Do you struggle in your Christian walk? Do you get discouraged because you see the great difference between your character and the character of Christ? Do you feel that you can never “win” the battle?
Recognizing our sinfulness is a good sign, because it demonstrates that we have some understanding of the beauty of Christ’s character. And it seems that if we struggle, we are in good company for Paul writes in Romans 7:14-23:
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.
“Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.”
While some see this as Paul sharing the struggle of every sinner before conversion, I’d like us to test that thesis. It seems to me that a good interpretation of a text must not only be consistent with the rest of the Bible, but it must also meet the practical test of experience. So let’s check it out against experience: Is the struggle with sin and self magically resolved at conversion?
Rather than the struggle being won at conversion, it seems to me that the struggle begins or intensifies, partly because Satan increases his efforts and partly because we are more aware of our sins. (Also see 1 Cor 9:27 and 1 Tim 6:12)
The Christian’s Two Natures
Paul writes in this passage, “I delight in the law of God according to the inward man,” (Romans 7:22). Who “delights in the law of God” − a converted person or an unconverted person?
Perhaps the key lies right in the beginning of the passage: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” (Ro 7:14-15) Here Paul refers to the contrast between “carnal” and “spiritual.” At conversion, Christ implants a “new heart” or a new principle in the sinner, and this is what we call the “spiritual nature.” Thus the converted person lives with two natures which are in opposition to each other − the spiritual and the “carnal” or sinful nature.
Even as followers of Christ, when we look at the holy Law of God and try to obey it, we fail miserably, because of the natural “law” in our nature that tends towards sin. The “law in our members” (Ro 7:23) resides “in the flesh” (Ro 7:32), according to Paul. “The flesh”(KJV) is also translated as “sinful nature” in the NIV and other versions (Ro 7:32 NIV). So the struggle Paul is describing is the one between our spiritual nature, implanted by Christ, and our sinful nature which is naturally at war with the spirit of Christ. This natural tendency towards sin is a “rule” or “law” within us (Ro. 7:23).
I know what that’s like from experience. How about you?
And that’s why we struggle. The struggle begins when we are first drawn to Christ and sense the requirements of His Law and the holiness of His character. And it continues even after conversion, because conversion does not remove our sinful nature, since that would take away our opportunity to grow through choosing to obey. Instead, He gives us power to obey. Thus the sinful nature is with us till Christ returns to take His people home. (See 1 Cor 15:51-53)
Now a continual struggle and a continual failing does not make for a joyful Christian life, and it’s not what Christ designed for us. He said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11) If our joy is supposed to be “full” in Jesus, why is it that so many Christians go about with long faces while they struggle to become more like Jesus?
Solution in Christ Jesus
I think Paul gives us the solution to this dilemma in Romans 8:1 and on: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”
While we all know this text, how do we put it into practice?
I believe it’s a matter of focus.
When we focus on the Law and seek to keep it, even “with the help of Christ,” we find ourselves failing so much that we get discouraged. A focus on obedience is a focus our performance − a focus on self. And yet, “The warfare against self is the greatest battle that was ever fought. The yielding of self, surrendering all to the will of God, requires a struggle …” (Ellen White, Steps to Christ, p. 43) It hardly seems possible to fight against self while looking at self. In His own life, by contrast, Christ modeled self-forgetful love. To be “self-forgetful” we need to focus on something other than ourselves and our good or bad deeds.
By not focusing on our performance, but focusing on Christ and asking for His mind to be in us (Phil. 2:5), we experience the joy of the Lord, as we allow Him to live out His law in us.
Focusing on Jesus actually produces the change in us that makes us more like Him, while focusing on perfecting character does not. Christ wants to “abide” in Him (John 15:4-7), because we can do nothing without Him. “Abiding” has the sense of staying in relationship with Him.
