Commandments and Our New Identity, Part II: Sons of Self-Effort or Sons of Promise


In Genesis 15, God speaks to Abram and says “I am your shield and your exceedingly great reward. Abram says, “What will you give me, seeing I have no children? At this point my servant Eliezer is my heir!” God then reiterates the promise made to Abram in chapter 12 of making him a great nation, with descendants as many as the sand and stars. Abram faithes in God, and God counts Abram’s faith as righteousness. But then God says, “I’ve brought you from Ur to give you this land as an inheritance.” And Abram pulls a Gideon on God: “How do I know this is true?”

So God makes a covenant. Animals are killed, and the pieces divided, and normally both parties would walk between the divided pieces, amidst the blood, to make a covenant together.

But God puts Abram to sleep, and walks the covenant alone. He was making a point; this was to be a one-sided promise, God keeping his word, not based on whether or not Abram fulfilled his side of a contract. It was a covenant of grace to Abram which did not depend on Abram’s performance, the promise of an heir.

In the very next chapter, ten years later, Abram and Sarai are getting impatient. They’ve waited ten years and are getting older. So they decide to help God out on keeping his promise, through their own thoughts, ways, and effort. Sarai suggests that Abram go into the tent with her servant Hagar, and a child is born, Ishmael, the child of their own effort, their own striving to help God fulfill his promise.

Years later, when they are long past childbearing age, God speaks to them again and reiterates his promise of a child. In doing this, he is saying, “Ishmael is not the one I promised.”

Fast forward. Isaac is born, and grows from baby to child. Sarah sees Hagar’s son Ishmael taunting Isaac, and says, “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the free woman.”

When Paul wrote the epistle to the Galatians, a very similar circumstance was happening. The Galatian children of promise, born by faith, were suddenly caving in to the idea that they were to add self-effort rule-keeping to reliance on Christ. Paul says, “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Theny were adding rule-keeping, human effort, to reliance on Christ. Paul goes on to tell them, “…the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” In chapter four he digs into Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, and their children; he says, “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.” Later he goes on, “….what saith the Scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free. Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” He ties the self-effort of Abram and Sarai, striving to attain God’s promise by their own effort, with the believers in Galatia, who were believing they had to add their own human effort to help God out on his unilateral promise in Christ.

What is this yoke of bondage we’re to avoid? It is to use our human effort (Gal 3:3) in the pursuit of being accepted, justified, sanctified, or glorified before God. We began by relying on the Spirit, who revealed Jesus Christ to us. Are we now going to be make ourselves holy by our effort (even combined with God’s help)?

Are we eating from the wrong Tree, like Adam and Eve? Are we bringing the fruit of our works to God, like Cain? Will we strive by effort to help God fulfill his promises, and produce our own Ishmaels? Will we try to do it our way, like Saul? Will we begin with wisdom and end with futility, like Solomon? Do we begin by reliance on Christ as our redeemer and then introduce our own effort to “be like Christ?” Does a tree branch strain to produce fruit after it is grafted into the tree, or does it just sit there and rest in the Vine?

We are to continue the same way we began – by reliance, by faith, by trust. If the Spirit of Christ dwells in you, you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit. We’re to walk according the Spirit, trusting his life in us, seeing him working in us, knowing him as our life, our source of every virtue; he is the power of easy conquest over every temptation. That’s the branch in the Vine.

Do we in our human effort, with God’s help, have to keep the commandments? The Pauline answer is “No.” If we abide in Christ, trusting his life in us, will he cause us to walk in his ways and keep his statutes? Absolutely. By reliance/trust/abiding, the fruit of the Spirit is expressed in our lives.

Should we read and meditate on the commandments? Of course. Reading the whole Bible, not just a few favorite passages, is a prerequisite to getting our minds and hearts in tune with the Eternal. But as faithers in Jesus Christ, who now lives within us, we have a new identity – new creations, holy, beloved, accepted, one spirit with the Lord. We are sons of the Kingdom. The commandments tell us who we really are, and if we are relying on Christ within us, the fruit that comes is love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, humility, and faith. Everything we need for life and godliness is given to us in Christ, not in our human effort, striving to be good. Christ is our indwelling righteousness, and in the end, he will get all the credit, not us. Our focus as the Christ-indwelt is to faithe in that Power within us and expect him to cause us to walk in his ways, and keep his statutes. Pressure off the human vessel; pressure on God within the vessel.

“There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.” (Hebrews 4:9-10). A branch doesn’t try to grow fruit. It just sits there up in the tree.

Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


  1. James Witmer


    I like how you succinctly traced the thread of faith from Abraham to present day. I especially appreciate how, after tying a knot to anchor the discussion, paragraph nine

    Are we eating from the wrong Tree…

    weaves in and out, showing how our stories reflect the greater theme.

    Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”

    He didn’t say, “If you love me, then keep my commandments.” Obedience follows love as surely as fruit follows flower.

    I would love to read a follow-up article about what believers should do when our love is weak:

    When the deepest desire I can find in my heart is not to love God but to tell off my neighbor – what then?

    When my identity as a child of an invisible, inaudible King feels vaporous and unsatisfying compared to worldly distractions – what then?

    When I want to sin, just for a little while – what then?

    Many Christians would say this is the time to cling to the commandments – by effort, if all else fails. But that’s trying to have it both ways.

    Well-meaning heretics might say this is the time to sin freely, so that grace can abound. But Paul disagrees.

    Where, then, can we turn?

    Note: I am not at sea in this question. I believe I understand what Scripture says, and it’s beautiful – though maddeningly elusive apart from the Holy Spirit. But this part of the discussion is discussed little (as far as I know) and it would be encouraging to see some more good writing focused there.

  2. Ron Block


    James, yes, application is next in the series (I think). And yes, maddeningly elusive apart from Holy Spirit – impossible to understand. This is where Reason, alone, fails.

  3. Loren

    Thanks for making that re-connection for me of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael with what Paul states in the New Testament. So often I remember the whole picture in vague bits and I forget those beautiful specifics where a New Testament author takes an event from the Old Testament and points out truths for us in Christ. This is a great example as to how God is the same in both Old and New–His promise hasn’t changed, and how He works in us still rests on faith, not works. Great reminder and encouragement. Thank you!

  4. Matthew Benefiel

    Thanks Ron, it is nice to get a reminder of God’s grace to us in a world of madness (or so it seems on the surface). This is an important doctrine, one that we all come to grips with. My father grew up in a very legalistic society where if you did “this” and “that” you were a christian, and he has said it still drags him down to this day. Through christian fellowship he has been learning that the law wasn’t given to us to keep perfectly, but was given to us to show us how desperately we need a savior, which is where your wonderful summary comes in. My father told me a few weeks ago that he is finally learning that in order to follow God, to live as we ought, we have to dwell in Christ as each and every moment (using the means of Grace of course). The law still comes into play to show us when we stray from Christ and push us back, that is why we hear David in the Psalms say so often how he loves God’s law and how me meditates on it all day long. God’s statues are our heritage forever indeed. Thanks for posting.

  5. Margret

    Thank you, Ron; thank you so much! I love this; seriously, absolutely love this! It reinforces what I’ve learned as I pondered Margaret Becker’s song “Just Isaac”, the 4th cut on her Air CD. (She’s been a favorite of mine since I said “yes” to the Lord in late ’88/early ’89, sometimes because her songs seemed to describe just where I was in my walk, other times because she so wonderfully brought Scripture passages to life.)

    I know I don’t have the punctuation right and hope I’ve not impinged on copyright laws, but I just have to share a small portion of that song’s lyrics as I believe it echoes (and confirms) exactly what you’ve explained:

    “Complications and Ishamels: why couldn’t I believe that You’d be faithful? You’ll have Your way, either way, with all my extras or just plain Isaac, nothin’ more…just Your promise, not my forced crude hands helping out, adding stuff ’til it crashes down to just Isaac….”

    God bless you, God bless her, and all of Heaven’s best to each of you!

  6. Ugly Biscuit

    Hey Ron, quick side step:

    I just read in the CD jacket of Gabe Dixon’s new offering where he said that he got to meet Alison Krauss’ wonderfully talented bluegrass band. I’m assuming that means you as well. Isn’t Gabe talented. I really like him alot.

    Gabe didn’t give Jesus a shout out in the ‘Thank you’ section of the jacket. But he did give a warm greeting to Dave Barnes. I wonder if Gabe knows Christ personally?

    Just an out-loud pondering…

  7. Tom Murphy

    Ron, great job in tracing the metanarrative of the Gospel’s redemptive history from the covenant with Abraham and Sarah to the New Covenant in Christ! I love your writing. So theologically rich, yet so earthy and understandable.

    Have you ever read much from Ed Clowney?

    His writing is great material for artists as they build the Body up in teaching through their song writing and a great resource to point others toward. He emphasized the Christocentricity of the entirety of the Scriptures in his teaching at Westminster. Deep, but great reading…

    I’m of the persuasion that we, as a Church, should be equipping our artists with the same breadth of understanding as our teachers and pastors. To preach, or creatively write, apart from a Christocentric narratival perspective just doesn’t convey the unfathomable richness of our God!

    Thanks for your depth of song writing, your discipling of other artists in the Body, and your encouragement of we merry few in the Rabbit Room!

    Preaching Christ In All the Scripture

  8. PaulH

    Thanks for this Ron. If you ever find time on your hands, feel free to write a book or two on your observations. I would buy it.

