Obedience, Not Victory
Pursuing Holiness – Sermon 7
by William Klock
As we’ve been talking about holiness, the focus of the last couple of sermons has been on the ways in which God has given us provision for holiness – how he enables us to be holy. The Holy Spirit unites us to Jesus Christ, and in doing that he unites us with his death and his resurrection. Christ died to sin and as the Spirit unites us to him, we also die to sin. Christ rose to new life, and as the Spirit unites us with him, we also rise to new life. The indwelling Spirit works within us to reveal the sin in our lives, he works in us to change our hearts and to give us a desire for holiness, and as we struggle to kick sin to the curb and embrace holiness, it’s again the Spirit who gives us the strength to do it all. And so that’s why St. Paul tells us that it’s through the power of the Holy Spirit and according to our new nature, that we are to put to death the misdeeds of the body (Romans 8:13).
The problem is that too many of us stop half-way through that verse. “Okay, I’ll let the Spirit work…I’ll let the Spirit do it for me,” we say. The Spirit is the enabler when it comes to putting sin to death, but Paul also stresses that it requires action on our part too. The work of putting sin to death is from one point of view the work of the Holy Spirit, but the same work, if you look at it from another angle, is also our own work. There are two sides to it.
Last week I spent the whole time talking about the “by the Spirit” part of this verse. Tonight I want to look at our responsibility – the second half of the Romans 8:13 that tells us, “put to death the deeds of the body.”
Paul is clear that God puts the responsibility for holy living squarely on us. He calls us to do something. We’re not called to “stop trying and start trusting” – some common but very unbiblical advice that only leads to frustration. He says, we are to put to death the misdeeds of the body. It’s not something that we find only here. This is the message we find throughout the epistles – and not just Paul’s. We are commanded to assume our responsibility for a holy walk. He wrote to the Colossians, telling them, “put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5). It’s some that we are told to do over and over again. The Spirit does his work, but he also gives us our own work in the process of sanctification.
The writer of Hebrews tells us:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, 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. (Hebrews 12:1)
Notice he says let us throw off the sin and let us run with endurance. There’s a clear expectation here that we need to assume responsibility for running the Christian race. St. James says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). We are the ones who are called to submit to God and resist the devil. It’s ourresponsibility. St. Peter says, “be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Peter 3:14). Those words be diligent address our wills. The NIV says “make every effort.” It’s something we must decide to do.
Part of the struggle we have with this comes from our history. I think the pietistic culture that’s been a part of a lot of Protestant traditions for the last hundred and fifty years has tended to lead us astray. Somewhere we got the idea that any effort on our part to live a holy life is “of the flesh” and that “the flesh profits for nothing.” We’ve got the idea that God’s not going to reward any effort on our part to live the Christian life. We rightly affirm that we can’t earn our salvation by good works. But just as we received Jesus Christ by faith, well, then we transfer that over to the process of sanctification and assume that we’re supposed to seek a holy life by faith. We think that if we put in any effort on our part, we’re just getting in God’s way.
Just as one example: I’ve seen people take a passage like 2 Chronicles 20:17 and twist it to say something it doesn’t. It says, “You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the LORD will give you.” People take that passage (and others like it) as a message from God telling us to turn the battle with sin over to him and he’ll fight the sin in our lives for us. That’s not what we’re called to do. And this illustrates the danger of reading and using Scripture out of context. Those words were given to the Israelites in Jehoshaphat’s reign. An army was gathered around Jerusalem and they prayed for God’s help. And God spoke through one of the Levites, telling them not to go and fight, but that God would take care of the besieging army – and he did. The next morning the Israelites went out and found that the entire army had died overnight. Those verses are only a word to us indirectly and they have nothing to do with our being made holy.
We can be very foolish. We mistake dependence on the Holy Spirit to mean that there’s to be no effort on our part and that we have no responsibility. We mistakenly think that if we just turn it all over to God, he’ll make our choices for us and choose obedience over disobedience. That all we need to do is to look to him for holiness. But that’s not God’s way. Remember that he’s allowed us to be where we are: redeemed people stuck still having to deal with the world, the flesh, and the devil – and he’s allowed it for a reason. The best way for us to learn and develop our character isn’t by studying theory, but by going out and fighting the fight.
I just finished reading a fictional novel about a young Roman senator who was sent out by his family to serve with Caesar in his war with the Gauls. He wasn’t really a soldier even though his rank made him an officer. He had studied the arts of war for years, but for him it was all theory and book-learning. In fact, he had no interest in fighting with the legions – it was just something he had to do in order to work his way up the ladder of Roman politics. And so here he went on his horse up to Gaul, his slave in tow, and wearing his best parade get-up.
