The Responsibility of Man

What responsibility does man have in living the Christian life?

©1998 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.

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 Man as God Intended Series

   Emphasis upon the activity of God by His grace in order to manifest His character within His creation, necessitates an inquiry about the responsibility of man, or more specifically of the responsibility of the Christian person within the Christian life. Two extremes must be avoided. The first over-emphasizes the sovereignty of God and implies that man is incapable of responding, or has no need to respond, to God's action. "The Christian life is all of God." The second extreme over-emphasizes the responsibility and activity of man, indicating that the Christian life is dependent on man's commitment, dedication and performance ­ a theology of "works." A Biblically balanced perspective of the Christian's responsibility is a necessity.

   Writing to the Galatians who were being misinformed about the responsibilities of Christians, Paul asks, "Did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?" (Gal. 3:2). If they had listened to Paul's proclamation, they knew that "by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast" (Eph. 2:8,9). In like manner as their initial response to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, their continuing responsibilities in the Christian life were not "works of the Law," but "hearing with faith." Paul asks, "Are you going to be perfected by the flesh (Gal. 3:3), by the works of performance? The implied answer to this rhetorical question is obviously, "No!" It is not the responsibility of Christians to be perfected and sanctified by the fallacy of self-generated activity.

   When Paul later wrote to the Christians of Colossae, who were also being misled concerning the responsibilities of the Christian life, he advised them, "As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him" (Col. 2:6). How does anyone receive Christ Jesus the Lord? By faith! "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:26). How, then, are we to "walk" and conduct our Christian lives? By faith! The context of Paul's statement to the Colossians evidences that he was referring to "the stability of their faith" (Col. 2:5), and their "being established in their faith" (Col. 2:7). The responsibility of man in the Christian life is faith!

   What is faith? In our previous consideration of the initial faith response of man to the person and work of Jesus Christ, it was noted that faith is best defined as "our receptivity of God's activity." Initially we are receptive to the objective redemptive action of Jesus Christ on our behalf, and receptive of the subjective presence of the Spirit of Christ coming to indwell and regenerate our spirit. Henceforth the Christian is to be receptive to the continuing grace of God in Jesus Christ in order to behaviorally manifest His character and activity in our behavior.

   The definition of faith as "our receptivity of God's activity," presupposes that God created man with the volitional capability to respond to a spiritual being. Man has a "response-ability" or an "avail-ability" to respond to spiritual activity and avail himself to such. God self-limited himself functionally to act in correspondence with the choices of dependency, contingency and derivation that man might make, but as choosing creatures men must bear the consequences of their choices. Faith is the responsible choice of man to derive all from God. John Murray explains that "faith is not the act of God. Faith is an activity on the part of the person and of him alone. In faith we receive and rest upon Christ."1 In recognizing that faith is man's volitional choice, careful clarification must be made in denying that such a choice has any causal significance or any meritorious benefit before God. The human choice of faith does not in any way make God contingent upon man's response.

   As the Creator, God's inherent function is to act in accord with His character. The creature, man, on the other hand, is not designed with an inherent capability to act self-generatively, but is designed to function by receptivity, as a dependent, contingent and derivative creature. Our faith responses are not just mental recognition of what God has done or is doing, nor are they volitional resolutions to activate our behavior in accord with God's expectations. The response of faith is the willingness of man to be receptive to the activity of God. William Barclay noted that "the first element in faith is what we can only call receptivity"2 This is not simply receptivity of facts; not just receptivity of the significance of the facts; but receptivity of Jesus Christ.

   By faith we avail ourselves of the Being and activity of God. Faith is not just an epistemological assent to precepts, promises, principles or propositions. Rather, faith is an ontological receptivity of the Person of the divine "I AM." We are not merely receptive to His "message" or to His "benefits," but we are receptive to His dynamic activity of grace in His Son, Jesus Christ. God is an active God who always acts consistent with His character. He does what He does because He is who He is! We have the unique opportunity to be receptive of His active character expression in our behavior by faith.

   The popular, but inadequate, definitions of faith must be replaced with a more Biblical understanding of "our receptivity of God's activity." Faith is much more than a cognitive assent to the veracity of historical and theological data. Faith is much more than subjective assurances of inner feelings of peace and well-being. Faith is much more than a willful determination to respond in moral conformity. Faith is our choice to allow God to act in and through us.

   If the responsibility of the Christian is to be receptive to God's activity by faith, then what import do the hundreds of imperative verbs have which are found throughout the new covenant writings of the New Testament? What should be our response to the commands made by Jesus and by authors such as Paul, Peter and John? Are we responsible to obey the commandments of the New Testament, and if so what does such obedience entail? These are questions which must be addressed in order to understand our responsibility in the Christian life.

