Grace-Driven Effort: How We Obey When We've Hit Wit's End
Sermon Passage: Hebrews 12:12–17 | Preached to SGF | 1-31-2021
By Peder Kling
Obeying When We're at the End of Our Wit
Throughout our study in Hebrews, we have seen an overwhelming emphasis on Christ’s ministry to us—and, how his ministry ought to fill us with a sense of confidence or assurance in our salvation. He ministers to us. Our salvation is ultimately dependent upon his ministry to us, not our ministry or service to him. And, the more you press into his faithful ministry to us as our high priest, the more you should be able to rest easy and assured in his sacrifice, and his ongoing help to you through his Spirit.
But passage for today reminds us that Christ ministry should not simply give us this assurance in our salvation. His ministry to us should stir us up into obedience and holiness. And, I really do mean obedience—not just when you feel like it, not when you are having a really good day.
Our passage begins with a command that might make you feel a little bit uncomfortable. “Lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees”. This is an obedience when you are at the end of your wit—when you have reached a point where you say “I cannot do this”. Perhaps your too exhausted—you’ve finished a long day of work and you have to come home and rejoice over your family like God calls you to. Or, perhaps you’re just being selfish. You might know someone who struggles to wake up in the morning. You say, “time to get up! Time to work, love your family, make breakfast!” To some people in an early morning selfish slumber, those words feel like poison to their soul. They don’t have the wit—the will—to fight their flesh, jump up of bed, and joyfully meet God’s mercy of a new day. Perhaps you have a struggle with the flesh like that—anger, laziness, pride, the fear of man. And, the fight gets long and hard. “Strengthen your weak knees, time to obey and do the right thing!”, our passage tells us in these moments. “Lift up your drooping hands and your weak knees”—and verse 14, “and strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord”.
How do we obey when we are at wit’s end?
The answer is what one minister calls grace-driven effort (or grace-driven obedience). That is—all our efforts and obedience need to be driven by grace. Christ’s ministry doesn’t assure you that God loves and saves you so that you can sit back and relax. It assures you of God’s love and salvation so that you would work and obey joyfully to him as your Lord; with him being your strength and motivation in a day’s work. Paul himself even spoke this way—" I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” That’s what we want to say, at the end of the day, because we worked by faith in God’s grace, with “grace-driven effort”, even when we were at the end of our wit.
Today, we are going to first understand what grace-driven effort is, and why it’s behind this command to “lift up our drooping hands”, and “strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord”.
Then, we will see two ways grace-driven effort pursues holiness—specifically, as individuals and as a church.
1. What is Grace-Driven Effort?
So first, what is grace-driven effort? Of course, it’s a particular kind of effort or obedience that is driven by grace. Let’s first think about the effort, here, as it is described in our passage.
Our passage begins with the words, “Lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” That’s a fantastic picture of the effort we are seeking in grace-driven effort. Just think about this picture with me for a moment.
This is the picture of someone who is beyond physically exhausted. When you run too much, what happens as you get tired? Your form begins to crumble. It gets hard to keep pumping your arms as you are running, and to keep picking up your feet. And as your form gets worse, it gets harder to run in a straight line, your legs and ankles might begin to give out, and you may end up hurting yourself. So, the best thing to do when you are tired is to focus on your form, and let your form do the work. That’s why you often hear coaches yelling at their athletes at the end of a race, “Back straight! pick up your feet! Keep pumping your arms Eyes forward!” You’ll hurt yourself if you don’t. That form is important—it won’t let you down.
It’s the same thing in the Christian life. Focus on your form—on what keeps you moving forward and enduring through the hardest trials or temptations. And, what might that proper form be for Christian endurance? Well, if you were listening earlier, it’s really quite simple. Chapter 12 verses 1 and 2—“let us run with endurance… looking to Jesus”. Remembering Jesus, considering him and trusting him. The proper form you are seeking in Christian endurance is faith in God’s grace—keeping your heart and mind, your affections and treasures fixed upon Christ and his grace.