    I think this applies and hope it adds commentary to what your post said.
    I am re-reading The Ragamuffin Gospel.

    I am still and always will be deeply touched by the illustration of the dinner table Christ invited the losers to have a meal with. The religious are criticizing Him for not following what is proper of a rabbi or a Jew for that matter. Sitting at a table together back then meant “You are my friend”

    How would it feel to sit at a table with the Messiah, who knows every sin I made, every dark secret of my life, all my current motives and sorry excuse of my discipleship walk with him and He still looks at me with forgiveness and love.

    That kind of love moved me from legalism to loving grace living.

  9. Ron Block


    Paul, yes. Jesus loves because he loves. I think those who know their need, like the prodigal, are much easier to deal with for God than the elder brother.

    We do sit at the table with him, every day. “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” That is the union we have; close, intimate contact with the God who loves us. He knows all our secrets, knows our troubled past, knows our struggles in the present. What he wants from us is a constant facing of him in every moment – to live out of the eternal Fact of our union with him, his Spirit in us, every moment of every day.

  10. Africa S

    Hello Mr. Block, I greatly enjoyed reading this post. I agree with the first poster who appreciated how you weaved the Old Testament with the New, as well as facing some of the issues we are faced with today when we are “eating off the wrong tree”.

    I laughed when I read this line;

    “So they decide to help God out on keeping his promise, through their own thoughts, ways and efforts.”

    It seems a bit ridiculous when you put into perspective. Imagine us humans trying to help God- a perfect, Holy being- keep his promises through our actions and efforts. Unfortunately, as crazy as that sounds, it is what millions of misinformed Christians do every day. I say misinformed because many people are programmed to the legalistic mode of thinking that God’s promises to us are taken as rules to live by. And at some point, through our own fleshly striving we can be “Christ-like”. For some reason many people believe that we have to earn our place in heaven. Instead of seeing it as the gift, presented to us by the Giver of all.

    When, then- if we go by that legalistic mindset- will we ever experience what it is like to live a life not lead by our own good works and human effort, but lead by the creator of the universe, who sent his son to die and not just pay our debt, but send His Spirit to dwell inside of us and provide for each of us an overflowing well- an always available source of everything we would ever need to live a life of godliness?

    The reality is that I can try to be Christ-like, and exhaust all of my strength and time on a “try-fail-repent” existence. Say, for example, if I were to be faced with a situation where I have to love someone who has wronged me. Knowing that I am short-tempered, I can prepare myself and try with all my might to not be upset and say something harsh to that person. Of course in that situation I will fail. Maybe not always, but it’s never a consistent sure fire way to subdue the temptation to engage in angered speech to another. No, when it comes down to the wire I am faced with a choice. I can choose to try, fail and repent. Or I can call upon the magnificent, perfectly loving, perfectly patient indwelt Spirit of my soul to spring forth and flourish, shining though my weak human frame and casting His light onto others, thus expressing the love that God has for me, to everyone around me.

    I always love explaining the commandments to others. Not that they are rules to follow, but rather promises to us by God of what we will encompass in live throughout our lives. When inhabited and fully lead by His Spirit, these commandments become somewhat of a checklist. (Or at least that is how I think of it). For instance, I consider these questions; Do I love with the love provided to me by God- so much so that I am fully devoted to Him so that no other idol may come before Him? Check. Am I satisfied and grateful for what has been provided to me in my life that I do not covet the possessions of others? Check. And I go down the list. These things are accomplished and put into constant practice when we abide in the perfect Spirit within us to thrive and not be the DO but the DONE.

    When we stop looking at ourselves as these dirty, good-for-nothing sinners, and instead turn to the light of God and accept our real identity as his beloved children then we can be the vessels, the cups meant to be filled wholly by his Spirit so that it is no longer us who lives, but Christ that lives in us. No longer the old men, but the new ones born and finding nourishment in the Spirit of the Lord, our God.

  11. Tom Murphy

    Good Morning Ron,

    Just thought I would shoot you a line and let you know how much you have blessed me and those that I am walking deeply with in community in Dallas.

    As a means of Biblical Counseling Through Song, I’ve used “There is a Reason” and “Living Prayer” from AK/Union Station in meditating on aspects of suffering with Christ as our hope. “There is a Reason” always connects to the brokenness that we are walking through together, lifting our eyes to Christ.

    In fact, I am actually doing a prayer retreat with some friends from Texas in Colorado the same weekend AK/Union Station is at Red Rocks. We are catching the show as we drive to the retreat center. Heading to the center on Saturday and Sunday for prayer, meditation, silence, and solitude interspersed with confessional community.

    If you’re traveling with that show and available to meet for coffee sometime on Friday or Saturday morning, I would love to hand off an Ed Clowney book that has some treasures in it.