Dependent Attitude of Faith

   Many of the imperative verbs of the New Testament command us to respond to Jesus Christ in a dependent attitude of faith. They express our responsibility as Christians to accept and develop attitudes in our mind and emotions which will serve to facilitate a volitional choice of faith in our will. Paul advises the Colossians to "set your mind on things above" (Col. 3:2), and urges the Philippians to "let your mind dwell on things which are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely and of good repute" (Phil. 4:8). Previously the Philippian Christians were told to "have this attitude (humility of mind) which was also in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:3-5). Some additional commands which inculcate a dependent attitude of faith include:

   Reckon yourselves. Writing to the Romans, Paul advocates the Christians to "reckon yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:11). The Greek word logizomai was originally an accounting term. It means "to regard or consider it as a fact," "to count on it or depend on it." When we write a check we reckon on the fact that we have money which was previously deposited in the bank. The reckoning must be based upon an existent reality. Mental reckoning does not create the reality as some have fallaciously suggested. The reality on which Paul encourages us to reckon is that our prior identification as an "old man" (Rom. 6:6), wherein we were spiritually united with the satanic source of sin, has been terminated, and we are now, as Christians, spiritually united and identified with the Spirit of Christ whose inherent life (John 14:6) has been invested in us. Christians are responsible to "count it as a fact" that this is the spiritual reality within them, and to depend on the life of the risen Lord Jesus expressed in their behavior.

   Submit yourselves. James, the brother of Jesus, admonishes Christians to "submit therefore to God" (James 4:7). Submission involves recognition and response to a rightful authority. In every authority structure, those who are subject to authority must learn to recognize that submission must be an attitude expressed in relational activity. The activity without the attitude is mere capitulation or resignation. In a dependent attitude of faith we submit ourselves to divine authority and to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives.

   Present yourselves. In the same context in which Paul explained the responsibility of Christians to "reckon themselves" (Rom. 6:11), he goes on to advocate the responsibility of "presenting ourselves." "Present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God" (Rom. 6:13). "Present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification" (Rom. 6:19). The King James Version translated these verbs as "yield yourselves," which is a valid translation but tends to convey the connotation of passivity. The call to "present ourselves" seems to connote a more active responsibility of placing ourselves in the context of God's sovereign activity. Later in the same epistle Paul urges Christians "to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship" (Rom. 12:1). In a dependent attitude of faith, Christians are to "give themselves to the Lord" (II Cor. 8:5) in a voluntary sacrifice whereby we surrender ourselves to His activity in our lives.

   Abide. Jesus commanded His disciples to "abide in Me, and I in you" (John 15:4). To "abide" is to remain where you are "in Him," and to "stay put." By God's grace we are put "in Christ," and we are to stay there, remain there, abide there. The English word "abode" refers to a dwelling place, such as a house where we live. Our abode is where we abide, and the ongoing responsibility to "abide" involves our residing, dwelling, living and making our residence in the context of Christ's activity. We are to "abide in Him" (I John 2:28).

   Rest. The responsibility to "rest" is seldom advocated in the activistic orientation of the church and the world today. The writer to the Hebrew Christians indicates that "we who have believed enter the rest of God" (Heb. 4:3), but there is still a responsibility to "enter that rest." "Let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to come short of it" (Heb. 4:1). "Be diligent to enter that rest" (Heb. 4:11). The background for understanding what it means to "enter God's rest" is to be found in the creation account of Genesis where God "rested" on the seventh day. It was not that God was tired and needed a rest in order to recuperate, nor that He sat back after creation with nothing more to do. He rested from His creative activity in order to enjoy that which He had created, and specifically to receive the glory from His glorious character manifested within the behavior of created humanity who were receptive to such in faith. The seventh day of each week was designated as the Sabbath, the day of rest, when men could participate in the "rest" that God was enjoying and appreciate what God was doing. After the fall of man into sin, Jesus came to restore man's participation in the "rest of God," saying "Come unto Me all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls" (Matt. 11:28,29). In a dependent attitude of faith we participate in God's "rest" as we are receptive to the activity of Christ in us.

   These dependent attitudes for which we are responsible as Christians are just differing facets of faith. To "reckon" is faith counting on the reality. To "submit" is faith yielding to authority. To "present" is faith offering ourselves to the rightful owner. To "abide" is faith remaining where God puts us. To "rest" is faith enjoying God's activity. These may seem to be rather passive, but they are dependent attitudes which lead to the disciplined activities of faith.

Disciplined Activities of Faith

   Other imperative admonitions in the New Testament advise the Christian to abstain from certain activities or to engage in various activities. These activities are not self-generated, but are part of the choice of faith. In choosing to be receptive to Christ's activity in our behavior, we are at the same time choosing to abstain from behavioral activity which is the satanic expression of sinfulness and selfishness, by allowing the divine activity to supersede and overcome.