At the most fundamental level, this is the effort in grace-driven effort. And you might think this sounds easy, right? But then, so is running—until you get tired. This world is quite exhausting to the Christian, isn’t it? It’s distracting, its perverse, its ungodly. Whether you’ve been pushed around by sin, shame, guilt; or you’ve been exhausted by the afflictions and miseries and evils in this world—it’s hard to keep your eyes on Jesus. But, that’s the most basic component to the Christian life, and Christian obedience. With good Christian form—keep yourself looking to Christ for strength and help and motivation. In him you will find reason and strength to obey those tricky commands in the Bible—commands like, “rejoice always [i.e., over your kids and family], pray without ceasing, give thanks in every circumstance” (1 Thess 5:16–18).
The "Grace" in Grace-Driven Effort
And of course, this gives us a really clear picture on the grace we are referring to when we speak of grace-driven effort. This effort to keep form with your eyes on Christ is driven by grace—it is pursuing grace, it’s fueled by grace. I mean all of God’s grace.
Hebrews really is an amazing book when it comes to describing the grace that is offered us. We have an elaborate depiction of God’s grace in all its tenses—past grace, present grace, and future grace. You have been sanctified—or “made holy”—by the blood of Christ (10:10, past grace), and yet four verses later you are being sanctified—again, “made holy”—into the image of Christ (10:14, present grace). And of course—that future grace, oh what a treasure to have infinite glory and fellowship with God, seeing his face, free from sin, in his kingdom, forever. Hebrews has lots to say about that.
But I want you to think about how past, present, and future grace operate in your Christian efforts—perhaps even when your at your wits end, and you need to “strengthen” those “weak knees”. If you want to keep good form in the Christian life so you don’t get hurt by keeping your eyes fixated on Christ’s grace—then you might do well to actually consider how his grace should drive you. Should past and present grace land on us, and move us differently than future grace?
John Piper, in his book Future Grace, points out that the Bible refers to God’s past and present grace as that grace which is designed to give us freedom to obey and endure sufferings.
Think of God’s past and present grace to you, and what they most immediately do to your soul. In the past when you first believed, you were sanctified—set apart—from this world. You have been forgiven all your sins, with God’s wrath against you canceled by the blood of Jesus. Your conscience has been cleansed so that the deepest part of your soul, where that inner voice often condemns you, can say “you are accepted and free”.
And, how about that present grace? It functions the same way. Christ, right now, is pouring his grace upon you as he intercedes for you with prayers and supplications through the Spirit. You may have a mountain of sin before you, but you have the freedom to confess it and ask Christ your advocate for help. This is all in that middle section of Hebrews, starting around chapter 5.
So, the way this past and present grace should land on you is to well up within you gratitude to God, and boldness to approach him in prayer and in worship. That’s 10:19–22, which concludes that middle section. Turn back there and we’ll see this really clearly.
Therefore since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Do you see how all that past grace is to stir up boldness to enter God’s presence? And it doesn’t say it here but I think it’s pretty obvious—we are, in all this, to enter God’s presence with gratitude, worship, adoration and praise to him. Lay your sin aside, for Christ put it in the grave for you. Don’t hold onto guilt or sin, and let that stand between you and God. Christ knows your sin, and died for it. So confess it quickly and approach your savior with gratitude. He’s there to help you. He “always lives” to make intercession for you. Be free to boldly approach him, to be grateful and worship him! To ask him for help when you are weak! That’s the proper response and use of past and present grace. And especially in your efforts for holiness and obedience, you’re now free to strive forward without guilt or shame. You don’t need to beat yourself down again and again because you keep screwing up. You can, as this passage says, “lift up your drooping hands”—straighten up, ask for forgiveness and press forward in new obedience, with freedom.
But then there’s future grace. If you keep reading those verses I began reading in chapter 10, you’ll notice that the author makes a shift in his focus, starting in verse 23. He moves from speaking about boldly entering God’s presence on account of past grace, and he begins to speak about persevering faithfully toward future grace. Verses 23–25,
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day (of future grace) drawing near.”
