Count the letters carefully: effort is not a four letter word. Even those who believe in blood-bought, Christ-wrought, undeserved, sovereign, gospel grace do not despise effort in the Christian life. How can we? 2 Peter 1:5 tells us to “make every effort.”
Of course, anyone familiar with this passage will remember that the effort enjoined by Peter is God-graced effort. Verse 3 says we have divine power through “knowledge of him.” Verse 4 says we can become “partakers of the divine nature” through “his precious and very great promises.” Verse 5 harnesses these twin turbines of Spirit energy when it says “For this very reason, make every effort.” In other words, Peter holds up a pattern of godliness–increasing faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. This pattern relies on gospel power. And the gospel-powered pattern requires effort.
It is the consistent witness of the New Testament that growth in godliness requires exertion on the part of the Christian. Romans 8:13 says by the Spirit we must put to death the deeds of the flesh. Ephesians 4:22-24 instructs us to put off the old self and put on the new. Ephesians 6 tells us to put on the full armor of God and stand fast against the devil. Colossians 3:5 commands us to put to death what is earthly in us. 1 Timothy 6:12 urges us to fight the good fight. Luke 13:24 exhorts us to strive to enter the narrow gate.
Christians work–they work to kill sin and they work to live in the Spirit. They have rest in the gospel, but never rest in their battle against the flesh and the devil. As J.C. Ryle put it, the child of God has two great marks about him: he is known for his inner warfare and his inner peace.
Obviously, even when we work, it is never meritorious. Our effort can never win God’s justifying favor. In fact, whatever we manage to work out is really what God purposed to work in us (Phil. 2:12-13; cf. Heb. 2:11). The gospel is truly the A-Z of the Christian life.
But let us not misunderstand what it means to be gospel-centered. As gospel Christians, we are not afraid of striving, fighting, and working. These are good Bible words. The gospel that frees us from self-justification also frees us for obedience. In fact, 1 Corinthians 6 and Galatians 5 and 1 John and Revelation 21 and a dozen other passages make clear that when we have no obedience to show for our gospel profession, our conduct shows we have not understood the gospel.
God did not tell the Israelites, “Work hard and I’ll set you free from Egypt.” That’s law without a gospel. Neither did God tell them, “I love you. I set you free by my grace. I ask nothing more except that you believe in this good gift.” That’s gospel with no law. Instead, God redeemed the people by his mercy, and that mercy made a way for obedience. Gospel then law. Trust and obey.
Let us not make the mistake of Keswick theology with its mantra of “let go and let God.” Justification is wholly dependent on faith apart from works of the law. But sanctification–born of faith, dependent on faith, powered by faith–requires moral exertion. “Mortify and vivify” is how the theologians used to put it.
When it comes to growth in godliness, trusting does not put an end to trying.