(This is the first part of the book How to Gain Victory Over Sin, available through Amazon.com and other booksellers. It is available both in print and as a free ebook. Information about the book is on my books page.
The saying is faithful and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners… 1
I wrote this book to help a specific group of people, so I am going to assume two things are true of you:
First, you are a born-again believer in Jesus Christ. You have put your trust in Him and His finished work on the cross to save you from your sins. God has taken away the burden of guilt, and has given you new life in His Son.
Second, you still struggle with sin and temptation. You know your sins are forgiven, and you want to live in a way that pleases God, but it really bothers you that you can't stop sinning. Sometimes you manage to resist temptation for a while, but eventually it seems you always fail. As a result, you find yourself burdened with guilt and shame over your actions on a regular basis.
If you find this describes you, welcome to the club—I'm a fellow-struggler myself! But I have found some things of great value in the scriptures that give me hope. I want to share what I've learned and show you the God-given way to overcome practical sin in your life. I don't mean to say that sin is now a thing of the past for me, because it isn't. While success in the spiritual battlefield comes through specific, God-given means, I still have habits of doing things my way. However, I have found the road to victory, and I'm learning how to walk it. You, too, can know the truth of 1 Timothy 1:15 in a practical way: Christ Jesus came into the world, not just to save lost sinners, but to save born-again 'sinners'!
"But wait!," you object. "I'm a saint, not a sinner!" True. But practically speaking, you still sin. Jesus Christ came to save us from all aspects of sin, not just its consequences. Two verses earlier Paul said, "I was before a blasphemer, a persecutor, and insolent." He no longer lived that way because God was working in him to change him. The same power to change the worst of sinners is available to change you.
This book serves as an introduction to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. In the following pages we'll discover what makes resisting temptation so difficult, and we'll see what God does to make victory over sin possible. I've also included additional articles about the Holy Spirit and sanctification that I hope will help you in your walk with Him. But however helpful you may find this book, it is only an introduction to this topic. I strongly encourage you to spend time studying the Holy Spirit's role in making you like Christ. At a minimum, you should look up the scripture references in the endnotes and read them in context.
Our Common Experience
I grew up in a Christian home with believing parents, and came to salvation at an early age. That, in itself, did not guarantee I would never live on the 'other side of the tracks'. There are many who grew up in Christian homes, but you wouldn't know it from how they live today. I could have been like them, but God has been gracious to me in this respect.
In spite of my lack of 'history', I am like any other born-again believer: I find it difficult to live the Christian life. I don't mean coming to church on Sundays, reading my Bible, or praying. I don't find those things difficult at all. But I do struggle with sin and temptation on a daily basis. I struggle with lust. I struggle with self-control. I struggle with loving others from the heart. The reason I struggle is not because I am unusually weak, but because I have the same fallen human nature we all share in this world. I know it's not God's will for me to give in to temptation, and it seems the only alternative to giving in is to struggle.
Sometimes losing the battle with sin appears to be inevitable. It's not just outright temptation I have to deal with, but the constant thoughts of my mind and the wayward desires of my heart. I want to be more like Jesus—to love like Him, to be patient like Him, to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Him. But Satan regularly attacks my faith, and the world constantly tries to lure me away from my Lord. To make matters worse, my flesh naturally wants to side with Satan and the world. The fight is very tiring. Sometimes the odds for winning the battle against sin appear hopelessly stacked against me.
And yet, Jesus said, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light." 2
There have been times when I felt I could never know the reality of this. The struggle was just too difficult. When I'd fail, I'd beat myself up, and feel like I hadn't the energy to resume the fight.
Perhaps you find what Jesus said difficult to believe. Maybe you've dismissed the easy yoke and light burden as an impossible ideal. You may even doubt your salvation because you haven't been able to "overcome the world." 3 If so, I want to give you hope.
Know this: Jesus did not do away with one impossible standard (the Law 4), to replace it with another impossible standard. He knows our struggles, and He has a solution for them. But to grasp this solution, we first need to be confronted with our need for the solution.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul presents to us the doctrine of salvation in a very systematic manner. In the first five chapters, he writes about justification, that is getting into a right relationship with God. He begins with our need for salvation, continues with our inability to save ourselves, and ends with God's solution to our problem.
