A concept is a general idea that encompasses a set of specifics. Another way of describing it is to say it involves getting the big picture of a topic by looking at many of its individual parts. Describing concepts often produces a set of terminologies that are used to simplify and clarify those concepts. This is a normal part of our communication process that all of us use every day. The terminologies thus employed are accommodative – matching a concept to our cultural setting. It is quite natural to develop accommodative terms to describe biblical concepts. For example, we use terms like “total commitment,” “discipleship,” “quiet time,” “sold out,” and “fired up” to express these concepts in the vernacular of our day. None of these exact terms can be found in the Bible, but they represent true biblical ideas. At least some of our conceptual terminology has developed in our attempt to correct previous terminology that has either been incorrect or misunderstood.
The phrase, “cooperation with God” is a phrase that I believe can be helpful in correcting a misunderstanding that has come about through an unbalanced emphasis in teaching. Obedience and obey are biblical terms, and we should therefore never quit using them. However, if not explained well in the big picture of man’s faith response to God, their usage can lead to a man-oriented, performance mindset in Christians. As a movement, we have not explained them clearly enough, nor used them in a balanced way, which has left many of us with a wrong view of our obedience. That in turn has left many of us with a consistent sense of either guilt or self-righteousness about our performance, and has not led us to the correct understanding, appreciation and response to God’s grace in our lives.
The way we have taught people to become Christians says a lot about our misplaced emphases in the past. In the “First Principles” study series, the word grace is used once – in refuting a false doctrine: “baptism is the outward sign of an inward grace.” Also, there is no mention of the love of God. The word love appears twice: (1) We must love Christ and (2) we must love one another. In God’s “first principles,” the Book of Acts, the word grace is used 11 times. In Jesus’ “first principles” statement of Matthew 22:37-40, he said that love for God and our neighbor were the greatest commands of the Old Testament (and by implication, I think, the whole Bible). In both our study series and our follow up series here in the Phoenix Valley Church, these emphases are solidly reflected. Our desire was to focus on God much more than on man, to use this God-focus to prompt our faith responses to him. In the introduction to the study series, the question “Why are we replacing the old study series?” was answered this way: “Primarily because the old series was too focused on man’s performance and not nearly enough on God’s grace as our primary motivation for serving him. Although thousands of people became Christians through the use of the old series, for which we are thankful, the new series will provide a much better motivational foundation to help keep people on a better track once they become Christians.”
Thinking about cooperating with God helps me put my obedience in the right perspective. My initial salvation, my continuing forgiveness of sins, my overcoming entrenched sinful tendencies in my life, my living a life that consistently reflects the Christ in me, and my perseverance are all beyond my ability as a sinful human being. As Jesus succinctly put it: “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Paul said it this way: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18). In our own power, we are pretty helpless; in God’s power, we are able to do amazing things.
Here is the real kicker – if you see your obedience as falling under your own power to perform, you will be well acquainted with failure and frustration; if you see your obedience as falling under God’s power to do in us and through us and with us that which we could never do on our own, you will be happy and blessed. It’s all perspective, isn’t it? The concept of cooperating with God helps me keep the right perspective in the matter of obedience. God is the One with the power – all power, by the way. In my response to him – my heartfelt, trusting obedience – I am simply trying my best to cooperate with him in order to allow him to do his thing in my life. I hope that is helpful to you; it surely is to me.
My hope is in God, not in myself. I have failed and sinned far too many times to trust in my power. But that same failure and sin has caused me to look up at him and to him more and more. The old adage, “God helps those who help themselves” appealed to me as a young man. As an older man, I would change the wording to “God help those who help themselves!” It is not a matter of whether we obey God’s teachings or not; it is a matter of how we view him and ourselves as we obey. Obedience is presupposed biblically for anyone who intends to please and follow God. But our trust as we obey is the fundamental issue. Are we trying to trust ourselves, or do we trust God and his grace in our lives?
Paul described this difference very well in Ephesians 2:8-10: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–  not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Once I would have used this equation to describe how we obtain salvation: “faith (man’s part) plus grace (God’s part) equals salvation. This leaves the impression that man’s part and God’s part are on equal or nearly equal ground. Nothing could be further from the truth. Man’s part is simply accepting the real deal, that which actually forgives and saves. Our obedience is God’s plan for us to show our trust in his power and grace rather than in our own power. So, it is not “faith plus grace” that equals salvation; it is “faith trusting grace” that turns the key to our hearts and to his. Our good works, according to Ephesians 2:10, are a result of his work in our lives. Said another way, this passage says that we don’t work in order to be saved; we work because we are saved. We cooperate with him and he works in and through us to the point that we can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
—Gordon Ferguson (March 2005)