I had written a previous piece entitled, The Incompatibility Of Freewill And The New Birth. Since that article was written simply to disprove the popular notion that there is an alliance between freewill and the new birth, it was written as a purely doctrinal piece. I hope I proved by scripture that unregenerate persons are in such a state of depravity they can never bring themselves to comply with any requirements God might demand for them to be born again, and further, that love, faith, and obedience proceeded from the new birth; they were not the means to bring about the new birth.
Although I was satisfied the article sufficiently exposed the error of linking freewill with the new birth, I was not a bit satisfied with myself for not addressing the fact persons born again continue to face throughout their pilgrimage the reality of lingering sin. I was afraid one might take from that piece that I was saying God's people go immediately after the new birth from a state of corruption to a state of perfection. I most certainly did not want to leave that impression. Therefore, I felt it was necessary to do a follow up piece to set forth the fact sin will still be discovered within the lives of Christian pilgrims.
Unlike the other writing, the primary focus of this article is not to dispute. Yes, it may contain some disputing, but its major focus is to explain what I have always found to be hard to explain. Strictly from the doctrinal standpoint it is hard to explain how it is possible for a person in Christ to be counted righteous and yet sinful at the same time. From the experimental standpoint it is hard to explain the roller coaster one rides when, for a while, he has a high confidence level he is a child of God only to move to another level where he has serious doubts about his standing before God.
I confess I can never feel that I adequately address the subject of the war against sin Christians continually face. I can never find the right words to express these thoughts to myself, let alone to my Christian brethren. However, surprisingly, I find my feeble attempts to explain these conflicts always seem to satisfy folk of common faith. They always seem to understand. I have come to see a good command of language is not required when addressing this subject. A good teacher is not required here. God's children have already experienced the truth. All they need is enough clearness of expression, and they will readily pick up the words and relate them to their own experience.
First, in order to try to address the subject of this Christian warfare, let me attempt to relate my personal experiences as a Christian sojourner. Earlier in my life I felt I had a hope in Christ strong enough for me to relate my experience to a local body of believers. They received me based upon my confession. I was then buried into Christ's death and was raised up out of the liquid grave of baptism to "walk in newness of life" (Romans 6.4). Yet, despite all of this, I continued to face many battles with lingering sin. These conflicts were strong enough to cause me to have doubts whether or not I was really born of God. I wondered how I could claim to be a new creature in Christ, with old things removed and all things becoming new, when I felt that so much of me was the same old creature I was before holding myself out to be in Christ; and I wondered if I was really any different than a person who made no claim at all of being the Lord's child. I thought I might be a fraud who was deceiving both the brethren who warmly received me, and the minister who had baptized me. I remember two occasions when at the start of the day I had resolved to live perfectly sinless for that particular day. Mark this. My goal was not to be perfect for the rest of my life. I was only working on one day. However, on both occasions I came to the end of the day in utter distress. I had failed so miserably to live the life I had determined to live. Some time later, in reading the book of Romans I came upon the discovery that Paul himself admitted to having some of the same struggles I faced. I will not quote him extensively at this time. I am here primarily dealing with my experiences, not with scripture. But let me quote one verse: "For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do" (Romans 7.19). Did I correctly understand his words? It seemed he was saying there were at least times when he wanted to do what was good and yet, for some reason, he failed to do it; and there were other times when he did not want to do evil but he did so anyway. I finally felt I found someone whose experience was identical with my own. I immediately found comfort in these words. It was not from the standpoint of feeling good about sinning that I took comfort in what he said. I still felt the shame of transgression. The comfort came in having my feelings expressed by an inspired Bible writer, and by one I deemed so highly. If Paul could make such a confession, I concluded that I was not alone with my feelings at all, but that lingering sins must be common to all the saints. Maybe, indeed, I was not a fraud, but truly one born of God.
I have been speaking about my earliest memories as a pilgrim, but I confess my case remains the same today. I must continually plead for the Lord's mercies to forgive my transgressions and I have never been able to discard the lessons learned when I first came upon Romans, chapter 7.
