What Do I Mean By ‘Sanctification’?

This question came up recently on a Christian forum. Since I’ve written quite a bit about justification and sanctification lately, it would be a good idea for me to clarify what I mean by these terms.

In the Bible, justification has to do with righteousness. It is about being declared innocent – not guilty – before God. The Law, summarized by the Ten Commandments, reveals God’s righteousness, and therefore it is closely tied to justification. A person can only be justified if the entire Law is kept faultlessly. To break just one Law imputes guilt on a person.

Jesus Christ is the only Person to keep the whole Law without sin, but He did so in our place so we can have His righteousness imputed to us. When we repent and believe in Him, He takes our guilt and He gives us His righteousness. This is the process of justification by which we are declared righteous before God. When God looks at a saved believer, He doesn’t see sin. He sees the righteousness of Christ.

Sanctification, on the other hand, has to do with holiness, not judicial righteousness. It is about being set apart to God, and therefore it implies being owned by Him. As is also the case with the word “justified”, most uses of this word in the Bible are in the past tense, i.e. “sanctified”. When God justified us, He also sanctified us in that we became God’s own – holy to Him. Like justification, this was also a direct result of Jesus dying on the cross (Hebrews 10:29). 1

In the Old Testament, when God chose His people Israel, they became His own, dedicated to serve and worship Him (Deuteronomy 7:6). But that did not make them righteous, because sanctification is not about righteousness. When we are saved, however, we are both declared righteous (justified) and set apart (sanctified) to God. Both of these are the result of Jesus’ death for us, …but still, neither of these stops us from sinning.

The Bible also speaks of the on-going process of sanctification. This is the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:3) in making us holy like Christ in heart, mind and actions. It can only happen if we have first been justified and sanctified (set apart) for this purpose.

The Galatian believers were trying to achieve sanctification by works of the Law. But the Law is about justification, not sanctification. They were so focused on the Law, that instead of progressing toward holiness, they were losing their understanding of the more elementary principles of justification. The letter to the Galatians implies there is a close and dependent relationship between justification and sanctification. If we get one wrong, we’ll likely get the other wrong also.

Generally, I use ‘justification’ to describe what God does through Christ to save us from the legal consequences of our sins, and ‘sanctification’ to describe what God does through the Holy Spirit to make us more like Christ. They are two different but related things, and they are both the work of God through faith.

Notes:

  1. In my writings, I’ll use the phrase ‘practical righteousness,’ as distinct from judicial righteousness, to mean holy living. This sanctification-type righteousness is spoken of in Titus 2:12, 1 John 2:29, 3:7.

Is Sanctification By Law Or By Faith?

We tend to misunderstand what was going on in the Galatian church. Well, let me rephrase. I have misunderstood what was going on in the Galatian church, …but I do think many of us share the same misunderstanding.

What I mean is, as we read Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, we assume they were trying to be saved by the works of the Law of Moses. It’s real easy to come to this conclusion when we see warnings of “a different gospel,” and read statements like “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through the faith of Jesus Christ,” and “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” There is so much justification-by-grace-through-faith doctrine in Paul’s letter that we think he was correcting their misunderstanding about how we come to salvation. And there is nothing wrong with applying the doctrine in this manner. We are saved by faith, not by works. Any gospel that says otherwise is a false one. But salvation by works was not their main problem.

While there may have been exceptions, for the most part, the Galatians were not trying to earn their salvation. They had already received the true gospel (Galatians 1:9,4:9), and as a result they had already received the Holy Spirit by faith (Galatians 3:2, Ephesians 1:14). Getting saved was not their problem. The issue was how they lived after they were saved. They had a misunderstanding of sanctification.

That their problem was a practical one can be seen in Galatians 2:10, where Paul mentions Peter, James and John’s instructions on how believing Gentiles are to live, while leaving out any instructions on how Gentiles are to be saved 1. But it becomes much more evident in chapter 3 where Paul really starts chewing them out:

Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?

– Galatians 3:3 (KJV)

This is the first place where Paul directly confronts them with their error. Notice the word ‘Spirit’ here. This is a gigantic clue he is not talking about how to become or stay saved …otherwise he would have said something like, “having begun in Christ.” It is the Holy Spirit’s role to make us practically righteous, not to declare us righteous before God.

The Greek word for ‘perfect’, epiteleo, is used nine times elsewhere in the New Testament. Every one of those usages refer to accomplishing something through actions 2. Epiteleo is never used in reference to our gaining or maintaining a right standing before God. In other words, we have no need to perfect our righteous status before God, because Jesus has already perfected it.

Also notice Paul did not condemn his readers merely for seeking perfection. He condemned them for the manner in which they sought it. This is another clue that sanctification is the topic at hand. The Galatian believers were trying to attain practical perfection through the Law. They thought they could achieve sanctification by works of the flesh. But sanctification is purely God’s work (John 17:17, Romans 15:16, 1 Corinthians 1:30, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Ephesians 5:26, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Hebrews 2:11, 10:10, 13:12, 1 Peter 1:2, 3:15). They began their walk correctly (‘by the Spirit’), but then they ceased submitting to the leading of the Holy Spirit and let the Judaizers divert them. No wonder Paul was upset with them!

Although we apply the doctrine of justification in this epistle to our evangelism of the lost, it was written primarily to us believers, because we are vulnerable to the Galatians’ error. Sanctification by works is a much subtler error than justification by works, because it infects our minds so easily without knowing it. In some churches today, the Holy Spirit’s role goes no further than doctrine. Practically speaking, the Trinity becomes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Scriptures. Perhaps this is a reaction against the errors of some who tend to have a fixation on the Holy Spirit at the expense of good doctrine. I don’t know. But I do know there are serious dangers in trying to live by the Law:

• It actually empowers sin in our lives (Romans 5:20, 7:5,8, 1 Corinthians 15:56). The more we seek to live by the Law, the more power sin has over us, even if that sin is only a prideful self-righteous attitude over others. It’s not the Law’s fault – the Law is righteous and good. But our flesh still has sinful desires which attempts to use the requirements of the Law to make itself look good.

• We downplay what Paul said in Galatians 3:10, that those who insist on living by the law are under a curse, because they put themselves in debt to keep the whole law, with its sacrificial system, holy days, circumcision, etc. While this is not the curse of Galatians 1:8,9, it is still a very bad thing.

