Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

My Goodness, What a Paradox! Part 4

In parts 1, 2 and 3, we have looked at and partially explained the paradox presented by Biblical affirmations that certain people are good, in light Jesus' thrice-repeated statement that only God is good. We have shown that this is not an actual contradiction at all. We have learned that all human goodness is nothing more than the reflection of God's goodness as it is manifested in those who trust Him and are filled with His Spirit. Now let's look at a few verses from Philemon that tell of the effect of God's goodness in us. This should help to drive it all home. May God open His Word to our hearts, and our hearts to His Word.


Philemon 1:4-6 “I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake."

Greek scholar Kenneth S. Wuest translates verse 6 this way: “praying that the contribution of your faith, which faith you share in common with other believers, may [through the resultant love which you have for all the saints] become effective in the sphere of a full and perfect experiential knowledge of every good thing in us with a view to [the glory of] Christ. (The New Testament, An Expanded Translation)

This is a difficult Pauline sentence which does not translate easily into English. I am not completely sure how some parts of it are best taken. However, I will pass on what I have learned, and especially what is obvious in it: our fellowship with other believers becomes active and effective when we know the good things God has put in us for the glory of Christ.

The word translated “effective” is ENERGES in Greek. Here are a few definitions and translations of this word:
“active” (Brown-Driver-Briggs)
“at work, active” (NASB Dictionary)
“active, operative” (Strong)
“at work” (A.T. Robertson)
“active, powerful in action ... Eng. 'energy;' the word 'work' is derived from the same root” (Vine)

“energetic” (Rotherham)
“working” (Young's Literal Translation)
“operative, active, effective" (Barnes)

Commenting on ENERGES, Vincent points out the following: “This adjective, and the kindred ENERGEO to work, be effectual, ENERGEMA working, operation, and ENERGEIA energy, power in exercise, are used in the New Testament only of superhuman power, good or evil.” (Word Studies in the New Testament, by Marvin R. Vincent)

Notice what is being said: faith expresses itself by supernatural love when we have this matter of goodness in proper focus. If we don't realize that good is in us through Christ and for the sake of Christ, our faith will remain inactive, inoperative, ineffective, not working. Apart from God's goodness in us, we have nothing to offer. Thinking of our goodness apart from Christ guts our faith, hinders our ability to demonstrate God's love and paralyzes our fellowship with other believers. Paul is praying that it may not be so in the case of Philemon.

John Gill notes, “the meaning is, that every good thing that is in the saints, or among them, should be acknowledged to come to them in and through Christ Jesus, in whom all fullness of grace dwells, and from whom all is imparted; and that every good thing that is communicated, or done in faith, which is effectual to any good purpose, should be owned as done by the grace and strength of Christ, and be done to his saints, as if done to himself, and be directed to his glory....”

To sum it up ...
The source of the goodness in us: God alone
The effect of the goodness in us: our faith actively working in fellowship with God's people
The purpose of the goodness in us: to bring glory to Christ

A few verses later, Paul adds a bit more to our understanding of divine and human goodness . . .


Philemon 1:14 “but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.”

Without getting into all the issues and questions that might come to mind when reading this verse, let's acknowledge what it implies: believers' wills are freed to do good. Church leaders need to understand this fact as Paul did, and resist the temptation to employ coercive or manipulative tactics.

The way Paul deals with Philemon is an example of good leadership that takes full account of the possibilities of sin and righteousness in a believer, as well as the extent to which the particular believer has grown in grace. Paul is keenly aware of the indwelling sin in all believers. He has had to deal with it in himself and in the churches throughout his ministry. But in this case he only mentions evidences of grace that he has observed in Philemon. He does not berate Philemon, but encourages him. He physically sends Onesimus back to Philemon to deliver the letter, giving Philemon complete freedom and control over what happens next. Will Philemon exercise his rights under law to punish and retain Onesimus? Or will he mercifully set him free and help him get back to Paul? For his part, the apostle has great confidence in the power of grace and of God's goodness at work in Philemon:

Philemon 1:21 "Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say."

Philemon is evidently a mature believer who has learned to practice grace and godliness. Through the miracle of grace, his will has become accustomed to obedience and generosity. There is great hope here for every one of us.

Every believer is filled with the goodness of God and therefore has both the desire and the capacity to do good. But to keep it balanced, let's remind ourselves that we have no good apart from God. We need to remember that we are still sinners who battle with the flesh and retain in our nature both the capacity and the tendency to do evil. Taking this balanced view will help us to approach fellow Christians with realistic expectations. As we acknowledge the remaining sinful nature, we won't be surprised when sin makes its presence known. And as we consider the abundance of good grace given to us by God, we will expect sin to be dealt with strongly and righteousness to be practiced increasingly. We will be looking for evidence of grace in fellow believers so that we can encourage them and give glory to God.

What follows is bonus material with very little comment from me . . .


Philippians 1:6 “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”


James 1:17 “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow."

At our best, we are full of variation and shifting shadow, terribly inconsistent and unreliable. But God is not. He is good, at all times and in every way, immutably and faithfully, eternally and efficaciously, sovereignly and deliberately. To Him alone be glory forever and ever. Amen.

This is a good place to end this study. Thanks for taking the time to read it. As always, comments are welcomed and invited.


  1. Derek,

    It is frightening to me how similar we are in thought. You express things much more cogently and with greater economy of language, but our thoughts are uncannily similar.

    Mark 10:18 (along with John 6:29) has been a verse that greatly influenced my meditations, particularly on justification and sanctification. The import of this verse was impressed upon me by the Holy Spirit despite my never having heard a sermon preached upon it and never having heard the gospel preached in the light of it, and all that it implies.

    How I ever escaped from legalistic, pietistic, man-centered, self-justifying religion is a miracle of God's grace.

    Thanks for encouraging me by this article not to forget what God has done for me.



  2. Tony,

    I recognized the similarity instantly when I first read a post on Agonizomai. Here's the amazing part - I found Agonizomai while searching for material on the sinner-saint paradox - But I looked further into the blog simply because of the name. The Greek word Agonizomai was the subject of a terrible message I preached years ago while working at a church in Rhode Island. Although I was way off base theologically, the words "Strive to enter the narrow gate" and the word Agonizomai made a deep impression. I won't mention the awful way I applied the words back then - it would be too depressing.

    Like you, I count it a miracle that God ever pulled me out of the muck and mire of self-righteous legalism. And what a joy it is to boast in the Gospel of grace!

    I'm grateful that God led me to your writings, as they help to reinforce my dependence on the work He has done in me - to the glory of His grace alone.

    Grace & peace,


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