Thus, second, let me now delve more fully into this scripture from Romans, chapter 7 to show the Bible teaches those who are born of the Spirit do struggle with lingering sin. The apostle taught such persons have traits of two entirely different people. In short, they are two persons in one. Starting with verse 15, he wrote: "For that which I do I allow not; for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin" (verses 15-25).
These eleven verses are so contradictory they would make absolutely no sense were it not for the fact that they so plainly express what each saint experiences. On the one hand, there is the "I," the "me," and the "my," that would do the good and would shun the evil, but on the other hand, there is the other "I," the "me," and the "my," that does evil anyway. There is the inward man that has a mind that consents to the law and desires after it, and then there is the wretched man whose members are to be equated with sin. All of this is found in the same Christian pilgrim. He finds himself to be two different men who are constantly at war with each other; or, expressed differently, he is at war with himself.
Third, let me draw an evident conclusion from what Paul wrote. That is, being born of God neither removes the sinfulness of the flesh nor does it even make the flesh any better. Again, exam verse 18: "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing." Although saints may not practice sin as before, the same traits Paul identified in Galatians 5.19-21 remain a part of the flesh; these are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and other such things. Therefore, pilgrims must still do battle with the desires of their sinful flesh.
Before moving beyond Romans, chapter 7 let me comment that there are those who seem not to experience the inward warfare. They see this chapter in an entirely different light. In the late 1950s a "Christian lecturer" of some renown was featured at the Church my sister and her husband belonged. I was among the capacity crowd that attended an evening meeting to hear him speak. During the course of his speech he made some remarks upon this 7th chapter that completely surprised me. He stated it was erroneous to interpret Paul's remarks as a confession he was still sinning. Rather, he claimed the apostle was speaking about his sins before he became a disciple. Upon hearing what he said, I immediately rejected his views, and I have never swayed from my belief he did not know what he was talking about. What bewildered me so much was that he offered no explanation why Paul's language was continually in the present tense if it was really the apostle's intention to describe his former life before conversion. All I remember is that he justified his view by stating most of the 7th chapter depicted Paul defeated by sin whereas the 8th chapter depicted his triumphant experience over sin. I have no problem saying there is a definite difference in the character of Paul's language in these two chapters but I reach an entirely different reason for this difference. In the 7th chapter the apostle looks within his own soul and discovers lingering sin. In the 8th chapter his focus turns outside himself to the glorious purposes and saving grace of God through Jesus Christ. The two chapters complement one another in this way. Despite the fact saints constantly battle sin, Christ is nonetheless the Savior in whom they rest their hope.
Since hearing this lecturer speak, I have heard others who have taken his position. Unlike him they have elaborated why they think Paul used the present tense rather than the past tense. They argue he used the present tense because he was flashing back to his former, non-Christian life just as in the movies when there is a scene that features an actor recalling a former moment as if it is a present event. I reckon if you have to explain a text away this is as good a way to do it as any. The problem with it is it does not reconcile with others biblical texts that use the present tense. For example, Paul referred to himself as (present tense) the chief of sinners (I Timothy 1.15), and John declared (again, present tense) that claiming to have no sin leaves one in a state of deception (I John 1.8). It is easy to disregard what is taught in scripture when one becomes so holy in his own mind that he discards any notion he sins. I remember hearing an elderly preacher among the so-called "Holiness order" explain some of his present unbecoming actions, not as sins, but simply as mistakes. I often think that those who can so easily discount the inner workings of sin know nothing at all about what Paul was expressing in the 7th chapter, and that they should more aptly be identified with the Pharisee party of Jesus' days instead of with anything associated with biblical Christianity.
