different — which turned out to be church planting — and we were trying to figure out what God was doing and what our next steps should be.
At that conference I met an older pastor. He had planted a church that had grown quite large, and he’d just retired. I asked him what he was planning to do in his retirement. His answer shocked me. “I’m going to take about six months and try to figure out discipleship,” he said. He had ordered the books. He’d blocked off the time. Now that he retired, he was planning on figuring out how the church goes about making disciples, growing followers of Jesus Christ.
I want you to think about this.
- Imagine an accountant telling you at retirement that he wanted to learn addition.
- Imagine a retiring auto mechanic telling you that at retirement that he planned to learn about internal combustion.
- Imagine a retiring hockey player tell you that he wanted to learn how to skate.
For a pastor and a church to not make disciples is unbelievable, when you think about it. Someone’s said, “For a church to be deficient in its discipleship is to be deficient in its fundamental reason for existence.” (Transformational Discipleship). It’s like a doctor not knowing how to use a stethoscope, or a referee not knowing how to blow a whistle. It’s inconceivable.
And yet it’s also very understandable. It’s possible to run a church that looks successful, and fail at the very reason for which the church exists. It’s possible to hold church services and to run programs, but to fail to make disciples.
And so we’re going to take the next seven weeks — a relatively short time — to make sure we’re not failing at the very reason we exist as a church. We want to give you practical tools to build habits that will set you up for a lifetime of growth, and to work on this together as a church.
So today, as we begin, I want to ask a basic question that needs to be answered if we’re going to make any progress. How do we grow? If we’re going to grow as believers, how do we actually go about it? This is the very question that the retiring pastor was wrestling with. It’s the question that we need to wrestle with today as well.
Let me give you the answer in two points, and then let me give you a practical takeaway.
How do we grow? We grow in two ways:
God Works in Us
Look at Philippians 2:13 with me: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This is one of the most profound verses that we could look at today. There’s so much packed in this verse. I’ve known this verse off by heart for most of my life, but every time I look at it — and it’s only 16 words in the original — but there’s enough packed in here to chew on for weeks.
Let’s just highlight three things.
It’s God Who Works in Us
This is the great news. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, God himself is at work in you.
How do we change? God changes us. Before we moved to Liberty Village, we owned a house. Owning a house means one of two things. Either you need a lot of money to hire people to do work on your house, or you had better be handy and learn how to do it yourself. I remember the couple of times in the years that we owned the house that we needed to replace the roof. I ordered the shingles and the nails. I rented the dumpster. I had the ladders ready. The day that we began, I climbed up to the roof with my hammer, a crowbar, some shingles, nails, and not much else. But then something happened: my brothers showed up. If they hadn’t have showed up, I would still be up on that roof, or in the hospital after I fell off the roof. There isn’t a chance that I could have shingled my roof without help. I simply didn’t have what it takes to get the job done myself.
It’s the same in the Christian life. How do we change? We don’t have a chance of changing ourselves. The great news is this: God has shown up on the job site, and he’s very good at changing us.
In a very real sense, the minute that we follow Jesus Christ, God completely changes us. As the British preacher Charles Spurgeon put it:
In a certain sense, the salvation of every person who believes in Christ is complete, and complete without any working out on his part, seeing that “it is finished,” and we are complete in Jesus. Observe that there are two parts of our salvation, the one complete, the other as yet incomplete, though guaranteed to be brought to perfection. The first part of our salvation consists of a work for us; the second, of a work in us… The second part of salvation consists of a work in us—this is the operation of God the Holy Ghost. As many as were redeemed by the blood of Jesus, are also in due time renewed in the spirit of their minds. The Holy Ghost in regeneration descends into a man, and creates in him a new nature; he does not destroy the old, that remains still to be battled with, and to be overcome. Though the nature which the Spirit implants is perfect in its kind and in its degree, yet it is not perfect in its development.
The minute we become believers, we are forgiven, cleansed, and given new hearts. And in another sense, the work of working out that salvation is ongoing — and that’s God’s work too. How do we change? God comes into our lives and changes us. It’s God’s work.
In particular, God changes two things.
He Changes Our Desires
Verse 13 contains a very important idea. It says that God works in us so that we will for his good pleasure. Here’s something that was staring me in the face for all these years, but that I only really figured out a few years ago. God changes our desires. When God goes to work in our lives, he completely changes us from the inside-out. He changes us so that we desire and want completely different things.
