Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

1 Jul 2024

Theologically Loaded Catch-Lines, Episode 1: What Does It Mean to “Cease Striving”?


I’ve decided to start a mini-series of blogposts on historically freighted phrases/clauses/mantras that have been detached from their moorings and have become cliché in contemporary Christian-speak. Most of the time these lines are intrinsically innocuous (i.e., the words themselves are unobjectionable), but the ideas they represent are not always so. The goal in this series is to alert readers about the freight attached to these lines and to cultivate caution in their usage lest confusion result.

The first of these lines is the command to “cease striving.” The command to cease striving is intrinsically unobjectionable—it even appears in the NASB95 as a command: “Cease striving and know that I am God” (Psa 46:10, emphasis original). The command here (in most English translations to “be still”) is a call for the wicked to stop raging against each other and against God and to submit to him as their sovereign. Obviously, it’s a good thing to “cease striving” in this sense.

Ironically, this line from Psalm 46 has taken on a second meaning that is also unobjectionable, viz., to stop being anxious/agitated and trust in God. This is probably not what the Psalmist is saying, but it’s also sound advice. Our Lord exhorts us similarly in Luke 12 not to be “anxious” (so also Luke 10:41; Phil 4:6), but rather to calm our souls with reminders of divine providence.

A third contemporary usage of “cease striving” is captured in a Thomas Nelson title, When Strivings Cease: Replacing the Gospel of Self-Improvement with the Gospel of Life-Transforming Grace, described by the author as “an invitation to re-think our preoccupation with approval and the striving that comes because we feel like we’re forever missing the mark. It offers a deeper, abiding understanding of what God’s generous, unmerited favor really accomplishes in and through us when we receive the gift of God’s grace.” I give mixed reviews to this usage of the phrase “when strivings cease.” Here’s why. First the positive: people who are “striving” to earn divine approval unto justification most definitely need to “cease striving”—at least to that end. Justification is plainly a gift that cannot be earned (Eph 2:8–9, etc.). What gives me pause is the rest of the description of this book, and especially its general call for believers to “cease striving” and to stop pursuing “approval.” I grant, of course, that believers sometimes are preoccupied unduly with meeting contrived standards to earn the approval of people who don’t matter, and we should caution against this. Still, this concern does not warrant the blanket prohibition of all “striving” or quests for “approval.” Why? Because the Scriptures are filled with discussions of sanctification that feature “striving” with the goal of not only divine approval but also the approval of fellow believers. 

Note the following NT uses of the word strive in discussions of sanctification in the major English translations:

  • Acts 24:16 (NIV): “I strive (ἀσκέω) always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.”
  • In 1 Timothy 4, after condemning artificial standards of behavior (vv. 1–5), Paul yet exhorts Timothy to “labor and strive (κοπιάω)” (v. 10 NIV), both commanding and diligently modeling good behavior, “so that everyone may see his progress” (vv. 11–16). 
  • Hebrews 12.14 (ESV): “Strive (διώκω) for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
  • Hebrews 4.11 (ESV): “Let us therefore strive (σπουδάζω) to enter that rest.”
  • Luke 13.24—“Strive (ἀγωνίζομαι) to enter through the narrow door.” 
  • 1 Timothy 2:5 (KJV): “Strive (ἀθλέω)” for “masteries,” so that you may be “crowned.”
  • 2 Peter 3.14 (NRSV): “Strive (σπουδάζω) to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.

I add to these passages several more in which the word strive appears in no English translation but which feature the same underlying Greek words used above:

  • 1Timothy 6.12: “Fight (ἀγωνίζομαι) the good fight of the faith….in the presence of many witnesses.”
  • 2 Timothy 4:7–8: “I have fought the good fight (ἀγωνίζομαι), I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” [resulting in] the crown of righteousness, which the Lord will give me on that day.”
  • 1 Corinthians 9:24–27: We compete (ἀγωνίζομαι) in such a way as to get the prize…to get a crown that will last forever…. I beat my body (ὑπωπιάζω) and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
  • Philippians 3.12–14: “I press on (διώκω) to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me…. Forgetting what is behind and straining (ἐπεκτείνομαι) toward what is ahead, I press on (διώκω) toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward.
  • 2 Peter 1:5–11: “Make every effort (σπουδάζω) to add to your faith goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love” [by which you will] “make your calling and election sure, and will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