Fourth, let me point out the struggles Christian pilgrims find themselves in leave them in a state where they neither can fully reach the holy life they desire nor can they return to the life they had before they were born again. I quote again from Paul: "the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would" (Galatians 5.17). By noting the existence of strife between the flesh and the Spirit, Paul, in a nutshell, is expressing the same truth found in the many verses of Romans, chapter 7. However, in these words he added the thought that since the flesh and Spirit are at odds, "ye cannot do the things that ye would." This is a two-sided truth. Because of the operations of the Spirit within the child of God, his flesh can never again indulge in sin to the same degree as before. There is now a fight against the sinful flesh; what the apostle pointed out when he wrote: "they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts" (verse 24). But, on the other side, because the child of God retains his sinful flesh, he does not attain the purest life he desires. For this reason, he needs to constantly be guided by Paul's admonition: "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit" (verse 25). The child of God is left between where he formerly was and where he knows now he should be.
The battle between the flesh and the Spirit is manifest in different ways. In some, as David, during his campaign of adultery, deceit, and murder; and as Simon Peter, during the night in which he denied his Lord thrice, sinful flesh seems to gain the same strong foothold it once held. However, such strength is short lived as the Spirit proves again to be the strong man once more that takes hold of the believer's life. In others, believers may be spared such glaring episodes of unfaithfulness, but inconsistencies characterize their ways. For example, when idolatry ran so rampant in Israel, Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Baal and thereby demonstrated his great boldness and zeal for the Lord, but shortly thereafter, when he received word Jezebel threatened his life, all boldness and zeal abandoned him and he ran away and hid like a frightened rabbit. And I suppose that all saints, due to the presence of both flesh and the Spirit, find that what good the Lord produces in them always is mixed with what is common with human nature. Here is an example of this mixture. The Lord told the man who pleaded for his son's healing that all things are possible to him that believes, but listen to what the man replied to Jesus: "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9.14-24). So we see that faith, spoken of in scripture as a fruit of the Spirit, was in him mixed with his doubts. Even in professing his faith he acknowledged he still had unbelief. Reader, can you identify with this man?
Fifth, let it be said that despite the fact sin lingers in those born again there is plain evidence of the Spirit's power in the lives of the saints. There is something strikingly powerful in John's words when he contrasted the spirit that resided in his Christian brethren with the spirit of antichrist: "Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world" (I John 4.4). Notwithstanding the fact sin can still be discovered in God's people, the principle of God's dominance permeates scripture; even to the point that the righteous are distinguished from the unrighteous. Paul provided a distinguishing feature: "if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live" (Romans 8.13). He also had said to the Corinthians: "if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature (better translated, a new creation) old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (II Corinthians 5.17). Jesus characterized His people in this way: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10.27). In his epistle John was quite strong with the language: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. These are just a few passages that show there are marks that distinguish the person born of God from the rest of the world.
If these Bible passages stood alone one might wonder how there could be any room for the flesh and the Spirit to clash; the new man created in Christ Jesus would kill any attempt by the flesh to raise its ugly head. However, there are other passages. The same Paul who spoke of the new creation also called himself the chief sinner. Read what he wrote: "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief" (I Timothy 1.15). Mark the tense: am chief; not was chief. Likewise, the same John who wrote that whoever was born of God neither does nor can commit sin, earlier in the same epistle, had written: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1.8-9). Again, the present tense is used. I ask, how can Paul be counted a new creation in Christ if there is no sinner greater than he? And why should we not expect the child of God to deny he sins, if, in fact, he neither does nor can sin?
Only if one examines scripture in the light of whole biblical teaching can he resolve what appears here on the surface to be contradictions, and only if the Spirit teaches him, can he understand the message of these texts. Take Paul's words. I have often said that if there is one text in the Bible that I dispute it is I Timothy 1.15. Paul was not the chief of sinners. Experience teaches me that I am. I don't know, some readers may think they are. The truth of the text is not to be found in the literal statement. The truth of the text is discovered when the Spirit sheds its light so plainly upon the child of God that he sees himself so vile that he thinks no one can be as sinful as he. But as hard as it may be for us to see ourselves as anything but sinful creatures, yet we are admonished by Paul in II Corinthians 13.5: "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?" Reader, can you also, amid all of your transgressions, find evidence of a hope that Christ is indeed in you? Here is an example of what I had earlier confessed. Words fail me to adequately describe how to bridge the strong, constant impression we have of ourselves that we are vile sinners with the equally strong impression after reviewing God's goodness to us that Christ is indeed in us; yet, pilgrims retain this hope in Christ all the while they see the enormity of their sins.
