The Bible clearly teaches that God sanctifies. Moreover, it teaches that He does so indirectly, by medium of the word (John 17:17, 19). However, some believe that He also directly (miraculously) influences the heart and mind of man. Some believe that this influence is irresistible.
Let’s consider a few passages which are commonly cited…
God Works in You
Philippians 2:12-13, “…Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do His good pleasure…”
Work out your own salvation. “Work out” is present tense (continue to work out), middle voice (This is something that you are to do. It is not something done for you. Man is not passive in this matter), imperative mood (This is a command). Not all works are excluded from salvation. Meritorious works are excluded (Romans 4:4; Titus 3:4-5). Works of the Old Testament law are excluded for us (Galatians 2:21; 3:2; Romans 3:20, etc.). Man-made works of righteousness are excluded (Romans 10:1-3). Man is not saved by works of flawless, sinless perfection which needs no grace, mercy, or forgiveness (Romans 3:23 cf. 4:4-8). However, there are works which God requires of man (John 6:27-29; Acts 10:34-35; Philippians 2:12; James 2:24 26).
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. That is, be serious and conscientious about the Christian life. Fear being lost (Hebrews 10:31). Fear (respect) God (Psalms 111:10; Proverbs 1:7; 3:7; 9:10; 15:33; Isaiah 8:12-13 cf. 1 Peter 3:15; Matthew 10:28). Do not take your duties and responsibilities lightly.
It is God who works in you both to will and to do His good pleasure. This is a caution. Man should not be arrogant or puffed up over his work in the Lord, for credit really belongs to God. It is He, who produces the desire and activity in man.
The fact that God works in man is stated, but the “how” is not explained here. Some have read into this a direct operation of God on the heart and mind of man. Is such demanded by the text?
We know that God works in man through the medium of the word (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Steven Lloyd linked Philippians 2:12-13 with 1 Thessalonians 2:13. He wrote, “How is it that God works in us? …It is God’s word that effectively works in us and motivates us to do His will” (Lloyd, Coping: A Biblical Approach, pp. 64-65). J.W. McGarvey provides this bit of wisdom, “When an effect can be explained and accounted for by causes which are known to be present, it is illogical to assume a cause which is not known to be present” (McGarvey, Original Commentary on Acts, p. 203).
Led by the Spirit
Galatians 5:16-18, “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Some were still carnally-minded (Galatians 5:17 cf. Romans 8:6-7), and double-minded (cf. James 4:4, 8). They had not yet crucified the sinful passions of the flesh (cf. Galatians 2:20; 5:24; 6:14). They were trying to serve two masters. Such will not work.
Paul commanded them to walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). This is in the imperative mood (It is a command). He is instructing them to conduct their lives according to the teaching of the Spirit. There is not one item listed as “The Fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22) which is not taught in the Scriptures, and it is the Spirit which revealed this teaching.
If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Howard Winters commented, “To walk in the Spirit and to be led by the Spirit embrace the same concept. They both mean to be directed by the Spirit (and the Spirit’s direction today comes through the word of God, divine revelation) or to live for spiritual things. Spirituality is not just a single characteristic; it is a total outlook of life – what one is and how he lives, the totality of living by the things of the Spirit” (Winters, The Work of the Holy Spirit, pp. 191-192). The term “led” in no way implies a direct operation of the Holy Spirit, or an irresistible force (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:2; 2 Timothy 3:7). Remember that to walk in the Spirit is a command.
What is meant by “you are not under the law”? It is an ellipsis, meaning – “You are not under the condemnation of law” (cf. Romans 8:1; Galatians 5:23). It certainly does not mean than man is not amenable to law. If he is not amenable to law, then there could be no sin (Romans 4:15; 5:13; 1 John 3:4). Clearly, we sin (1 John 1:8). Moreover, many passages speak of our being under some law (Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:2; Jeremiah 31:33-34 cf. Hebrews 8:10-11 and 10:16; Galatians 6:2; Romans 8:2, 7; 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 9:21; Hebrews 10:16; James 1:25; 2:12).
Ephesians 1:15-20, “…I do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that God… may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened: that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe…”
Revelation was still occurring. “The Spirit of wisdom and revelation” refers to revelation through inspiration (cf. Exodus 28:3; Deuteronomy 34:9; Isaiah 11:2). The “knowledge” (epignosis) refers to greater, deeper knowledge. “This word translated “knowledge” (epignosis) goes beyond the ordinary word for knowledge (gnosis). Whereas the latter might simply indicate a knowledge of facts, the word Paul used indicates a full, complete and thorough knowledge” (Gary Workman, Paul’s Prayer, Spiritual Sword Lectureship: The Book of Ephesians, p. 18). It refers to “greater and more accurate knowledge… deeper and more intimate knowledge and acquaintance… the complete comprehension after first knowledge (gnosis) of a matter. It is bringing me better acquainted with a thing I knew before; a more exact view of an object that I saw before afar off” (Trench, p, 300 quoted by Marion Fox in the Work of the Holy Spirit, Vol. 2, p. 151). He wanted them to receive through inspiration a greater knowledge and appreciation of what God has planned for the saints.
How does God enlighten the eyes? The Bible teaches that He does so through the medium of His revealed word (cf. Psalm 19:7-8; Acts 26:16, 18). Where is the passage which clearly teaches that He enlightens any other way?
Strengthen With Might
Ephesians 3:14-16, “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father… that He would grant you… to be strengthened with might through His spirit in the inner man.”
Paul prayed that they be strengthened. This strengthening would be done by (dia, the means or instrument by which such would be accomplished) the Spirit. The effect would be in (eis, into) the inner man. Wayne Price has written, “Some would have the proposition ‘eis’ pale into nothing more than ‘in’ showing location. In their judgment, this verse informs us that the Holy Spirit is ‘in’ the inner man. This verse does not even address the issue of the Spirit’s indwelling whatsoever. Instead, it merely tells us that the Holy Spirit imparts a strengthening directed toward the inner man” (Price, The Spirit in the Inner Man, Hammer and Tongs, September – December 1997, p. 5).
The passage does not specify how the Holy Spirit strengthens. However, the Bible clearly teaches that man may be strengthened by medium of God’s revealed word (Acts 14:21-22; 15:40-41; 16:4-5; 18:23; 20:32; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2).
Revelation was still coming forth at the time Paul wrote this epistle to the saints at Ephesus (Ephesians 4:7-13). The Holy Spirit inspired the apostles and prophets to reveal the message of God (Ephesians 2:18, 20; 3:1-7). Foy Wallace, Jr. commented, “All gifts in the church with which they were endowed were to enable them (to) inwardly grow… as mentioned in chapter 4:8-16” (Wallace, Commentary on Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, p. 171).
One of the goals of Paul’s prayer was “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through (dia) faith” (Ephesians 3:17); or more literally through “the faith.” This likely refers to the system of faith, the New Testament. However, even if it refers to personal faith, it cannot be separated from God’s word, for “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). There seems no good reason to conclude that the Holy Spirit strengthens the inner man separate and apart from the medium of the word.
However, whatever one’s views – one thing should be very clearly emphasized. The Holy Spirit does not sanctify man with irresistible force (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).