For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:19, 24)
I have known Christians who are convinced that they have moved beyond the influence of temptation and able to live the “victorious Christian life” without sin. There are also certain denominations that include that possibility in their doctrinal beliefs. They believe that it is possible either by exercising certain spiritual disciplines or by having a certain spiritual experience.
Oh that that were possible! I have to confess I have yet to have attained such a spiritual level personally and that my experience is more akin to the Apostle Paul’s testimony in Romans 7. Now I’m not by any means advocating that we throw up our hands and give up on the pursuit of holiness. But if we are honest, the problem is that the gold ring seems just beyond our reach.
Charleen and I have been reading together the book, Extravagant Grace, by Barbara Duguid. (She is the wife of the well-known Scottish preacher and Old Testament Professor, Iain Duguid) In this book she makes herself quite vulnerable by being open about her own struggle with ongoing sin in her life. (She herself was an MK, having been born and brought up in Nigeria). Now I’m not talking about real soap opera stuff, although that could certainly be included, but rather the underlying heart issues that all of us struggle with which are equally offensive to God–things like selfishness, anger, bitterness, etc. She has found great encouragement in the writings of the famous hymn-writer, John Newton.
Newton compares the journey of the Christian life with the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness. What a powerful sense of God’s presence they experienced at their deliverance from Egypt, seeing the glory cloud and the parted water! Yet it was no time at all before they began to complain about all they had left behind–water, food, idols, etc. So for forty years they wandered through a no-man’s land. Was it just to test them to see how they would respond, or did God have something else in mind?
As new believers, we too are often overwhelmed by the reality and power of God’s grace, and then eventually reality sets in – the reality of the continuing presence of our sinful natures still lurking inside. Where is our deliverance? Where is God? Are we even regenerate? Longing for the assurance of salvation is really not uncommon among believers from time to time in their Christian walk. We may find ourselves surprised by our sinful propensities, but God is never taken by surprise.
Why doesn’t God just eradicate sin in its entirety instantaneously in our hearts the moment we believe? Is there is a sense in which even our wilderness falls within the scope of his providence? When God walks us like the Israelites into the wilderness of temptation, what is he doing? Is this not a mechanism by which he shows us what we are really like, what is really at the heart of our sin, and how great is his grace in response?
As our author reminds us, “Sin blinds us to ourselves, causing us to believe we are much better than we really are and much better than others are too. But God lovingly opens our eyes so that we can repent and can marvel that Christ willingly left the glories of heaven to suffer and die for profound sinners like us. The more deeply we see our sin, the more grateful we become for the perfect obedience of our Savior credited to us.”
Newton doesn’t point us to our own performance for comfort and assurance, but rather to Jesus. “The richest fruit of God’s work in our hearts would be evidenced by increasing humility and dependence on Christ for everything, rather than in a ‘victorious Christian life’”.
Perhaps this is the victorious Christian Life.
Pastor Tom Bridgman