• And a legalistic sanctification mindset slowly infects our justification mindset, eventually sowing seeds of doubt about our salvation.

I think a big part of the problem is our lack of appreciation of the gospel. When we read or hear a message about the death of Jesus, or the importance of trusting in Him, we file the information away under the heading ‘How To Be Saved’, not realizing the gospel is also good news about what God does to enable us to overcome sin in our day-to-day lives 3. Jesus’ death on the cross not only has justification benefits, it has sanctification benefits (Romans 8:3-4), and both come on the same basis: by grace through faith.

The Christian life is not one of following a standard but of following a Person. Many believe the only way to avoid sin is by keeping the Law. They are unaware that walking in the Spirit and abiding in Christ prevents sin, and does so much better than trying to obey the Law. (I’m not advocating lawlessness – that would lead to sin. Instead, we are to live by a different law: the law of the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2-4).)

But we lack faith to live this way. We’d rather hold on to our own works through law-keeping because we’re afraid to trust God to make us holy. As a result, we find no real victory over sinful habits.

Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster [to bring us] unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

– Galatians 3:24-25 (KJV)

Justification happens as a one-time event, but sanctification is a process that continues for the rest of our lives. We don’t drop law-keeping at the point of salvation, and then immediately take it back up again afterwards. We are no longer under that schoolmaster 4. We live by faith. Faith is not only the beginning of the way of life but its entirety. The faith that trusts God to justify us when we abandon our self-righteous works and believe in Jesus is the same faith that trusts that He will sanctify us as well when we abandon our self-righteous works and walk in His Holy Spirit. It is part of the same gospel. This is why Paul uses the doctrine of justification to address how the Galatians lived the Christian life. Sanctification is tied inseparably to justification.

We do not partake of a partial grace that gets us into heaven but doesn’t make us fit to live there. The gospel is the good news of all that God does to restore us to Himself. If we continue to rely on law-keeping to make ourselves presentable to God, it would be well to ask ourselves what Paul asked the Galatian believers: “Are we so foolish?”

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of {i.e. ‘in’} the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness [come] by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

– Galatians 2:20-21 (KJV)

Notes:

  1. This is also seen in the practical words “our liberty in Christ” in verse 4, and “walked” in verse 14. Even the word ‘gospel’ in chapter 2 is repeatedly used in the context of how believers are to live, showing the gospel includes the doctrine of sanctification as well as justification. When Paul rebuked Peter in Galatians 2:11-21, it was over a practical issue of how he lived, not about his lack of faith in Jesus to save him.
  2. The word is used elsewhere in Luke 13:32 (‘perform cures’), Romans 15:28 (‘I have performed this’), 2 Cor. 7:1 (‘perfecting holiness’), 2 Cor. 8:6 (‘he would finish‘), 2 Cor. 8:11 (‘perform‘), Php 1:6 (‘He will perform‘), Heb. 8:5 (‘make the tabernacle’), Heb 9:6 (‘accomplishing the service’), 1 Pet. 5:9 (‘afflictions are accomplished‘).
  3. Another confusing point is that Paul uses the word ‘justified’ six times in his letter, while never using ‘sanctified’. We like to separate the meanings of the words into how to get saved and how to live. But these words are sometimes used interchangeably. We need to pay attention to the context. In this letter, even though we see Paul using the word ‘justified’, he writes about how we are live.
  4. The Law still has a purpose: to convict men of sin and to lead them to Christ. As the standard, it remains. But the Mosaic Law is eliminated as a means of living (Romans 7:1-6). Look at Paul who used to follow the Law “blamelessly” before he was saved (Philippians 3:6). After he was saved he didn’t use his salvation as an opportunity to keep the Law more perfectly. Instead, he counted law-keeping a total “loss”. This is what he meant when he called the Galatians (and us) to “be as I am; for I am as you are.” If you find this difficult to accept, I suggest reading straight through the epistle to the Galatians once a day for at least a week, so you can get familiar with the flow of Paul’s argument.

Thoughts On Running The Race

Picture of older runner

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.

– 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 (ESV)

The way a runner runs depends on the kind of race he’s in. When the distance is small, an all-out sprint to the finish line is probably best. But when the distance is great, more self-control must be exercised.

For the best possible chance of making it to the finish line first, a runner must control his expenditure of energy such that he has just enough strength to make it across the finish line. If he runs the course with some energy left over, he hasn’t run as fast as he could have, and someone else might win. If he seeks to be the fastest at all points in the course, he exhausts himself before he gets to the finish line… and again, someone else might win. The goal is not being the fastest on the course or not being out of breath at the end. Getting to the finish line first is the goal, and sometimes that is only possible by treading the fine line between running too fast and too slow.

Paul compares our lives with running a race, but how does this control-of-energy idea play out in the spiritual realm? We don’t know how far away our finish line is (i.e. how long we are going to live), so how can we know if we should be trying for speed or endurance? What if I try to pace myself spiritually for a long life, but I die early? Or what if I go all out for Jesus, and burn out decades before I die?

Most of us don’t know how long our race is. But the writer of Hebrews tells us to assume we are in it for the long haul:

…let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith …

– Hebrews 12:1-2 (ESV)

We are in a spiritual endurance race, and so we must seek to make the most of the strength we do have. We must avoid stumbling blocks, making level paths for our feet. And we must seek out and remove whatever will slow us down unnecessarily.

Many of today’s athletes wear high-tech outfits designed to minimize wind resistance (or water resistance for swimmers). The tiniest detail of these clothes may make the difference between first and second or third place. In ancient Greece, runners would run naked for even greater speed advantage. They were not concerned with appearances. Their eyes were fixed only on the goal: a temporary crown of leaves.

In our race, our eyes are to be fixed on Jesus Christ. Like those ancient runners, we are also commanded to lay aside everything that hinders. The most obvious candidate for what hinders us is sin, but we must be aware that our fleshly nature will also slow us down tremendously. It’s those little details we tend to overlook that can take our prize away from us – details like false humility, love of money, apathy, jealously, and the like. We usually overlook these things because we think if we haven’t outright sinned, we aren’t hurting ourselves …but we are. These internal attitudes of the flesh will drag us down unless we deal with them as seriously as sin.