Now, consider the two separate verses from I John. Something bewilders me about those who use I John 3.9 to support their notion that after receiving the new birth the child of God no longer commits sin. Every one that I have encountered who applies this text in this way also holds the view a saved person can sin away his salvation and be lost again. This makes absolutely no sense to me. If anything, the text supports the view of the perseverance of the saints. When I have confronted them on this matter I have never received an adequate response to my question: if a born again person does not and cannot sin, how is it possible for him to fall again into perdition? But I also cannot get much from them when I ask them to explain I John 1.8-9 in light of what they say about I John 3.9. I will relate the response one gentlemen gave me. He was quite confident he knew the way in which these verses could be reconciled. He pointed out that in the first chapter John used the plural pronouns. It is we that are deceived and the truth is not in us if we say we have no sin, but in the third chapter the writing uses the singular pronouns. That is, since the seed is in him, he does not and cannot sin, for he is born of God. His point was, in the third chapter John was writing about individual Christians who could not sin, but in the first chapter he was writing about the local church body that could sin. I looked at him for a moment and finally asked the obvious question. If each member of the church is completely without any sin how can the whole church have any sin? As simple as my question was, I don't think he had ever raised this question with himself. He was speechless for a moment. Then, he told me he had to leave to go somewhere else but he would discuss this with me at a later date. I did see him at other times but he never discussed the Bible with me again. I wonder if he could ever answer my question.
I do not think any believer needs to have I John 1.8-9 explained to him. By virtue of his constant strife with sin he knows from experience he must continually go before God's throne and beg for pardon. It is the verse in the third chapter that requires explanation. Old School Baptists generally have two different interpretations of I John 3.9, but, from the standpoint of biblical principle, both views have validity. One view accents the words "for his seed remaineth in him." It holds that it is the seed of God within the saint that does not and cannot sin. This seed is to be equated with the "new creature" of II Corinthians 5.17; or with the "inward man" that delights in God's law, or with the "law of my mind" that Paul spoke of in Romans 7.22-23. This new man, opposite of the fleshly part, being of God, resides within the man as the sinless part. The other view holds that John is speaking in general terms of the saint's overall life. By writing in the context, "Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him. Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous" (verses 6-7); and, "In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God" (verse 10), one should interpret verse 9 broadly so as to see its meaning that those born of God do not gives themselves over to lives of sin as do those who are not born of God. Those who hold this view think the text corresponds to Paul's words: "sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace" (Romans 6.14). In short, it is the dominance of sin that is removed from believers, not lingering sin. If there are other views that meet sound doctrinal standards I am not aware of them.
When considering the whole of scripture we believe we must maintain a doctrine that declares the Spirit's work is dominant within the child of God while admitting that sin is still discovered within him; yea, even the smallest sin appears enormous when the Spirit reveals God's justice to his vile soul and he is made to cry out as the man in Psalm 130.3: "If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?" I reckon it is a bit of irony that the very sins that so trouble us are the sins that make us cling so steadfastly to our Savior. Paul, when he spoke to King Agrippa, admitted he once had no love for Christ: "I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth" (Acts 26.9), but after his conversion, his contempt turned toward the sins that ruled his body's members, and he gave thanks to this same Jesus of Nazareth he once despised for the deliverance of his wretched body of death (Romans 7.24-25).
