Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fighting a Stubborn Enemy

Realizing who we are, and adjusting our lives accordingly, is what living the Christian life is essentially about. It involves an understanding that (in some sense) we died to sin the moment we first trusted in Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:2). Sin is no longer our master (Rom. 6:14); slavery to sin is something that belongs to our past (Rom. 6:17). 'The love of sin,' Thomas Watson noted, 'is crucified.'

But sin has not surrendered the fight. On the contrary, as Romans 7 indicates all too clearly, sin remains a powerful force in the life of every Christian. Far from surrendering, sin has retreated into the background to fight a kind of guerrilla warfare. Remaining sin, wrote Thomas Watson, ‘is not perfectly cured in this life. Though grace does subdue sin, yet it does not wholly remove it... Though the Spirit be still weakening and hewing down sin in the godly, yet the stump of original sin is left. It is a sea that will not, in this life, be dried up.'

The aim of the Christian life is to put this indwelling sin to death.

'If by the Spirit you put to death ['mortify' is the King James word] the deeds of the body, you will live' (Rom. 8:13); 'Therefore put to death your members which are on earth...' (Col. 3:5). 'Members' is the New King James rendition (the NIV has 'your earthly nature'). Neither is quite as graphic as the original which literally translated is 'appendages': the literal sense seems especially apropos here since what the apostle wants crucified are a list of sexual sins: 'fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire and covetousness which is idolatry'!

Our aim is to destroy sin completely. That is our aim! And it is a life-long war of attrition. Lest we should be lulled into a false sense of security, Peter warns us of remaining sins which ‘war against the soul' (1 Pet. 2:11).

But how then do we engage in putting sin to death? There is far more than we have space to enlarge upon here, but we shall note a few of the essential features.

The first is to develop a Christian mind. To be ‘spiritually minded,’ Paul said, ‘is life and peace' (Rom. 8:6; cf. Rom.12:2). We need to have our minds changed, and changed about what sin is, and what sin does! It is interesting to note that the word most commonly used in the New Testament for 'repentance' is metanoeo, a word which literally means to change one's mind!

Second, we need to learn to run from sin. Running away from trouble is not necessarily cowardice; sometimes, in a moment of weakness, it is the sensible thing to do. 'Flee' was the apostle's word: 'Flee sexual immorality' (1 Cor. 6:18); ' Flee youthful lusts...' (2 Tim. 2:22); 'But you, O man of God, flee these things...' (1 Tim. 6:11; the 'things' Paul had in mind were 'foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition,' one of which was 'the love of money'). Did Paul have in mind the story of Joseph and how he fled from the clutches of Potiphar's wife (Gen. 39:13)? Retreat in battle in order to regroup is a wise thing to do. We are to take care to recognize the occasions when sin is likely to strike: 'he that dares to dally with the occasions of sin,' wrote John Owen perceptively, 'will dare to sin.'

Third, we need to develop a Christ-like character. After a list of what Paul calls ‘the lusts of the flesh’ in Galatians 5, Paul is careful to emphasize the positive side of sanctification: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (cf. Gal. 5:19-22). What are these but ways of describing the character of Jesus Christ! Every day we are to grow more like him. At the close of his lectures, John Calvin would engage in prayer. One such went like this:

Grant, Almighty God... that we, being endued with thy power, may boldly fight against Satan, and never doubt that thou wilt finally give us the victory, though we may have to undergo many troubles and difficulties; and may not the contempt of the world frighten or dishearten us, but may we patiently bear all our reproaches until thou at length stretchest forth thy hand to raise us up to that glory, the perfection of which now appears in our Head, and shall at last be clearly seen when he shall come to gather us into that celestial kingdom which he has purchased for us by his own blood. Amen

One day, God will make us perfect after the pattern of His own dear Son. Until then, it is a fight all the way; but one in which the Spirit is promised as our strengthener. We are to be resolute in our determination to rid ourselves of sin—waiting for that day when we shall be ‘like Him.’


jazzycat said...

If the wretched man passage of Romans 7:21-25 is a picture of post-conversion Paul, why does he affirm a law keeping mindset here in light of what he had said in Romans 6:14 and Romans 7:6? Also why does he speak of deliverance in Romans 7:24 as a future event if he has already been delivered?


Derek Thomas said...


Good questions.Sorry for the delay but I was out of town last week.

I take the historic intepretation of Romans 7:14-25 as indicative of the regenerate Paul, a view taken by Luther, Calvin, Godet, Ellicot Clarke, Hodge, to name a few as well as contemporaries such as J. I. Packer (see his brilliant defense of this position in an appendix to "Keep in Step with the Spirit") and John Piper (see his sermon on this passage on Desiring God website, http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/2001/58_Who_is_This_Divided_Man_Part_2/).

2. The break, more or less, came with Werner Georg K├╝mmel in the early twentieth century. To my disamy, even Martyn Lloyd-Jones veers away from the historic interpretation here.

3. It depends what you mean by a "law-keeping mindset". Romans 6:14 ("we are not under law but under grace") hardly means that as Christians we are not obligated to keep the law. Such an antinomian interpretation would fly in the face of all the imperatives in the New Testament. This confuses law keeping for justification with law keeping for sanctification.

3. What Paul is anticipating in Romans 7:24 is a future deliverance that will come about at death or better, in the life to come. The struggle which all of us as believers experience with sin and temptation will be a thing of the past in the new heavens and new earth.

Tahnks again for the questions


jazzycat said...

Thank you! I have read some of these views and Piper certainly gave it a lot of attention with 5 or 6 sermons on that one passage. I will keep it under consideration although it is hard for me to reconcile the regenerate Paul view in light of the rest of chapters 6-8.

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