Stubborn, Ceaseless Civil War (2)

Mark Minnick

In Part One, Dr. Minnick writes to us of the struggle of the spiritual life, instructing us of the Nature of the struggle and assuring us of the Normalcy of the struggle.

The Enormity of This Struggle

Though everything described thus far is the normal experience of all Christians, it isn’t their experience to the same degree. Nor does any particular believer experience it to the same degree at all times. In fact, sometimes the flesh, or sin (as Scripture occasionally refers to the flesh), seems to lie dormant. But is it? John Owen cautions, Sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep when they are still.[1]

So just how great is the scope of this civil struggle? We gauge the magnitude of earthly conflicts in various ways, including when they break out, and where. We may gauge the scope of this struggle in these same ways.

Consider, for instance, the following journal entry (1768) of the author of “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” Augustus Toplady:

In secret prayer this morning, before I left my chamber, the fire of divine love kindled, and the Lord sensibly shone upon my soul. I could not forbear saying, “O, why art thou so kind to the chief of sinners?”

I was so taken up, and as it were circumfused with the love of God, and the perception of my union with him. … Thus I walked in the light of his countenance, for, I suppose, two or three minutes: when, alas! evil wanderings intervened, my warmth of joy suddenly subsided, and I was, in great measure, brought down from the mount.[2]

John Newton confessed to the same kinds of experiences. Adding significant weight to what he records is the fact that he’s now been a believer for twenty-six years, and in the ministry for eight:

I would not be the sport and prey of wild, vain, foolish, and worse imaginations: but this evil is present with me. My heart is like a highway, like a city without walls or gates: nothing so false, so frivolous, so absurd, so impossible, or so horrid, but it can obtain access, and that any time, in any place. Neither the study, the pulpit, nor even the Lord’s table exempt me from their intrusion.

I sometimes compare my words to the treble of an instrument, which my thoughts accompany with a kind of bass, or rather anti-bass, in which every rule of harmony is broken, every possible combination of discord and confusion is introduced, utterly inconsistent with, and contradictory to, the intended melody.[3]

These testimonies underscore two things as we consider the scope of our struggle with sin: (1) the times when one’s spirit can be reversed (Newton says it can happen at any time), and (2) the places or activities in which this can occur. Toplady says that it happened to him while he was walking in the light of his countenance. Newton says that neither the study, the pulpit, nor even the Lord’s table are exempt from sin’s intrusion.

So there doesn’t seem to be a single sacred frame of spirit or even any kind of sacred service which is insulated against this reversal. Scripture confirms this conclusion: I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me (Rom. 7:21).

Notice the words, when I would … evil is present. Of this phenomenon David Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes,

Notice how he expresses the matter — “evil,” he says, “is present with me.” That means, “always at hand,” “always lying near.” “Whenever I will to do good, evil is always there, always asserting itself, jumping forward. The moment I act with this mind of mine, evil jumps in, persistent in its opposition, never absent. The moment I will to do good, evil is there.” I thus paraphrase what he is saying.[4]

This explains how our spirit can be reversed so suddenly: at the very moment when I would … evil is present with me. It would be more accurate to say that it is especially at the moment that we will to do good that we experience evil’s presence. For Paul relates earlier in Romans 7 that his own preconversion experience had been that it was not until the commandment came, that sin revived (v. 9). From this statement we discern that it is not until the actual moment that it is threatened with some new revelation or resolve concerning God’s pleasure, that sin is really roused up to the pitch of antagonism that we’re able to sense. We may feel that our experience of sin is sudden and surprising. But that’s only because our flesh had not been provoked until then. Actually, sin is never dormant. That’s the first fact by which we may gauge the enormity of our struggle — that though we are not aware of it until it surprises us, sin is always acting, always conceiving, always seducing and tempting (John Owen).[5] This is the time factor — when may it break out? At any time.