The finish line is the goal, but notice Paul does not tell us to merely make it to the finish line. He tells us to run as if there is only one prize, and you intend to be the one to obtain that prize, whatever it takes. Not knowing if our race is long or short, I believe the only right way to run this race is to rely on the strength that God supplies (1 Peter 4:11, Ephesians 3:20-21). When we learn to rely on God’s power, we will be able to run the spiritual endurance race as if it is a sprint. We will be able to go all out, exhaust ourselves, and yet continue running on God’s power.

May you finish your race and receive your prize! (2 Timothy 4:7)

The Greater Miracle (Full)

(From a message given September 23, 2007)

One of my favorite times during our Sunday morning worship service is prayer time. We come as a body before our Lord with praises and thanksgivings for what He has done for us or for the people we know during the week. Sometimes we give thanks for miraculous healing, and other times for salvation. But we also come with many requests to meet needs. A large number of the needs that we bring to God are health related. So-and-so has the flu. So-and-so fell and broke her hip. So-and-so has terminal cancer. Things were not much different during New Testament times.

During Jesus’ three years of ministry, many people followed Him to see the miracles He performed. People back then were just like we are today. They had problems just like we have problems; pressing problems, difficult problems, worrisome problems. And they didn’t have the kinds of resources we have to deal with their problems, like health care, medicines, and insurance.

From the beginning of His ministry, word spread like wildfire that Jesus could meet unmeetable needs. For example, in Mark chapter 1, Jesus came to Simon Peter’s house where Peter’s mother-in-law lay bedridden with a fever. He took her by the hand, and raised her up, and her fever immediately left her. By that evening, Mark says the whole city was gathered at the door. They brought all who were sick or demon-possessed to Jesus so He could heal them or cast the demons out… and Jesus did so. Who needed a doctor or health-insurance when Jesus was around?

The gospels record many miracles Jesus did to meet people’s needs, but which one do you think was His greatest before His death and resurrection? Was it when He fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fishes? That was done, not just to one or a few people, but to several times the population of my home town of Beatty! Or how about when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after he had been in the tomb for 4 days? That has to rank right up there near the top.

Jesus did a lot of amazing things, but I believe the greatest miracle was the one He did in Luke 5, where Jesus did for someone in need what that person could not do for himself.

It happened on one of those days, that he was teaching; and there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, who had come out of every village of Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem. The power of the Lord 1 was with him to heal them. Behold, men brought a paralyzed man on a cot, and they sought to bring him in to lay before Jesus. Not finding a way to bring him in because of the multitude, they went up to the housetop, and let him down through the tiles with his cot into the midst before Jesus. Seeing their faith, he said to him, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”

The scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this that speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?”

But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, answered them, “Why are you reasoning so in your hearts? Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you;’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (he said to the paralyzed man), “I tell you, arise, and take up your cot, and go to your house.”

Immediately he rose up before them, and took up that which he was laying on, and departed to his house, glorifying God. Amazement took hold on all, and they glorified God. They were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen strange things today.”

– Luke 5:17-26 (WEB)

In this very familiar story, Jesus is in the city of Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had moved there earlier from Nazareth. Capernaum was where He healed the centurion’s servant and Peter’s mother-in-law. In fact, so much of His work was done there that when the people did not repent after seeing all of His works, Jesus pronounced a woe against them:

“You, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, you will go down to Hades. For if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in you, it would have remained until this day.”

– Matthew 11:23 (WEB)

Jesus arrived at the house, and suddenly word got out that the Healer was there. Many came to hear Him: common people as well as Pharisees and teachers of the Law. They knew this was Jesus’ home town, so they came from as far away as Jerusalem and Judea to see and hear Him. And Jesus spoke the Word of God to them there.

So many were wanting to see Jesus that day that the place was soon packed. Not only was it standing-room-only, late-comers had to stay outside and listen through the door.

I expect the paralyzed young man was at a significant disadvantage if he wanted to see Jesus that day. After all, he didn’t have a working set of legs to run ahead and find a good seat before the crowd did. There was no reserved handicapped seating available in the house. But that didn’t stop him. He let his friends know that he wanted to see Jesus.

They probably thought this would be as good an opportunity as any to see their friend healed. So they picked up the bed he was lying on and brought him to the house. But when they got there, the place was too crowded to enter. They went through all that effort lugging him over and couldn’t even make it to the door to see Jesus.

No problem! Someone came up with the bright idea of coming in through the roof. Houses at that time were commonly flat-roofed, with a trap door for access from inside. But trap door or not, the bed was too big. So they got up and took part of the roof apart, then they lowered the bed through the roof right in front of Jesus.

I can see it now: The people were listening to what Jesus was saying, and suddenly bits of roof were coming down on their heads, …and then a man lowered on a bed. This was a rude interruption, but Jesus offered no rebukes. Instead, as it says in the Matthew passage, He said to the paralytic, “Cheer up, child! Your sins have been forgiven you.”

This hit a wrong chord with the Pharisees and scribes. They thought, “Who is this guy who speaks so irreverently? Nobody can forgive sins except God.” You sin against God, only God can let you off the hook.

But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For what is easier, to say, Your sins have been forgiven you; or to say, Rise up and walk?”

It’s a good question, and it has a simple answer: They’re both easy to say! You can say it, and I can say it, because they’re merely words. But just because I have the ability to say the words doesn’t mean I have the ability to forgive sins or restore the use of a man’s legs. I don’t have the power, and neither have you. The religious leaders didn’t think Jesus had the power or authority to forgive sins. They thought He was saying empty words. How could they know that the man’s sins really were forgiven?

So Jesus showed them that He did have the authority. He said, “But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on the earth to forgive sins,” and then He proceeded to heal the man.

The people witnessed a great miracle that day – and I would go so far as to say it was one of the greatest miracles of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

It was greater than the feeding of the 5000.

It was greater than bringing Lazarus back to life.

It was even greater than… giving a paralyzed man the ability to walk again!

You see, Jesus did two miracles that day. The first was not spectacular: nobody got excited about it except the scribes and Pharisees. I’m talking about the miracle of forgiveness of sins – a miracle more significant than restoring the full use of one’s legs, or raising the dead.