After concluding the topic of justification, Paul covers sanctification (how we are to live) in the same orderly way. In the next three chapters he describes the need to live right, our inability to do so, and God's solution to our problem. We're going to focus on this second section of Romans, especially the 8th chapter, because it contains the solution we're looking for. But before we move on, it is essential to have a firm handle on the fact that these three chapters are about sanctification, not justification. By this point, Paul has completed his argument that justification is entirely through faith in the finished work of Jesus. 5 If you assume parts of chapter 8 are also about justification, it will appear Paul contradicts himself, especially in verses 4, 8, and 13. But there really is no contradiction. Justification provides freedom from condemnation, the eternal consequences of sin. Sanctification provides freedom from the power of sin in this life. It is the latter that Paul is concerned with here, and I shall remind you of this at times. 6
An Elusive Reality
In the 6th chapter of Romans Paul describes how we should live once we've been saved. Since we have been freed from sin, we are no longer to walk in it:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? May it never be! We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer? … Therefore don't let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. Neither present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God, as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 7
This whole chapter of Romans deals with God's intent on how we are to live as born-again believers. Victory over sin is not just an ideal. It is supposed to be a reality. We are not to treat grace as a license to sin. Grace is really a call to live righteously.
However, there's a problem here, and Paul was aware of it, even as he was writing. The problem is that this chapter, taken by itself, presents a standard that is impossible in practice to live by. Paul knew this, and in the next chapter he goes on to describe his own experience in trying to live up to the standard:
…For I don't know what I am doing. For I don't practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do. … For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing. For desire is present with me, but I don't find it doing that which is good. For the good which I desire, I don't do; but the evil which I don't desire, that I practice. … For I delight in God's law after the inward man, but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members. 8
It's tempting to think Paul is speaking here of his life before Christ, but that is not the case. He has not interrupted his current topic to go back to an issue he has already fully addressed. Paul has a new heart that delights in the law of God, not just in Jewish traditions. He wants to do good. Besides, before he was saved, Paul was not aware of any inner conflict. He thought he was able to live up to the Law blamelessly. 9 Only after salvation did he find he couldn't stop sinning.
So, even as a saved believer in Jesus, Paul found himself doing the things he did not want to do. While delighting in God's Law, he found himself to be a practical slave to sin. 10 He wanted to do good, but he kept doing evil. His spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. I identify with this, and I expect you do, too.
Most of us feel the need to struggle to live up to the Romans 6 dead-to-sin-and-alive-to-God standard. But hopefully, through honest self-examination, we realize the struggle is futile, and we get to the point where we despair of ever being able to overcome sin through sheer will power. We echo Paul's frustration when he said:
What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death? 11
We all need to come to this point in our Christian experience. It might not seem like it, but it really is a good thing when we hit our bottom. It is only when we come to realize our utter hopelessness to overcome sin in our lives that we can become receptive to God's solution.
A Confusing Victory
Paul describes this solution in the next chapter, but before he gets there, he writes something that is, at the same time, both encouraging and depressing:
…I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord! So then with the mind, I myself serve God's law, but with the flesh, the sin's law. 12
Paul points to where our victory over sin lies, and it certainly does not lie in our own personal efforts. My deliverer from the 'body of this death' is the Lord Jesus Christ. It is His sovereign power that gives me victory.
However, it used to be when I read this chapter and came to this verse, something didn't sit right. Why would Paul give thanks to God while admitting he still served sin with his flesh? I used to reconcile this by thinking Paul was thanking God for the forgiveness of his sins that was made possible by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
But after reading and re-reading this section of Romans, the context forced me to conclude Paul was thanking God for practical victory in his struggle with sin. He was thanking God for sanctification, not salvation. 13
But it still didn't make sense to me. I identified with Paul's struggle. So how can it be a good thing that, while I serve God with my mind, I still serve sin with my flesh? I don't want to serve sin with my flesh! I want to serve righteousness with my flesh! What am I thanking God for here?
Then I saw it. Paul had already given us a little taste of the answer earlier in chapter 7:
But now we have been discharged from the law, having died to that in which we were held; so that we serve in newness of the Spirit, and not in oldness of the letter. 14
You see, Paul was losing the sin battle because he was trying to fight sin the old way: by keeping the law. Law-keeping attempts to correct the outward actions, but it is powerless to correct the inner cause of sin. Therefore, God has provided a new way to live: through the promised Holy Spirit that Jesus sent down for us. As we move into the next chapter, Paul explains why this is such a good thing.
First, to those who keep losing the sin battle, Paul addresses the self-condemnation issue. Immediately (!) after admitting he himself served sin in his flesh, he says:
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus… 15
Even though Paul could not stop sinning, God did not condemn him, because he was in Christ.
You may condemn yourself over your constant failures to live up to God's standards, but if you are in Christ (…and only God can put you in Christ), Paul assures you that God does not condemn you for the evil you can't stop doing (Romans 7:19, 23). Jesus Christ paid the full penalty for your sin on the cross. It is because of the righteous blood He shed that God does the unthinkable: He justifies the ungodly! 16 So, if God doesn't condemn you for your sins, you shouldn't either.