    Unfortunately, I won’t be at Hutchmoot this year. I wasn’t one of the Six-Hour Clan at-the-ready with my mouse/credit card this year ;(

    Email is if you want to catch up…I would love to hear your wisdom and counsel with regard to BCTS if you have the time to chat.

    Hope this finds you well Ron! Grace and Peace…

    P.S. – Here is some early fruit from an artist, Caroline Cobb Smith, from Tyler, TX I am walking with to develop some of the material for the concept. She is an exceedingly wonderful budding songwriter and musician. Trying to work with a solid producer for her next album of songs, thematically taken from the Scriptures. It will be a Redemptive Historical “Meta-Narrative” album tracing the strands of redemption from Genesis to Revelation…

    Isaiah 53

    Jeremiah 31


    Scripture to Music Collective Vision

  12. Paul Hutchinson

    Hi Ron.

    I remember discussing this stuff with you before (back in response to a post about “Preaching the Gospel at All Times”). I love what you’re saying about grace and the covenant, but I guess I’m not sure about all this aversion and antipathy to “effort”.

    I totally get what you’re saying, and appreciate the time (and effort?!) you’ve taken to say it, but I would tend more to agree with Dallas Willard:

    “Grace is not the opposite of Effort.
    Grace is the opposite of Earning.”

    Blessings 🙂

  13. Ron Block



    When I play banjo, the worst thing I can do is try to play banjo. What I mean is that if I start from an attitude of fear – like many believers have at the root of their self-concept – and then by my striving try to force myself to play well, there is an essential tension that puts a cap or lid on my ability, especially in terms of lithe and facile action. I have theorized about this experience like this: A lie at the root induces fear. Fear causes a desire to control the outcome. The desire to control brings self-effort, striving, trying. Self-effort induces tension. Tension puts a cap or lid on ability.

    A runner does not run by tensing up and trying to run. He loosens up to run his best; he runs from rest, not this tension-filled self-effort. The best musicians I know are totally loose and free.

    So in regard to the Dallas Willard quote, I respectfully but wholeheartedly disagree. I do think it true that “Grace is not the opposite of doing.” But we do not live by fleshly effort; we live by faith, by active reliance on an indwelling Person who is available here-and-now, inside us.

    Back to my banjo playing illustration. If I am walking out to play a show and have the inner attitude, “This is going to be awesome,” trusting the God who made me to do this, who formed me and created my abilities, and my history which developed said abilities, I will likely have a good show. When I turn from that, and work from self-effort, strain, and striving, I don’t play worth a dang.

    The truths I write about have all been tried in real-time through a process of trial and error. They are not theoretical. They’re also Biblical, but not relegated merely to the intellect and disassociated from action.

  14. Tom Murphy

    Ron, couldn’t agree more. The same is true within a counseling context as well. Non-Spirit led counseling is a train wreck.

    Great observations Paul! The essence of effort is defined by what drives it. All goes back to the motivation of our hearts. Resting and abiding in Christ is the “work” of the Gospel, empowered by the abiding Spirit of Christ in us. All other work is a fruit of Christ abiding in us.

    1) Are we doing out of a mere sense of duty or self perfection?


    2) Do we pour out our lives (Isa 58:10-14) out of love and thankfulness as a response of Grace received (2 Cor 9:6-15)?

    C.J. Mahaney coined a term awhile ago to define the Biblical balance as “Grace-driven Effort”. Below are some ponderings by my pastor, Matt Chandler. I haven’t had time to reflect over all of these deeply, but I thought it might further the discussion.

    Grace Driven Effort

  15. Paul Hutchinson

    Hey Ron.

    Yeah, I get what you’re saying. I totally agree with you when you say “we live by faith, by active reliance on an indwelling Person who is available here-and-now, inside us”. I also know the value of centred stillness in all kinds of activity, whether that activity be sport, running a business, or playing the banjo.

    (I am also interested in your use of the word “active” in that first sentence!)

    But it does seem that your starting point is that “effort” is a thoroughly dirty word, with inevitable associations of “vain striving”. But not everyone has the same negative connotations when they use the word “effort”. If I said to a trained runner that “trying to run” or otherwise putting any effort into her running was a waste of her time, I’d expect her to be pretty confused!

    So I respectfully submit there are other ways of thinking about the word “effort” which are also good and biblical – i.e. being inspired in our effort by the lavish grace that God has shown to us, and always coming back to that as the starting point of whatever we put our effort towards. (Knowing that whatever our efforts might or might not accomplish, they could never EVER make God love us more, or love us less).

    e.g. Hebrew 12:14 “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy”

    Romans 14:19 “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification”

    2 Peter 3:14 “So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him”

    Again, I’m not wanting to be contentious – simply to show that there are other ways of approaching the word in question.
    Blessings! 🙂

  16. Paul Hutchinson

    Crossposted with Tom Murphy – thanks for your comment Tom 🙂

    Yes, that’s what I’m talking about – “Grace-driven Effort”.