He knew he’d made a mistake when he marched into Caesar’s camp. The soldiers snickered at him. When he got to the camp praetorium, Caesar and all his officers knelt before him as Caesar joked that a man in such finery on the battlefield must be Mars himself paying a visit! And it only got worse as this young officer quickly learned that theory and book-learning don’t get you very far in a real battle. In fact, he found that he just got in the way of the soldiers. It was only as he dressed himself in the common, plain armour of the rabble, got dirty, and started fighting the battle with the men who had been doing it for years that he became a real soldier.
And it’s like that with us. God allows us to be in a place that requires we get dirty and fight the real battle. Drifting around the world in our finest and acting all spiritual isn’t what holiness is all about! But he doesn’t send us into the battle alone. We have to go. We have to fight. But the Spirit comes with us too. Our job is to fight and to fight hard, but it’s the Spirit who makes us conquerors.
And that needs to be stressed: the Holy Spirit has been given to every Christian. He’s not something you have to earn. He’s not something you have to ask for. If you who were once an enemy of God, have found yourself turned 180 degrees, and have given your heart to Christ, it is only because God first put his Spirit in you and drew you to himself. It’s not even that you can’t be a Christian without the Spirit. You can’t be become a Christian without the Spirit. If you’re a Christian, be assured that he is with you. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says:
“The Holy Spirit is in us; He is working in us, and empowering us, giving us the ability….This is the New Testament teaching – ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.’ We have to do so. But note the accompaniment – ‘Because it is God that worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure’! The Holy Spirit is working in us ‘both to will and to do.’ It is because I am not left to myself, it is because I am not ‘absolutely hopeless,’ since the Spirit is in me, that I am exhorted to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling.”
We need to rely on the Spirit in our putting to death the deeds of the body. As Lloyd-Jones observes in his preaching on Romans 8:13, it’s the Holy Spirit who “differentiates Christianity from morality, from ‘legalism’ and false Puritanism.” But reliance on the Spirit is not meant to foster a “Do-It-Yourself” attitude. It’s supposed to foster the attitude that says, “I can do it through him who strengthens me.” The Christian should never complain of want of ability and power. If we sin, it’s because we choose to sin, not because we lack the ability to say no to temptation.
If we’ve been at all slack here, now is the time for us to face up to our responsibility for holiness. I know that a lot times we share with each other – or maybe we’re embarrassed to tell someone else, but we feel it anyway – that we’re “defeated” by this sin or that sin. But you know what? We’re not defeated; we’re simply disobedient! We talk a lot about sin in terms of defeat or victory. We judge our progress in holiness by defeat or victory. But what we really should be doing is thinking of it in terms of “obedience” and “disobedience.”
Think about it. When you say that you’re defeated by some sin, you’re unconsciously slipping out from under your responsibility. You’re saying that something outside of you has defeated you – that sin came with a Sherman tank or a nuclear bomb and you were defeated by it because there was no hope of fighting back. But remember what St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians as they struggled with some serious sins? He wrote to them:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
When we talk about being defeated, we’re forgetting that the Spirit is within us and empowers us to overcome any and every assault of the world, the flesh, and the devil. It doesn’t matter how big his firepower is, the Spirit’s is bigger. If we’re being “defeated,” the problem isn’t God, the problem is us.
So instead of talking about being defeated, we need to talk about being disobedient. I know it takes more humility to admit that, because it takes ownership of the defeat – it places the blame not on the Spirit who failed us, but squarely on our own shoulders because we’ve chosen to disobey. We’ve chosen to entertain those lustful thoughts, or to harbour resentment, or to shade the truth a little.
We need to brace ourselves up and we need to realise that we’re responsible for our thoughts, attitudes, and actions. We need to reckon on the fact that we died to sin’s reign, that it no longer has any dominion over us, that God has united us with the risen Christ in all his power, and has given us the Holy Spirit to work in us. Only as we accept our responsibility and appropriate God’s provisions will we make any progress in our pursuit of holiness.
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, you’ve filled each and every one of your children with a full measure of your Holy Spirit, and because he is with us, you have also given us full assurance of victory. Forgive us for the times we choose to turn our backs on you and refuse the help your Spirit gives, and instead disobediently say “yes” to sin. Remind us of the fact that we are more than conquerors because you live within us. Remind us that we need to accept responsibility for our sin, and train us through our trials to lean on your Spirit, who is alive and at work within us, because of the saving work of Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.