We should always be thankful for being delivered from the condemnation of the law. But, as Paul said earlier, we are not to use our freedom from condemnation as a license to sin. Romans 6 is still God's intent for you and me. 17 (By the way, if living in sin doesn't bother you, you should seriously question your salvation! 18)
So, if God wants us to live righteously, but we can't stop sinning, how do we resolve our dilemma? Here's how:
True practical freedom from sin is not obtained by personal effort, but by walking in the Holy Spirit. Instead of focusing on your sin or on trying to keep the Law, you need to focus on Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit He has freely given you.
Continuing on in Romans chapter 8, Paul tells us how he personally found freedom from sin:
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death. For what the law couldn't do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh; that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. 19
There are three kinds of laws mentioned in this passage. In reverse order, they are:
•The Law of Moses, in verses 3 and 4. This is the law that reveals God's standard of righteousness. The Law is righteous and good. It says you must not do this and you must not do that, but it doesn't give you any power to fulfill its demands. Our flesh is too weak, handicapped by our sinful nature, to keep all of its requirements. The Mosaic Law doesn't help us. All it does is condemn us:
Now we know that whatever things the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God. 20
•Next, there is the law of sin and death in verse 2. This law is the operating principle we find within ourselves when we try to keep the Mosaic Law. It is the 'other law' mentioned in Romans 7:23, the one that won't let us keep God's law, even though we want to. The Mosaic Law, while good in itself, empowers sin in our fallen nature, which results in death. 21 The Mosaic Law reveals this law of sin and death that is already in us, and therefore it condemns us.
•Finally, in verse 2 there is the law of the Spirit of life. Unlike the Mosaic Law, this law is the power of God actively working in those of us who are in Christ through His Holy Spirit. It completely overcomes the law of sin and death, and brings us into right practical relationship with God, fulfilling the requirements of the Law of Moses. 22 The important thing to note here is that the power of this law is experienced, not by those who try to keep the Mosaic Law, but by those who walk in the Spirit. As Paul says elsewhere:
Walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. 23
A Different Hope
Walking in the Spirit is the key to gaining victory over sin. But you may say, "I already know that, and yet I still struggle with temptation! I still sin!"
Yes, you do! And so do I! But we've only looked at part of God's solution to our problem. Let's continue on.
If you're like many believers today, you probably think of the Holy Spirit's sanctifying work in you as somehow transforming your fleshly nature to make it more like Christ. The Holy Spirit is helping you to lie less, to overcome an addiction, to be less of a hypocrite, to be more loving, and so on. He pushes you to somehow do better. If you have been thinking this way, stop!
Listen: The Holy Spirit was not given to improve or correct the flesh. The fleshly nature will always be sinful, because the mind of your natural self is an incorrigible rebel against God, and it will always be your worst enemy as well.
…because the mind of the flesh is hostile towards God; for it is not subject to God's law, neither indeed can it be. Those who are in the flesh can't please God. 24
The fleshly nature never improves. We have this idea that as Christians our flesh gradually becomes better, but it doesn't. It actually gets worse. The recovering alcoholic can identify with this. An alcoholic can have sobriety for 40 years, but all it takes is one drink to find himself exactly where he left off, showing there never was any real improvement to the addiction.
Before you can gain victory over sin, you must first accept the fact that your natural mind will always be in rebellion against God. Your flesh will never willingly submit to God's rule, and if you insist on forcing it to do so, you might as well get used to disappointment! 25
This is why Paul admitted he served sin in his flesh at the end of chapter 7, and it's the reason why we also cannot conquer sin through any amount of self-effort. Trying to reform our minds and actions is just a waste of time. It's hopeless. The only appropriate action to take for the fleshly nature is to put it completely to death by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if you live after the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 26
Imagine you see a dandelion on your lawn. You pull the weed up, but a week later it's back. You pull it up again, but it still comes back. No matter how many times you pull it, that stubborn weed keeps coming back. The problem is you're only removing the top part of the plant. You're not getting at the root.
Sin is like the top part of that weed, and the fleshly nature is its root. While it's certainly better to pull the weed of sin up than to let it grow, unless the root is dealt with, sin will keep coming back. Sanctification is the process by which the Holy Spirit gradually kills the root of the fleshly nature. It is only as He does His work in us that our efforts in resisting temptation will meet with success.
We'll look at this in more detail later, but for now understand God does not expect you to live a righteous life through self-effort. He knows it is impossible for you, and therefore He is not going to condemn you for your failures (Romans 7:25–8:1). Just as your salvation has been accomplished by the work of Jesus Christ, so your sanctification is being accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit. Your sanctification is God's on-going work, and therefore the results are His responsibility. Don't beat yourself up over something that is not your responsibility! Your part is to simply walk by faith in submission to His Spirit. Cease from your own work and yield to His power and direction. Let Him do His work in you and leave the results with Him, …so He gets the glory. Yes, it takes time to learn this, but trust Him!
