Overcoming … The Flesh

The Flesh.  We now turn to the enemy within; the flesh.  In the New Testament, the apostle Paul gives us three visuals, complete with action verbs, for defeating the flesh.  They are walking in the Spirit, crucifying the flesh, and putting on Christ.  “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh … those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16,24-25).

Walking in the Spirit is living into all that Christ promised regarding the Spirit’s indwelling.  When we allow the Spirit of God to live the life of the Son of God through us, we are walking in the Spirit.  And I like the “walking” word picture used throughout the New Testament (Eph 4:1 and others).  There is an “action” to walking.  It is not a passive activity.

Here are some things Christ promised about the Spirit’s work in our lives.  We will hear the continuing voice of Jesus (Jn 10:27) through the Spirit (Jn 16:13).  We will be reminded of the words of Jesus through the Spirit (Jn 14:26).  The Spirit will be our Paraclete who comes alongside us; helping us to obey Christ’s commands (Jn 14:16).  And we will experience the fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23).  This is all part of walking in the Spirit.

We have also been called to crucify the flesh; to deal a death-blow to the flesh at every opportunity.  The Bible says, “Consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.  For it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come on the sons of disobedience.  And in them you also once walked, when you were living in them.  But now you also, put them all aside” (Col 3:5-8).

Basically, we are to treat the flesh as if it were dead.  Do not feed it.  Do not listen to it.  Do not follow its wishes.  Don’t even poke it to see if it is alive.  In short, we are to crucify the flesh; treat it as if it were dead.  And in its place, we are to put on Christ.

“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” (Rom 13:14).  The picture Paul uses throughout his letters is the idea of putting on the character and attributes and mindset of Christ just as we would put on the clothes in our closet.  There is a constant theme throughout the New Testament of laying aside the bad stuff and putting on the good stuff.

“Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other” (Col 3:12-13).  These attributes are what “putting on Christ” looks like.

What might be new to you about this theme is that it is not a drudgery.  Laying aside and putting on is not a daunting task.  You have been empowered by “Christ in you” to do it.  It is not another list, another task to be attempted by our self-effort.  It is fully relying on the Spirit to do His work inside us; conforming us to Christ Himself.

“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:13).  May the God of hope through the power of the Holy Spirit cause you to believe in abounding ways that you can do this.  You can overcome the flesh.

Overcoming … The World

How do we overcome the remnants of our indwelling sin and the enemies that stir them up?  How do we resist the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil?  We have talked often about the theological answer to these questions; overcoming sin by the power of the resurrected Christ literally living His life through us.  But what does that look like in practice?  Let’s take a look at some specifics.

The world.  We overcome the world by our love for Jesus.  “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (I Jn 2:15-16).

In the gospel of John, chapters 13 – 17, Jesus emphasizes the connection between love and obedience.  Simply put, our love for Jesus will motivate us to obey.  “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His love.  These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (Jn 15:9-11).

When we abide in Christ’s love, the love of Jesus and of the Father abides in us.  And this love will so fill us up that our love of the world will grow distant and dim.  Our desire to obey will increase.  And the beauty and end result of this love and obedience is incredible joy.  There is a joy in obedience – when motivated by our love relationship with Christ – that completely supersedes the promised joy of the world.  Obedience is not a drudgery; it is a source of joy.  The lure of the world diminishes as we experience the joy of loving and following and serving Jesus.

Earlier in His upper room discourse, Jesus makes the same love and obedience connection.  “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper [Gk. Paraclete, one called alongside to help], that He may be with you forever” (Jn 14:15-16).  In this instance, Jesus promises a Helper in our quest to keep His commandments.

It is as if Jesus is saying, “Because you love Me, you are going to want to keep My commandments.  But you are not going to be able to keep them through your own self-effort.  So I am sending my Spirit to live inside you (Jn 14:17), and He – living inside – will empower your obedient life.”  Once again, it is Jesus Himself who provides even the guide within us to know and follow the way beyond sin.

This obedient life, energized by love, overcomes the siren call of the world; a world that is fading away.  “And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever” (I Jn 2:17).

“Sin Which So Easily Entangles Us”

Last time, we talked about the continuum regarding sin found in Hebrews chapter 12.  “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1).  On one end of the scale is the encouragement and expectation to “lay sin aside”.  At the other is the acknowledgement that “sin so easily entangles us”.

In light of the New Testament promise that our sin nature was destroyed at the cross and that we are now indwelt by the sin-crushing power of the resurrected Christ, how is it that sin still manages to gum up the works?  Let’s start by looking at what did – and what did not – change about sin at our new birth.