A miracle is something that cannot happen through natural means. A true miracle can only happen if God intervenes in the natural course of things to bring it about. Man cannot bring dead people back to life – especially after 4 days. Man cannot walk on water. Man cannot turn water to wine. And man can not do anything to cause sins to be forgiven. God has to do all of these things, or they won’t get done.

Having the burden of sin removed is a much greater miracle than healing the sick or casting out demons. Here are four reasons why:

Forgiveness is eternal. If you get healed physically, it’s a great thing. But that healing is only temporary. It only affects your life here on earth. If you get the use of your legs back, you still might having something else happen to you later on. You could go blind, get cancer, or lose your mind. Even if you retain your health for the rest of your life, you’re still going to die anyway and face the judgment. But forgiveness of sins is much better. It is eternal. It is a miracle for which the consequences continue long after death into eternity.

Another thing that sets forgiveness of sins apart from other miracles is with our relationships. Forgiveness restores our relationship with God. Physical healing can restore relationships with our fellow man. For example, those Jesus healed of leprosy no longer had to live apart from the rest of society, and the healed paralytic could go for walks with his friends. But forgiveness of sins restores man’s relationship with God. Sin is like a spiritual leprosy. In sin we have to live apart from God because we are “unclean”. But when God removes our sin and cleans us up, we have fellowship with Him, and He with us. That is why Jesus could say, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” And that is why the Holy Spirit can dwell in us.

Third, the scriptures mention only one emotion in heaven over what happens down here on earth. We read nothing about heaven’s response when Jesus raised the dead or gave sight to the blind. But we are told there is more joy in heaven over one repenting sinner than over 99 that don’t repent. The angels rejoice when one sinner repents and receives forgiveness of sins! Forgiveness brings more joy to heaven. I think that goes to show what heaven thinks is more important. (True, Luke 15:7 doesn’t mention forgiveness, but it is implied. Why would the angels rejoice over a repentant sinner if he’s going to go to hell anyway?)

Once more thing that makes forgiveness a greater miracle: We all need it. Not all of us need our sight or hearing restored, or cancer removed, but we’re all sinners with the need for God’s forgiveness and He offers it freely to anyone who asks. Jesus fed thousands of people at one time, and they eventually got hungry again. But millions have received God’s forgiveness, which lasts for eternity!

Forgiveness is a much greater miracle than physical healing. I don’t know why most of the people came to Jesus merely for physical healing. Maybe it was pride, or maybe it was because they didn’t realize who Jesus is. Only one other person that I know of came to Jesus for forgiveness: the repentant woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears while He was eating in a Pharisees house. As I recall, that Pharisee also had a problem with Jesus’ forgiveness.

Personally, I believe the paralytic man was seeking forgiveness more than healing, because Jesus addressed that need first when He didn’t usually do so. When Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven”, I wonder what the man felt? Relief? The crowd got excited when Jesus healed him, but I think the paralytic felt joy before he was healed because the burden of sin was gone.

Jesus forgave the paralytic man for the man’s benefit. He healed him primarily for the crowd’s benefit: “…so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”.

God freely forgives the repentant sinner. And He does so without making Himself less righteous, holy, and just, because Jesus Christ paid the full penalty for our sin. God did not ignore our sin when He forgave us. If that were the case, He could just as easily bring our guilt back upon us. No, He dealt with it permanently by laying it all on His Son, Jesus Christ. Our redemption is secure.

This forgiveness that God freely offers us is deserving of further examination. I don’t think we appreciate it enough. Jesus told us to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors”. From the way we sometimes forgive those who offend us, either we’re blatantly disobeying our Lord, or we have a poor concept of God’s forgiveness of our sins.

I’d like you to think about seven characteristics of God’s forgiveness of our sins. These are qualities that we don’t typically find in man’s forgiveness of man, but we do need to emulate.

First, God forgives any sin. In Luke 6:37, Jesus said, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” There’s no mention of God limiting forgiveness to only “minor” sins. Just forgive others and you will be forgiven. No sin is too great. You have God’s promise.

King Hezekiah was a good king, but his son Manasseh who succeeded him was extremely wicked. He was the most evil king Judah had – worse even than the kings of the ten tribes of Israel. He made altars to Baal and Asherah and worshiped the stars. He burned his sons in fires of idolatry. He practiced sorcery. He put an idol in the temple of God. But when God brought Assyria against him, they captured him, took him to Babylon, and tortured him. In 2 Chronicles 33:12, it says:

And when he was afflicted, he sought the face of Jehovah his God, and was humbled exceedingly before the face of the God of his fathers; and prayed to Him, and He was entreated of him and heard his supplication, and returned him to Jerusalem to his kingdom; and Manasseh knew that Jehovah, He is God.

Manasseh humbled himself and repented, and God forgave him, returning him to Jerusalem and restoring his kingdom. King Manasseh didn’t have to make up for what he did. All he had to do was repent. If God can forgive Manasseh, He can forgive any sin. If God can forgive the murderer Paul who considered himself the “chief” of sinners, He can forgive any sin. He can do so because Jesus paid for our sin “in full”.

Second, not only does God forgive any sin, God forgives all sin.

God does not forgive partially. Remember Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18. The servant had a huge debt that he could never repay. His lord did not just reduce the debt to a more manageable size. No, he forgave the entire debt so that the servant would not have to pay any of it. That parable is a picture of God’s forgiveness of our sins. We had a huge sin debt that we could not repay – incomparably more than that servant had. But God forgave our debt completely. Jesus’ last words were “paid in full”. We have nothing left to repay. 1 John 1:7-9 says:

But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of His Son Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous that He may forgive us the sins, and may cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

What a great promise to us from God!

Third, God forgives repeated sins.

One thing you’ll notice if you read through the book of Judges: Israel sinned over and over again. They repeatedly worshiped idols. They intermarried with the nations that God commanded them to destroy. Like a broken record, the book of Judges records Israel “again did evil in the sight of the Lord.” God would punish them when they did, but He did not abandon them. When the people called to God for relief from their punishment, God would send them judges to save them. He never said, “I’ve had it with you! You don’t want to obey me? Fine! You’re on your own! I’ll never save you again!”

Matthew 18:21-22 says:

Then coming up to Him, Peter said, Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times? Jesus said to him, I do not say to you, Until seven times, but, Until seventy times seven.

Jesus is not just telling Peter how often he should forgive his brother. He is describing God’s own forgiveness. God forgives us over and over again, without keeping count. Aren’t you grateful for that?