If you’re like me, you may have mixed feelings about your desires. Desires are powerful. Our desires drive our lives. We get up out of bed every day because of one thing: desire. We get married, go to work, and set goals based our desires. Desires are, in many ways, the most important thing about us. “Desire is the powerful subtext of our lives. It determines our decisions. This is why we need to pay attention to it. If we are to change, desire must change” (Jen Pollock Michel).
If we’re going to change, our desires need to change. And that’s exactly what Paul says that God does. God changes our very motivations. When God comes into your life, he changes your heart so that you want different things than before. He changes your longings and wants and desires.
But that’s not all.
He Changes Our Actions
Paul goes on and says that God works in us so that we want differently, and so that we work for his good pleasure. God not only changes our desires, but he changes our actions. We not only begin to want to please God, but we begin to act in completely different ways as well.
I love how C.S. Lewis puts it:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
One of the most important things I can tell you today is this: we change because God changes us. If you are here today and want to experience change in your life, then don’t try to change yourself. You need God on the job. You need him to change your heart, your desires, and your actions. Following Jesus is about much more than forgiveness. It’s about new life. It’s about a complete renovation of who you are. God will come into your life and change the very core of your being.
How do we change? God acts in us. Come to him today and receive this complete transformation in your life. If you are a believer, you can rejoice that God is at work in your life. He has changed you, and he is changing you.
That’s the first thing that Paul tells us about how we change. Here, now, is the second:
We Change by Working out What God Has Worked
Up until now you’d think that we just have to sit back and allow God to change us. Let go and let God. There are people who believe this: that we just allow God into our lives, and then he takes it from there. We change, they say, because God is changing us. It begins and ends there.
Well, hold on, because Paul says something else that we can’t miss, and it’s in verse 12:
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…
According to Paul, we change in two ways. We change because God is acting in us. That’s the first part. But then we change by working out what God has already worked.
Notice what he says:
- “Work out…” — The verb is present imperative. In other words, keep working it out. This is something that we’re supposed to be doing every single day. It’s our ongoing responsibility.
- “…your own salvation” — In other words, we’re to work out the implications of what God has done in our lives. Each week we come to the communion table. We remind ourselves of what Jesus has done for us. He lived the life we should have lived. He died the death that we should have died. He took our place. He died as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. He removed our guilt and covered our shame. He was buried and rose again on the third day and gave us new life. He gave us a new heart that wants to obey us. He gave us the Holy Spirit to empower and transform us. All of this is God’s work, but we get the privilege of working this out in our life. Work out the implications of what God has done in every area of your life.
- “…with fear and trembling” — Don’t do this casually. Don’t be content with how far you’ve already come. Take this seriously. It’s something we need to take very seriously.
How do we grow? We grow when God works in us. And we grow when we work out what God is working in us.
John Ortberg compares it to crossing the ocean. If we set out in a rowboat by ourselves, we’ll never cross that ocean. We don’t have what it takes. But if we just drift, expecting God to blow us across the ocean, that won’t work either.
Neither trying nor drifting are effective in bringing about spiritual transformation. A better image is the sailboat, which if it moves at all, it’s a gift of the wind. We can’t control the wind, but a good sailor discerns where the wind is blowing and adjusts the sails accordingly.
God works, and then we work out what God is working in us.
A Practical Takeaway
Here’s the practical takeaway: We want to help you “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” I don’t want to retire one day and then begin to think about this discipleship thing. We want to succeed at the very reason why we exist as a church, which is, as Jesus told us, to make disciples.
Beginning tomorrow, we’re beginning a seven-week daily program that will help us build eel habits in our lives. If you’ve signed up, you’ll get daily lessons and weekly habits that will help you take practical steps to work out your own salvation. If you haven’t signed up yet, it’s not too late. We’ve got handouts that explain what we can do. We want you to join us in taking 15 minutes a day to read the lessons and to apply them in your life. It’s time to work out what God has already worked in us.l
You know, they invited a new word last year: athleisure. It means wearing clothing designed for workouts and athletic activities for other purposes that don’t involve working out. They say that way more people buy workout clothes than the number that actually work out. Apparently we like the workout look; we just don’t like the workout lifestyle or the workout practices.
An article in The Wall Street Journal quotes one buyer of athletic apparel who likes to wear yoga pants around town but who seldom has time to workout. She said, “When you put on your workout apparel, you think, ‘Huh, maybe I should think about working out today.’ ”
Friends, we have so much going for us. You’re part of a church. I hope you have a Bible. We have a reading plan. How about we work out today. How about we join together for the next seven weeks and work out what God has already worked in us. Are you in?
Father, we commit these seven weeks to you. May be build habits that help us work out what you’ve already worked in us. Change us, we pray. In Jesus’ name, Amen.