Now don't misunderstand me. Sanctification is not a passive "Let go, and let God" process on our part. I'm not against works—I'm just against those works of the flesh. We will look at what we are to do, but first we need to understand our absolute reliance on God's power in us to overcome the root cause of our sin.
But if the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised up Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. 27
Once you grasp the concept that your sanctification is just as much God's responsibility as your salvation, you will find release from self-condemnation. And this will enable you to look to Him to do His work in your life.
If you still struggle with a particular sin, don't worry about failure. Get your eyes off your sin and on to Jesus. Trust His Holy Spirit to work in you to change your heart and mind. When you sin, confess it to Jesus, thank Him for His blood which covers it, and immediately get back in step with the Spirit, submitting yourself to Him and depending on His power to overcome the flesh. Your focus should not be on sinning less but on walking in the Spirit more—even continually. As the latter happens, the former will happen as a result. 28
For most of us, the first eight chapters of Romans picture the path of progress in our Christian walk. Chapters 6 through 8 can be summarized this way:
•A chapter 6 believer is someone who acknowledges we are not to sin, but hasn't been serious about putting it into practice, or honest with himself about his inability to do so.
•A chapter 7 believer is someone who has attempted to put chapter 6 into practice, and has come face to face with failure. He realizes his need for supernatural intervention.
•A chapter 8 believer is someone who relies on God's solution to the problem exposed in chapter 7. He seeks to walk in submission to the Holy Spirit—and experiences victory over sin when he does so! He realizes his sanctification is not just his goal, it is God's goal.
Which chapter are you?
"For as many as are led by the Spirit of God,
these are children of God." 29
"Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh
with its passions and lusts.
If we live by the Spirit, let's also walk by the Spirit." 30
"It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh profits nothing.
The words that I speak to you are spirit, and are life." 31
"But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror
the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image
from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit." 32
"…'Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,'
says Yahweh of Armies" 33
I hope what we've seen so far opens your eyes to the possibility of overcoming sin in your life. It has certainly done so for me. Before we move from doctrine to how it works out in real life, I need to warn you of two wrong turns that can sidetrack us right from the start.
First, if I present a laundry list of things to do, it would be easy and natural for you to try to do those things in your own strength. But that would be missing the whole point.
Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now completed in the flesh? 34
Simply put, walking in the flesh is doing anything apart from walking in submission to the Spirit. 35 There are all kinds of good things you can do, but unless you do them under the leading and power of the Holy Spirit, they will eventually result in sin, and we don't want to go there.
This leads to the question: How can you know if you're walking in the flesh? I've sometimes heard it described by the word trying:
"I'm trying to control my temper."
"I'm trying not to think lustful thoughts."
"I'm trying to love my neighbor."
If your focus is on trying to obey, it's a good sign you're relying on your own strength rather than God's strength. The Spirit does not work through your trying to keep the law. 36 You cannot work the change from the outside in—you might as well try filling the outside of a bottle. God must work the change from the inside out.
Elsewhere, Paul warned the Philippian believers about the Judaizers who wanted to bring elements of lawkeeping into the church. He said that is not the way we are to live:
For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. 37
In the original language, the word 'worship' here refers not to the worship of praise, but to how we live for God in our day-to-day lives. In my natural strength, doing the right thing is a chore. It's a battle I know I will lose. Galatians 5:17 says there's a war going on in me between my natural self and the Spirit. There's enmity between them, a battle for mastery. If I try to please God in my own strength, I'm taking the wrong side as much as if I seek to satisfy my fleshly desires. I'm grieving the Spirit and feeding the flesh. I will experience defeat as a result.
Don't be deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption. But he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 38
We usually understand these verses as a warning against carnality, but keep in mind Paul was speaking to outwardly moral believers who were trying to keep the law. It may come as a surprise to you, but just by trying to live a morally upright life, you could be living in the flesh! This is because legalism and the flesh are closely tied together. 39
My earnest desire is that you abandon all hope in your own ability to live righteously, so that you put all your hope in God's power in you to live righteously. Otherwise, you will get sidetracked into fleshly "trying."
If you think you have a sin or weakness under control, or a particular temptation is behind you, humble yourself quickly before you fall! You will never have your weaknesses under control except through continual submission to the Holy Spirit. Don't hope to become stronger to withstand temptation. Instead, put all your hope in Christ and His Spirit to give you grace to stand day by day.
The other way you could get off track is by being spiritually lazy. I've emphasized the necessity of relying on the Holy Spirit to do His work in your life. That doesn't mean sitting back and doing your own thing while waiting for sanctification to miraculously happen. To gain victory over sin, you must replace walking in the flesh with walking, not merely resting, in the Spirit. It's impossible to replace walking in the flesh with nothing at all. 40
What does it mean to walk in the Spirit? To answer that question, all we have to do is look at the life of Jesus in the gospels.