    I think I might prefer the phrase “Grace Inspired Effort” though.
    (But maybe that’s just because “Driven” is on my own “dirty word” list!)

    Blessings 🙂

  17. Jim Denman

    Amen Paul! The idea that effort, in and of itself, is somehow a negative term, is just not biblical (as the scripture references you have posted show). Paul’s point over and over, is that our efforts have no part in our justification before the Father. It is true that the motivation for our efforts, should flow from our love for the Lord and His acceptance of us, not from a fear of rejection, or trying to earn a place in His kingdom. After all, right after Ephesians 2, verse 8 and 9, comes verse 10. “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works”. Lord bless!

  18. Ron Block



    The effort in question is self-effort. Self-directed activity; the idea that “I am an independent self who must exert his will to do good by effort.” Even if we add “with God’s help” we are still saying we are independent selves who can do good and avoid evil – that we can be like God. That’s the lie of the Serpent.

    Paul said he agonized, worked. That’s effort. But this work came from the divine energy in him which energized him like dynamite. It wasn’t Paul pulling the hard plow of the Gospel; it was Christ within Paul who was the energy source.

    The point of the article, i.e., Ishmael, is that they were trying to help God out on keeping his promise by their own ways, their own thoughts, their own means.

    Any self-directed activity, no matter how religious it looks, will be burned in the end. Our own righteousness is as filthy rags. God is not interested in any righteousness we can generate by self-direction, self-improvement. God is interested in his Son, Jesus Christ; that life is now within each believer, ready to be fully operational if we rely.

    On the phrase “active reliance,” I do not mean faith plus our works. I do not mean that we just trust God in some general way (“we’re going to Heaven, Jesus paid my sin-debt” and then go out to do works.

    Active reliance. That means taking one of God’s statement about Reality. Let’s say we are in a situation which requires love for an enemy. I know from hard experience that I can’t do that by my own steam. But the one thing I can do is trust that Christ within me is perfect love for enemies. I take that in real-time and apply it: “Lord, you love so-and-so. You are in me, one with me. Therefore, in you, I say I love so-and-so, with your love. I am trusting you right now to cause me to abide in you and cause me to really experience your love for so-and-so.” The active part is what we do after saying that. We then step out into the waters of the flooding Jordan expecting God to keep his Word.

    What it doesn’t mean is faith in Christ to get me to Heaven, then I add my works.

  19. Ron Block


    The other thing is, I don’t show God my appreciation for his grace by then going out and trying to be good. I show God my love by trusting him. I am saved by grace through faith; I am justified by grace through faith, and I am sanctified by grace through faith. It is by faith from first to last – reliant trust that steps out on thin air.

  20. Ron Block


    Jim: we have talked about these things before. But sanctification, as well as justification, is by grace through faith, not through our own human will power or self-effort. It is by faith from first to last.

  21. Jim Denman

    Ron-I realize that our entire relationship with our Lord stands and operates by grace through faith. My point was that, in Galatians particularly, Paul continues to hammer the point that we are justified by faith and not by our self effort. While I agree with the heart of what you are saying, it is, as Paul H said, your aversion to effort that bothers me. I agree that “in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing’. I agree, that it is the Spirits work in us to cause us. Where I think we start splitting hairs, is where our faith initiates our actions. That moment in time where the Spirit is prompting/speaking or directing us to act in a given situation. You would say that you consciously think about the fact that Jesus lives in you and that He can do this. My response is a little different but I believe in essence the same. When the Spirit leads/prompts or speaks to me about something, my response is to do what He says (when i am obedient of course) because I love Him and have committed to live by His word. In my response, is an ever present, acute awareness, of the this well established fact: without Him I can do nothing!

  22. Ron Block



    I think this is the main difference in what we are saying to one another. I see myself as a unity, most of the time, of God and man, God coming to live in me by grace through faith, and God operating through me trusting God lives through me, as if it were me living. I don’t see myself as having the God tell the me what to do, and then the me having to do it. I work out the salvation that is Christ in me outward, for it is God who is willing and acting in me according to his good pleasure. I don’t see a separated “I” that has to do. I see my doing as coming from Christ.

    When I fail, it is because I have temporarily forgotten this true nature in Christ, and instead think of myself as a separated “I” that has to be good.

