December 18, 2017

Stubborn, Ceaseless Civil War (1)

Mark Minnick

All Christ’s followers, ministers or otherwise, are in one of three states of spiritual warfare: (1) some have given up battling almost entirely, (2) some are battling weakly but generally unsuccessfully, and (3) some are battling energetically and generally victoriously. But there is no such thing as a child of God who is not confronted with stubborn, spiritual resistance every day. John Owen warned, When sin lets us alone, we may let sin alone. … There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on; and it will be so whilst we live in this world.[1]

Robert Murray M’Cheyne observed, A believer is to be known not only by his peace and joy, but by his warfare and distress. His peace is peculiar: it flows from Christ; it is heavenly, it is holy peace. His warfare is as peculiar: it is deep-seated, agonizing, and ceases not till death.[2]

This is why, during His earthly ministry, our Lord said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9:23).

The Nature of This Struggle

The thing that is the most confounding, and therefore the most discouraging, about this struggle, is its nature. Although we’re told that in the world we will experience tribulation (John 16:33) and that we wrestle against unseen, demonic adversaries (Eph. 6:12), we come to know from bitter experience that our spiritual struggle is not chiefly between external, but internal powers. That is, it is a civil war. In order to take up his cross daily, every one of Christ’s followers must deny himself.

This is what creates the feeling in even a mature believer that he is still distressingly double-minded. After nearly twenty years in pastoral ministry, the saintly Andrew Bonar lamented, I sometimes feel as if there were two sides to my soul, the one looking earthward, the other heavenward. ((Diary and Life, ed. by Marjory Bonar (1893; reprint Banner of Truth Trust, 1984), 254.))

Bonar had become familiar with (though not complacent about) living with a divided soul. But how unexpected this is to an inexperienced child of God. On the day that we accepted Christ, we had assumed that we did it with “all our heart.” How soon and startlingly we discovered that our heart was not nearly as united for Christ as we had thought. We found, in the words of the apostle, that though we might delight in the law of God after the inward man, we found another law in our members warring against the law of our minds and bringing us into captivity to the law of sin (Rom. 7:22, 23).

Revival services, repeated responses to invitations, and tearful recommitments to Christ renewed many sincere resolves. Yet none eventuated in the decisive breakthrough we anticipated. But then, finally, months or years later at a summer camp or a college retreat, when we determinedly threw a stick on a bonfire symbolizing total surrender, we felt that at last we had struggled through to one hundred percent commitment — body, soul, and spirit. But how quickly we again were bitterly disappointed and dispirited.

Even older, more mature believers sometimes anticipate that undertaking great sacrifices in order to follow the Lord into some daring venture of Christian service will be finally the long-sought catalyst to total triumph. Yet again, how quickly they are distressed to discover that their venture has only accentuated just how divided they remain. After dramatically sacrificing nearly everything to arrive in India, William Carey confessed to his journal (March 7, 1794),

In the morning had a very miserable, unhappy time for some hours. O what a body of death do I carry about. How little can I bear, how little patience I have under the contradictions I meet with; and the afflictions I meet, how little are they sanctified. Instead of growing in grace I almost conclude myself to be destitute of the grace of God at all. How can a wretch like me ever expect to be of use to the heathen when I am so carnal myself?[3]

Very similar is David Brainerd’s journal entry the evening of the very day on which he had been examined for acceptance by the missions society sending him to take the gospel to the Indians. In the morning, he records: Spent much time in prayer and supplication. But after being interviewed, he confessed to having had

the most abasing thoughts of myself, I think, that ever I had. I thought myself the worst wretch that ever lived. It hurt me and pained my very heart that anybody should show me any respect. Alas! methought, how sadly they are deceived in me; how miserably would they be disappointed if they knew my inside! Oh, my heart! And in this depressed condition I was forced to go and preach to a considerable assembly, before some grave and learned ministers.[4]

The Normalcy of This Struggle

One of the most critical spiritual truths which a Christian must come to understand and accept in order to begin winning this struggle more consistently concerns Christian normalcy. What is the normal Christian condition? Is it Scriptural to be always fighting a civil war? Consider what the following passages reveal.

