Debunking the Gospel of Personal Victory

I have known Jesus since I was fifteen. I have been seriously studying His word since I was twenty. I mean more than simply reading or hearing someone talk about it on Sunday morning. What I mean by seriously studying is that I began to try to really understand what God had written through these human authors and wrestle with the actual claims of Scripture. I have been doing this for almost ten years now. The depth of Scripture amazes me. Still, as I read the text, I find things that cause me to have to change what I think. It’s like sincerely reading God’s word has been this series of defeats for me regarding my own theology and my own thoughts. I still feel like I have barely scratched the surface of what the Bible has to say.

My ministry has been much the same. I started out with a plan and a dream. My ministry has been a constant process of God doing something completely different, using me in ways that I had not planned. Over the years God has taken the time to systematically defeat my plans, humble me, and place me where He wants me to be. Never did I dream that God would use me in the capacity that He currently is, but I had to be defeated in order to have this wonderful place in the kingdom of God. Then, I hear all these people who claim to know God talking about claiming victory and being an overcomer and slaying giants and pleading the blood. This gospel of personal victory is exactly the opposite of what Christ has done in my own life. I have seen God win many victories in my life, but they are always His victories.

God has been working things together. He has called and raised up a priest who will do all that is in His mind and soul (2:35), and we arrive at this part of the narrative.

1 Samuel 4:1-11

And Samuel’s words came to all Israel.

Israel went out to meet the Philistines in battle and camped at Ebenezer while the Philistines camped at Aphek. The Philistines lined up in battle formation against Israel, and as the battle intensified, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who struck down about 4,000 men on the battlefield.

When the troops returned to the camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the Lord let us be defeated today by the Philistines? Let’s bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh. Then it will go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.” So the people sent men to Shiloh to bring back the ark of the covenant of the Lord of Hosts, who dwells between the cherubim. Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. When the ark of the covenant of the Lord entered the camp, all the Israelites raised such a loud shout that the ground shook.

The Philistines heard the sound of the war cry and asked, “What’s this loud shout in the Hebrews’ camp?” When the Philistines discovered that the ark of the Lord had entered the camp, they panicked. “The gods have entered their camp!” they said. “Woe to us, nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us, who will rescue us from the hand of these magnificent gods? These are the gods that slaughtered the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. Show some courage and be men, Philistines! Otherwise, you’ll serve the Hebrews just as they served you. Now be men and fight!”

So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and each man fled to his tent. The slaughter was severe — 30,000 of the Israelite foot soldiers fell. The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

Who are the Philistines? (v. 1)

The Philistines are natives in the land of Canaan living in a province known as Philistia, which is, at the time of Samuel, west of Judah, south of Dan, and northeast of the Sinai Peninsula. 

If we go back and read Judges 2:1-5, we see that the Philistines were left in the land intentionally by God.

Now the angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land which I have sworn to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you, and as for you, you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed Me; what is this you have done? Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they will become as thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.’”

When the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the sons of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. So they named that place Bochim; and there they sacrificed to the Lord.

Any time we see the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament, it is the pre-incarnate Christ. First, we see Jesus promise that He will keep His own covenant. Then we also see that Jesus is leaving some Canaanites, including the Philistines, in the land so that they will be as thorns in the sides of God’s people and so that their gods will be a snare to God’s people. Jesus was doing this thing on purpose and the effects were intentional on Jesus’ part. God has always been in the business of defeating His people for their own good as He does all His will and as His people are sanctified from their unrighteous nature.

There are several types of enemies in the land today, including false churches, militant Islam, Hindu extremism, and cultural, social, or academic dissent. This is all a necessary part of God’s plan as He chooses, calls, and sanctifies a people among the nations for Himself.

The difference between God’s work and ours (v. 2-3)

Even when the Israelites are defeated in battle, they recognize that it is God working together all things and nothing is beyond His control or beyond His authoritative rule. It is the Lord who defeats and the Lord who has the authority to deliver.