  23. Jim Denman

    Ron- The balance I see is “without me, you can do nothing” coupled with “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me”. The realization that without Him I can’t……….with Him, I can! If I understand what I hear you saying from the many discussions we have had, you have a problem with saying that “I” can do anything, even with Him. I believe that Paul shows us the balance on this issue by affirming that in his flesh, he can do nothing, and yet, makes other “I” statements about his ability to be victorious through the power of the Spirit. These “I” statements presume upon the fact, that it is only through His power that we walk in His ways.

  24. Ron Block


    Jim. I think where we agree is that the Christian life is meant to be one of victory and power, not one of lying down saying, “I’m such a wretched sinner but Jesus died for me so I’ll just keep sinning till I die.” My point is that the human container or branch contains absolutely no power to do any eternal good. We can look good, we can be good in a worldly sense, we can give to the poor and such, and yet have it benefit nothing from the eternal (that is, the only truly important) point of view. It is only as we abide, that is, as we rely, trust, faithe, or whatever we want to call it, that the life of Christ is manifested in these mortal cups, poured out wine for the world.

    So our self-concept is crucial. Our cupness – weakness, inability – we have to know that as a foundational fact. That the branch produces fruit by abiding, resting, trusting in the Vine, and not by trying to squeeze fruit out by self-effort.

    When we abide, fruit production is a joy.

    Just as when I am taken up with music, engaged in it, playing is a joy. If I am striving to play, it is drudgery just like anything else. As a teen and in my early twenties I operated in my music from desire; I did not do it from discipline, but because I loved it.

    If we are taken up with seeing Christ within ourselves, seeing him living in us, relating to him, loving him, faithing in him, then fruit production is a no-brainer. The focus for the branch is on the Vine, not on striving to produce fruit. His yoke is easy, his burden is light.

    I see what you are saying, though. The life of Christ must be manifested or it does no eternal good for others. But good actions can spring from different sources. Only those springing from one Source will last eternally.

  25. Africa S

    Mr. Block, I love that you relate your musicianship with your faith. Your examples of playing the banjo, for instance. When you think and try try try, you are more likely to get caught up in it. I have the same experience.

    I love playing guitar, and I find that when I am focusing on doing a bass run here, or bending a string there, I basically self-destruct. However, when I am experiencing the joy of just playing along, and letting any added things flow with it, it makes for a much more enjoyable and better time.

    The same is also true with my faith. And it varies, but say if I am trying to do something and I’m putting forth all of my fleshly effort, I crumble. Of course, at the end of my experience I always return to what’s important- that is, re-establishing my trust and reliance on the Spirit living within me. I think it’s always important to do a kind of “reset” after a setback. Usually, if that happens to me, I pray that now with my quick reprogramming, and trusting in God the next time something happens it is not I who is exterting effort, but God manifesting Himself in me so that it is effortless. Finding peace in the knowledge that God is working his will fully, also makes life a lot more enjoyable.

    Also I find that when my actions are a product of my abiding of the Spirit within me, there isn’t the same process of try try try. Sometimes when I am being reliant I do things and I realize after the fact that, no it didn’t take my own effort- it was God’s goodness within me, shining through. I have welcomed him into my heart, and like the A. W. Tozer prayer, have Him “Work his Will in my life, no matter what the cost.” To abide in Him to live through me, trusting that with him doing so, no matter what happens, it is what is inside of me that matters. And that brings me peace.

    Other times it is a matter of stepping back and simply saying “God, I am an empty cup, please fill me fully with your Spirit.”. And it is amazing how I am instantaneously put at ease.

    Something that I have heard recently about “effort” is that the abiding and trusting and whatnot requires a massive amount of it. That we have to work and work, to achieve those things.

    I would say that it requires faith. I know people who only believe in what they see with their own eyes, having very little faith in what is not seen. Those people strive and strive, and I’ve found that they have a harder time in life in general. But in stepping out in my own faith I’ve realized that the trusting and abiding and such come along with it. And even more so when that abiding is played out as I am relying on the Spirit dwelling inside of me. Then it’s not just trust, it’s love, patience, peace and so on.

    Just my own experience, and from what I have observed and been told from others around me.

  26. Jim Denman


    I agree with your tie into music. My experience has been much the same. I never had to be told to practice the banjo when I was learning as an early teen because I loved it. I couldn’t wait to get home from school and play it.

    I understand what you are saying about abiding with the result that fruit is produced and the joy of serving the Lord in this manner.

    On the flip side of this, I don’t think that our experiences in this walk are always so utopian. I think there are times that we do serious battle with our flesh. We fight within our selves to do what pleases the Lord and not ourselves.

    Sometimes I find myself agreeing with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:27: “I beat my body and bring it into subjection”. I think this aspect of walking the faith walk is where I see gaps with what I have heard you say. I believe these words of Paul imply effort and struggle. I agree with your perspective, but I think it only covers part of the life of faith.

