Spirit vs. Flesh

One of the constant sources of conflict in living the supernatural Christian life is our flesh.  Not in the biology sense of our physical skin, but in the biblical sense of our flesh being the source of our sinward inclinations.  Remember, sin was not eradicated at the new birth.  It only had a change in status (it no longer reigns) and our relationship to it (we are no longer slaves).  Sin’s presence and nature still exist in the believer and its summary term, the flesh, is the source of many a conflict.

Our role in the conflict with the flesh is two-fold.  First, we are to choose the way of the Spirit over the way of the flesh.  “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.  For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another” (Gal 5:17-18).  Believers have a choice.  We can choose the way of the Spirit in keeping with who we are or we can choose the way of the flesh.  The Spirit and the flesh are opposing entities each vying for our allegiance.

The same choice is set before us in Romans 6:12-13, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.”  Do not let sin reign.  Do not let sin back on the throne.  Do not go back into sin’s employ.  Remember, sin is still present in the believer; it just lost its employee, its slave.  Don’t go back to work for your former master.  Choose to obey your new master.

Secondly, we are to crucify the flesh.  “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passion and desires” (Gal 5:24).  This “death to the flesh” includes both the one-time choice to follow Christ and our continual habit of crucifying the flesh.  The flesh was dealt a death blow at our conversion, but, like the bad guy in a horror movie, keeps coming back (albeit with less power) and must be repulsed again and again.  We seek to destroy that about the flesh that gives it its strength and power.

Crucifying the flesh also has two aspects.  On the positive side, we run to practice God’s commands.  By the implantation and practice of the Spirit’s fruits; “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23), we weaken the influence of the flesh.

At the same time we avoid situations and habits that strengthen the flesh.  We consider what occasions sin uses to its advantage and act carefully.  John Owen wrote in 1656 in The Mortification of Sin, “Consider what ways, what kinds of company, what opportunities, what studies, what occupations, what conditions have at any time given, or do usually give, advantages to your sins, and set yourself against them all.  Men will do this with their bodily infirmities.  The season, the diet, and the air that have proved offensive are avoided.  Are things of the soul of less importance?”

Walking in the Spirit

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal 5:17).  Up to now, our posts have explained the foundational aspects of our new identity.  When we embrace the gospel message of Jesus Christ, we become a new creation with a new nature, a new master, new clothes, and a new heart.  We have also done the accounting to register these new facts in our ledger.  At this point we might say, “So what?”

How does this knowledge affect our daily thoughts, choices, and actions?  How do we address our besetting or recurring sins?  Does a new identity mean sinless perfection is possible?  Or at the other extreme, does sin even matter now that we have been set free from the law?  So far, we have developed the basis for our new position in Christ that became effective the hour we believed.  This is “positional sanctification”; the setting apart and equipping for holiness that happened when we accepted Christ’s gift.  Now we want to address how we move forward from here.  This is “progressive sanctification”; the continual setting apart as we become more like Christ over time.

Paul summarizes how we are to proceed in Galatians 5:17, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”  Our victory over sin and the flesh was won at the cross.  Experiencing the fruit or result of that victory is another matter altogether.  When we walk in the Spirit, we take the truth we know in fact and begin to live it in experience.  On the flip side, if I do not walk in the Spirit, then what is true of me in fact is not expressed through me.

Walking in the Spirit is not about willpower, but about trust in God’s promise of provision in our conflict with sin.  Walking in the Spirit is not trust in a set of rules, but a constant dependence on and communication with God Himself.  Instead of a determined effort to change myself, I reckon myself dead to sin and rely on the Holy Spirit to change me into a person of humility, generosity, patience, etc.  In essence, walking in the Spirit is walking by faith that is energized by love.  We have come round now to the heart of living out what has already happened inside.  Faith and Love, although somewhat abstract and difficult to measure, are critical to the task at hand.  They are indeed the twin pillars upon which we will build the supernatural Christian life.

Accounting 101

“Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8) is a fact of Scripture that we are quite comfortable with.  If you are part of God’s family, you are not only comfortable with that fact, but you believe it.  So what do you think of the fact stated one chapter later, “Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” (Rom 6:6-7)?  The fact that “our old self died with Christ…” carries the same scriptural weight as “Christ died for us”, something we readily accept and embrace.  So what does God want us to do with “our old self died with Christ…”?

God wants us to do some bookkeeping.  God wants us to enter this fact into our ledger.  “Even so reckon yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11).  Because our old self was crucified with Christ (Rom 6:6), God is asking us to go to the ledger and remove our name from the “sinner by nature” column and instead place it in the “dead to sin” column.  A little cut and paste, if you will.  The Greek word, logizomai, translated “reckon” in Romans 6:11 is an accounting term.  And proper accounting, as we have learned from numerous business scandals, is the recording of facts, not fabrications.  God is asking us to record a fact that is true.  The fact is, the life of Christ has been planted in us by the new birth and its nature is not to commit sin (I Jn 3:9).  And God would not ask us to put in our ledger something that is not true.

Satan, on the other hand, has made a living out of challenging divine fact (Gen 3:4).  Why?  Because lying and deceit are at the center of Satan’s nature.  Jesus said, “[The devil] was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).

Satan’s work continues today in his suggestion that we doubt God’s divine facts.  And his exhibit A is our daily experience.  Satan holds up a mirror to our life and asks, “Does this look like someone who resembles the moral excellence of Christ?”  Satan, the accuser, says you aren’t good enough to receive the promise of a life set free from the power of sin.