Did you hear the switch there? We’re not talking about boldly and joyfully entering God’s presence because our sins have been covered by past grace. Now, we are talking about holding fast the confession of our hope—that future grace we hope in. Hold fast to that, endure, obey God, meet together and stir one another up all the more as you see the day drawing near.
This is where Piper says that God places promises for future grace before us not to free us to obey and endure, but to motivate us. Past and present grace frees us to obey with gratitude and with God’s strength. Future grace motivates us to obey. Past and present grace assures us that we can obey right now. Future grace assures us that our efforts are goingsomewhere really great—if we would simply pick up our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees, and straighten our paths.
That’s how past, present, and future grace all work together in grace-driven effort. Keep good form in the Christian life, and strive for the holiness as you fix yourself upon God’s grace—and, that grace.
Future Grace in Today's Passage
Now, our passage explicitly appeals to that future grace which is designed to motivates us. There are two references to future grace, here. Let’s look at the first one, in verse 14. There, you’ll see a warning that if we don’t strive for holiness, we will not see the Lord. Now, you say to me “how is that a reference to future grace? That’s a warning!” Well, listen to the warning, and how it’s supposed to land on you. This is a warning that you won’t get future grace if you neglect holiness. This is supposed to motivate you with an appeal to your fear of missing out on future grace. And, that really should be a motivator for us! Thomas Watson once said,
Fear of God is a leading grace: it is the first seed God sows in the heart [of faith]. [Fear is operative in the soul even] when a Christian can say little of faith, and perhaps nothing of assurance, yet he dares not deny [God], but he fears God. God is so great that he is afraid of displeasing him, and so good that he is afraid of losing him.”
In other words, you may be lacking in your assurance that you are saved. You may have little faith in God’s future grace, and that you’ll really get to glory. And, folks in this situation are often times concerned. So the question there, is—why are you concerned about your assurance and your salvation in the first place? God has instilled a seed of fear in your soul, to keep you and to motivate you forward rather than backward. “Without holiness no one will see the Lord”. Someone even with the most immature faith might say to this, “I want to see the Lord. I’m afraid I won’t. So, I’ll pursue him even with the little faith I have.” That’s faith in future grace—it’s the most basic form of faith in future grace. It’s the fear of faith—the fear of missing out on future grace.
What a grace, these warnings are. Even the most immature Christian can be motivated by them.
But there’s another future-grace motivation in this passage, and it operates the same way, through a warning. Look at verse 15. This is a command to the church, that we would help one another endure. It says “see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God”—that, there, is talking about future grace. See to it that no one obtains to that grace we have not yet obtained! Glory! Make sure everyone gets there!
And then, just to be really clear, verses 16 and 17 give us a screaming example of how future grace is a motivator. “See to it that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” In other words—see to it that no one misses out on future grace like Esau did his birthright. It really is a terrifying reality that men and women who claimed the name of Christ but didn’t obey him by faith (with grace-driven effort) will be turned away at the gates of glory.
So, this passage really does seek to motivate us by placing future grace before us in order that we might lift up our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees. And, in this passage, the future grace comes to us by way of warning—it lands on our heart with an appeal to our fear, the most fundamental instinct of our faith.
Finding Motivation in Promises
Now, as we talk about future grace being our chief motivator, I want to point out that future grace doesn’t only come to us in these warnings. They usually come in promises. We are told, for example, that Abraham and the OT saints were happy living the hard lifestyle of sojourners on this earth, because (Heb 11:16) “they desired a better country, a heavenly one”—the one God promised them. So, future grace is another way to refer to God’s promises. And like the OT saints, these promises should motivate you to endure, to obey, to “lift up your drooping hands”.
But let’s think in terms of the more immediate context of our passage, and consider one more example of future grace, and how it might motivate us to faithfulness. Do you remember verse 11 from last week, how it describes the motivation to endure through the Lord’s discipline?
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later [in the near of distant future] it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness by those who have been trained by it.”