The Israelites go to battle, as they often do, against the Philistine armies. The Philistine military decimates the Israelites. When the survivors return to the war camp, Israel’s leaders ask, “Why did the Lord defeat us today before the Philistines?”

If we are going to believe that God is working all things together, that He has all authority, then we must also believe that God, in His sovereign providence, provides both victory and defeat. The Israelites most certainly believed this. They had a robust theology of God’s sovereignty, a theology that is lost on our society today and I think that is a travesty.

Remember Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2? It is God who breaks the bows of the warriors and clothes the feeble with strength (2:4). It is God who brings death and gives life; it is God who sends some down to Sheol and raises others up (2:6). This idea, God’s sovereignty especially as it works out in Christ, is scary. In the modern church, we have failed to think about it despite the fact that the text of Scripture is clear throughout her story that God is working all things together.

God defeats Israel in the presence of the Philistines. The Israelites know this. Yet, they presume that they can do something like bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant to earn some sort of victory. There is the same sort of disconnect between our thinking and our action, between our heads and our hearts. The Israelites had a clear and robust theology of God’s sovereignty, but for some reason, it didn’t carry over. Their hearts are hard, and we are naturally disposed to this same tendency. That is part of our essential depraved nature.

We have seen that Hophni and Phinehas are sons of Belial. We have seen that God desires to put them to death. We have seen that atonement will never be made for them. They exploited the Law in order to gain for themselves because they were slaves of their unrighteous nature. In the same way, the Israelites, here, were going to try exploiting God’s ark to win some sort of physical victory for themselves. We often exploit Christ’s message. We will either try to exploit what God has given to us for our good or we will surrender to His word and plan. Christ’s throne is the one being prepared through 1 Samuel, not ours.

True evidence of God’s work in our lives (v. 4-11)

As we continue, we see two figures from 1 Samuel 2 make a reappearance, Hophni and Phinehas. These were Eli’s sons who habitually embezzled from the sacrifices that were being made to the Lord, causing all of Israel to break the Law of God. God had promised, due to Eli’s negligence in this matter, to cut off Eli’s family and raise up for Himself a priest who would do all that was in His own heart and mind. This priest was Samuel. God was using this battle (yes, working it together) to fulfill His own promise. The Israelites thought that bringing God’s ark into battle would help them win. God was even working together this self-righteous, works-based mentality to accomplish His own work. Hophni and Phinehas, who bore the responsibility to go with the ark, would be killed in battle (v. 11). When the ark arrived, the Israelites shouted and the Philistines were fearful. Both the Philistines and the Israelites assumed that God’s presence was bound to this material object. The Philistines, who over the previous 300 years had contended with Israel, feared the power of the Israelite God, “These are the gods that slaughtered the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness.”

God had worked things out in such a way through history that the Philistines recognized His power, even if they did not understand who He was.

I want to be very clear about this. God does not and cannot sin. Do we see His authority working out in this text? God said that He would do something. He is working it out. He is working it out even by working together human pridefulness and sin. God does not have to sin to have authority over sinfulness. In fact, if God does not have authority over sinfulness, then He is incapable of forgiving sin or atoning for sin. God does these things. He forgives. Through Christ (God the Son) He has atoned. I am so thankful that God has authority over sin and over human pride! So, as He works all things together, all people are being drawn to recognize Him as absolute Lord. This is what we mean when we say that God receives all glory. He doesn’t receive glory because I make some attribution to Him. He receives all glory because it is literally Him who works all things together. God is glorified. The rocks cry out (Luke 19:40). History bears His signature. The sunset He paints every evening at dusk causes us to recognize the artist. The heavens declare the majesty of God (Psalm 19:1) He is the source and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). All things are from Him, through Him and to Him (Romans 11:36). God is the artist, He is the author, He is the master engineer, and He is the landscaper. By His word, gravity pulls planets and solar systems and galaxies together. By His brush, the clouds roll across the sky with shades of pink and yellow and blue. By His pen, the annals of human history unfold. By His breath, we were given physical life. By His grace we are born again, not by works so that no one can boast; we are His workmanship (Ephesians 2:8-10). God receives all glory as He works all things for His purposes.