  27. Ron Block


    Jim –

    The answer is always to reconnect by faith. When there is a battle, we apply to headquarters for the necessary supplies. That headquarters is inside us, in Christ.

    There are times of intense opposition, yes. But the answer isn’t to engage our human will and effort to overcome – ever. That’s the road that leads to Romans 7 and sin.

    Also, I don’t battle with my flesh – my soul/body. The soul feels things. The body wants things. If I believed “I am my soul and body; that is Me” then I would have a problem on my hands.

    But I am really spirit, indwelt by Christ’s Holy Spirit, having and operating from a soul/body. Now, this soul/body is a part of me, but it is not the deepest “me” of me. Spirit is.

    When I am in a battle, the last thing I do is try to get control by my effort. The first thing to do is recognize that if there is a battle, there is an enemy, and the enemy is engaging. Secondly, that the enemy is not me, or my flesh.

    My job as a son of God is to see – to see, and to faithe, and step out in faith that what God says, he will do. He says he will cause me to walk in his ways; I say, “Ok, great, Lord, get to it. That is what you are doing, right now.” The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord. We are his workmanship. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live, I’m living by the faith of the Son of God.

    We labor, yes. But it is a faith-labor to enter his rest, a labor to stop seeing ourselves wrongly and start seeing that God has effected a complete and total salvation, which will be consummated at the end when our glorified bodies are manifested.

    If I do anything of any lasting, eternal good, it is not my work. It is his, through me, as if it were me. Not an independent “me” having to listen to “the Spirit” and then do what the Spirit tells me, although there is some truth in that illustration of slave/Master. But the other illustrations – branch/Vine, cup/Wine, wife/Husband, etc, all show various aspects of our relationship to God. Dependent on this love-union with Christ to have him flow from us like water from the Rock – whether struck or spoken to.

  28. Jim Denman

    I appreciate your words and can say a hearty Amen to much of it! Anything that I do of any eternal value will only be because of Him! Bless His precious name!

    I would however, disagree a great deal with this statement: ” Secondly, that the enemy is not me, or my flesh.” I am of the opinion that the biggest battle I fight is with my flesh!

    Yes, Satan is our enemy and is at work seeking to kill, steal and destroy. I realize this. I also realize that Jesus said “I have given you power to tread on serpents and scorpions. I also am aware that Paul tells us that we wrestle not with flesh and blood, but principalities, powers etc.

    But James gives us an insight when he says, in chapter 1: 14-15, that “each one is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust and enticed. And when lust hath conceieved, it brings forth sin, and sin when it is finished, brings forth death. His point is that it is our own evil desires, not Satans or someone elses, but our own, that get the sin process started.

    The whole issue of choice (as weve discussed before) comes into play here and I believe this is where the real battle lies. This is where I would say one needs to know, and focus on the fact that you are spirit, yes, but that your flesh is a very real and relentless opponent to living the life the Lord has called us to. When Paul says he beats his body and brings it into subjection, I believe he is speaking of this battle between flesh and spirit that wars within a child of God.

    I was glad to see you make this comment: “..although there is some truth in that illustration of slave/Master.” It was good to see that you do acknowledge the slave/master analogy as having some truth although you prefer to focus on the other illustrations of branch/vine etc, I think the key is to accept all of the truth that the scriptures present, so we can have a complete and balanced picture of what the Lord is showing us.

  29. Tom Murphy

    Jim, I think Ron would whole heartedly agree with that the problem that we have is rooted in the flesh, however our evil desires are also part of “the flesh”. Just be careful that you don’t fall into the Gnostic trap of “spirit is good” and “our bodies are evil”.

    Thanks everyone for the robust dialogue over the source of our strength. Thought Psalm 46 would add to the discussion since we are talking of the battle with our flesh, which includes our natural evil desires and idolatries.

    To give a little context to “Be still and know that I am God” of Psalm 46:10. It is set within a military context. In other words, the way that we are to fight (spiritually speaking) is by remaining still (dying to self, abiding, faithing, etc…) as God goes before us and vanquishes our enemies, bringing all things under His gentle gracious and loving Reign.

    In fact, Paul proclaims in Romans 8:37-39 that we are “winning an overwhelming victory”. This gets translated as “we are more than couquerers”. In essence, Christ beckons, “I have won the battle! Now, come, go with me and fight” The core of our fighting is by proclaiming the overwhelming victory of our King, to act as ministers of reconciliation, loving our enemies to the death.

    Psalm 46:11

    [11] The LORD of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.


  30. Tom Murphy

    On the flip side Jim, I do believe that we are our own worst enemy. In fact, when I am able to see myself most clearly, I am entirely self destructive as the desires of the flesh overwhelm me at times (read – often).

    Apart from the Spirit residing within me, beckoning me to live from my new identity in Christ, there is nothing good within. Thank God the power of sin and the old man has been vanquished by Christ.