Fourth, when God forgives, God forgets our sins. This is hard for us to understand because when we forgive those who sin against us (I’m assuming we do that!), we still remember the sin vividly. It’s hard or impossible to forget completely.

But when God forgives, it is as if the sin never happened. Isaiah 43:25 says God blots out our transgressions and does not remember our sins. In the heavenly record of your life, the sins that God has forgiven are completely erased – just as if they never happened. Psalm 103:12 says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”

In Genesis, Jacob’s son Joseph is a type of Christ, and in one of the ways he is a type is in his forgiveness of his brothers for selling him into slavery in Egypt. His brothers thought that Joseph was in such a high position of authority that he would have them killed for what they had done to him. Genesis 50:15-21 says:

And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead. And they said, What if Joseph should bear a grudge against us and should surely repay us all the evil which we did to him? And they sent a message to Joseph, saying, Your father commanded before his death, saying, So you shall say to Joseph, Please lift up now the rebellion of your brothers, and their sin; for they did evil to you. And now please lift up the rebellion of the servants of the God of your father. And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also went and fell down before his face. And they said, Behold, we are your servants. And Joseph said to them, Do not fear. For am I in the place of God? And you, you intended evil against me, but God meant it for good, in order to make it as it is this day, to keep a great many people alive. And now do not fear; I will nourish you and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spoke to their hearts.

When God forgives us, He treats us as if the fellowship was never broken. He continues to provide for all of our needs. He continues to love us just as much as before we sinned. How amazing is that?!?

Fifth, God forgives at His own expense. Forgiveness isn’t cheap. Somebody has to pay. If I forgive someone for setting fire to my house, the burden of paying for a new house is no longer on that person because I forgave him. The burden is now on me. I have to buy a new house. (If I say I forgive him but make him pay for some or all of the rebuilding of the house, then I haven’t truly forgiven him.) James Buswell Jr. said, “All forgiveness, human and divine, is in the very nature of the case vicarious, substitutional, and this is one of the most valuable views my mind has ever entertained. No one ever really forgives another, except he bears the penalty of the other’s sin against him.”

Paul says in Acts 20:28 that God purchased the church with the blood of His own Son. 1 Peter 1:18-19 says:

…knowing that not with corruptible things, silver or gold, you were redeemed from your worthless way of life handed down from your fathers, but with precious blood of Christ, as of an unblemished and unspotted lamb.

God’s forgiveness of our sin is not like the cheap imitation that we offer those who offend us. It didn’t just inconvenience Him. It cost God tremendously. It cost His Son for us to restore us to Himself. He held nothing back in doing what was necessary to obtain our complete forgiveness and complete redemption. We must not make light of the cost of this forgiveness!

Sixth, not only does God forgive us at His own expense, God takes the initiative to make forgiveness possible.

We know that God forgives the repentant. But the truth is that if God had to wait for us to repent on our own before He would do anything to secure our forgiveness, He would never have sent Jesus, and we would have no hope of getting out from under the burden of our sins. Psalm 53 says there are none who seek God. We have all turned after our own way. But Romans 5:8 says:

…but God commends His love to us in this, that we being yet sinners, Christ died for us.

God did not wait for man to repent before sending His Son Jesus to die for us. While we were still sinners, enjoying our sin, God took the necessary steps to secure our forgiveness. A few verses later in verse 10, Paul says that we were still enemies of God when Jesus died for us. God, the one we offended, took the initiative to restore us to Himself.

Which brings me to my last point… Why would God do this? Why would a holy, righteous God go through all this trouble and expense to let us poor miserable sinners off the hook? Because God loves us and wants to forgive us. God doesn’t forgive us because He’s sick and tired of holding a grudge and wants to feel better. He does so because He loves us and genuinely wants us to have fellowship restored with Himself. 1 John 4:10 says:

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins.

God doesn’t love us because He forgave us. He forgave us because He loves us!

How different than the way we treat those who offend us. “Oh, I don’t want to have anything to do with him after what he did to me!”

God, on the other hand, wants us to be reconciled to Himself as soon as possible. Those He has reconciled are to go tell others they can be reconciled, too. As Paul told the Corinthian believers, God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. We are ambassadors, proclaiming the good news of God’s reconciling the world to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). We need to take that responsibility – our ambassadorship – seriously.

I hope looking at these seven characteristics of God’s forgiveness will help us appreciate His forgiveness of our sins even more. And I hope we will also try to emulate these traits when people sin against us. Jesus told us to forgive those who sin against us. We must forgive them in the same way that God forgives us:

• We must forgive any sin… big or small.

• We must forgive all sin. Don’t just reduce the debt.

• We must forgive repeatedly. Jesus told Peter in Luke 17:4 to keep forgiving, even when someone sins against you seven times in a day, repenting in word only.

• We must forgive and forget – meaning we must ensure the relationship is fully restored. Treat the person you forgave as if the sin never happened – again, seven times a day if you have to.

• We must forgive at our own expense, not our own convenience. It wasn’t easy or convenient for God to send Jesus to die to forgive you.

• We must take the initiative by offering forgiveness. Don’t wait for signs of repentance. That might not come until you take the first step towards reconciliation. Or it might not come at all.

Even if the other person has not come to you for forgiveness, don’t let that be a reason for holding a grudge yourself. When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.” As a result, you will find no prophecies or promises in the Bible that God will judge or punish His people for crucifying Jesus. God will only judge them for continuing to reject Him.

• Finally, we must love the person who hurt us, and want to forgive him so the relationship can be restored. Do so cheerfully – God not only likes a cheerful giver, He likes a cheerful FOR-giver!

Do you think this kind of forgiveness is impossible with man? It is. But nothing is impossible with God. Our forgiveness of others must also be a greater miracle of God. He has to enable us to forgive that way. Will you let Him?

Notes:

  1. Notice that the ‘power of the Lord’ is described here as something other than Jesus’ own power. This is a reference to the Holy Spirit, who did miracles through Jesus (i.e. Luke 4:18, Matthew 12:28).

Is Jesus an honored Guest?

Today’s Christians, myself included, tend to think of God wrongly. We think of Him as the honored guest in our lives.