When you embraced the gospel message of Jesus Christ, your interaction with sin was radically changed.  What did not change was the presence of sin in your soul.  It remains inside, and it is still sin.  What did change so dramatically was sin’s status (it no longer reigns) and our relationship to it (we are no longer its slaves).  This change in status and relationship is a glorious deliverance for you and I.  Sin not longer holds us in bondage, outside of God’s presence.  Instead, this deliverance changes completely our interaction with sin.

We can now deal with sin in our lives from a perspective of promised victory rather than hopeless despair.  Let those words “promised victory rather than hopeless despair” sink in.  You need to hear them.  Because, quite frankly, they are too often missing from much of our Bible teaching today.  We hear too much about a civil war within as if we still have an equal powered sin nature and God nature battling it out in our lives.

Here is good news straight from God’s Word.  The battle is over.  Victory over sin was won at the cross.  The civil war does not exist.  Your fight with sin is from a stance of victory.  Our battles are skirmishes and mop up duty as we learn to live into the power over sin that Christ provides.  As Sinclair Ferguson writes in The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction, “Not only has our relationship to sin changed, but God has planted within us His divine seed, and in this sense has “added” to our powers as well as “subtracting” from sin’s status!  We have good reason to enter the conflict with the enemy of sin in an optimistic mood!”

The enemy called sin referred to by Dr. Ferguson is often summarized as a conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil.  One passage of Scripture that alludes to these three enemies is Ephesians 2:1-3.  “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world [the enemy of the world], according to the prince of the power of the air [the enemy of the devil], of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.  Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh [the enemy of the flesh], indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Eph 2:1-3).

This specific passage clearly identifies these enemies as having held sway over us prior to our salvation, when we “were dead in our trespasses and sins.”  But it does give us a good picture of sin’s manifestations in the world, the flesh, and the devil.  And what we learn from the rest of the New Testament is that they are enemies still.

But never ever ever forget that on this side of our conversion their powers have been greatly diminished.  Their power is gone, but their presence remains.  Their mastery over us is gone, but their temptations remain.  And they still can entangle us.

So how do we overcome these entanglements of sin, empowered as we are by the Christ within?  We will tackle some specifics of all three of these enemies and our response to them next time.

Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of Sin Itself

So we have examined a lot of chains in the past few weeks; chains from which Christ offers sweet release.  We have examined:

  • the chain of the Law
  • the chain of legalism
  • the chain of pride
  • the chain of shame
  • the chain of guilt
  • the chain of fear
  • the chain of worry
  • the chain of selfish ambition
  • the chain of idolatry
  • the chain of our own unworthiness

We now come to the last chain, the chain of sin itself.  And let’s be very careful to explain exactly what that means.

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1).  In this one verse, we see an interesting continuum regarding our sin.

On the one hand, the author tells us “to lay our sin aside”.  Now that implies to me that “laying aside our sin” is possible or why would God instruct us to do so?  Would God call us to do the impossible?  I don’t think so.

At the same time, there is a clue in this verse that this “laying aside” is not just an easy once-and-done process.  The author refers to our sin as “easily entangling us”.  Somehow the sin we are to lay aside is also the sin that so easily entangles us.  And there is the rub.  You have the power – by the risen Christ living in you – to lay your sin aside.  But the process of doing so often encounters a tangled mess.

Because I think most of us are comfortable with recognizing the tangled mess, let’s start with the power to lay sin aside.  And this power is fully dependent on Christ living His life in you.  Just hours before His death, Jesus gave us this promise, “The Father will give you a Helper (Gk. Paraclete, one called alongside to help), that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, who the world cannot receive because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you” (Jn 14:16-17).

Christ promised us the presence of God’s Holy Spirit inside.  And based on this promise, we often limit the indwelling presence of God to the Spirit.  But Jesus goes on in this passage to add, “In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (Jn 14:20).  Over 200 times in the New Testament, we see reference to either God in us, Christ in us, or the Spirit in us.  They are undeniably interchangeable.  The bottom line?  The God of the universe – in every form available to Him – has miraculously come to live inside you when you embraced the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

So how does this relate to laying aside our sin?  Think about it this way.  Not only is Christ in you, but Christ … and His character are in you.  By virtue of Christ in you, His qualities of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience live in you.  By virtue of the Spirit in you, His fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control live in you.

We often look at these lists as character qualities or character traits to aspire to.  We lift them up as something Christians should strive for, usually through greater effort.  We present them in  a way that makes their attainment and practice look like a grueling task.  But calling these character qualities or character traits to aspire to is really aiming way too low.  They are so much more than that.  They are literally manifestations of Christ.  And when you live into them, they are literally manifestations of Christ being lived out in you.

Putting these “manifestations of Christ” into practice is like putting on the clothes in your closet.  They are already in your closet, just waiting to be put on.  So often, when we see admonitions in Scripture to lay aside the bad stuff and put on the good stuff, we don’t think we own or have access to the good stuff.  These righteous traits are for the super saints, not for us regular folks.  But Christ has made you full of Himself and you are just as empowered to follow where He leads as any other saint.

