Everyone knows St. Augustine, that fourth-century giant, as the doctor of grace. To a large extent, the Reformation was simply a recovery of and improvement on Augustine's system. Few quills have graced the subject of guilt and grace like the Bishop of Hippo's. And yet, Augustine's own conversion was not so much due to the guilt of his sins, as to their power. You see, Augustine had been a member of a heretical sect known for its immorality. The immediate point of contact for him was the indomitable tyranny of sin. Theologians have distinguished three aspects of sin: its guilt, its power, and its presence. The moment we place our confidence in Christ's saving work, we are instantly justified, liberated from the condemnation which the guilt of our sins deserves. Further, because of the Holy Spirit's regenerating work, we are not only given the faith to believe, resulting in our justification; we are also given the gift of repentance, resulting in a life of sanctification or growth in Christian maturity. And yet, we know the struggle of Romans 7 all too well. Though we are justified and are being sanctified, we are engaged in a war and will know no peace until we are finally delivered from the presence of sin altogether in the New Jerusalem.
The unholy trinity most often identified in Scripture is well-known to most of us: the world, the flesh, and the devil.
First, the world. Now, be careful with this one, because it is not the world per se that's the problem, but the world as it has come to be shaped by the warped hands and minds of sinful human beings. As God created it, the world was a good place--"very good," God said. The Creator placed Adam in the garden as the worldly custodian, to insure that all creation served and praised its glorious Maker. But we know the story: Adam and Eve failed God in this task and the entire creation was placed under a curse to bondage and decay. The second law of thermodynamics was one physical aspect of this curse. And yet, God did not leave it this way. In the very day on which God pronounced judgment, He also promised redemption (Gen. 3:15). From Eden, history unfolds in successive stages of redemptive acts pointing to the ultimate act of redemption in Christ's self-sacrifice.
But we very often forget that the world itself was included in this promise of redemption. It wasn't just for Christians that the "new creation" or the "new age" dawned. In Romans chapter eight, St. Paul informs us, "The whole creation is on tiptoe" waiting to see our redemption. "The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God's purpose it has been so limited--yet it has been given hope." That's right, even creation itself has been given the promise of redemption. "And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God!" (Rom. 8:20-21, Phillips).
Therefore, the world has now become the theater of war. Just as Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait made that state the theater of conflict, so too Satan has invaded this world through the disobedience of our first parents. The world is our enemy, therefore, not in the sense that we are hostile to its culture, its music, its science, its art, its civic and social life--for we were created to participate in these activities. Rather, it is the world as dominated by alien forces hostile to the reign of Christ which presents some of our most urgent challenges.
This is why the Apostle warned, "Do not be conformed to this world's pattern of thinking, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind" (Rom. 12:2). Hence, we "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). Every method, belief, outlook, agenda, must become a POW of Jesus Christ. Our beliefs and attitudes must pass His inspection. Some years ago, the National Council of Churches, often railed against by evangelicals as liberal, made the remark that, "The world sets the church's agenda." But today, it is often evangelicals themselves who are taking in uncritically the popular trends and fashionable thoughts which make it difficult sometimes to discern where Christianity ends and pop culture begins.
If the conflict with the world is a war without, the conflict with the flesh is the war within. St. Paul makes it the subject of his seventh chapter of Romans. "We know," he says, "that the Law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin." At this point, Paul, the missionary to the Gentiles, does not experience the "victorious Christian life" so many Christians are promised these days. He feels like a POW in the battle with sin. One minute, in Romans six, we find him fighting and overthrowing attacking forces in hand-to-hand combat. The next, in Romans seven, he is a prisoner. This is the nature of the Christian life. This is the course of sanctification. What many Christians today regard as a "carnal Christian" is really either an unbeliever or, like the rest of us--a struggling saint. "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out . . . When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!" (vv. 21-24).
The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is not, as is often suggested, that the former lives a "victorious life," or that he "lives above all known sin." Rather, it is that the Christian is at war within, while the non-Christian is not even aware of any conflict. The Christian houses two hostile forces. He is at once "justified and sinful," pro-God and anti-God. And this war with oneself will never be resolved until we reach the Promised Land. As Alexander Whyte, the Presbyterian pastor of the previous century informed his congregation, "You will never leave Romans seven while I am your minister!"