When Jesus came to earth, He "emptied" Himself 41, laying aside His own power and will. As God in human flesh, Jesus was fully able to minister in His own strength. He could have done what He wanted without sinning. However, He denied Himself and submitted to the Holy Spirit's leading anyway. After His baptism, the Spirit came upon Him and led Him into the wilderness to be tempted. When Jesus returned, He did so in the power of the Spirit. He then preached and performed miracles by the same Spirit. 42 His life was a channel for the Spirit of God to work through.
We also need to walk the same way: to empty ourselves, pray in the Spirit, love in the Spirit, serve God and live to Him in the Spirit. 43 This is not merely trying to imitate the life of Christ. It is the Spirit of Christ 44 actually living through us as we rely on Him to direct, guide, and empower us. It is the "Not I, but Christ" life of Galatians 2:20–21. 45
An integral part of walking in the Spirit is abiding in Christ. Jesus said we can do nothing unless we abide in Him. But when we abide in Him, the result is fruit for God. 46
When I think about fruit, I picture an apple tree. An apple tree does not work or struggle to produce apples. As long as it remains connected to the root, the life-giving sap flows through it, and fruit develops naturally. When we remain connected to Christ, the 'sap' of the Holy Spirit flows through us, and over time we produce much fruit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. … 47
Not surprisingly, this is what characterized the life of Jesus on earth. Fruit is the evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work. You could see it in the church at Pentecost, and in the Philippian and Thessalonian churches. 48 The Corinthian believers, however, while having a reputation for being Spirit-filled, were carnal. They lacked love for one another, and their church was cliquish and plagued with immorality. 49 Clearly they were walking in the flesh, not in the Spirit.
If you're like me, you probably find the biggest obstacle to walking in the Spirit is simply remembering to do so. With the world and life in general offering plenty of attention-grabbing distractions, how do we keep God at the forefront of our thoughts? I believe it begins with an urgent sense of need for Him.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. 50
When Jesus talked with the woman at the well, He spoke of a thirst only He could satisfy. The apostle John tells us that thirst was for the Holy Spirit. Just as water consumes our thoughts when we're in great thirst, the path to continually walking in the Spirit begins with a consuming sense of thirst for the Holy Spirit.
Most Christians would agree Jesus sent His Spirit because He knew we needed power to be witnesses for Him and to serve Him. But few recognize their absolute dependence upon the Spirit to overcome sin and become like Christ. Yet this is why Jesus gave us His Spirit: because He knows we can't do it on our own. To sense our spiritual thirst, we must recognize our need as well. A big part of this is becoming aware of the specific ways we are enslaved to our own way of thinking.
While the fleshly nature usually expresses itself in the words you say or the things you do, it's really about what's going on inside you. The flesh operates through attitudes such as pride, self-righteousness, lack of godly love, and the unwillingness to forgive others. It is motivated by things like money, pleasure, happiness, comfort, security, and even blessings—things that may be good in themselves, but are evil when they become our goals, and God merely a means to attain those goals.
Learning to recognize the flesh-walk is difficult because we've been immersed in it all our lives. It seems so natural that we're not even aware of it. You may think you're doing okay. You may even believe you are walking in the Spirit. But if the fruit listed in Galatians 5:22–23 isn't increasing in your life over time, you're not doing as well as you think. You probably have a hidden, fleshly stronghold somewhere. 51 Those strongholds in your life don't have to remain hidden, however. You can discover them by taking time to read and meditate on the living word of God.
For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 52
When you read your Bible, make it a habit to first ask God to point out areas in your life where your flesh is still in control. Take a cue from King David when he prayed:
Search me, God, and know my heart. Try me, and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way. 53
…and then listen to what the Spirit has to say.
As you spend time in God's word, you'll read about various people who did right or wrong. You'll come across commands and instructions on how you are to live. Examine yourself in light of what you read. Be honest. Maybe you have a pride, anger, lust or other problem that you're unaware of. Keep asking God to reveal those areas to you. Then, don't be surprised when the Holy Spirit starts convicting you of things in your life you've never had a problem with before. He will probably make you very uncomfortable at times. That's okay. Let Him bring those areas to light anyway so He can deal with them. You will only have victory when you stop holding on to what grieves the Holy Spirit. 54
As the Spirit brings each of these flesh areas to light, confess them to Jesus right away and they will be forgiven. Confess not only sinful actions, but also the fleshly attitude, the root cause, that led to them. For example, confess the lack of love that led to your outburst of anger, or the selfishness that caused you to walk away from someone in need. Even if a fleshly attitude does not result in a sinful action, confess it anyway. As you keep confessing the works and attitudes of your flesh, not only will they be forgiven, God promises to cleanse you practically from all unrighteousness: He promises to sanctify you.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 55
And when you confess these things to God, don't forget to ask His Holy Spirit for the boldness and power to put the works of your flesh completely to death (Romans 8:13). Confess not only your weakness but His strength, and by faith expect Him to answer your prayer.