My wife and I like to have people over for dinner at times. Wanda likes to cook, and whenever we have guests, she’ll cook up something special – and maybe go overboard with it. And that is a good thing. It’s part of being hospitable.

We also spend time talking with our guests, and maybe we’ll watch a movie together. But eventually, it’s time for the guests to leave. We then clean up and retire for the evening.

That’s the nice thing about guests: you can enjoy the fellowship, and then enjoy getting back to your own lives when they leave. Generally, guests don’t overstay their welcome.

A guest may be greatly honored, but a guest does not have the same rights as the home owner does. A guest can’t rearrange furniture, move his stuff in and yours out. He can’t dictate what kind of food will be served and when. None of that. A guest just comes, and then leaves.

When we enter into a relationship with our heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, it is not a guest relationship. Rather, it is one where God now becomes the Owner and Master, and we become His children. He has the right to dictate what stays and what goes in our lives. We don’t have the right to kick Him out when we feel He’s overstayed His welcome – when we think He’s getting a little too demanding.

We worship God, but do we seek His will and obey Him? That also is worship.

How To Gain Victory Over Sin

(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.

Introduction

The saying is faithful and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners… 1

Dear Reader,

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.

God's Solution

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

Two Warnings

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.

First Steps

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)…

  a.  immediately,

  b.  specifically, and

  c.  completely.

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.

Continuing On

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

Notes:

  1. 1 Timothy 1:15
  2. Matthew 11:29–30
  3. 1 John 5:4
  4. Acts 15:10–11, Romans 3:20, Galatians 2:16, 21, 3:11
  5. Romans 3:28, 5:1
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Philippians 3:4–6
  10. Romans 7:14.
  11. 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!"
  12. Romans 7:25
  13. 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.
  14. Romans 7:6. This is Paul's first mention of the Holy Spirit in connection with our sanctification.
  15. Romans 8:1.
  16. Romans 4:5
  17. See also 1 Thessalonians 4:3–8
  18. According to Romans 6:21, we should be ashamed of the way we lived before we were saved.
  19. 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!
  20. 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.
  21. Romans 7:5,8, 1 Corinthians 15:56, Romans 5:20, 7:5,9–12
  22. 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.
  23. Galatians 5:16
  24. 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).
  25. 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.
  26. 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.
  27. 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.
  28. 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.
  29. 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.
  30. Galatians 5:24–25
  31. John 6:63
  32. 2 Corinthians 3:18
  33. Zechariah 4:6
  34. 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.
  35. 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.
  36. Galatians 2:21, 3:2,5.
  37. Philippians 3:3
  38. Galatians 6:7–8.
  39. 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.
  40. 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.
  41. Philippians 2:6–8
  42. Luke 3:21–22, 4:1, 4:14, 4:18, 21, John 3:34, 6:63, Matthew 12:28.
  43. Philippians 2:5, Ephesians 6:18, Colossians 1:8, Philippians 3:3, 1 Peter 4:6.
  44. John 14:15–18, Romans 8:9–10, Galatians 4:6, Philippians 1:19, 1 Peter 1:11
  45. 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).
  46. 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.
  47. 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'.
  48. Acts 2:41–47, Philippians 2:12–13, 1 Thessalonians 4:9, 5:23–24.
  49. 1 Corinthians 1:11–12, 3:1–7, 5:1–2, 6:1–8, 11:17–19
  50. 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).
  51. You should also check yourself for the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19–21.
  52. Hebrews 4:12. See also 2 Timothy 3:16–17.
  53. Psalm 139:23–24
  54. 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).
  55. 1 John 1:9
  56. 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.
  57. Romans 6:13,19
  58. Romans 12:1–2
  59. 2 Corinthians 3:18 tells us the Agent of this transformation is the Holy Spirit.
  60. Romans 8:6,13
  61. Philippians 2:1
  62. Romans 8:11,14, Galatians 5:16
  63. 2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5, Ephesians 1:14
  64. 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.
  65. Acts 2:38–39
  66. 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24
  67. Jude 1:24–25

The Examination Of The Scriptures (All-In-One)

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. 1

It is good to take time to regularly examine the Bible, but it is far better to let the Bible take time to regularly examine us. The former gives us knowledge of the scriptures that can puff us up. The latter gives us knowledge of ourselves that humbles us, opening the door to repentance and the building-up that is of God. The former happens as we read and study the scriptures. The latter happens afterwards as we take time to meditate on what we have read and studied.

The Bible is not a religious textbook or doctrinal repository. It is the word of God: living, active, and powerful. It has the power to probe our minds, our hearts, our inmost being (Hebrews 4:12). But the benefit is only experienced by those who submit to its scrutiny.

The examination of the scriptures is usually painful. Knowing this, I don't let God's word examine me as often as I should. I expect this is due to fear of what it will reveal. A phrase from The Neverending Story comes to mind:

"Confronted by their true selves,
most men run away, screaming!"

I already know there's bad stuff deep inside me, but I'm comfortable keeping this knowledge as general or theoretical as can be. I don't want to be confronted with the specifics. However, avoiding the doctor for fear of his diagnosis of cancer will do serious harm if there really is cancer. There can be no cure without there first being a diagnosis.

Regardless of how God's word makes me feel, it is always a good thing to submit to His probing of the deeper recesses of my heart. How else can those fleshly strongholds I'm only vaguely aware of be fully revealed in all their ugliness and torn down? It is those very areas that have hindered my walk with the Lord since I've known Him. Why should I let them continue to obstruct God's will for me?

I'd like to share a few of these painful, probing scripture passages that have been on my mind lately. You will probably find them very familiar and not painful at all, especially if you just give them a quick read-through and forget about them. But the more I let them examine me, the clearer I see the true condition of my heart. I find myself becoming more desperate for the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to work in me God's cure.

Love Of The World Or The Father?

Don't love the world,
neither the things that are in the world.
If anyone loves the world,
the Father's love isn't in him. 2

I like to think I don't love the world—at least not in the bad way. But when it comes down to specifics, there are some things in the world I do find attractive and pleasing: certain foods, books, songs, movies, TV shows, jokes, philosophies, … rollercoasters.

But Jesus presented an exclusive choice. I can either love the world, or I can love God. I can't do both. I don't even have the option of loving the world less than God. I am not to love the world at all. (I'm talking love here, not the mere use of the world's things. We can't isolate ourselves from the world. We have to be in the world, but not of it …just as Jesus was.)

