Breaking the Idol of Human Effort


It’s amazing what humans are capable of. We’ve made incredible advancements in the last century alone. When you consider our breakthroughs in science, medicine, and technology, it seems there is no limit to what we can accomplish!

But there is one area where we haven’t made any progress. When it comes to spiritual matters, we are still as helpless as ever. We are still unable to break free from our sin without God’s enabling grace. And as much as we hate to admit, we can’t do anything to help others break free either.

Setting up an Idol

However, that hasn’t stopped Christians from elevating human effort above God’s supernatural power. This is what happens when you idolize free will. If you can receive God’s grace by your own volition, it is only logical that you can remain in God’s grace by your own effort.

Just as Christians remove the Holy Spirit from conversion (the process of being saved), so they remove Him from sanctification (the process of spiritual growth). They believe we can bring ourselves to maturity in Christ. By continuing to choose God on a daily basis, we keep ourselves saved.

This also affects our attitude toward church growth. If we received Jesus by our own free will, then others can receive him by theirs too. And how do we convince them to do that? Worldly means fueled by human effort.

Prayer, evangelism, and good deeds in Jesus’ name are neglected. Instead, churches put their trust in remodeling, marketing, higher performance value, or leadership theory. I’ve heard several pastors say things like, “Pastor ____ grew that church to so many people.”

There is no need for God to grow our churches; we can grow them ourselves!

Breaking down an Idol

It is blasphemous in the extreme to say we can accomplish what only God can do. Beyond that, making an idol of human effort has a pernicious effect. It essentially removes God from the Christian life as well as the life of our churches.

The Bible keeps God at the center of both. Regarding spiritual growth, it is not by our own choices that we attain higher degrees of spiritual maturity. Many quote Paul: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). They take this verse to imply we sustain our own salvation.

They fail to consider what he says next: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (2:13). Paul tells us to work out our salvation because God is working out our salvation. He gives us the willingness and motivation to live according to His will.

Neither is it by our own choices that we keep ourselves saved. Paul writes, “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). We remain saved only by the Spirit’s sustaining power.

Regarding church growth, it is not by our efforts that our churches grow. We couldn’t bring ourselves to salvation; neither can we bring others. The early church in the book of Acts depended on God’s supernatural power. They had no facilities or technology to rely on. Their only marketing strategy was to preach the gospel to as many as possible.

Luke says, “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). His wording is instructive. He doesn’t say, “They convinced others to join their number.” Neither does he say, “Many decided to join their number.” Instead, he says, “The Lord added to their number.” We don’t grow our churches; rather, GOD grows HIS church.

Finally, we should never depend on human leaders to grow our churches. And pastors shouldn’t depend on their own leadership charisma or ability. Paul (perhaps the most effective church leader ever) confessed, “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5).

Leading a church in God’s will isn’t something we can do on our own. It isn’t a matter of trying harder or making better choices. If God doesn’t make us competent, we aren’t up to the task.

Slaying the Strongman

I once saw a strongman demonstration. I remember the strongmen ripping phone books in half and bending iron bars. Maybe you’ve seen a strongman competition where the competitors carry refrigerators, pull airplanes, and complete other equally ridiculous challenges.

I’m also a fan of comics. My favorite superhero is Batman, especially for the fact that he has no superpowers. He is simply a man with indomitable willpower. It amazes me how one person can combat the crime of an entire city!

Such feats of strength influence us toward a self-made approach to spirituality. We think that by trying harder, we can break through spiritual barriers to closer levels of intimacy with God and higher numbers of church attendance. Like Batman, we too can combat the sin and unbelief in our community by our own strength.

But there is no such thing as a self-made Christian or a self-made church. In fact, the Christian life could be seen as a weak man competition. We should strive to show increasing levels of weakness before God. We must slay the strongman in each of us by relying more on His supernatural power to do the things we cannot.


Psalm 20:7 says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” This is a declaration of faith by King David. Kings in biblical times were tempted to trust in the strength of their armies, but David relied on God for victory.

We often look down on Israel and Judah as we read the Old Testament. We remark how stupid they were to rely on their army, foreign nations, or idols. Why would anyone trust in chariots and horses instead of God?

But we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. We too are guilty of putting our trust in idols. Not statues of false gods, per se; but idols nonetheless. It is natural to trust in ourselves. It also natural to trust in what we can see, such as baptism and buildings.

We must remember that in and of themselves, these things are lifeless and dead. They are useless when it comes to salvation apart from the grace and power of God. It’s time to cast aside idols and “trust in the name of the LORD our God.”

This series has shown how we make idols of free will, baptism, and human effort. What other idols can you identify in the modern church? Share your thoughts with a comment below!


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