As you learn to walk more in the Spirit, and by His power put the works of your flesh to death, you will find sin losing its grip on your life. Romans 6 will no longer appear to be full of impossibilities. You will find yourself able to 'reckon' yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 56 You will also be able to boldly 'present' yourself by faith to God each day for Him to work through you.
Neither present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God, as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. … I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh, for as you presented your members as servants to uncleanness and to wickedness upon wickedness, even so now present your members as servants to righteousness for sanctification. 57
This 'presenting' of yourself is not about your ability to live in a righteous manner, but about your availability to God for Him to do His good work in and through you. It is saying, "God, I come before you as an empty vessel. Fill me with your righteousness for Your glory. Work through me today as You see fit." I recently began a habit of starting my day by presenting myself to God in this way. As a result, I've noticed God working in and through me during the day. I think you'll discover the same when you present yourself to Him each morning.
In case we didn't get it the first time, Paul repeats his instruction in Romans chapter 12:
Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. Don't be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God. 58
The word 'transformed' refers to God's work in making us like Christ, not our work in reforming ourselves. 59 All we have to do is offer ourselves to Him daily, and He in His mercy will do His sanctifying work in us. You don't have to understand how He works. All you need to do is trust Him to do His work.
The normal Christian life is one that relies on the grace of God in all areas, and I believe the chief manifestation of that grace for day-to-day living is the Holy Spirit. It matters not how weak you are—His grace is always sufficient for you. So strive to walk in the Spirit. Cling to Him as if your life depends on it, because as far as your sanctification is concerned, it does. 60 While your salvation is assured in Christ, your life here on earth will only be fruitful as you walk in the Spirit.
First Steps Summary
1. Build your thirst for the Holy Spirit by…
a. examining yourself in the light of scripture,
b. asking God to reveal your fleshly nature to you,
c. realizing your powerlessness to overcome the flesh, and
d. realizing the sufficiency of His Spirit to overcome the flesh.
2. Confess to God your fleshly nature and its works (i.e. sins)…
b. specifically, and
3. Confess God's power and ask Him…
a. for power to put the fleshly nature to death, and
b. to make you like Christ.
4. Trust God to answer this prayer by…
a. reckoning yourself dead to sin and alive to righteousness, and
b. presenting yourself to God daily.
We've seen what the Bible says about our fleshly nature, and about our need for the Holy Spirit to transform us on the inside so we can resist temptation. We are told in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that God always provides a way of escape from temptation. I firmly believe that way of escape comes through the power of the Holy Spirit, whether the temptation appears easy or difficult to resist.
Satan's goal in tempting you is to separate you from the life of the Holy Spirit. (Thank God, he can do nothing about separating you from Christ!) He does so by trying to get you to rely on your own strength and willpower. He will tell you, "You can handle this temptation on your own." Don't listen to him! Keep relying 100 percent on the Holy Spirit!
If you do fall and sin, Satan will tell you, "Now you did it! God won't have anything to do with you." Again, don't listen to him. Immediately confess your sin to God, thank Him for the blood of Jesus that covers it, and get back into step with the Holy Spirit. It's a lie of Satan that you have to wait a while for God's anger to cool down before He'll accept you again. Your standing before God is entirely on the merits of the righteous blood of Jesus Christ. Period.
Of course, the Holy Spirit is more than just a means to help you live right. The indwelling of the third Person of the Trinity means real fellowship with God is always available. 61 The Christian life is a walk with God through easy times and difficult times.
If you are in Christ, you already have the Holy Spirit. But don't be satisfied with just having the Spirit. The benefits of such a relationship are known through walking in Him. 62 Yes, it takes time to learn how to walk, but stick with it. Spend time in your Bible getting familiar with His voice. The more you rely on the Holy Spirit to make you like Christ, the more precious your walk with Him will be.
