December 18, 2017

The Struggle of Sanctification

by Don Johnson

An occasional series on sanctification — Part 1 is here.

In my first article on sanctification, I discussed God’s Strategy for Sanctification, found in Romans 6. Four big words dominate the chapter: Know, Reckon, Yield, Obey. The strategy starts with Knowing something – the full meaning of your identification with the death of Christ. It means that you died to sin in Christ. Next comes Reckoning – a faith decision that I will live as if I am dead to sin and alive to God. After that is Yielding – the daily commitment of self, literally of the parts of my body, as instruments of righteousness unto God. When these internal steps are taken in the inner man, then they can be expressed by the outer man in Obedience from the heart to the full teaching of the apostles in all its many ramifications for daily life.

All of this seems ideal and too good to be true. And our experience seems to confirm that the strategy is too good to be true as well. Not only our experience, but God has revealed through the Scriptures that he knows all about our struggles. He revealed this to us through the apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 7. I call this chapter The Struggle of Sanctification.

We have two major difficulties with living out the strategy Paul outlines in Romans 6. The first is the way law functions in our lives and the second is the continuing presence of the flesh as part of our personality.

How God’s Good Law becomes My Soul’s Great Aggravation

When the apostle starts talking about being “slaves to righteousness” in Rm 6.18, a believer may think immediately of many imperatives he finds in his New Testament. ‘Imperatives’ is a grammatical term. Ordinary people call them commands! Someone who has been born again really has no problem with the commands of God. He loves God, he wants to obey him.

You have no doubt heard of new converts who in their new zeal for the Lord plunge themselves into an excess of learning all there is to being a Christian. Some enter a crash course of Bible reading, they can’t get enough of it. It’s all new, or it all seems so fresh because now there is the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and what may once have seemed to be a chore is now a delight. The new convert wants to know what the Bible has to say about many areas of life, and often finds his old ways in conflict with direct commands of Scripture. As time goes on, he finds others of his old ways are questionable given Scripture principles he plainly sees. A body of expectations begins to grow in his mind, and soon he can become bound up in trying to keep in mind a whole host of laws and his life becomes duty. Even more than that, he knows he is failing and the more he tries to keep the laws, the more he is aware of his own inadequacy and failure. The zeal with which he began his new life evaporates and discouragement easily sets in.

The reason this happens is a misunderstanding of the way of sanctification. Sanctification isn’t possible if we are trying to relate to God by keeping laws. It is not that the law is sin. “God forbid!” Paul says in Rm 7.7. The law, he says, “is holy and righteous and good” (Rm 7.12). The problem isn’t with the law – and here Paul is referring specifically to the Mosaic Law, but really, any command of God is the same, whether OT or NT in origin.

The problem is twofold. First, I still have a sin nature that reacts to law — when confronted by law, it is provoked to disobedience. The law says, ‘thou shalt not covet’ and I find that ‘coveting of every kind’ is produced in me (Rm 7.7-8). So I find that if I am trying to relate to God by law I am tripped up by that good instrument I try to use. Or, to put it another way, my sin deceives me and trips me up by taking opportunity from the very holy commandments I wish to embrace.

Even on the level of human law, which can never have the holy character of God’s law, I find my soul aggravated. A speed limit sign seems ridiculous to me and my heart rebels. A bank regulation will not allow me to do what I want to do with my money and I fume (or, worse, lash out at the tellers). A sign says, ‘Keep off the grass’ and I, along with countless others beat a path in the lawn with my feet.

The second problem for the believer is that he fundamentally misunderstands how he relates to God. It is no longer through the law; it is really now through Christ. The law is fulfilled in Christ and I serve God, not in the flesh, but in the Spirit (Rm 7.6). This understanding really brings us back to the fundamental understanding of sanctification in Romans 6 – the ‘know’ component. In Romans 6, I am asked if I don’t know that I died to sin. In Romans 7, I am asked if I don’t know that I died to the law. The two chapters are really asking the same question.

The problem is that we try to start our sanctification at the wrong end – if we try to be sanctified by law-keeping, we will be defeated in the end, either by multiplying sins as provoked by the law or by falling into miserable depression because of our failures that are so evident to us. On the other hand, if we understand what has happened to us, we serve God, not in the “oldness of the letter” but in the “newness of the Spirit” (Rm 7.6).

There is one more aspect to the struggle for sanctification that must also be remembered…

My Sinful Flesh looks to Override My Most Holy Faith

The other aspect in the struggle for sanctification is simply that I have an enemy within. I have still, even as a believer, this thing called the flesh. In the Bible, this word describes that part of my nature that is most corrupt, ‘sold under sin’ (Rm 7.14) “In the New Testament … it is also used to denote the sinful element of human nature as opposed to the ‘Spirit’ (Rm 6:19; Mt 16:17). … to live ‘according to the flesh’ is to live and act sinfully (Rm 8:4, 5, 7, 12).”[1]

Some teach that the struggle seen in Rm 7.14-25 is not the struggle of a born again man. The major problem for that view is Paul’s testimony of doing things he hates (Rm 7.15), agreeing with the law (Rm 7.16), willing to do good (Rm 7.18), desiring the good (Rm 7.19), doing what he does not want (Rm 7.20). What unregenerate man has these kinds of desires in his spirit?

We find then, a struggle – a desire for the life of the Spirit, that which is good, holy, in conformity to the law, but instead we find struggle, failure, disobedience, ongoing presence of sinful deeds in the life of a man who really loves God and would serve him with his whole heart, if only he could. This is wrought by the desires of the flesh, still present in the inner man, desiring to dominate the life. The flesh demands to be fed, and having been fed, is strengthened and tries to gain the upper hand.

The struggle is not the end of the story; it is evidence of the victory that is certain to be found in Jesus Christ our Lord (Rm 7.25). The born again man must realize that the way to relate to God is not through the law, imposing it on my flesh, attempting to gain victory by willpower and the discipline of God’s code. The spiritual life isn’t lived that way; it is lived in the Spirit, walking in fellowship with him.

The end result of such a life will look like a law-abiding life. On the outside, surely it is. But it has an entirely different internal dynamic, one learned as the strategy of sanctification in Romans 6 and echoed throughout the New Testament in many different exhortations found in other passages:

Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh (Gal 5.16)

If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (Gal 5.25)

It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing (Jn 6.63)

A great deal is said about the Spirit and our relation to him in the next chapter, Romans 8. That will have to wait for a discussion of the Certainty of Sanctification.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria and serves on the FBFI board as chair of the Communications Committee which is responsible for this blog.

  1. “flesh” in M. G Easton, Easton’s Bible Dictionary(Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996). []

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