Have you ever heard this phrase? Has someone ever exhorted you to quit trying, stop working so hard, just trust God?
There are many situations in life in which we would tell ourselves it is appropriate to surrender. If an earthquake is rocking your house and the foundation has failed, you probably will be unable to hold up the walls with your bare hands. If a tree has died and is rotting, it is dead and no amount of fertilizer will bring it back to life.
But while we depend on God for our Spiritual life, for salvation, for forgiveness, for happiness and joy, it is rarely the case that God requires nothing of us. He saves us, by faith, apart from works. And then we respond. We repent. We put our fleshly selves to death and follow Him.
There is a debate amongst theologians as to the sanctification process and success of believers. Some would argue that when we come to Christ, we are “a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor 5.17). We have died to our flesh and our sin, we have put away the old man and we can live righteous and holy lives (1 Cor 6.9-11). The argument goes like this:
I can willfully choose to not sin this very moment. And if I can not sin for this moment, I am capable of not sinning for an hour. If I can be without sin for an hour, I can go for an entire day. And if I can go an entire day, I can live my life without sin.
Many respected theologians and men of God believe this logic, based on those very verses I noted above and more. The opposing viewpoint stands on verses that point our righteousness to Christ, the bondage of sin that the flesh has and the hopeful nature of salvation being completed when we die.
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
– Rom 7.14-24
This passage is hotly debated between the two camps. Those who would claim that we can live sinless lives through the power of the Spirit argue that Paul is speaking of himself pre-salvation. Those who argue that we will only be free from sin in eternity argue that this is his Christian experience.
J. I. Packer is a well known professor and theologian. He was saved during his college years at Oxford. In his young faith, he was taught that perfection was possible – a sanctification by faith which would render one unswayed by the temptation of sin. Packer had a very sensitive conscience and no matter how many times he reconsecrated, rededicated and resubmitted himself to God and holy living, he knew that he was not perfect. His testimony is that this defeat led him nearly to suicide when he discovered two writings: John Owen on the doctrine of indwelling sin and J. C. Ryle’s book on holiness.
We cannot and should not just “let go and let God” deal with our daily sin. He will not sanctify us apart from our submission to Him and His ways. This is not a passive process. While the logic sounds good that we can attain perfection and/or freedom from the allure of sin, Paul states very clearly in the Romans 7 passage that he knows that the Law is good, that sin is bad and that he longs to obey God and follow the Law. Unsaved people do not want or long to honor God.
Paul is not making peace with sin, he is not giving it permission to reign in his body. He is not saying, “oh well, this is just who I am”, or “God will forgive me”, no! It grieves his spirit, it breaks his heart and he is fighting against the sin that indwells his body. Thus we have the doctrine of “Indwelling Sin”. As long as we are united with our physical bodies, we are united to our fleshly, sinful nature, that does not die without a fight. And will not be fully defeated until it lays cold in the ground. Our sins our forgiven, and our hearts are made new. But our nature is in transition. That is why he compels us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2.12).
The phrase, “dying to sin” can sound passive, but it is a personal denying of the self, actively killing the sinful nature (Matt 16.24). And we are only able to make progress on this path by the power of the Holy Spirit living in and through us.
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”
– Gal 2.20
We are justified by Christ’s righteousness alone. Our works do not save us. But His power within us, little by little, changes us – until the day that we meet Jesus face to face in Heaven. And because of our love for God, our hearts should sound like Paul when we fall, “Oh wretched man that I am!” (Rom 7.24). I hate the sin that I do!
The mark of the Christian is that we fight! Do not make peace with sin. Do not be passive, thinking that God will change you against your will and your efforts. Examine yourself daily. Confess your sin. Trust God for forgiveness, and rely on His Spirit for the strength to deny yourself your fleshly desires.
“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.”
– Rom 6.12-13
There are times that we need to surrender our will and our pride to God. I am not proposing that we do not surrender. But I am saying that we join God where He is at work, and His primary concern is to sanctify us: to make us more like His son and to work good deeds through us, and to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Therefore, let us surrender to His plan by expending our every energy on loving Him, serving Him, fighting sin and purposefully denying our sinful selves and choosing obedience.
“Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
– John Owen