One more thing: If you have not been born again, then none of this information will do you any good, because you don't have the Holy Spirit. (The converse is also true: if you don't have the Holy Spirit, then you have not been born again.) When God saves someone, He gives him His Holy Spirit as an assured promise of salvation. 63 If you don't have the promise (the guarantee), then you aren't saved:
…But if any man doesn't have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his. 64
So your first priority is getting right with God so that He can send you His Holy Spirit. Humbly surrender yourself before God, confessing your sin against Him, and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who died to pay the penalty for your sins, and you will be saved. And you will receive the Holy Spirit. 65
May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it. 66
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory in great joy, to God our Savior, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen. 67
- 1 Timothy 1:15 ↩
- Matthew 11:29–30 ↩
- 1 John 5:4 ↩
- Acts 15:10–11, Romans 3:20, Galatians 2:16, 21, 3:11 ↩
- Romans 3:28, 5:1 ↩
- Over the years many doctrinal errors have crept into the church by confusing justification and sanctification issues, especially when ascribing a justification-related consequence to a sanctification-related action. While they are closely related, justification and sanctification are not the same. ↩
- Romans 6:1–2, 12–13. This shows sin is still a possibility for Christians. Otherwise, Paul would not be telling us not to sin; he would be telling us to be saved. ↩
- Romans 7:15, 18–19, 22–23. (See also Galatians 5:17.) The flesh is the natural mind that wants to do things its own way using its own resources, rather than God's way with His resources. ↩
- Philippians 3:4–6 ↩
- Romans 7:14. ↩
- Romans 7:24. Paul was not accepting of his condition, and neither should you be. He didn't dismiss his inability to live right with, "Oh well. At least I'm saved!" ↩
- Romans 7:25 ↩
- The context of Paul's giving thanks was his practical struggle with sin, not his guilt towards God. If his thanks were about justification, then in effect he would be saying sin is okay because it's forgiven. However, Paul already told us not to sin in chapter 6. Hence, his thanks must be about sanctification. ↩
- Romans 7:6. This is Paul's first mention of the Holy Spirit in connection with our sanctification. ↩
- Romans 8:1. ↩
- Romans 4:5 ↩
- See also 1 Thessalonians 4:3–8 ↩
- According to Romans 6:21, we should be ashamed of the way we lived before we were saved. ↩
- Romans 8:2–4. "Ordinance" can also be translated "requirement" or "righteousness." Remember, Paul is talking sanctification here. We are not just set free from the Mosaic law, but from the law of our sinful disposition! ↩
- Romans 3:19. This "judgment" is the sentence of guilt before God. Those who are under the Law are under a curse (Galatians 3:10–11). 2 Corinthians 3:6–9 says the letter of the Law kills, it being called the ministry of condemnation. ↩
- Romans 7:5,8, 1 Corinthians 15:56, Romans 5:20, 7:5,9–12 ↩
- While the Law is done away with for justification (Jesus having fulfilled it for us), note here that the Law is fulfilled by the Holy Spirit for sanctification (as prophesied in Ezekiel 36:27). However, don't view the Spirit merely as a means to keep the Law. The Law is neither the means nor the end. You are no longer under the Law but under grace (Galatians 5:18), so don't make law-keeping your goal. ↩
- Galatians 5:16 ↩
- Romans 8:7–8. A Christian has two natures (Romans 7:17): the old fleshly nature that grows more corrupt over time (Ephesians 4:22), and the new Spirit-led nature which is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). ↩
- In Romans 7:18, Paul said good did not dwell in him. What was true of Paul is also true of us. Our fleshly nature will always produce works like those listed in Galatians 5:19–21. Your flesh is like a dead body. Paul likened it to a corpse in Romans 7:24. As time goes by, a corpse becomes more corrupt and putrid. The process never goes the other way. Likewise, your fleshly nature never improves. I know this to be true of myself, because there are things I am tempted with today that I wasn't tempted with when I was younger. ↩
- Romans 8:12–13. To put to death means you no longer respond to fleshly desires. It is not that you don't have those desires, but that you choose not to respond to them. ↩
- Romans 8:11. In context, this verse is about living in a God-pleasing way, not the resurrection of our physical bodies. The preceding verse says, "the body is dead," indicating Paul is not talking about physical death—therefore he's not talking about physical resurrection. This verse ties well with the phrases "mortal body" and "alive from the dead" in Romans 6:12–13. But even if you disagree with this interpretation, know that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work to sanctify you. Also, look up the references to God's power in Ephesians 1:19–20, 3:7,16. ↩