With this large sampling of appeals to be sanctified (1) by striving and (2) in pursuit of approval, where did the idea emerge that we should “cease striving” and eschew “approval”? Well, the genesis of the idea is not in the late-twentieth flight from fundamentalism (much as it flourished there). Instead, the idea goes all the way back to eighteenth-century holiness theology. John Wesley, a student of Anglican and thus of ancient Eastern holiness models, envisioned the Christian life as a ladder, each step enabled by a distinct expression of grace:

  • Prevenient grace reverses the effects of depravity in unbelievers and enables saving faith. 
  • Convincing/Awakening grace brings “further deliverance from the heart of stone” but falls short of “proper Christian salvation.” It transforms the unbeliever into a “legal man” who engages in intense strife to be free from sin—which always ends in despair. In Wesley’s words, the legal man is “ever striving but ever failing.” 
  • Justifying grace brings relief to the “legal man” by transforming him into an “evangelical man.” The evangelical man realizes that justification is not earned; still, he is not thereby freed from all “striving.” Instead, he commences a life of perpetual striving for holiness with limited success.
  • Sanctifying/Perfecting grace is that blessed possession of believers in this life in which they commit no known sins and “feel that it is not they that speak, but the Spirit of their Father who speaketh in them, and whatsoever is done by their hands, the Father who is in them, he doeth the works.” For Wesley, this experience usually occurs in the waning moments of life and rarely is sustained long-term. But for those who do experience entire sanctification (and here is the origin of our phrase), all “strivings cease.”
  • Glorifying grace, finally, removes permanently all threat of apostasy and the blight, even, of unintentional sins. 

Keswick theology domesticated Wesley’s ideas somewhat and removed some of the rungs of his ladder. Most importantly for our discussion, Keswick theology sought and ostensibly found a “shorter way” to perfection (albeit a muted/transitory version of perfection) that could be experienced much earlier in the believer’s life:

  • The natural man is an unbeliever. In fact, many early proponents of Keswick theology were Presbyterians who had no room for prevenient grace. For these, the natural man was not just an unbeliever; he was also totally depraved. 
  • The carnal man is a believer justified by faith—but his Christian life is still one of futility. Like Wesley’s legal man and evangelical man, the carnal man is “ever striving but ever failing” to please God: he doesn’t realize that since his old nature remains fully intact, he actually can’t please God! 
  • The spiritual man, in a moment of “consecration,” “dedication,” “spirit baptism,” or “laying one’s all on the altar,” receives the next installment of grace and is “filled with the Spirit,” and so long as he stays filled, enjoys a state of temporary perfection in which “strivings cease.” As a result, he may successfully “let go, and let God” operate by proxy through the “channel” of the believer’s self. Unlike Wesley’s model, Keswick theology anticipates the loss of Spirit-filling (by a process described by William Evan Hopkins as the “leaking” of the Spirit), which must be periodically renewed.

What troubles me is that pieces of these two models (Wesleyanism and Keswick theology) have wormed their way into contemporary evangelicalism and even contemporary Reformed evangelicalism. It shows up as a kind of sanctification in which a believer (1) is excused from all “striving” to be holy, (2) is deeply suspicious of models of sanctification that feature adherence to “rules/standards” of any sort, and (3) refuses on principle to seek divine approval (because it is thought to be unachievable—cf. e.g., Tullian Tchividjian’s Jesus + Nothing Equals Everything), much less the approval of other believers.

At the end of the day, when a preacher/writer calls on his audience to “cease striving,” he never intends all of the ideas discussed in this essay. He may well be quite sound in his exhortation. But since there is baggage associated with his words, his audience may very well assign meanings to his words that are not sound. The moral of the story? Be careful how you exhort people to “cease striving,” if at all.  

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