Of course, it's easy to say, "I love God and not the world," but what do my actions show? What kinds of thoughts do I find pleasing? What motivates me? What would I rather spend my time doing? If I examine myself according to my thoughts and actions, will I find I love the Father or hate Him?

Thorns Or Fruit?

"Others fell among thorns.
The thorns grew up and choked them.

this is he who hears the word,
but the cares of this age
and the deceitfulness of riches
choke the word,
and he becomes unfruitful." 3

These words of Jesus are frequently on my mind. The "cares of the world" and the "deceitfulness of riches" are the things that the world is concerned about: food, clothing, family, employment, a good retirement, entertainment, comfort, pleasure, happiness. These are not evil in themselves, but they become evil when they form the basis of my goals, desires and motivations. This happens all too often, and when it does, Jesus ends up taking the backseat in my life. Then I find it more difficult to hear Him speak to me. This hinders my growth in Christ to the point where it becomes impossible to bear fruit.

The fruit that love of the world prevents is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-24), which is headed up with love. So love of the world prevents the love of the Spirit. If I allow the world to attract me, I shouldn't wonder that I'm not making progress in loving my enemies, growing in patience toward those who irritate me, growing in my relationship with the Lord, and so on.

What thorns have I allowed, and even now am allowing and nurturing, in my life? (It's time to do an inventory!) The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches are the number one cause for stunted spiritual growth. God only knows how much spiritual fruit I've already dropped prematurely due to the thorns in my life!

Sowing To My Flesh Or The Spirit?

Don't be deceived.
God is not mocked,
for whatever a man sows,
that he will also reap. 4

As any farmer knows, if you want to harvest wheat, you need to sow wheat. You can't sow one thing and expect something else to crop up. This God-given law has been in effect since the beginning of creation and it can't be circumvented.

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. 5

Another sure God-given law is presented in this passage. I can sow to my flesh, or I can sow to the Holy Spirit. Which one I sow to determines what I reap. It matters not what I intend to reap, desire to reap, or think I will reap. If I sow to the flesh (i.e., my desires) I will reap corruption. If I sow to the Spirit (i.e., His desires), I will reap eternal life (which is the kind of life, not just the length). I believe there is no way around this; it is just as sure as the law the farmer relies on.

When it comes down to it, sowing to the flesh is no different than sowing thorns. So why do I still sow to my flesh at times? I don't know. I may do many good things for the right reasons, but if I also cater to my fleshly desires, why should I expect a good harvest?

Thorns are whatever I do that hinders the life and work of the Holy Spirit in me, and they must be dealt with right away. Thorns start out seemingly innocent enough, but as time goes on, they grow harder and become more entrenched – more difficult and painful to pull up. I must pull them up anyway by denying myself in those areas that grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and I must sow to the Spirit instead.

Appearances Or Fruit?

"Remain in me, and I in you.
As the branch can't bear fruit by itself,
unless it remains in the vine,
so neither can you,
unless you remain in me.
I am the vine.
You are the branches.
He who remains in me, and I in him,
the same bears much fruit,
for apart from me you can do nothing." 6

Jesus' words search me in various ways here:

As one branch connected to the Vine, I desire to look good, with lots of healthy green leaves. But God is not concerned with looks. He did not plant the Vine for decoration but for fruit. Am I concerned with appearances, or the goal at hand?

Assuming I desire fruit, why do I desire it? The Father placed me in Christ so that I would bear much fruit for Him. Is my desire to satisfy myself or get the admiration of others, or is it simply to satisfy God?

Twice Jesus stated the absolute necessity of abiding in Him to produce fruit. I can do nothing without Him. But do I really believe this? How essential do I view my connection to Christ for hour-by-hour living?

Awareness of my need to abide in Christ is good, but am I really abiding in Him? It is very easy to fool myself here. Abiding in Christ is not just listening to Him or agreeing with Him, but doing what He says. Do I do what He says?

Post-Examination Action

But be doers of the word, and not only hearers,
deluding your own selves.
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer,
he is like a man looking at his natural face in a mirror;
for he sees himself, and goes away,
and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. … 7

The word of God provides a thorough examination of the heart. If we were graded on the results of our examination, most of us (myself included) would not even receive a C-. (The few who have A's or B's probably wouldn't be aware of it anyway.)

But even with a failing grade, this examination is a good thing if it leads us to call out to God for the grace of a lasting change of heart, mind, and actions.

Without this change the examination is useless. It is like someone who looks in a mirror, and then leaves and forgets what he looks like. This is a believer whose Christianity is relegated to a limited portion of his life: Sunday mornings, a devotional reading, or the occasional prayer. Jesus Christ is something added to life, rather than what life is all about. There is no continual meditation and communion with the Father and Son. There is no fellowship of the Spirit. There is little difference between that person and the world.

This is a man who has fooled himself, and is probably plagued with doubts. I do not want to be this man.

"Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine,
and does them,
I will liken him to a wise man, …
Everyone who hears these words of mine,
and doesn't do them
will be like a foolish man, …" 8

The way out of self-deception and into real, tangible, spiritual union with Jesus is to act on what He says. I can be both a doctrinal genius and a fool at the same time if I don't obey my Lord.

The examination continues, but the time for action is now. Let us examine ourselves closely, grit our teeth, and through the power of the Holy Spirit painfully pull out all the thorns in our lives, living only for the Lord Jesus Christ.

If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light for my path.

Examine me, Yahweh, and prove me. Try my heart and my mind. 9

Notes:

  1. Psalm 139:23-24
  2. 1 John 2:15
  3. Matthew 13:7,22
  4. Galatians 6:7
  5. Galatians 6:8
  6. John 15:4-5
  7. James 1:22-25
  8. Matthew 7:24-27
  9. John 13:17, Psalm 119:105, Psalm 26:2

Presumption or Knowledge?

And Abraham said to his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.

-Genesis 22:5 (JND)

God told Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Obediently, Abraham took Isaac on a three day journey to Mount Moriah where he was to accomplish the unthinkable, horrific task. God did not tell Abraham He would provide a substitute offering for his son. And yet, Abraham confidently told the servants he would return to them with his son alive. He also reassured Isaac that God would provide a lamb for the sacrifice (Genesis 22:8). How did Abraham know God would do this when God had commanded him otherwise?