- Romans 8:4. My experience matches Paul's. He found sin flourished when he tried to keep the Law, but he had victory over sin when he walked in the Spirit. The Christian life, therefore, is no longer a matter of submitting to the Law, but of submitting to the Holy Spirit. ↩
- Romans 8:14. Being a son or child in this sense has to do with a life that conforms to someone else's example. When we are led by God's Spirit, we think and act like our heavenly Father. See 2 Chronicles 17:3 where Jehoshaphat followed in the ways of his father David, and John 8:44 where Jesus said His listeners followed in the way of their father, the devil. ↩
- Galatians 5:24–25 ↩
- John 6:63 ↩
- 2 Corinthians 3:18 ↩
- Zechariah 4:6 ↩
- Galatians 3:3. Paul wrote this to those who were trying to follow the Mosaic Law, but his rebuke also applies to us when we try to obey any New Testament command legalistically. Sanctification comes not through self-reformation, but through God's transformation. ↩
- This is what 'walking in the Spirit' means. It is not an emotional high or doing something miraculous. To 'walk in' means to follow in the way of. A few of many examples of this are shown in Exodus 16:4, Leviticus 20:23, 1 Kings 15:3, 2 Kings 17:22, Acts 14:16, Romans 4:12, Ephesians 5:2. ↩
- Galatians 2:21, 3:2,5. ↩
- Philippians 3:3 ↩
- Galatians 6:7–8. ↩
- Galatians 3:2–3, 4:21–31, 6:12. Legalism is trying to please God or gain His favor by keeping a set of rules. It places the Law above what God is saying presently. For example, a legalistic Abraham would have completed his sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 because God had commanded him to do so earlier. He would have ignored God's later command to spare his son. Non-legalistic obedience always has its eyes on God rather than the commands. When you think about it, legalism is actually sinful for Christians. According to Romans 7:1–4, we had to die to the Law to be joined to Christ. Now that Christ is our husband, we can't go back to the Law without committing spiritual adultery. ↩
- Not that sanctification is achieved by our effort in walking. It comes from the One we walk with …or rather the One we walk in. It is just like justification: we don't save ourselves by our faith—the One we have faith in does the saving. ↩
- Philippians 2:6–8 ↩
- Luke 3:21–22, 4:1, 4:14, 4:18, 21, John 3:34, 6:63, Matthew 12:28. ↩
- Philippians 2:5, Ephesians 6:18, Colossians 1:8, Philippians 3:3, 1 Peter 4:6. ↩
- John 14:15–18, Romans 8:9–10, Galatians 4:6, Philippians 1:19, 1 Peter 1:11 ↩
- One practical example of this can be seen in how the gospel was presented by the early church. The apostles were told not to worry about what to say, but to trust the Holy Spirit to speak through them. When they did so, the Spirit spoke powerfully through them (Matthew 10:19–20, Mark 13:11, Ephesians 6:19–20, Acts 4:8, 6:10). ↩
- John 15:4–5. When Jesus tells us to abide in Him, I believe He includes the "how" (Spirit walk) along with the "what" (obedience to His teachings and commands). The two belong together. You cannot have one without the other. ↩
- Galatians 5:22–23. This list contrasts with the works of the flesh in verses 19 to 21. But notice how Paul uses the word 'fruit' here instead of 'works'. ↩
- Acts 2:41–47, Philippians 2:12–13, 1 Thessalonians 4:9, 5:23–24. ↩
- 1 Corinthians 1:11–12, 3:1–7, 5:1–2, 6:1–8, 11:17–19 ↩
- Matthew 5:6. Righteousness is simply being in a right relationship with God. Jesus satisfies this hunger (John 6:35), and the Spirit satisfies this thirst (John 4:14, 7:37–39). ↩
- You should also check yourself for the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19–21. ↩
- Hebrews 4:12. See also 2 Timothy 3:16–17. ↩
- Psalm 139:23–24 ↩
- Ephesians 4:30. You may be aware of a certain sin you want victory over, but the Spirit may reveal another sin in your life that needs to be addressed more urgently. For example, you may be concerned about not spending enough time in worship, while being unaware that you need to be reconciled with someone else first (Matthew 5:23–24). ↩
- 1 John 1:9 ↩
- Romans 6:10–11. 'Reckoning' (or accounting) is not, in itself, the way to overcome sin. Otherwise, Paul would not have gone on to describe the necessity of walking in the Spirit. I said earlier that the chapter 6 standard is impossible to live by, because in the flow of Paul's argument he had not yet mentioned the Spirit's role in sanctification. ↩
- Romans 6:13,19 ↩
- Romans 12:1–2 ↩
- 2 Corinthians 3:18 tells us the Agent of this transformation is the Holy Spirit. ↩
- Romans 8:6,13 ↩
- Philippians 2:1 ↩
- Romans 8:11,14, Galatians 5:16 ↩
- 2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5, Ephesians 1:14 ↩
- Romans 8:9. In Acts 19:1–4, When Paul found some believers who had not received the Holy Spirit, he discovered it was because they had not believed in Jesus. In Acts 8:14–17, where the Samaritans believed and then later received the Holy Spirit, they were not saved until the Spirit was given. This is because salvation is the result of what God does, not what man does. Man does not save himself by his belief. Faith is merely a precondition for salvation. Only God saves. ↩
- Acts 2:38–39 ↩
- 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24 ↩
- Jude 1:24–25 ↩