Then, secondly, as to where sin’s assault can break out, Newton testified that there is no spiritual service, no matter how sacred, that is in any way immune to it. We’re told that Eli’s wicked sons, Hophni and Phineas, profaned the offerings of all the Israelites who came to Shiloh, and they molested the women that assembled [served] at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation (1 Sam. 2:14, 22). So sin lusts to profane our every offering and molests us in all our service. So, for example,

  • At the very moment he was exercising miraculous power in bringing forth water from the rock, Moses was failing to believe and exalt the Lord (Num. 20:12).
  • Gehazi witnesses Naaman’s miraculous cleansing, remarkable conversion and great gratitude, and is tempted to covetousness (2 Kings 5:20).
  • Jonah sees Nineveh’s repentance and God’s merciful response, and is stirred up to fleshy displeasure and anger with God (Jonah 4:1).
  • The disciples experience miraculous success and are diverted away from their greatest cause for thanksgiving (Luke 10:17, 20).
  • Martha is preparing energetically for the Lord’s comfort but all the while resenting her sister for not doing the same, leading to her even accusing the Lord of not caring about this apparent inequity (Luke 10:40).
  • In the very act of walking on water, Peter fears and doubts (Matt. 14:30, 31).
  • Peter beholds our Lord transfigured and responds by proposing an arrangement exceedingly selfish (Matt. 17:4).
  • During the Passover supper the disciples dispute about which one of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24).
  • Paul’s experience of being caught up into Heaven and hearing revelations of surpassing greatness would, apart from the Lord’s intervention, have betrayed him into exalting himself (2 Cor. 12:7).
  • Any spiritual gift may be exercised, and any personal sacrifice may be made, entirely apart from the only motive which makes it spiritually profitable (1 Cor. 13:1–3).
  • Even prayers may be offered for all the right things, but with all the wrong motives (James 4:3).
  • In any act of devotion to God — giving, praying, and even fasting — one may be only exalting himself (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16).

John Owen asks a question which is critical, then, for each of us to answer in order to come to the right conclusion about the magnitude of the hostility to God that wars within our souls: Who can say that he had ever anything to do with God or for God, that indwelling sin had not a hand in the corrupting of what he did? ((Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers, 11.))

That’s a very humbling question that no Christian likes to face. Yet inexperienced believers have an even greater difficulty with it. They question the question! Can its inference possibly be right? Isn’t it far too extreme? But they’ve not yet become sufficiently acquainted with the spirituality of obedience and the subtlety of sin.[6] They may have to be taught by many disappointments.

A seasoned Christian, on the other hand, knows from long experience exactly what Owen was getting at. William Cowper, author of many of our most beloved hymns, testified in Olney Hymns,

My God! how perfect are Thy ways!
But mine polluted are;
Sin twines itself about my praise,
And slides into my prayer.

In terms of earthly conflicts, then, the scope of this struggle is truly “universal.” The civil war within us is a kind of “world” war. It can flare up at any time, in any place, to interrupt any blessed frame of mind, or to encroach upon any form of sacred activity. No surprise, then, that Octavius Winslow (1808–78) concluded,

There is, then, in every child of God, the innate principle of departure. Notwithstanding the wonders of grace God has wrought for the soul … this unsanctified, unmortified principle would bear him away. Is there not in this aspect of our theme something truly heart-breaking? — the subject of a kind and benevolent government, and yet to be always rebelling against the Sovereign; dwelling under a kind and loving Father’s roof, and yet to be perpetually grieving him, and departing from him; to have received so many costly proofs of his love, and yet rendering the most ungrateful returns, — oh, it is enough to sink the soul in the deepest selfabasement before God!

Reader, what has the Lord been to thee? … Has he not blended kindness with all his rebukes, tenderness with all his chastisements, love with all his dealings, and has not his gentleness made thee great? Then why hast though departed from him? … Is not the cause of all thy departure, declension, unkindness, unfruitfulness in thyself, and in thyself alone?[7]

The Progress in This Humiliation

Humiliation over this stubborn, ceaseless struggle within ourselves is no defeat. Rather, it is the absolutely necessary preparation for more consistent victory. John Calvin perceptively observed,

I think he has profited greatly who has learned to be very much displeased with himself, not so as to stick fast in this mire and progress no farther, but rather to hasten to God and yearn for him.[8]

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. John Owen, 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. []
  2. The Complete Works of Augustus Toplady (1794; reprint Sprinkle Publications, 1987), 14. []
  3. Cardiphonia; or The Utterance of the Heart, 444–45. []
  4. Romans: An Exposition of Chapters 7.1–8.4, The Law: Its Functions and Limits (1973; Zondervan Publishing House), 215. []
  5. Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers, 11. []
  6. Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers, 11. []
  7. Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul (1841; reprint, Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 173. []
  8. Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Westminster Press, MCMLX), I, 615. []