By Justin Rossow
We couldn’t get to the back part of our property most of the summer; it rained more than usual this spring, and it turns out I have some designated wetlands in my backyard. (Really!) The water rose higher and stayed longer, and we were mostly cut off from the trails that meander through trees, thistles, and brush to make a crisscrossing pattern out of the way back of our back yard.
Before we can use those trails again, I’ll have to do some cutting. Most of the tracks are completely overgrown with weeds or thorns. I’ll even have some small trees to remove. Before we can walk that way again, a path will need to be cleared.
Clearing a path by removing obstacles so you can move forward: that’s what the New Testament Greek word προκοπή (prokopé) is all about. It’s a combination of pro- (in front of or before) and kóptō (to beat or cut down). The crowds on Palm Sunday, for example, cut down (kóptō) branches to use in the parade (Matt 21:8; Mark 11:8).
As a noun, prokopé refers to progress that you make, the advancement of moving forward; but it also entails removing any obstacles to your progress.
Pioneers could enjoy prokopé by cutting a path into the wilderness. In a similar way, advancing armies trying to get from point A, over the field, to point B, through the woods, had to do some chopping before they found any prokopé. For my part, if I want any prokopé in the back my property next spring, I’ll have to clear the way.
We often shy away from words like advancement or even progress when it comes to faith. Maybe with think “doing better” is an extension of “doing good,” and we want to make sure to avoid works righteousness. “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him,” we would say with Martin Luther.
And it’s true: some ways the Bible has for talking about faith and following don’t admit your action, let alone your progress. You used to be dead in your transgressions and sins, but now you have already been raised to new life in Christ (Ephesians 2:5): you can’t make yourself any less dead or more alive. You were once far off and not a people, and now in Christ you have been brought near and made part of the family of God (Ephesians 2:13, 19): you can’t make yourself any more of the family than you already are; that would be silly. And you can’t get yourself any nearer: God dwells in you by the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22); you can’t get any nearer than that!
But some other biblical ways of talking about faith and following aren’t a single point, either/or, once for all. Some are cyclical, like fruit-bearing (Galatians 5 and John 15). And some are even linear, where you do actually grow up, or mature, or move forward, or even advance.
You are supposed to move forward in faith, take a small next step, and make some progress, even in the face of all kinds of obstacles. Advancing in your faith is actually part of the joy of following Jesus.
So Paul says to the Philippians:
I know that I will remain and continue with you all,
for your progress and joy in the faith.
Philippians 1:25 (ESV)
You guessed it: that “progress” word is prokopé: advancement that comes from cutting down the trees and brush that stand in your way.
Paul has just used the verb form of the noun prokopé in Philippians 1:12 to say that even his own arrest and imprisonment has served to advance or promote the Gospel: that’s prokóptō, to move forward by cutting down.
Contemplating whether he would rather die in prison and be with Jesus (which would be awesome!), or remain to continue his work, Paul knows he is going to abide a little longer with the Philippians. The result of his work is their progress in the faith as well as their joy: you could almost say Paul’s calling is to help people delight in taking a next step following Jesus.
Paul is, of course, a Grace Alone, Faith Alone kind of guy. He is, after all, the one who wrote:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)
That’s definitely a punctiliar, either/or, once for all way of talking. But Paul doesn’t only talk like that.
The chapter after Paul says he is going to remain longer with the Philippians, for their progress in the faith and their joy, Paul gives them an assignment while they wait to see him again:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…
Philippians 2:12 (NIV)
That doesn’t sound like either/or, once for all! It doesn’t even sound cyclical! Working out your salvation probably means moving forward, maybe even with the hard work of cutting a way through the woods.
We don’t have to wait long for Grace Alone, Faith Alone Paul to return, however. The very next verse completes his sentence and puts us back on more familiar footing:
…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Philippians 2:13 (ESV)
According to Paul, God is not only enabling you to do the things that bring God delight—that is, God’s good purpose (NIV) or good pleasure (ESV)—God is also giving you the gift of wanting to do or even delighting in the things that bring God delight. (The verb “to will” here is a desirable delight word I have written about elsewhere.)
In other words, God is actively at work both in your doing and in your wanting to do. You don’t get extra credit for either your motivation or your action: salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. At the same time, you can trust that God is at work for you, even in your own willing and doing!
As we make progress on the journey of faith, we never leave behind complete dependence on Jesus. When it comes to trust, advancing might just meaning becoming more and more aware of how much you desperately need Jesus for absolutely everything!
Along with dependence on Jesus, you will discover all kind of other habits and behaviors that belong to a life of following, like reading Scripture, or praying, or hearing the Word and putting it into practice. Sometimes making progress in those routine habits of discipleship will be an uphill battle. Sometime, to move forward, you might even have to cut down a few obstacles and clear a path.
Maybe the alerts on your phone for every email, text message, or calendar event are getting in the way of making progress in focused time in the Word. Maybe the constant demands of an entertainment culture during football season are standing in front of more regular worship or Bible study. Maybe the dialog patterns you have adopted from social media almost by osmosis are preventing you from making progress in loving your neighbor or speaking kindly to your spouse.
Look around, and the forest seems impassible. You might as well give up and go home. You aren’t going to advance down that path without cutting down some trees. And clearing trees is a lot of work!
“I cannot by my own reason or strength…” That’s true of saving faith; but it’s also true of clearing a path forward and making some progress on the faith journey.
The Spirit who calls, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps you has not only made you alive and brought you near and made you a Temple of the very Presence of God, the Spirit also works in you both to will and to do.
The motivation to go find an ax isn’t yours to self-generate. The power and ability to cut a path and move forward doesn’t belong to you.
You get to be actively engaged–you actually get to cut down and haul away and move forward–and that progress brings you real joy. But the doing (and even the wanting to do) is only lived out in dependence on the same Spirit who calls you by the Gospel and gives even the faith that receives the gift.
Next spring, I’m going to have to spend some time clearing a path through thistles and weeds and brush and even a few trees. The result will be a way the allows me to move forward and make progress.
Sometimes I can feel stuck in my faith walk. Sometimes the number of obstacles in my way can feel kind of overwhelming.
At those times, I rely again on the God who saves by grace, through faith.
And then I continue to rely on the God who is actively at work in both my doing and my wanting to do. So I expect that clearing a path to move forward will not only bring me joy, but will bring God joy, as well.
At least, that’s what Paul says.
I guess I’ll have to try it and find out.