Ordo Salutis: Willpower Insufficient
Too often we approach besetting sin by trying harder to conquer it. We determine never to do it again, we pray for God to deliver us from it, we set our will against it. But the struggle is in vain as we eventually fall back into the same patterns of sin. Paul says in Colossians 2:20-23, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (NASB).
What he’s saying is that observing the rules of not handling or tasting things may sound great as far as trying to beat our bodies into conformity with God’s will, but in the end, they have no power. Willpower will have a show of success for a time but cannot produce lasting change. Jesus alluded to this when he spoke to the Pharisees: “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:34-36, NASB). The will, originating from the heart, is what matters. If the heart has not been circumcised, been given newness of life by God, then we can try as hard as we want to do good, but in those careless moments, who we truly are shines through. If we are full of compassion, that will shine through; if bitterness, that will shine through.
Richard Foster quotes Heini Arnold, “As long as we think we can save ourselves by our own will power, we will only make the evil in us stronger than ever” (Celebration of Discipline, 5). Foster also writes, “When we are dealing with heart work, external actions are never the center of our attention. Outward actions are a natural result of something far deeper, far more profound.” It is quite ironic that the very thing that seems like a good plan–confronting sin head on–is what entangles us all the more.
There is a difference between attempting to continue on a journey of spiritual formation alone, by forcing change by your own will, and joining God, who can begin to help transform your will so it aligns with His.