I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. - John 15:5 (ESV)
There is a constant tension that the Christian experiences in the attempt to live for God through Christ. There is on the one hand the fact that the Christian is the one doing the living, and there is also the fact that it must be done through Christ. So by whose agency does the Christian live for God? Is it the Christian’s or Christ’s? Or is it both?
This is a constant tension because by all accounts the Scripture is full of commands for the Christian to follow. But at the same time, Scripture also makes clear that apart from Christ we can do nothing, that we must abide in him or not bear fruit.
How Do We Start?
So how does a new Christian go about living for God? We must acknowledge that this is not something that the believer chooses to initiate, because the choice implies a state of being that not only precedes but also bears sufficient causal power to produce it. But the choice to live for God, if we understand Scripture rightly, can only happen subsequent to being made alive in Christ.
Ephesians 2:1-10 makes it exceedingly clear. A Christian can’t live for God until the Christian is made alive. Regeneration must precede sanctification. Regeneration must precede obedience. Regeneration must precede living for God through Christ. Therefore, apart from being made alive to God in Christ Jesus, no one can live for God.
So much for the beginning of living for God. But this helps more than we might initially think. The question that concerns us is, "How do I begin to live for God through Christ?" The answer is that you begin to live for God through Christ when God makes you alive in Christ. In this way, asking how to begin to live for God through Christ is like expecting a person to choose when to be conceived. Or it is like expecting Lazarus to come forth before Christ arrives to tell him to come forth.
A Tricky Question
So the question turns out to be more or less a trick, or at least a misleading one. We do not choose to begin to live for God through Christ. We are made alive to God in Christ by regeneration resulting in a profession of faith in Christ. That is the beginning. We begin to live for God when we are made alive by God.
What is left is to discuss the question that is perhaps more pressing for being more clear: how do I go about living this life that is for God through Christ?
The answer is contained in the question. We live for God through Christ. In other words, through Christ is how we live for God. How so?
We live for God in the same way we were made alive by God. When we are first saved, we understood the call of the gospel, the nature of Christ, and his work sufficiently to believe on him for salvation and call on God for forgiveness and reconciliation. We understood at that moment that Christ was the means by which we could be saved, and in seeing him as our hope we placed all our confidence in him.
The important thing to note here is that we responded to the call of the gospel through the proclamation of God's word. That is how we became alive to God. It is also how we continue to live for God.
How is this so? The Scriptural witness seems to bear out that believers don't make themselves different; they are different by virtue of the work of God in them. And yet, at the same time that God is working in believers, they are also called to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2). They are also told that although they are saved by grace and not by works, they were saved to do good works which God has prepared beforehand (Eph. 2).
In other words, the scriptural witness clearly puts forward the notion that believers are called to obey, and yet are also told that the power, nature, and willingness to obey all come through Christ. Thus, in a way even more puzzling than at our regeneration, the agencies of the believer and Christ are integrally intertwined so as to be inseparable and possibly even indistinguishable. It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. And yet I clearly live and choose to obey and love and follow my Lord. I live for God as God works in me.
Both-And Rather than Either-Or
I have no doubt that many will read this and conclude that there is therefore no need for the believer to actively choose to live for God through Christ, that no effort needs to be made since it will happen if Christ works in them. But this is a species of hyper-calvinism, which allows God's sovereignty to erase man's functional (if not theoretical) responsibility. But just as Scripture maintains that man must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved while also emphasizing that he can only believe if the Spirit regenerates him, so also Scripture maintains that the saint must go about doing the good works which he was created in Christ to do while also emphasizing that he can only do so by the power of Christ which works powerfully within him.
I make no attempt to unravel the mystery. The fact is that saints are called to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which they have been called. Just as all men everywhere are called to repent, so all saints everywhere are called to pursue holiness.
The problem arises when we attempt to resolve the tension between our agency and God's by choosing to downplay or ignore one set of scriptural principles over another. But we have no right to do this. Where Scripture creates tension in our understanding, we have no right to unmake it by our rationalizations. There is no contradiction in the fact that Scripture commands saints to walk in a manner worthy of their calling while also maintaining that the power and agency of Christ are also involved. Let God do what he will; it remains to us who believe to be about the business of obeying. And that means getting busy living for God through Christ.