Sixth, the point should be made God's work in His people is a continuing work. Saints are referred to as the temple where the Spirit dwells and walks (I Corinthians 3.16,17; II Corinthians 6.16). If truly we are saved by grace, the presence of God is always found in us, and, we are, in Paul's words, "his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2.10). I say again, it is a continuing work throughout the course of the Christian sojourn. Paul put it this way: "Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1.6). I had cited earlier Romans 8.13: "For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live." I reckon many Arminians and conditionalists see themselves plainly as able to use the Spirit, if they will avail themselves of it, as an instrument to whack away sin so that they may receive God's blessings. However, I cannot interpret Paul's words apart from the operations of God within His people wherein the Spirit is actually doing in them what they appear to be doing themselves. Romans 8.13 is similar language to what the apostle said in I Corinthians 15.10: "by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me." To look upon Paul one would see him doing more abundant work than others, but, in fact, the work is not credited to his own endeavors at all but rather to God's grace. Likewise, in Romans 8.13, we ought to conclude the same, that, although it may appear we are the ones mortifying our evil deeds it is really God's Spirit that is initiating and doing the work. I may not be able to speak for others, but I have yet to learn how to manipulate the Spirit to my own soul's advantage. I must, therefore, conclude the Spirit does not wait for our cue to determine if, when, or how He will mortify the deeds of the flesh, but He works within His own time frame and according to His own good pleasure to subdue our sins. Sometimes He may strike our lusts and affections quite early before they get too far advanced. Other times He may strike a heavy blow against them only after they swell up like leaven before us. But whatever His approach may be, we know that our flesh's affections and lusts arise often within us, and the work of crucifying and mortifying them takes place continually over the course of our Christian pilgrimage.
Seventh, it must be said there will be a time when all sin saints now face will be forever removed. Those who have died in Christ have already laid aside their filthy garments of flesh. Their disembodied spirits are now in the presence of the Lord, and in the day of the resurrection, they, as well as saints alive at Christ's coming, shall be clothed in a body whose traits have been changed from corruption to incorruption (I Corinthians 15.51,53). Paul wrote: "our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself" (Philippians 3.20-21). With our present bodies remain sinful hearts. I reckon the part of God's promise in Ezekiel 36.26: "I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh," has not yet been fulfilled. Although the part of the promise "and I will give you an heart of flesh," is in evidence in pilgrims today, there is no sign the old stony heart has presently been removed. So I must conclude we wait yet for the last day when the Lord will remove the old heart from us and the battle between the two hearts will forever cease.
As I near the end of this piece I still feel my task was done with great difficulty. I found the vehicle of human language came up short in expressing what only the Spirit with words unuttered conveys to the soul. My hope is, the reader has the same Teacher I claim, and if so, he may be able to pick up on what I have poorly stated and say, "that describes my case."
Past brethren have written songs we often sing today in which they described their cases much better than I have done. For that reason, let me share with you a medley of some of their lines. The reader will see that they too give testimony to their own inner conflicts. Here is one line that bids poor souls who think they are too unfit to come to Jesus to come to Him anyway: "if you tarry till you're better, you will never come at all." Reader, can this be directed to you? Here are some lines from one of Newton's hymns: "if I love, why am I thus? Why this dull and lifeless frame? Hardly, sure, can they be worse who have never heard His name?" And here is another line from the same song: "if I pray, or hear, or read, sin is mixed with all I do." Reader, can you identity with what Newton said? Try another of Newton's hymns: "by Thee my prayers acceptance gain, although with sin defiled," and again, "weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought; but when I see Thee as Thou art, I'll praise Thee as I ought." Reader, again, did Newton describe your thoughts? Finally, one who counted himself a stranger wrote: "I am so vile, so prone to sin, I fear that I'm not born again," and he concludes: "when I count up all the cost, if not free grace then I am lost." I leave you with his fourth verse: "I seldom find a heart to pray, so many things step in my way; thus filled with doubts, I ask to know, come, tell me, is it thus with you? Reader, tell me, is it thus with you? (These are lines taken from the Goble Hymns, songs 112, 184, 71, 200.)
David K. Mattingly