The Battle for Holiness
The Battle for Holiness
Pursuing Holiness – Sermon 6
by William Klock
Last time we were together we looked at how, through our union with Christ, we’re delivered from the dominion of sin – we’ve been translated from the kingdom of sin and death to the kingdom of righteousness. We are no longer slaves to sin. And yet each one of us stillstruggles daily with sin. We can all identify with St. Paul when we writes, “When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21). And the fact is that the more we realise and accept that our struggle with sin is lifelong, the better equipped we’re going to be to deal with it. The more we can see the strength of indwelling sin, the less power it has over us. You see, our ability to fight the sin in us is directly proportional to the extent that we’re aware of it.
The good news is that even though believers still have this indwelling propensity to sin, the Holy Spirit continues to work in us too. As strong as the flesh is, the Spirit gives the believer an even stronger desire for holiness. The believer struggles with the sin that God enables him to see in himself. This is what St. Paul is describing in Romans 7 – and it’s what differentiates the believer from the unbeliever. The believer knows his sinfulness and fights with the Spirit’s help to overcome it. The unbeliever lies in darkness and doesn’t even know it.
Tonight I want to talk about this battle with sin. It’s been dethroned in our lives, but it’s still hostile to God. The sin in us is the enemy of righteousness in our hearts and it’s ready to oppose every effort we have to do good. So if we’re going to wage a successful war against the enemy within us, we need to know something about its nature and the tactics it takes.
First, Jesus tells us that the seat of indwelling sin is the heart. In Mark 7:21-23 he says, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Now the Bible uses heart in different ways. Sometimes it refers to our reason or our understanding. Sometimes it refers to our affections and our emotions. Sometimes it refers to our will. In general heart refers to the whole soul of a man or woman and all of its faculties, not each individually, but as they work together in doing good or evil. The mind as it reasons, discerns, and judges; the emotions as they like or dislike; the conscience as it determines and warns; and the will as it chooses or refuses – all of that together is the heart.
And Scripture doesn’t give a healthy diagnosis for the heart. Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:9-10). St. Paul notes that even as believers we don’t know our own hearts (1 Corinthians 4:3-5). None of us can fully discern the hidden motives of our hearts. And in this unsearchable heart there’s a lot of sin dwelling. A big part of sin’s strength is for that reason. We fight with an enemy that sometimes we can’t fully search out.
The heart is also deceitful. It excuses, it rationalizes, and it justifies our actions. It binds us to entire areas of sin in our lives. It causes us to deal with sin by going only halfway. Sometimes the heart convinces us that it’s enough to give our intellectual assent to the Word of God instead of actually giving it our full obedience (James 1:22).
If we know that indwelling sin occupies a heart that is both deceitful and unsearchable, that ought to lead us to be extremely cautious. We need to ask God daily to search our hearts for sin that we can’t or won’t see. Think of David’s prayer in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” We need to make sure that a significant part of the time we spend each day in prayer is confession – not just confessing the sins we know, but asking the Spirit to reveal the ones we don’t know.
But the process doesn’t end there. Just praying that our sin would be revealed isn’t enough, because the primary way that God searches our hearts is through his Word, as we read it under the power of his Holy Spirit. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” We need to pray for God to search our hearts, but we also need to continually expose ourselves to the searching of his Word!
And we need to be careful to let the Holy Spirit do the searching. If we depend on our ownability to search our hearts, we’ll usually end up falling into one or both of two traps. We run the risk of falling into a sort of morbid introspection that can become the tool of Satan. Remember that he’s called the “Accuser.” He likes to accuse us to the point of discouragement. He knows that if he can make us discouraged and dispirited, he can usually sideline us in the battle for holiness.
The other thing that often happens is that we miss the real issues in our lives. The deceitfulness of Satan and of our own hearts will lead us to put our attention on secondary issues. In my own life and in the lives of others, I’ve seen many times when we put our focus on one particular sin that we don’t seem to be able to get control of, but the whole time we’re doing that we ignore a whole slew of much more severe sins to which we’ve been blinded – and the sins we’re usually blinded to are the ones that seriously hurt those around us. Only the Holy Spirit can enable us to see those areas to which we’re blind.
So the seat of indwelling sin is our deceitful and unsearchable heart. But second, we also need to realise that indwelling sin works through our desires most of the time. Ever since humanity fell in the Garden of Eden, we’ve tended to listen more to our desires than to our reason. I think it’s safe to say that desire has become the strongest part of our hearts. Do an experiment the next time you find yourself tempted to sin: pay attention to the struggle between your desire and your reason. If you give into temptation, it’ll be because desire overcomes reason in the struggle to influence your will. Even the world recognises this. Think about the way it appeals to our desires through what Hebrews calls the “pleasures of sin.”
