How can non-believers overcome destructive patterns without the Spirit’s help?

Q. The non-believer goes to various secular sources for help in areas like drugs and alcohol, anger management, eating disorders, etc. The believer goes to the Lord trusting the Holy Spirit for power to help because he’s powerless. My question is, “What is the advantage for the believer?” He sees the non-believer progressing in these areas without the Spirit’s help, doesn’t he? Are there some domains of sin where the believer can say, “I received victory in these areas only by the power of God?”

I think it’s actually inaccurate to draw a contrast between non-believers getting help from community resources without God and believers getting help from God all on their own.

On the one hand, classic Christian theology holds that those who have not yet benefited from the “special grace” of God that leads us to salvation in Jesus Christ nevertheless still benefit from the “common grace” of God that is in the world because it is God’s good creation and because God is actively exerting a redemptive influence throughout the earth. So the non-believer is not necessarily making progress in finding freedom from destructive patterns of life “without the Spirit’s help.” This is particularly true if he or she is participating in a group whose members are all working together to overcome a common problem. Human community, when it is cooperative and directed towards a positive end, reflects the character of God and can be a powerful channel of common grace.

On the other hand, the biblical portrayal of salvation is not that we are saved in isolation and need to work out our sanctification (progress towards Christ-like character and life) all alone, just between ourselves and God. Paul writes to the Corinthians, for example, regarding our entrance into the Christian life, that “we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit.” We are saved into community, not into individual self-reliance. (That’s the American individualistic version of “salvation” instead.)

So it’s not a matter of vindicating the need for faith by identifying certain areas of life where destructive patterns can only be overcome by the Holy Spirit’s help. Rather, it’s a matter of recognizing that we live out the model of life that God intended for us humans when the take part in a community whose members offer one another mutual support and encouragement. This is so powerful that it can have many beneficial effects for members even when the community is not built on a shared faith commitment. (Although many “secular” groups actually do talk about the need to rely on a “higher power.”) But I honestly believe that when followers of Jesus form close communities in which members can share their struggles honestly and receive help from people who do not judge them, but rather support and help them, even more powerful things can and do happen. That’s the kind of community I wish for you and for all of my readers.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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