In a word picture that the apostle Paul uses over and over in the New Testament, you already have these clothes in your closet.  You do not have to go out and buy them.  They are not something you have to strive to acquire.  They have already been purchased by the precious blood of the Lamb, done deal.  And they are hanging in your spiritual closet.  Our job is to simply get dressed; to simply put on the clothes of righteous actions that Christ has already purchased and supplied for us.  He has supplied these clothes, not by dropping them into our shopping cart like apples falling from a tree, but rather by filling us up with Himself!

Now this righteous action, while clearly available to us, is not as easy an experience as grabbing a polo shirt and putting it on in the morning.  We still have that entangling sin to deal with; a topic we will address next time.  But until then, remember, you have more righteous clothes in your closet then you probably recognize or honestly have been led to believe by teachers stuck in a law or Old Covenant mentality.

Go ahead.  Put them on and shine in whatever path Christ has called you to today.  “And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on the clothes of a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other…and beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Col 3:12-14).  Christ is calling.  Get up and get dressed!

Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of Our Unworthiness

There is a branch of theology that says, “You are not worth it.”  There are voices in your past that say, “You are not worth it.”  There are messages from the church that say, “You are not worth it.”  There are Bible teachers who say, “You are not worth it.”  My simple answer to all of these is, “Do not believe it, you are worth it.”

“Worth what?” you might ask.  You are worth being ransomed, redeemed, delivered, rescued, set free.  “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).  God’s love, God’s plan, God’s salvation, and God’s promise are so beautifully summarized in this one verse.

But in the beauty of seeing God’s love extended to the entire world, we sometimes miss the personal message God has for us.  Did you know that, “God so loved you that He gave His only begotten Son for you, so that if you believe in Him, you will not perish, but you will have eternal life”?

God loved and loves you.  Christ gave His life for you.  And He says you were worth it.  Christ did not die in your place out of obligation.  Christ did not die in your place as a noble sacrifice.  Christ died because He loves you.  When Christ died in your place, there was a joy in your rescue.

“Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).  There was and is joy in Jesus’ rescue of you.  You were worth “the precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (I Pet 1:19).  We often think that an incredibly valuable sacrifice – the blood of Christ Himself – was required because of our great sin.  But could it be that the sacrifice was so great because that is what you were worth; that was the price required because you were worth it?

I guess what I am trying to say is this.  What God – in His judgment, purposes, and wisdom – determines is worthy of being redeemed is never to be devalued.  Never, never, ever.

Now, lest we get carried away and think that somehow we were “worth it” because we were basically good people, without sin, let’s come back to reality.  Prior to Christ, we were sinners indeed.  We were totally lost without any hope of saving ourselves; lost with absolutely no value in any of our own self-righteousness.  So how do we go from depraved, lost, and sinful individuals to worth the precious blood of Christ?

We need to understand the difference between worth and merit.  Regarding merit, in our standing before God, we have none.  We did not earn our salvation.  We were not “good enough” to warrant redemption.  We contributed nothing to our ransom from sin.  It is all grace.  It is all a pure gift.

But worth is a different thing altogether.  We arrive at our high view of worth because of our brand new and united identity with Christ.  As Dwight Edwards writes, “What frees us from the paralyzing grip of inferiority and inadequacy is not the power of positive thinking but the astonishing wonder of united identity.  As believers, we no longer have the option of thinking about ourselves apart from the indwelling Christ to Whom we are inseparably united.”  As a “partaker of the divine nature” (II Pet 1:4), you are inseparably united with the indwelling Christ.

I write all this because I see two prominent errors affecting the church in this theology of our unworthiness.  First, if we believe that we are just worthless sinners somehow covered by Christ’s blood, we will never fulfill the destiny that God promises of experiencing victory over sin.  God’s promise is that sin will not be our master after our conversion.  Your “worthless sinner” status was removed when you embraced the gospel message; when you were saved.  Your destiny as one united with Christ is to experience His power, living inside you, to live the Christian life.

The second error is that if we believe that we are just worthless sinners somehow covered by Christ’s blood, we will seek to rise above that status through our own self-effort.  We will try to “prove” our worth by our works.  We will be always striving to attain God’s acceptance by our works.  And there is no joy in this approach to living the Christian life.  You are already loved and accepted by God.  And He is doing the work inside to lift you into the supernatural Christian life.

So don’t let those voices of your unworthiness that rattle around in your head keep you in chains.  In your daily functional beliefs, embrace His freedom by seeing who you are in your united identity with Christ.  You are a new creation who carries not only the image of God – as all mankind does; but in us, His followers, you carry His divine nature as well.