How should we respond to this accusation?  After all, maybe our experience with sin does not line up with God’s promise about its diminished power.  We start by going to the ledger, going to God’s Word and believing what is written there.  This is a critical fork in the road.  Are we going to believe Satan’s accusation or God’s divine fact?  Are we going to turn the mirror back to Satan and show him Christ’s image etched on our new heart?  When we go through the reckoning exercise and believe what is written in the ledger, we are ready to tackle the next question.  “How do I put the divine fact to work in my day-to-day conflict with sin?”  The short answer is by walking in the Spirit.  The long answer is what the remainder of this blog is all about.

The Discipleship Earthquake

I am taking a one-post break from our new identity train of thought for this exciting development.  As a geophysicist, I am familiar with the physics of earthquakes; their magnitude, the tsunamis they produce, their precursors, and their aftershocks.  Precursors are hard to identify until after the fact, but most major earthquakes give some signal that something big is coming.  In the spiritual world, I believe we are feeling the precursors of a coming “discipleship earthquake.”  This idea was reinforced by the cover headline, “A Discipleship Revolution” on the latest issue of Mission Frontiers magazine.  The publication is available online and I highly recommend it.

Over the last century, by the grace of God and the work of His servants, the gospel message has reached around the globe.  People groups of all kind from urban to rural, simple to sophisticated, religious to pagan have turned to Christ.  But this turn to the gospel has not always been followed by a continuation to discipleship; the movement to Christian growth and maturity in communities and individuals.  In many places, a new “Christian” majority has been unable to lift their country out of political corruption, family dysfunction, petty crime, or a syncretistic mix of Christianity and local religion.

But all of this is about to change.  In the Great Commission (Mt 28:18-20), Jesus empowers and instructs His followers to Go, Baptize, Make disciples, and Teach.  The “Go’ and the “Baptize” have brought the gospel to millions of new believers.  But the “Make disciples” and “Teach” is only now catching up.  But catching up it is, like a rubber band being slowly stretched over time with little movement that has now let go and is flying forward.

And the flying forward is being accelerated by love.  Our previous error, myself included, was to think that filling one’s head with knowledge was the key to Christian growth.  In “teaching them to observe the commandments” have we focused so strongly on having the “right answers” that we ignored teaching the greatest commandment of all; to love God and love others?  We move true discipleship forward when we teach believers to love as God loves.  “Let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24).

The discipleship revolution is being fueled by love.  If we love Christ, we will obey His commands (Jn 14:15).  If we love others, we will serve them (Gal 5:13).  It is really that simple, no caveats, no exceptions.  And it is taking off in a million acts of love from Jars of Clay’s 1000 wells project to home building missions in Juarez, Mexico to serving a Thanksgiving meal to your family and friends.

The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization recently concluded in Cape Town, South Africa.  The conference brought together a diverse group of mission leaders and strategists.  As always with this type of event, a statement of belief was produced.  When John Stott, elder statesman of the sponsor organization, looked over the first draft, he approved, “Evangelicals usually write statements that affirm or deny, but this is the language of love.”

A New Heart

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer 17:9).  The word “heart” is the most common and complete description of man’s essential essence in the Bible.  The heart is the center of our thoughts, intents, motives, understanding, choices, and actions.  In its unregenerate state, the heart is the seat of our evil thoughts, plans, and actions.

The theme of the deceptive and wicked heart continues into the New Testament where Jesus uses a debate about clean and unclean food to launch into the following discourse.  “Do you not see that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?  That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man.  For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts and fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.  All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mk 7:18-23).  In its natural state, prior to our conversion, our heart is aptly described as deceitful and wicked.

But that all changed when you accepted Christ’s gift of deliverance.  (If you have been following these posts from the start, you may be tired of “But that all changed…”, but I cannot emphasize enough how radically things changed at our conversion.)  In short, when you embraced the gospel message of Jesus Christ, you received a new heart.  “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ez 36:26).  “Heart of flesh” does not refer to a fleshly heart in the spirit vs. flesh sense.  The term describes a soft warm beating heart in place of our old stone-cold dead heart.  As Watchman Nee wrote in The Normal Christian Life, “The heart, God says, is ‘desperately sick’ and He must do something more fundamental than cleanse it.  He must give us a new one.”

And a new heart we have.  Our old heart, our old self, our old nature were crucified with Christ on the cross (II Cor 5:14, Rom 6:6).  Our old heart was not cleaned up.  It was replaced by a new one, a heart no longer deceitful and wicked, but a heart with the law of God written upon it (Jer 31:33, Heb 10:16).

When believers are referred to as still having a deceptive and wicked heart, we miss the beauty and the power of our new identity in Christ.  We fall into a, “Woe is me, how can I master my stubborn heart?” mentality.  There is no wicked heart to master.  It is gone, destroyed at the cross.  This is so important to understand.  When we diminish the finished work of Christ on the cross regarding the inclination of our new heart (a condition contributed to by a misunderstanding of Romans chapter 7), we think the war with sin in our heart is ongoing.  For the believer, the war is over.  Christ won the war at the cross.  Yes, skirmishes remain in our conflict with our primary enemies; Satan and the flesh.  But they are only skirmishes, mop up duty if you will.  The war is over.

Does this characterization of our struggle with sin sound too bold?  I believe that if we could fully grasp the true implications of “the war is over”, our Christian life would move into a new realm of supernatural living.  We often wring our hands as a Christian community to understand why we look so much like the world around us.  Could it be that we have let Satan, the great deceiver, define who we are based on our patterns of failure rather than living into the promises of who we are in Christ?  The question begs for more discussion and we hope to move into what the new identity looks like in practice in our upcoming posts.