Do you want the peaceful fruit of righteousness in life—later today, next week, next year, or when you grow old? Receive the Lord’s discipline and respond to it as a child responds to his father’s chastening. When the Father hounds you with the Holy Spirit and gives you an unsettling conviction to “confess that sin”, or to “say no to that temptation”—you will know the Lord is disciplining you when the most uncomfortable part of the experience isn’t the guilt you may have if you sinned. It’s not even the external circumstance—the temptation or the suffering—which God is using to discipline you. No, you know the Lord is disciplining you when the most uncomfortable part of the whole experience is how God won’t leave you alone. “I really want to indulge myself in that, but man God is persistent in warning me”. “I really don’t want to confess that sin, but man God’s Spirit is upon my heart like a hound dog.” And what is he saying to you? “Son, turn to me and be healed. Confess your sin and experience the peaceful fruit of righteousness”. See how the motivation there is a persistent plea to pursue future grace? And what happens when you obey God? “Later, it produces the peaceful fruit of righteousness”. You experience peaceful fruit—fellowship with God, and you’ve improved upon your personal holiness.
Future grace is designed to be a motivator to you, to keep your form as you keep your eyes fixed on the prize of Christ Jesus. To lift up your drooping hands and make straight your path—on a bee-line to that future grace.
So, we are to pursue obedience, steadfastness, and strength with grace-driven effort. We’re talking about an effort that is driven by grace behind us (in the past) which frees us to stand up and pick up our guilt-ridden, drooping hands or weak knees. It’s that grace that is presently upon us which assures us that Christ is interceding for us with his Spirit. It’s that grace before us which motivates us to keep moving forward “for the joy set before” us (Heb 12:2). Past and present grace frees you to straighten up and endure, future grace motivates you to endure.
That’s grace-driven effort. But, our passage does force us to think about the actual holiness we are to pursue with our effort. We aren’t simply to “pick up our drooping feet” and feel happy and hopeful with grace-driven effort. This is truly an effort in holiness! Verse 14 tells us this is an individual responsibility, and verses 15–17 remind us this is also a community responsibility within the church.
2. Pursuing Personal Holiness with Grace-Driven Effort
So first, look at verse 14. We’re only going to consider the second half of this verse.
Strive ... for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
Here, we see the first way we are to strive with grace-driven effort is to strive “for holiness”—personal holiness. Again, this is grace-driven effort. There’s a future grace dangling out in front of you in this command. To say this in another way—“Strive … for the holiness with which you will be able to see the Lord”. Grace-driven effort.
But, this verse might land on you in a troubling way. If you don’t read this correctly, you might think there is a holiness you need to strive for—and attain—or else you won’t ever see God’s good pleasure upon you in glory. In other words, this could easily be read as a works-righteousness form of salvation, as if this holiness could be measured and if you don’t have enough you won’t get saved. That’s not right at all. Think about it—what kind of holiness do you need ot see the Lord? You’re holiness? No! God’s holiness! “Be holy, as I am holy”. Only God can meet his own standard, there. Any other holiness is man-made, sub-par, pride-driven effort rather than grace-driven effort.
One minister (Kevin DeYoung) said that we aren’t looking for our holiness to be the opposite of grace—that is, it is our work rather than God’s. We’re looking for our holiness to be the operation of grace. That’s what Hebrews has been all about. Again, “you have been sanctified”—literally, you have “been made holy” (10:10); and then “you are being sanctified” (10:14)—or, “being made holy”. How is this holiness coming to you? GOD! That’s the argument in those passages—Jesus’s sacrifice made you holy in God’s courtroom, and yet he is making you holy right now through his ministry of his word and spirit.
But then of course, after all this grace, you get this command in verse 14 to “strive for holiness”. Isn’t this a bit odd, maybe? “Strive for something you’ve already been given”. Well, you need to read this command in the context of all Hebrews. Again—run with endurance (in holiness)… looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith”. This command to strive for holiness is a command to keep good form. Keep your eyes on Jesus, and pursue his holiness with that grace-driven effort we’ve talked about.
Now, let’s just take a brief moment to think about the holiness we are actually after, here.
