I was looking for something on the internet recently and came across the following statement on a Christian website, “He will use you, but you must allow Him to work through your heart.” There is nothing surprising or unique about finding this kind of statement on a Christian site. In fact, many believers say this kind of thing all the time. It is not a quotation of any particular biblical text but those who say these kinds of things are clearly trying to communicate something that they believe is central to the teaching of the Bible. What is it exactly that they are trying to say? Is it biblical?
To begin unpacking this we must understand what is meant by the term “allow” in this context. Generally when these kinds of statements are made no definition is given. The speaker or writer typically assumes that a particular understanding is conveyed, but like most English words, the verb “allow” has a range of meanings. It is not at all clear that everyone who makes these statements intends to communicate the same thing. There are at least four common definitions for “allow” and each would suggest a different interpretation.
The first definition given in most English dictionaries is “to grant permission”. Taken this way, the phrase suggests that humans must grant permission to God in order for Him to use them or work in their hearts. This implies that human beings have authority over the acts of God in at least some areas. Probably most who use these phrases do not intend to say this, but some certainly do. The problem with this view is that it stands in opposition to every explicit statement in scripture about God’s authority and His relationship to humanity. In every case in the Bible where the concepts of authority and permission are in view it is God who is granting or denying. It never goes the other way.
The second definition is “to make possible or to provide an opportunity”. This seems to be what is meant by most who talk about our need to “allow” God to work in us. The idea is that although God has the authority to act He will not do so unless we cooperate with Him. His character is such that He waits for us to invite Him to work in our lives. The idea is that God woos us and draws us but we must yield to Him if we are to be used by Him. There are no explicit verses in the Bible teaching that God respects our freedom so much that He refrains from working in us until invited. The concept is developed from various passages that indicate that humans have the ability to resist God and His Spirit (Rom. 6:16, 19; Eph. 4:30, Acts 7:51, etc.). Of course, the Bible does teach that humans can resist God. In fact, it teaches that all humans resist God. The question is if there is some point, at which God will act unilaterally to overcome that resistance. This is essentially the issue involved in the debate about the doctrine of irresistible grace. We all resist God and in sin none of us seeks to cooperate with Him or submit to him (Rom. 3:23-24). This is the essence of grace, that it is God who overcomes our resistance and makes us alive spiritually (Eph. 2:4-6, John 6:44, 63-65, etc.). If it is true that God takes the initiative to overcome our resistance and continues to work in us to sanctify us and give us the power to live the Christian life (Phil. 2:12-13, John 3:21, Eph. 2:10) then He is not limited by or waiting for us to grant Him permission to work. Indeed, we are spiritually incapable of initiating the process (1 Cor. 2:14, 2 Cor. 3:5, Rom. 8:7-8). In the end we recognize that far from responding to us, His work to save us and work in us began long before we were even born (Eph. 1:3-5).
The third definition is “to grant that a piece of information has legal standing”. Since it is God who judges and we who are to be judged this does not seem to be the meaning intended. We certainly have no standing by which to render judgment over the criteria that God would use in His heavenly court (1 Tim. 6:15).
The final common definition is “to admit or accept the truth of a proposition”. I doubt that most people intend anything like this meaning when they talk about “allowing God to work” but in a sense this is the definition that would be the most biblical in its application. The definition is speaking of intellectual assent but if we truly believe something then our desire will be to act in accordance with that belief. In this way, this definition is consistent with the way Paul and the other Apostles generally encouraged the churches. In each of his letters, Paul begins by laying the doctrinal foundation of what God has done through Christ for those who believe. Paul then builds upon that doctrinal foundation by encouraging the believers to live and work in a way that is consistent with those truths. The life of the believer is an acknowledgment of the truth of what God has done and is doing. The Christian life is an act of worship and is a reasonable expression of gratefulness for the work of God and a testimony to it (Rom. 12:1-2). The apostles repeatedly encourage the saints to live consistently with who they actually are.
In this way to speak of “allowing” God to work in our lives is simply another way of saying that we must submit to God in recognition of the Truth. If we will be productive and faithful servants we must be transformed by that truth or else we testify that we are not His. Our great privilege is that God has chosen to work in us and through us. We should therefore submit to Him, listen to His word, and honor Him. If that is what is meant by “allowing” God to work in our lives then I add my Amen.
We have no authority to exercise power over God in any way, neither does He require our permission should He choose to work in our lives. We do not influence how He judges and works (Job 40:2). If any of this is what is intended by “allow” then I think it is a boldness that we should be cautious about because I do not find it in the Bible. Salvation from start to finish is of the Lord (Heb. 12:2).