What does serving by the strength of God mean? How do I do it? And how am I to work in such a way that it is God’s strength in me?”
I think this is just about the most fundamental question you can ask about how to live the distinctively Christian life. How do you live so that it is not you who live, but Christ who lives in you? How do you exert yourself and make resolutions in such a way that you are not relying on your exertions and your resolutions, but on the supernatural work of the Spirit of God in you?
The text that Jacob is focusing on — one of my favorites for ministry — is 1 Peter 4:11, which says, “Whoever serves, as one who serves by [or in] the strength that God supplies.” So there’s the command, and Jacob is just saying, “Please help. How do you do that?” What a mystery, what a miracle that is. We serve, but we serve by the strength supplied by another. “How?” Jacob asks.
Of course, this is not the only text that presses this huge issue upon us. There’s also Romans 8:13: “By the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body.” So we are to do the sin-killing, but we are to do it by the Spirit. How?
And we have 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 work for his good pleasure.” So we are to work, but the willing and the working are God’s willing and working. How? How do we experience that?
And 1 Corinthians 15:10 says, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” So Paul did work hard, but his effort was in some way not his. How do you do that?
And then there’s Colossians 1:29, where Paul says, “I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” Wow. We toil, we struggle, we expend effort and energy — but there is a way to do it so that it’s God’s energy, God’s doing. How?
So there it is. It’s a pervasive issue. It’s fundamental. It’s right at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. I wish everybody were asking this question. In 1984, J.I. Packer, who has gone to be with the Lord now, published his book Keep in Step With the Spirit. I really enjoyed it. I remember reading it the year it came out. In it, on page 125, he gives his answer to this question. I’m going to read you his quote, just one paragraph.
First, as one who wants to do all the good you can, you observe what tasks, opportunities, and responsibilities face you. Second, you pray for help in these, acknowledging that without Christ you can do nothing — nothing fruitful, that is (John 15:5). Third, you go to work with a good will and a high heart, expecting to be helped as you asked to be. Fourth, you thank God for help given, ask pardon for your own failures en route, and request more help for the next task.
Well, I was 38 years old when I read that. I had been a pastor for four years, and what thrilled me about his answer to the question — “How do you do this, Packer? Tell us, how do you live this life in the strength of another?” — is that he spelled out exactly what I had preached the year before on March 13, 1983. I called it APTAT, an acronym:
- A: Admit you can do nothing.
- P: Pray for supernatural help.
- T: Trust a specific promise about your situation.
- A: Act; use your will; move.
- T: Thank God.
I was just blown away that, the year after I wrote APTAT, I found in my favorite theologian just about a duplicate of what I was thinking. I thought, “I’m not quirky here at all. This is just old-fashioned.” He calls it “Augustinian sanctification,” or something like that.
But the difference between my APTAT and Packer’s paragraph is this: he barely mentions my middle T, to trust a specific promise about your situation that you’re about to walk into. You can hear that he means and believes it — of course he does. You can hear it in his third point, but it’s almost lost. He says it this way: “Third, you go to work with a good will and a high heart,” and then he says, “expecting to be helped.” I say yes, exactly — that’s faith: expecting to be helped according to your request for help.
But I think there is still a difference because it’s a matter of emphasis. I think this middle T — admit, pray, trust, act, thank — is so crucial. I wrote a whole book about it called Future Grace. That’s a four-hundred-page book on T. We need a book for every one of those letters, but for me, it was so huge for it not to get muted in other points that it got blown up in Future Grace. So that book was really about the middle T, to trust a specific promise when you’re facing a situation that causes you uncertainty or anxiety or fear.
And I think that step of T — trust in a specific promise — is missing in most Christians’ attempts to live the Christian life. It’s certainly my most common mistake. Most of us face a difficult task that makes us anxious, and we remember to say, “Help me. Help, God. I need you.” So we more or less reflexively express the first two steps, A (admit helplessness) and P (pray for help). But then we move straight from admit and pray to act. We pray, and then we act.
But this robs us of a very powerful step in walking by the Spirit, walking in the strength that God supplies.
After we pray for God’s help, we need T. We should remind ourselves of a specific promise that God has made, and fix our minds on it, and put our faith in it. I wish I did it absolutely consistently because it’s so precious when you consistently do it. How many times have I said, “I believe you — I’ve got myself a promise”? Like the promise of, “I will help you, John Piper.”
“We should remind ourselves of a specific promise that God has made, and fix our minds on it, and put our faith in it.”
For the promise of help, I go to Isaiah 41:10 specifically: “I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” And I say, “I believe you. I believe you. Right now, I’m walking into this pulpit. I believe you, walking onto the stage. I believe you, walking into this difficult conversation I’m going to have down here at Maria’s. I believe you right now. This promise is true. Help is on the way. Increase my faith. I’m trusting you, Lord. Here I go.” And then you act.
Now Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:7 that “we walk by faith,” and he says in Galatians 2:20 that we “live by faith.” But for most of us, this remains vague. I walk through the day like, “Yeah, I guess I’m a believer.” Of course, I’m a believer as I walk through the day, but am I believing anything specific about God, anything specific about what he’s going to do in the next half hour that I’m struggling with?
Hour by hour, we need to do this. We do it by reminding ourselves of specific, concrete promises that God has made and Jesus has bought with his blood. As 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “All the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus].” We consciously trust the promises that we have, and we act on them.
So here’s my suggestion to Jacob for how to put this into practice. Read the Bible every day, always on the lookout for specific promises God may want to give you for that very day, but don’t lean only on the Bible reading for the day. Memorize a few promises that are so universally applicable to every situation that they will serve you when you face a task to be done in the strength that God supplies. Then as those tasks come, go through APTAT:
- Admit you cannot do this on your own — not fruitfully, not with any eternal significance.
- Pray for the help you need.
- Call to mind one of your memorized promises and trust it. Put your faith in it.
- Act, believing that God is acting in you and through you according to his promise.
- Thank him.
“Read the Bible every day, always on the lookout for specific promises God may want to give you for that very day.”
Here are a few of my go-to promises day by day. I suppose the most common one over the last fifty years is Isaiah 41:10. In this verse I hear God talking. I hear Jesus say, “I bought this promise for you, John: ‘Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you [in the next half hour], I will help you [in the next hour], I will uphold you with my righteous right hand [in the next day].’ I will. Do you believe me, John Piper? Do you believe me?”
Oh, what a difference it makes when you have a concrete word from God, from the Scriptures, and you believe it as you walk into a difficult, trying situation. Another promise I lean on is Philippians 4:19: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Every need. No question. What you need, you’ll have. Go.
Or Hebrews 13:5–6: “‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” Man can’t do anything to me except what God at my side omnipotently permits him to do because he loves me.
And foundational for every one of those promises I’ve written down is Romans 8:32, which says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all [that’s the foundation of absolutely everything, that Christ died for me], how will he not also with him graciously give us [that includes you, John Piper] all things?” What a great promise to walk into every situation with.
So never cease to ponder Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” There’s that switch — no longer I, but Christ. And then he explains it: “And the life I now live” — oh yes, you do live a life — “in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” So not I, yet I by faith. And I’m simply saying, make it specific by putting your faith in a particular, precious promise.