    Psalm 51:15-17 makes this entirely clear by David’s acknowledgement in Psalm 51 after his debacle with Bathsheba, Uriah, Nathan, and his deceased son. When given an opportunity to proclaim the righteousness that God desires, He says:

    Psalm 51:15-17

    [15] O Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.

    [16] For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.

    [17] The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

    The sacrifices that God abhors, in verse 16, are those that we bring to Him the we think make us right in His eyes. The only rightful sacrifice is Christ, broken and poured out, offered by Grace and received in faith at table…He, the perfect Passover meal and the bond and unity of our faith.

    Rather, God is after sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise, namely, our broken spirits and contrite hearts as an affectionate outpouring from our new hearts of the Grace we have been given by Christ.

    The essence of “contriteness” is acknowledging our guilt (which is real and deep), but pleading with the Father for His mercy.

    His mercy, of course, is Christ’s willing condescension, life, obedience, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to the Right Hand of the Most High, where He pleads for us – continually.

  31. Ron Block


    Here’s the deal.

    I don’t believe the flesh – the soul/body, taken as a unit – is evil or bad. It is not meant to be in control. Jesus Christ had a flesh – a soul and body, as well as a spirit. He was tempted in all ways, as we are. But his soul and body were controlled by the Spirit.

    So my flesh is not the enemy. I am a new creation – holy. For me, that is end of story.

    If we are tempted, as James says, there is a Tempter. Our desires are used as starting points. The devil entices our strong desires and tempts us to fulfill them in sinful ways.

    There is no desire that is wrong in and of itself; every desire has a right fulfillment and a wrong one. Sex is not wrong; it is misuse of it that is wrong. Pride is not wrong; let him that boasts boast in the Lord. Ambition is not wrong in and of itself – I can be ambitious for others to know Christ. This is true of any desire – even greed (the desire to be powerful).

    So – my starting point is Christ. He has made me a new creation. He has made me holy and dearly loves me. He has saved me not only from sins penalty, but from sin’s power.

    The only power the devil has is deception. If we don’t know who we are in Christ, we can easily be deceived.

  32. Jim Denman

    Tom- No problem with falling into the Gnostic view regarding spirit good/flesh bad. When God finished His creation, He said it was good. It is not that flesh, material world etc. is evil, but there has been a train wreck called sin that has entered this existence down here. Paul speaks of creation groaning and travailing to be renewed. He speaks of longing to be clothed with this new body that awaits us.

    It is absolutely true that Messiah has reedeemed us completely; body, soul and spirit. However there is this element of “now, but not yet” that comes into play. Everything; me, you, this planet has been reedeemed by Jesus awesome work. But as the author to Hebrews writes “everything has been put under His feet” but we don’t yet see that reality.

    Our salvation is complete, but is also a process. We are holy in Christ, but we are learning to walk out that reality. The verse that Ron quoted from Hebrews is a good example: “There remains therefore a rest (a Shabbat) for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.” (Hebrews 4:9-10). While it is true that we find rest in Christ, the real thrust of this verse is speaking of a yet future event. Until Messiah returns, there will be a battle raging within between flesh and spirit. We are more than conquerors through Him that loved us, but we are not home yet. We rest in this promide; “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world”.

  33. Fellow Traveler

    Interesting. Ron’s getting a little Dantesque here–read the _Purgatorio_ and you’ll see what I mean.

  34. Ron Block


    A relevant quote from the great devotional Streams in the Desert, quoting A.B. Simpson, spiritual predecessor of A.W. Tozer:

    “Let us quite understand what we mean by ‘temptation’. You, especially, who have stepped out with the assurance that you have died to self and sin, may be greatly amazed to find yourself assailed with a tempest of thoughts and feelings that seem to come wholly from within, and you will be impelled to say, ‘Why, I thought I was dead, but I seem to be alive!’ This, beloved, is the time to remember that in temptation the instigation is not your sin but only the voice of the evil one.”

    “When I sin it is no longer I…” Romans 7
    “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy…” Jesus.

  35. Ron Block


    Here is another quote, the converse of the last, from the sequel to Streams, Springs in the Valley:

    “The greatest thing that any of us can do is not to live for Christ but to live Christ. What is holy living? It is Christ-life. It is not to be Christians, but Christ-ones. It is not to try to do or be some great thing but simply to have Him and let Him live His own life in us; abiding in Him and He in us, and letting Him reflect His own graces, His own faith, His own consecration, His own love, His own patience, His own gentleness, His own words in us, while we ‘show forth the virtues of Him who hath called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. This is at once the sublimest and the simplest life that it is possible to live.” Mrs. Charles E. Cowman, Springs in the Valley

    “Not I, but Christ.” Gal 2:20
    “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus.

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