Focusing on the law is like focusing on the mirror. Now, looking in the mirror once in a while to make sure we are presentable is normal. But to keep standing in front of the mirror would brand anyone as a lunatic. By contrast, Paul counsels us to “examine ourselves” (2 Cor 13:4) to make sure we are still “in the faith” − that is, in relationship with Jesus. When we fall into sin − in thought, word, or action − we need to check our relationship with Jesus, rather than trying harder to keep the Law.
Abiding in Christ
I believe that an “abiding” relationship with Christ is nurtured as we nurture any other relationship. We set aside time with Him to talk to Him in prayer and listen to Him through His Word, as we keep our minds open to the Spirit’s direct impressions. Just as working on a common project is one of the best ways to grow a human relationship, so it is in our relationship with Christ. As we do the things He wants done on this planet, our relationship with Him grows, and we become more like Him. This counsel has been a great help to me:
Your promises and resolutions are like ropes of sand. You cannot control your thoughts, your impulses, your affections. … What you need to understand is the true force of the will. … The power of choice God has given to men; it is theirs to exercise. You cannot change your heart, you cannot of yourself give to God its affections; but you can choose to serve Him. You can give Him your will; He will then work in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure. (Ellen White, Steps to Christ, p. 47)
Whichever nature we choose to feed will become stronger. If we spend the week feeding our “carnal” nature and feed our spiritual nature only on Sabbath, it’s no wonder that the sinful nature remains strong.
We need to choose to nurture our relationship with Christ every day. Paul wrote that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8). And faith is a relationship word, because it means full and complete trust − enough trust to allow Christ full control over our lives.
When We Fail
Does focusing on Christ and nurturing a relationship with Him mean we never fall again? No, but when we fall, we look right back to Christ, and while we confess our sin and helplessness, knowing He will forgive us, we reach out a hand to let Him pick us up again. He does not forsake us when we fall, but is ever read to pick us up again – just as mothers and fathers do with their own children.
We shall often have to bow down and weep at the feet of Jesus because of our shortcomings and mistakes, but we are not to be discouraged. Even if we are overcome by the enemy, we are not cast off, not forsaken and rejected of God. No; Christ is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. (Ellen White, Steps to Christ, p. 64)
The more we practice focusing on Christ, the more constant our walk with Him will be, until we see Him face to face. But the struggle does not end until our corruptible bodies are exchanged for incorruptible ones (1 Cor 15:52-54).
So long as Satan reigns, we shall have self to subdue, besetting sins to overcome; so long as life shall last, there will be no stopping place, no point which we can reach and say, I have fully attained. (Ellen White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 560)
He who knows the end from the beginning is more interested in our attitude of trust towards Him than in the individual good deeds or bad deeds. It’s the direction of our life that counts. While the minister in the pulpit may look good to his congregation, he may be heading away from Christ, and the drug addict may look hopeless, but he may be in the process of responding to the redeeming love of Christ. In such a case, God can save the drug addict but not the minister because the minister is harboring doubt or self-confidence while the drug addict is crying out to Jesus for salvation. (See Steps to Christ, p. 57)
The difference between a focus on self or on Christ is profound. When we look at self, there’s no way we can be saved. When we look at Christ, there’s no way we can be lost. (Ro 8:39)
Looking at Christ, we can have a joyful Christian experience which is a source of strength for witness and for overcoming temptation. What Nehemia said to his people is still true today, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh 8:10) That’s why it is one of my favorite Bible texts.
May we all learn to walk joyfully with Jesus!
Note on 2014-05-21 at 11:07:57 AM: The discussion under this post is closed to arguments regarding at what stage in his experience Paul wrote about the conflict in Romans 7. Theological argumentation is not the purpose of this post.
But we welcome comments on the topic of “Winning the Battle.” Please share what has helped you win the battle in your life. The thesis of the blog article is that keeping our primary focus on Christ is the secret to overcoming sin in our lives and walking joyfully with Jesus. Focusing on Law, sin or perfection won’t do it.
What has been your experience?