For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:9-10).
Our generation continues to struggle with the concept of pleasing God. Even though we know that we are justified by faith in the merits of Christ alone, for some reason we balk at the thought of a justified believer pleasing God by good works. Sometimes an old equivocation of terms is employed to argue against the idea of the believer pleasing God i.e. we speak against works for sanctification by employing verses that speak against works for justification. We say that the believer can’t please God by his good works because the Bible tells us that we should “Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1).
Sometimes an old theological misunderstanding is employed to argue against the believer pleasing God i.e. someone will say, “I was so relieved when I found that I should stop trying to do things myself and simply allow God to do it all through me.” But is the believer’s progressive holiness to be as passive as his positional salvation? The relationship between justification and sanctification has always been debated by various denominations (in fact it has created many of those denominations). Louis Berkhof said it well when he wrote, “While the meritorious cause of both lies in the merits of Christ, there is a difference in the efficient cause. Speaking economically, God the Father declares the sinner righteous, and God the Holy Spirit sanctifies him.”1 That is, salvation is “Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:9-10).
Sometimes an old semantic argument is employed against pleasing God. Does God accept us as we are? We want to say yes because we understand that God saved us without any merit of our own. But then we realize that it is because He could not accept us as we were that the righteousness of Christ had to be applied to us. Even in sanctification God does not leave us where we are but continues to change us into the image of Christ. Why? Because He does not accept us as we are. In all of this, however, we know that we are always “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6) because of the work of Christ. As Paul Hartog wrote in a recent article on Christian Culture, “The good news reaches us where we are but has no intention of simply leaving us there.”2
In all of this, there is still an old obligation the believer has to the very words of Scripture. The fact is, the Bible often tells the believer that he ought to strive to please God. Paul encouraged the Thessalonians, “That as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more” (1 Thes. 4:1). In the New Testament, in the light of Christ’s finished work, this concept appears again and again and we can’t avoid it. We know there is no conflict in this command and in our salvation by grace alone. The most common word for pleasing (arestos, please; arest?, to please; arestia, pleasing), is a simple word with no surprise in its English translation. Neither do less common words (e.g. eudoke?, to seem good) cause problems as the following categories show.
Jesus always pleased God
Jesus Himself said, “I do always those things that please Him” (John 8:29). Paul wrote, “For even Christ pleased not himself” (Rom. 15:3) meaning that He pleased only God. In turn, God was pleased with Christ when He said, “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17); or, “For it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell” (Col. 1:19).
Jesus was obviously not trying to earn His own salvation, but in a real way was earning ours. We could even say that this was the only true legalism, that He kept the whole law and did it for our sakes. Here, in its simplest form, however, to “please” means to do those things that God wants one to do. Hebrews chapter 10 takes Christ’s obedience to a higher level when we find that God had prepared a body for the Son (“A body hast thou prepared for me,” vs. 5) so that the Son could say with the Psalmist, “Lo, I come to do thy will, O God” (vs. 9). That body, sinless as it was, was equipped with intellect, emotion, and will which Jesus utilized to the fullest in order to perform the will of God to His pleasing. Even in the garden, against every cry of His human nature, Jesus still performed the Father’s will with His flesh which became our veil into God’s presence.
The lost cannot please God
“But without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb. 11:6). “So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). A man without the Spirit of God does not have the spiritual capability to do things acceptable by God. He is going about doing good because he hopes to be accepted by those good things before God. Though a lost man may be doing things God created human beings to do, he still does not please God that way.
We, however, who are already accepted in the Beloved, can do those things that are pleasing to God because our very fallen nature has been radically reoriented to include the Holy Spirit in a new creation. The lost man’s intellect, emotion, and will are at odds with God and do not seek after God. The expressions of his fallen nature make up the “world” or “culture.” “Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:3).
We are not to please men
“For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I yet please men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). “But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts” (1 Thes. 2:4). We are not even to please ourselves! “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification. For even Christ pleased not himself” (Rom. 15:1-3a).
The seeming contradiction here between not pleasing men and yet pleasing our neighbor for his good only keeps our good works in proper perspective. We could seek to please men to the point of idolatry, putting them higher in priority than God. This cannot be done even with our own loved ones (Luke 14:26). Yet we can seek to win our neighbor to Christ by doing those things that bring conviction and witness to his conscience. Those would be good and edifying.
We can do good works that please God
As Jesus was incarnated into a body in order to please God, so we are given this “space” in order to use it for God’s glory. This must also include our intellect, emotion, and will. God does not do good works through us without us. He does not intend for us to be volitionally passive. Our very decision to move, to think, to do, is the stewardship we have from God. Yes, it is God working in us, but not God working without us. Just as an athlete is coached and trained, when he swings at the pitch, he must do it himself and allow all of that training to come out at that moment. He may hit the ball or he may strike out. More training and practice will cause him to do better the next time. He can’t do it without the coach, but the coach will not do it without him.
A single man can please God because he has time to apply himself. “He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32). A believer can please God in his Christian walk: “That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing” (Col. 1:10); “That as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more” (1 Thes. 4:1). Children can please God by obeying their parents: “Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well-pleasing unto the Lord” (Col. 3:20). Believers can have a successful prayer life by obeying God: “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” (1 John 3:22). There is no conflict between a believer’s walk of faith and his striving to please God. “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God” (Heb. 11:5).
We can do sinful things that displease God
The Israelites all passed through the Red Sea, “But with many of them God was not well-pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted” (1 Cor. 10:5-6). Obviously if the Scripture admonishes us to do things that are pleasing to God, it is entirely possible for us not to do those things. In this way, every command of Scripture is a way to please God or a way to not please Him. When we were first saved we may have thought we were really struggling to overcome nasty habits, or to stop swearing or stealing or such like. We couldn’t have known then that the unseen things such as our thoughts and motives would become far greater challenges. “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). But where there is deeper water to tread, there is more calmness and serenity and a sweeter walk with the Lord.
God does certain things to help us please Him
Why does God bother with chastisement? If we are always pleasing to Him and our ways are always acceptable, why does He desire to enact change in us? God does this precisely because we are sons and not strangers, because He loves us and desires to see us grow and become useful to Him. A parent that loves a son or daughter does not leave him/her without training. Only selfish parents do that. Why would God purge the branches on the vine and even more so the productive ones? Is it not to have them bear even more fruit? Why would God send trials into believers’ lives if He loves them? “Thou therefore endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. . . . That [you] may please him who hath chosen [you] to be a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:3-4).
What is the difference in our position before these things and after? How has God changed in His desire toward us before and after the trial? Isn’t the answer to that the same as our definition for pleasing God? And isn’t that what the Bible means when it uses that word?
And So . . . .
As a believer I should fully understand that God has saved me and that I am eternally secure in Him. I do not work to remain saved nor fear for my salvation when I do sin. Yet the Scripture teaches me, and all of life reminds me, that I am still in the flesh and will be growing in Christ until the day I die; that this world is a broken world and full of good things and bad which I can use for God’s glory or my own; that God wants me to choose the right and shun the wrong and that to do so is to please God who has called me into His service. If God could not be displeased with sin He would not be God. Yet in Christ He can accept me for eternal life; He can be Just and Justifier of all who come to Him by Christ. And all the while, doing good works and striving for maturity is a satisfying and rewarding walk, “for with such sacrifices God is well-pleased” (Heb. 13:16).
Notes: 1. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) 514. 2. Paul Hartog, “Toward A Christian Approach To Culture,” Faith Pulpit, May/June 2009.