The power of God was never contained in the ark of God, but, as we remember from verse 3, God has complete authority over and in every event. He brought the destruction of Hophni and Phinehas just as He had promised earlier.

God is the one working all things together. God is the one who receives all glory. This is why we preach a Gospel of grace, not of human works. As we see with the Israelites, our works don’t accomplish the things of God, especially salvation. God gives. It’s a gift. There is nothing we can do or have to do to receive this gift. In popular Christianity, we often get the order wrong. Through Scripture, this is clear: God chooses and calls a people for Himself, then His people repent and follow after Him.

This is what we have seen over the past few weeks in 1 Samuel. God, by grace, saves us out of our own unrighteousness and rebellion. As God saves us, our response is repentance and change and obedience. God may be calling some into salvation as this is being read. Romans 10:9-10 states that if we believe with our hearts that Christ was raised from the dead and confess with our mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord, we will be saved. Not that we will save ourselves by our confession, but that we will be saved. Is God calling you by grace? He will accomplish this salvation for us, on our behalf. In fact, He has already accomplished it in Christ. That is why we can have faith in Him.

A works-based gospel is exactly the same as a gospel of personal victory. If you do this, you will receive this thing or overcome something. If you have faith in Christ, you will receive peace, comfort, blessing, or wealth on this earth. If you follow these rules, pray the sinner’s prayer, or say the ABC’s of salvation, you will receive the love of God. They are the same, and it is not what we read in any part of God’s Bible. I’m not saying that God can’t use the sinner’s prayer or the ABC’s of salvation as tools, but we have to recognize what the Scriptures mean when they state that salvation is by grace, through faith. It is 100% a gift of God and everything that would imply.

Here is what this means for true, biblical victory. God isn’t necessarily interested in our material wealth or our overcoming something. He owns everything. God isn’t necessarily interested in our worldly success (as we clearly see in 1 Samuel 4). The numerical growth of a local church or church network can be a worldly pursuit. God is interested in His purpose. He is winning His own victory. He is interested in a good for His people that reaches further than even our mere survival on this earth. God is working together something far greater than we could imagine.

We read the words of Jesus during His bodily ministry on this earth,

“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. So if the light within you is darkness — how deep is that darkness!

No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be slaves of God and of money” (Matthew 6:19-24).

Do we understand the depth of what Jesus is getting at? We cannot serve both worldly prosperity or personal victory and Christ. This is especially true for the local church body as she does ministry. If our goal is worldly prosperity or works based righteousness or corporate victory, we will hate Christ and the things of Christ. If we are trying to contribute to our salvation in some way or have expected that because we pretend to love God that He will grant temporary happiness, peace, success or make us comfortable in this life, we show that we are full of darkness. The fruit reveals the root. If the light within us is darkness, how deep is that darkness? If we are outwardly religious because we think that is the thing that pleases God, we prove that our darkness is deep. Salvation is by grace! True prosperity is eternal and is worked out by God, not us. This is not only a deeply convicting truth but also a freeing one.

This is quite different from the Gospel of Personal Victory. God’s will is done. People are humbled. God is revealed. This will ultimately work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. Christ’s throne is established within creation. True Christian victory ultimately surpasses these cheap substitutes that the world gives us. It is not found in the exaltation of self but in the exaltation of Christ. God is claiming His victory, and we will either stand with Him or be defeated as we try to win our own victories. God isn’t on our team. He has chosen and is calling a people for His own team. If God is calling us, our response is simple surrender. We don’t have to try to claim that personal victory. We don’t have to try to exploit the word or will of God. God isn’t disappointed in us because this thing never depended on us. It depends on Christ. The victory depends on Christ. Christ is the one exalted. We simply surrender. We stop trying to exploit Christ’s word and power for our own sake. We stop convincing ourselves that victory somehow depends on something we do or don’t. Something about surrendering to the sovereignty and providence of God over and in all things frees us and causes us to be content.

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