Sure, God had promised to make a great people of Isaac (Genesis 17:15-21), but He could have allowed Abraham to slaughter his son so He could raise him from the dead at some later time (Hebrews 11:17-19). Abraham didn’t have to return from the mountain with Isaac. Yet, somehow he knew he would.

His mother says to the servants, Whatever he may say to you, do.

– John 2:5 (JND)

Jesus and Mary were at a wedding when the wine ran out. Mary went to tell Jesus, but He apparently brushed her off, giving no indication He would do anything about it. Yet, somehow Mary knew Jesus would do something about it. How did she know in spite of Jesus’ answer?

These are just two examples of what appears to be presumptuous faith: expecting God to answer in a way nobody should expect. These people had received no word or prophetic vision from God of what He would do. How could they trust God to do something when the situation, even what He said earlier, said ‘No’? After receiving the command from God, Abraham had no right to tell the servants he would return with Isaac… or did he?

When it comes to knowing God, we rely on what God has told us about Himself in the pages of scripture. A whole field of study has arisen out of this which we call ‘theology’ – the study of God. The Bible is the primary textbook for this study, and there is so much in it, that it serves the mature believer just as much as the new believer.

Grade schoolers learn how to do math by example. They learn 1+1=2, 2+2=4, etc. They begin to learn by memorizing these simple formulas. But eventually it ‘clicks’ and they become able to do complex mathematical expressions that they haven’t seen before. Knowing God is similar. We learn about God from our Bibles – who He is, the things He likes and doesn’t like, etc. But mature knowledge comes to know God’s character and nature such that one can tell what God will or won’t do without an expressed statement of that in the Bible. It is similar to the relationship between husband and wife after many years go by. Each knows what (and how) the other thinks without having to hear the words… or even in spite of what is said.

The knowledge of God is not about facts that you have memorized (although those facts are necessary). It is deeper. It is personal and intimate. It is knowledge of His heart. And it comes about by spending time with Him in His word, in prayer, and in simple, submissive and obedient trust in what He has said. The more quality time you spend with your heavenly Father, the more He will reveal Himself to you, and the more you’ll know what He will or will not do in your situation. You will trust Him more.

Make it your life’s ambition to ever seek to know God’s heart.

The First Adam And The Last Adam

Knowing Jesus Christ is becoming more and more of a passion for me. One of the many ways I see Jesus in the scriptures is through types of Christ, such as Melchizedek, Joseph and David. None of them are perfect, but they help to point out different characteristics of Jesus Christ, so I can know Him better.

The very first type of Christ mentioned in the Bible is also one whose imperfection usually overshadows his likeness to Jesus. But he is the only person directly mentioned in the Bible as a “type” of Christ…

…death reigned from Adam until Moses, even on those who had not sinned in the likeness of Adam’s transgression, who is a type of the coming One.

– Romans 5:14

Here are some of the similarities (and differences) I’ve found in comparing Adam with Christ:

  • Adam was made in the likeness of God (Genesis 1:26, 5:1). Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Hebrews 1:3)
  • It was not good for Adam to be alone, so God made Eve of him and for him, to be a helper. The church is the Last Adam’s Eve, and came from Christ and is to live for Christ. Yet there is also somewhat of a reversal – it is not good for Eve (the Church) to be alone, so the Last Adam gave us a Helper (John 14:16).
  • Eve was Adam’s helper, taken from his side. The Holy Spirit is called Parakletos, meaning one who comes “along side”.
  • Eve was a fit companion of Adam because she was like him. Jesus is fit as our High Priest because He was made to be like us (Genesis 2:18-23, Hebrews 2:17). God created us to be like Him, and His intent is that we also become like Christ (Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 15:49, 1 John 3:2).
  • Adam and Eve were given the command to multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28). Jesus’ disciples were commanded to make disciples throughout the world (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8).
       In both cases, the multiplying is considered a gift of God (Genesis 4:1,25, Acts 11:18, 1 Corinthians 3:6).
       In both cases, the “image” is passed on (Genesis 5:3, 1 Corinthians 15:49).
       In both cases, this can only happen through a union: Adam with Eve, and the Church with the Spirit of Christ.
  • Adam and Eve were “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Christ and His Church are also one flesh (Ephesians 5:30-32).
  • Both Adams were the only ones to fully realize what they lost at the fall. I believe the first theophany (Old Testament appearance of Christ) was in Eden: God (Jesus) physically walked with Adam and Eve for they heard the sound of His footsteps (Genesis 3:8). The first Adam and the Last Adam communed together. When Adam sinned, while physical death was postponed, it caused spiritual death that same day. Adam was separated from God, and God was separated from Adam. Both experienced spiritual and physical death as a result of sin, for Jesus also was separated from His heavenly Father before He died on the cross for our sin (Matthew 27:46, 50).
  • When Adam sinned, God killed an animal He had called ‘good’ to make clothing to cover him (Genesis 3:21). Jesus died for us to cover our sins with garments of righteousness (Galatians 3:27, Isaiah 61:10).
  • While Adam was made in the image of God, the elected are to have the likeness of God restored (Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 15:49, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Colossians 3:10). We’re being remade in the image of the Image of the invisible God.
  • Because all of mankind are “in” Adam, all have the sin nature of Adam. All of those who are “in” Christ have His righteousness attributed to them (1 Corinthians 15:22).
  • The first Adam suffered death as a result of his own voluntary sin. The Last Adam suffered not as a result of His own sin, but voluntarily, as result of the First Adam’s sin, to bring man back into communion with God.
  • The first Adam, who had life, traded it for death, and thereby gave us death. The Last Adam, who is the Source of life, gave up His own life to give us life (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45).
  • When Jesus and His disciples walked together, it foreshadowed the beginning of the restoral of full communion with God. God was “with” man again (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23). Very few had “walked” with God before Christ (Adam, Enoch…). Now all can again. Coincidentally, John 18:1-2 says that Jesus often met with His disciples in the garden of Gethsemane (i.e. think of the song “In the Garden”.)
  • Adam and Eve were given command to govern the earth (Genesis 1:26-27 – note the word “them”). Those in Christ will reign over the earth (2 Timothy 2:12, Revelation 5:10).