Every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust (James 1:14).

Christian normalcy, then, is that all Christians are subject to the same experience (every man is tempted), due to a possession which is common to them (his own lust), but which is in some ways individual to each (his own lust).

The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other (Gal. 5:17).

Christian normalcy, then, is that the origin of our individual lusting is the flesh, which is actively doing what the Spirit of God is (lusting), but the lusts are in mutual contradiction and opposition (against … against … contrary the one to the other).

What, then, is a normal Christian? John Newton attempted a description in a letter to a friend. He’s writing a full eighteen years after his own conversion and two years after entering the Christian ministry.

What a contradiction is a believer to himself! He is called a Believer emphatically, because he cordially assents to the word of God; but, alas! how often unworthy of the name!

If I was to describe him from the Scripture character, I should say, he is one whose heart is athirst for God, for his glory, his image, his presence; his affections are fixed upon an unseen Saviour; his treasures, and consequently his thoughts, are high, beyond the bounds of sense. Having experienced much forgiveness, he is full of compassions of mercy to all around; and having been often deceived by his own heart, he dares trust it no more, but lives by faith in the Son of God, for wisdom, righteousness and sanctification, and derives from him grace for grace; sensible that without him he has not sufficiency to think a good thought.

In short — he is dead to the world, to sin, to self; but alive to God and lively to his service. Prayer is his breath, the word of God his food, and the ordinances more precious to him than the light of the sun. Such is a believer — in his judgment and prevailing desires.

But was I to describe him from experience, especially at some times, how different would the picture be? Though he knows that communion with God is his highest privilege, he too seldom finds it so. On the contrary, if duty, conscience and necessity did not compel, he would leave the throne of grace unvisited from day to day.

He takes up the Bible, conscious that it is the fountain of life and true comfort. Yet perhaps, while he is making the reflection, he feels a secret distaste, which prompts him to lay it down and give his preference to a newspaper.

He needs not to be told of the vanity and uncertainty of all beneath the sun; and yet is almost as much elated or cast down by a trifle as those who have their portion in this world.

He believes that all things shall work together for his good, and that the most high God appoints, adjusts, and overrules all his concerns. Yet he feels the risings of fear, anxiety, and displeasure, as though the contrary was true.

He owns himself ignorant, and liable to be deceived by a thousand fallacies; yet is easily betrayed into positiveness and self-conceit.

He feels himself an unprofitable, unfaithful, unthankful servant, and therefore blushes to harbor a thought of desiring the esteem and commendations of men, yet he cannot suppress it.

Finally (for I must observe some bounds), on account of these and many other inconsistencies, he is struck dumb before the Lord, stripped of every hope and plea, but what is provided in the free grace of God, and yet his heart is continually leaning and returning to a covenant of works.[5]

What did Newton call a normal Christian? A normal Christian is a contradiction to himself. Or, in Scripture’s words, I am so often doing the very thing I would not (Rom. 7:20).

A Christian’s daily spiritual struggle is by nature a civil war, and this is normal Christian experience.

(To be continued tomorrow…)

Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January / February 2013. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers, in vol. 6 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (1850–53; reprint Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 11. Emphasis added. []
  2. Andrew Bonar, Memoir & Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1844; reprint Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), 428. Emphasis added. []
  3. The Journal and Selected Letters of William Carey, ed. Terry G. Carter (Smyth & Helwys, 2000), 17–18. []
  4. The Life of David Brainerd, vol. 7 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Norman Pettit (Yale University Press, 1985), 188. []
  5. Cardiphonia; or The Utterance of the Heart, in The Works of John Newton (1820; reprint, Banner of Truth Trust, 1988), 433–34. []

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