Holiness is not in its hey-day today. For whatever reason, people who desire and pursue personal holiness are often regarded as conceited or, just weird. A person of piety and holiness even in many Christain circles is often regarded as someone who has trapped himself into legalism, or into old-time religion. Kevin DeYoung points out that holiness is often times associated with abstaining from certain taboo practices, it’s associated with fundamentalism. Or, some don’t want to pursue holiness because it’s just hard work. There are all kinds of reasons, aren’t there? But in the end, holiness is ought to be desired as a grace. We’re talking about conforming by grace to the holiness of God. We get to put his holiness on us insofar as a creature can. That’s a grace, not a burden. Read Psalm 119 and consider how it regards “all” of God’s commands as conduits of blessing. “having fixed my eyes on all your commands, I will not be put to shame”, verse 6. Or, “All your commandments are true”, verse 151. Is that how we feel about “all” God’s commandments? Or, just the ones we like? It’s something to think about.
So, the first way to strive with grace-driven effort is to strive for your personal holiness. Regard holiness as a grace to be pursued—a grace that keeps on giving.
But we aren’t to be concerned about ourselves in this matter. We are also called to concern ourselves with our church family. Grace-driven effort is a matter for the church family, as we strive for holiness together.
3. Pursuing our Church’s Holiness with Grace-Driven Effort
Verse 15 picks up with these words—
15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
Now, I already pointed out how this is a matter of grace-driven effort. Your motivation in exhorting a brother or sister in Christ is future grace—“see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God”, that there aren’t any Esau’s amongst you!
This is a responsibility you have. The word “see to it”, here, is actually Greek word which implies oversight. It’s the word for “overseer”—like a pastor is tasked to be an overseer of souls. You each have a certain responsibility of oversight to one another, to ensure that you all continue diligently in God’s grace. Earlier in Hebrews, we were called to stir one another up in good works, and to not forsake assembling together. We are good for each other—we need each other. It’s not an option.
Guarding Against Bitterness
Now, our passage tells us to keep watch over one another’s spiritual well being in two ways. The first way is to be vigilant against bitterness within the church, and the other is to be vigilant against worldliness within the church. Let’s just think about the matter of bitterness today. This is so important for a church to understand.
What is bitterness? Bitterness is what we feel when someone offends us. A close companion to bitterness is a your inner judge that places you in the right, and the other person in the wrong. He wronged you, and you are right to harbor bitterness and resentment against that person. Isn’t it strange how bitterness often feels justified? That’s why it can be so hard to get rid of.
But notice that this passage explains bitterness like a fruit that spreads. It “springs up and causes trouble, and by it many are defiled.” In other words, bitterness gossips. Since he wronged you, and you’re in the right, you have the responsibility to tell everyone of this great injustice. And its not just the word that spreads. It’s the bitterness, too.
And soon, as bitterness festers within one or many hearts, it grows to envy and malice and rivalry—all because “I’m right, and you’re wrong”. The accusations get bigger and more public, and the rivalry splits a church. Far too many churches get overgrown by this weed, choke, and die.
What’s the solution? Grace-driven effort within the fellowship. Jesus commands us, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Matt 18:15).
But, why would you pursue him like this, and why might he listen to you? Because you appeal to one another with grace-driven effort. You both focus upon the completed forgiveness and love of Christ, and you trust in Christ’s present grace of the Spirit to help you both through the process so that you will both enjoy future grace together in glory. Grace-driven effort is for the fellowship, not just the individual believer.
So, we have seen what grace-driven effort is. It’s lifting up our drooping hands, strengthening our knees, keeping good form in the faith by focusing on all of God’s grace. It’s what we need when we’ve hit our wit’s end, and need to find strength to pursue in the “holiness without which no one will see the Lod”. It’s focusing on his past and present grace which frees you to pursue holiness, and it’s focusing on future grace which motivates you to pursue holiness. And, it’s not just for you as an isolated Christian who is pursuing holiness. It’s for the fellowship, that we might enjoy glory together.