Now obviously not all desire is evil. St. Paul talks about his desire to know Christ (Philippians 3:10), of his desire for the salvation of his fellow Jews (Romans 10:1), and the desire that his spiritual children would grow to maturity (Galatians 4:19).
But what I’m talking about here is the evil desires that leads us to sin. St. James said we’re tempted when we’re dragged away and enticed by our own evil desires (James 1:14). If we’re going to win the battle for holiness, we have to recognise that our basic problem lies inside us. It’s our own evil desires that lead us into temptation. We might be prone to think that we’re just responding to outward temptations that are presented to us, but the truth is that our evil desires are constantly and actively looking for temptations to satisfy their insatiable lusts. Look at your own life and consider the particular temptations that you’re most vulnerable to – and think how often you find yourself actually searching out occasions to satisfy those evil desires.
Even when we’re engaged in one way or another with the battle against a particular sin, our evil desire or indwelling sin will often lead us into playing with that very sin. Sometimes while we’re confessing a sin we find ourselves starting once against to dwell on the evil thoughts associated with that same sin, and we may be tempted again.
Now that’s not to say that temptation doesn’t often come to us unexpectedly, but even then, our evil desires are ready to grab hold those temptations and welcome them right in. Just as fire burns any combustible material presented to it, so our own evil desires immediately respond to temptation. John Owen, the famous Puritan pastor and writer said that sin carries on its war by entangling our desires and drawing them away. For that reason Owen said that denying sin has to be mainly directed at our desires. We need to make sure our desires are directed towards glorifying God, he said, not towards satisfying the lusts of our bodies. We need to make a habit of desiring God and his glory, and as desire for God becomes our habit, the old habit of wanting to satisfy the flesh will gradually be pushed aside.
The third thing we need to understand about indwelling sin is that it tends to deceive our understanding or reasoning. Our reason, when it’s enlightened by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, stands in the way of sin gaining mastery over us through our desires. That’s why Satan’s number one strategy is to deceive our minds. St. Paul wrote about the “deceitful desires” of the old self (Ephesians 4:22). He said that we were at one time “deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:3). And while these passages talk about our old life, we have to realise that this deceit still wages war against us, even though it no longer has mastery over us.
Deceit of the mind is dangerous because it happens by degrees, a little at a time. First we’re drawn away from being watchful, then from being obedient. We’re like Ephraim, of whom God said, “Strangers devour his strength, andhe knows it not; gray hairs are sprinkled upon him, andhe knows it not” (Hosea 7:9). We get overconfident and it draws us away from being vigilant and watchful. We start thinking that we’re beyond a particular temptation. We look at someone else’s fall and say things like, “I would never do that.” But St. Paul warns us: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1Corinthians 10:12). Even when helping a fallen brother or sister, we need to watch ourselves lest we also be tempted (Galatians 6:1).
We’re often drawn away from obedience by the abuse of grace. St. Jude writes about certain men “who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4). We abuse grace when we think we can sin and then receive forgiveness by claiming 1 John 1:9 (“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”) We abuse grace when, after sinning, we dwell on the compassion and mercy of God to the exclusion of his holiness and hatred of sin.
We’re drawn from obedience when we begin to question what God says in his Word. This was Satan’s first tactic with Eve. Just as he said to Eve, “You surely shall not die!” so he says to us, “It’s just a little thing!” or “God won’t judge that sin.”
So I think we can see that even though sin no longer has dominion over us, it still wages its guerrilla warfare against us, and if it’s left unchecked, it can and will defeat us. The recourse we have against this warfare is to deal with it swiftly and firmly with the first motion and activity of indwelling sin. If temptation finds any place to setup shop in the soul, it’ll use that to lead us into sin. Think of Solomon. He wrote, “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong” (Ecclesiastes 8:11 NIV).
And we also need to remember that our fight against sin is never at an end. The heart is unsearchable, our evil desires are insatiable, and our reason is constantly in danger of being deceived. Jesus was wise to say, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). And Solomon warned, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, we would ask that your Spirit keep us constantly on guard against sin. Remind us each day that as long as we’re on this side of eternity, sin will continue to wage war against us. Give us a hunger for your Word, that we might know good from evil, and keep us vigilant in the your Truth, that we might see sin when it comes. Father, give each of us a passion for you, that our desires might be turned from the flesh to your glory. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.