Monday, September 5, 2011

Spirit vs Flesh- How Can We Tell?

Every true believer has a desire to overcome the sin that is in their lives. It is part of the experience of every regenerate person to struggle against what the bible calls “the flesh”. As we grow in our understanding of God’s holiness and begin to understand the depths of our own sinfulness we become aware of the fact that we are incapable of approaching spiritual perfection while in this life. We are therefore left with a command to be holy as God is holy while recognizing that it is beyond our ability to accomplish this. When understood properly this should lead us to rely solely upon God’s grace and mercy not only for our salvation but also in order for us to have any hope of honoring Him with our lives. Both our being declared holy on the basis of what Christ has done and the actual development of the fruits of holiness in our actual lives are based upon grace.

The combination of this already/not yet perspective on holiness as a result of God’s gracious work combined with the fact that we are commanded to strive against sin can raise some troubling questions for believers. It is easy to say that we need to actively strive against sin in our lives while recognizing that we must rely upon God in order to do so. Actually applying this theological distinction in our lives can sometimes be difficult though. The tension arises from the very important question “how do we know if we are striving in the spirit or in the flesh?” How do we know if we are properly balancing the two halves of the equation of the biblical doctrine of sanctification?

If we attempt to overcome sinfulness solely through willpower or discipline we run the risk of developing a pharisaical view that sees holiness as conformity to a legalistic standard that governs outward acts. The danger here is that we begin to think that it is our own will and self-effort that makes us holy. On the other extreme, however, is the equally dangerous view that we should not actively strive against the sin in our lives and that we should remain passive, simply allowing (and waiting) for God to work. One of the primary dangers of this type of quietist approach is that it drastically underestimates the power of sin and can leave the believer in a shell shocked doubt. This doubt often leads to the conclusion that they did not have sufficient faith to “allow” God to bring about victory. Both of these extremes are a deviation from the biblical teaching on how the believer is changed.

The bible teaches that we must pursue holiness and that we are to actively tend to the means of grace provided to us for that end (bible study, prayer, etc.). The scripture also teaches that it is God who is working in us to transform us into the likeness of our savior Jesus Christ. Although justification is an instantaneous monergistic act our sanctification is a process that involves the cooperation of the regenerate person with the work of God in their life. Although we are sanctified wholly by grace, through that grace we are made alive and active by the spirit so that we may participate in the battle against our sinful nature. As John Calvin famously remarked, “we are justified by faith alone but the faith that justifies is never alone”.  John Murray explains further saying, “God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work.”

The question remains, however, how we who know that we need to actively work against sin as well as depend upon the work of Christ in us in order for this to happen evaluate ourselves to ensure that we are not falling into one of the dangerous extremes described above?

First, it is clear that we must make conscious attempts to mortify the sin in our lives. We cannot assume a passive role in our spiritual development. If, however, we are actively pursuing holiness how can we be sure that we are not falling into a prideful pharisaic self-delusion? How can we tell if the disciplines we are pursuing are the result of our cooperation with the Sprit of God in us or simply our own fleshly pursuit?

I do not know that there is a single all encompassing perfect answer. I do think, however, that there are some important indicators that we can look at. First, we must evaluate the means that we are employing to bring about the changes. If we are using something other than the means that are emphasized in the scripture then we might be in dangerous territory. Our culture (including the Christian culture) is saturated with psychological and philosophical approaches to self-improvement that masquerade as Christian though they are not. The bible focuses on bible study, fellowship, worship, prayer, and sacrificial service as the marks and means of spiritual maturity so those would be what we would expect to characterize the life of one who is being transformed by the spirit.

It is, of course, possible for a person to engage in these activities as a means of prideful self-sanctification as well. This is why I think that an evaluation of our private prayer life is perhaps one of the most important indicators of our spiritual condition. Prayer is fundamentally an expression of dependence upon God. A self righteous person may pray often but the emphasis in their prayer would tend to be on being seen or known to be praying. People who are relying upon God rather than themselves have a private prayer life characterized by sincere and honest prayer. If we want to have a good evaluation of our spiritual lives we would do well to examine our private prayers in light of the scripture. How often do we pray?  How do we pray? What do we pray for? How do our prayers compare to the prayers of the faithful that are recorded in the bible? Do they reflect a character of dependence?

The bible tells us that we are to fight the good fight while relying upon the power of God to bring victory. Within each of us is a tendency to drift from the biblical balance and either try to work out our own holiness or remain passive, neglecting the exhortations and means provided to us. We must pray and study and be ever vigilant about our walk remembering Paul’s words to the Philippians.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
(Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)

And so we must work with the knowledge that we work because God works. We can tell if indeed God is working by the fruit in our lives. Not just outward works, but the spiritual fruit that accompanies a changed life.

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