   The Christian is responsible to make disciplined choices to abstain or engage in various activities. Paul advised Timothy, "Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness" (I Tim. 4:7). The Greek word gumnazo which Paul used is the basis of the English words "gymnasium" and "gymnastics." Discipline involves regular exercise, like an athlete preparing himself for the Olympics. For the Christian such discipline in the Christian life is a structured pattern of chosen behavior that allows God to carry on His divine activity within our lives. It is the deliberate and willful placement of one's being into a state, position or sphere of activity wherein God's divine objectives may be furthered and accomplished in our lives.

   These disciplined activities of faith are not to be construed as "works" of performance by which we activate Christian living, or by which we earn or merit God's pleasure or benefits. They are chosen activities wherein we place ourselves in the stream of God's grace, in order to allow for the activity of His grace to express His character in the midst of the activity.

   We are to "abstain from wickedness" (II Tim. 2:19), "fleshly lusts" (I Peter 2:11), "immorality" (I Thess. 4:3) and "every form of evil" (I Thess. 5:22). We are responsible to choose "not to be conformed to this world" (Rom. 12:2) and "the former lusts" (I Peter 1:14), but to "deny ungodliness and worldly desires" (Titus 2:12). Christians are to "put no confidence in the flesh" (Phil. 3:3), "make no provision for the flesh" (Rom. 13:14), and avoid "turning their freedom into an opportunity for the flesh" (Gal. 5:13). They should choose "not to think more highly of themselves than they ought to think" (Rom. 12:3), "not to exalt themselves" (Matt. 23:12), not to "live for themselves" (II Cor. 5:15), but rather to "deny themselves" (Luke 9:23).

   Positively, we are to "keep ourselves chaste" (Rev. 14:4) and "unstained by the world" (James 1:27), "cleansing ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit" (II Cor. 7:1). We are commanded to "humble ourselves in the presence of the Lord" (James 4:10), and to "clothe ourselves with humility" (I Peter 5:5). Christians should choose to "stand firm in the Lord" (Phil 4:1; I Thess. 3:8), "in the faith" (I Cor. 16:13), and "in the will of God" (Col. 4:12). They should "conduct themselves honorably" (Heb. 13:18), "in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (Phil. 1:27). To do so they will "devote themselves to prayer" (I Cor. 7:5; Col. 4:2), "drawing near to God" (James 4:8) and "to the throne of grace" (Heb. 4:16).

   These are representative of the hundreds of imperatives in the New Testament which advocate disciplined activities which the Christian individual chooses to abstain from or engage in so that God's activity of grace may be functional in their behavior. The physical behavioral activities are but the contexts in which God's divine activity can express His character and ministry.

   Ecclesiastical admonitions have often encouraged various activities among Christians without advising of the spiritual resource of the Lord Jesus Christ on whom we depend in the "receptivity of His activity." Many spiritually new-born Christians, after having received the Spirit of Christ by faith, have been instructed to "go out and live like Jesus and love like Jesus," as if the responsibility of the Christian life were to imitate or mimic the example of the historical Jesus. Granted, we are to "live for the Lord" (Rom. 14:8) and "live godly in Christ Jesus" (II Tim. 3:12), but this is accomplished only as "the life of Jesus is manifested in our mortal body" (II Cor. 4:10. It is clear that we "ought to love one another" (I John 4:11), for Jesus Himself said, "This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I loved you" (John 15:12; 13:34), but "the love of God has been poured within our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Rom. 5:5) and is expressed only as "the fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22). The activities of faith must not be viewed as self-generated activities apart from dependency on the energizing of God in Christ.

   The responsibility of our faith activities has often been summed up in the words of the popular hymn, "Trust and Obey."3 Faith does involve trust and dependency, but obedience should not be defined in the legal terms of keeping commandments of the Law by out best self-effort to do so. In the new covenant of Christianity, "obedience" is usually the translation of the Greek word hupakouo, which means "to listen under." Christian obedience is listening under God to His spiritual direction in our lives, and responding by "receptivity of His activity" in "the obedience of Christ" (II Cor. 10:5). When we understand faith and obedience as the New Testament uses the terms, we will understand our responsibility to "trust and obey," for such becomes "the obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).

Diligent Application of Faith

   Recognizing that our responsibility is to make choices of faith which are receptive to the activity of God in our lives, we must ever be diligent and discerning to see the practical implications of such and to avoid the abusive extremes.

   A dependent attitude of faith without disciplined activities of faith can produce passivism and acquiescence. Some Christians have improperly decided that the Christian life is all God's responsibility and that they are not responsible for anything. They sit back, twiddle their thumbs, and expect God to do it all. James seems to have been confronting both the fallacious ideas of faith as orthodox belief and faith as passive inaction when he explained that "faith, if it has no works, is dead, by itself" (James 2:17). If faith is "our receptivity of God's activity," and there is no divine activity, then there is no faith! Faith is not just our receptivity of God's ideology or moral code, but of His active expression of His character in our behavior, for which we are responsible to consent and to make choices to be engaged therein. If there is no outworking of the activity of God, then faith has been voided and substituted with epistemology or passivism.

   On the other hand, disciplined activities which are not based upon a dependent attitude of faith can become religious performance which is nothing more than the "wood, hay and straw" of "man's works" (I Cor. 2:10-14). Ecclesiastical explanations of Christian responsibility have often emphasized disciplined activity in a legalistic framework that fails to take into account the dependent attitude of receptivity to God's activity.

   Popular misconceptions of the responsibility of the Christian include the repetitive exhortations to "be more committed to the Lord." Pledges of commitment are but promises of performance which usually fail to recognize the derivation of our activity. Nowhere in the New Testament scriptures is there a call for Christians to "commit themselves" to God or to the activities and programs of the church, but there is abundant notation that we are prone to "commit sin."

   Another common admonition of Christian responsibility is the call to "serve the Lord" in "Christian service." Christians are prompted to perform by the explanation that we are "saved to serve." Indeed we do "serve" as "servants of Christ," serving as instruments of Christ's activity and as worshippers of Him, but the "service" of ecclesiastical performance is denied by Paul when he explained that God is "not served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:25).

   The appeal to "go out" to others in missions and evangelism has been another misused and abused call to a performance of Christian responsibility. Though we are to be available to "be witnesses" (Acts 1:8) of Jesus and to "make disciples" (Matt. 28:19), everyone is not called to go to other locations in order to do so. "As we are going" through life in the place where God has put us, we are responsible to share the life of the Lord Jesus who has become our life.

   Disciplined activities which do not derive from a dependent attitude of faith are but a performance of "works" which are not pleasing to God. Such religiously "righteous deeds are like a filthy garment" (Isa. 64:6) in the sight of God. "Without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb. 11:6).

   Christians who are preoccupied with either their dependent attitude or their disciplined activities, rather than focusing on Jesus Christ and the receptivity of His life, are often full of pride in their particular pattern of piety. The satanic temptation to turn attention to ourselves, even to our alleged attitudes or activities of faith, serves to divert attention from Jesus Christ who is the essence of Christianity.

   Some Christians seem to waver between a dependent attitude and the disciplined activities of faith, developing a paranoia of uncertainty as to whether they are relying upon themselves or upon the dynamic of God. "Is this what I want to do, or is this what Jesus wants to do in me?" "Is this self-motivation or Christ-motivation?" "What is the will of God for me?" If a Christian has chosen in faith to be receptive to God's activity, and this is indeed the "desire of his heart," then the Christian may take it for granted that what he is doing is God's will and expressing God's character, unless it is exposed to the contrary as a selfish motivation. This is why Augustine instructed Christians to "love God and do what you want." If the Christians loves the Lord Jesus Christ with all his heart, soul, mind and strength (Luke 10:27), he will want what God wants in his life.

   Our Christians lives are to be lived in the spontaneity of trusting the life of Jesus Christ to be lived out through us. To be paralyzed with the uncertainty of paranoia preempts the faithful receptivity of God's activity. It has been said that "you can't steer a ship unless it is moving," so to avoid being "dead in the water" in our Christian lives we must take the next "step of faith" and "walk in the Spirit" (Gal. 5:16,25). If we are confident of our new identity as "Christ-ones," we can behave like who we have become by being receptive to the activity of Christ's expression of His life and character through us.

   The responsibility of the Christian is faith! "In like manner as we received Christ Jesus, we are to walk in Him," by faith (Col. 2:6). We "live by faith in the Son of God" (Gal. 2:20). God never commands us to do anything, but what he provides complete sufficiency for such by His grace. He is the dynamic of His own demands! We are only responsible to be and to do what God wants to be and do in us today. Whatever behavior is not derived from the "receptivity of God's activity" is necessarily sinful. "Whatever is not of faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23), for it will inevitably express a character and activity that is not derived from God and therefore cannot be consistent with His character.

   Christians are responsible to respond to God's grace with a volitional receptivity and availability of faith which allows God's activity to be expressed in their behavior, the life of Jesus to be lived out through them by the empowering of the Holy Spirit, unto the glory of God.


1     Murray, John, Redemption ­ Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1955. pg. 106.

2     Barclay, William, The Mind of Paul. London: Fontana Books. 1958. pg. 112.

3     Sammis, John H., "Trust and Obey."



 Man as God intended series