The third enemy, archenemy, in this war, is the devil himself. Unlike the mystery religions surrounding the Jewish and early Christian cultures, biblical faith located evil in personal beings rather than impersonal forces. A revived collection of mystery religions, the New Age movement seeks to discover and manage these evil forces, but Christians know where evil comes from. It is the result of personal, active, willful rebellion by creatures brought into being as good creations by a good God.
In Revelation twelve, we read about a "war in heaven." After our Lord ascends, war breaks out and Michael defeats Satan. The dragon is therefore expelled from heaven and is no longer given access to the court where his prosecution against Christians can be heard. And yet, "Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short." Thus, the theater of war moves from heaven to earth itself. Here, Satan prowls like a "roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour." He deceives unbelievers with false teaching; he entices Christians with false promises, and though he knows his time is short, his hatred for Christ and His redeemed hosts drives him to assault. Though he cannot win the war, he is happy to win battles, making common cause with the world and the flesh.
"Put on the full armor of God," Paul's command in Ephesians chapter six, is well-known to many of us. First up is the "belt of truth." Before anything else, we have to know what we believe and why we believe it if we are to withstand the world, the flesh, and the devil. Another metaphor might be that of roots reaching deep into the soil of Scripture. We must read Scripture not only for devotional purposes, but to understand in a profounder way the meaning of our faith. We ought to read great Christian classics instead of light and fluffy popular books. There is a war for our mind and truth is the place to start. As a belt, it holds our pants up in battle.
Second, the "breastplate of righteousness" is listed. According to the Cambridge Biblical Commentary, "Most likely, this refers not to the believer's moral character, but describes God's rescue operation in Christ, bringing the assurance that the Christian is right with God." In other words, our protection in battle is the confidence that we are justified--that is, already declared righteous. Whenever Satan comes to tempt us, we hold up the cross. Whenever the flesh threatens to bring us back under the dominion of Adam, we remind ourselves of our union with the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Whenever the world tells us about self-esteem or self-confidence, or takes a short-cut around dealing with the real problem of guilt, we respond with this doctrine of justification.
Third, there are the "ready feet." Once armed with truth and the knowledge of our justification in Christ, we are now ready to zealously act. This is of great importance. St. Paul refers in Romans to his legalistic friends as those who "have tremendous zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge." This zealous ignorance was especially disastrous, he says, because what they failed to understand was essential to the gospel: "For not knowing about the righteousness of God which is by faith, they set out to establish their own righteousness." Zeal must be led and directed by the truth and justification which have already been discussed. That being said, many of us are so content with the belt and the breastplate that we forget our shoes. Zeal without knowledge is misguided energy, but knowledge without zeal is a profound waste of good news.
Fourth, we have the "helmet of salvation." What is important to note in all of this is that every weapon with which we have been provided is outside of us. In other words, whether it's truth, or salvation, the weapons with which we fight the world, the flesh, and the devil are not inner resources. So much of the emphasis I see these days on "spiritual warfare" calls believers into themselves through spiritual exercises like "spiritual breathing" or other forms of subjective, mystical navel-gazing. But this is just what Satan's strategy has been. In every pagan folk culture, mysticism dominates. Techniques are provided for dealing with the forces within. Sin becomes a matter not of personal rebellion as much as demonic conflict (such as Jimmy Swaggart's insistence that he was fine now after Oral Roberts cast the demons off of the evangelist's back), and the war becomes a "good force" vs. "bad force" nonsense. This is folk religion rather than Christian warfare and it certainly has nothing to do with Ephesians six.
One should also notice that the helmet of salvation is given at the beginning of the war, not the end. Salvation is never a carrot God dangles in front of us to keep us going, but is a declaration already made at the beginning of it all. What commander would send his forces into battle without a helmet, merely promising them one as a reward for their success? God gives us the "helmet of salvation" right from the start, not if we win, but so that we will win.
Each of these weapons mentioned in Ephesians six is first listed in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah 11. Of the Messiah it is promised, "Truth will be the sash around His waste." "Righteousness will be His armor . . . His own arm worked salvation. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, He put on garments of vengeance and wrapped Himself in zeal as a cloak." Further, He is even the shield and the helmet: "He is my shield behind whom I take refuge" (Ps. 144:1-2); "He will wear the helmet of salvation upon His head" (Is. 59:17). And He is the sword, known to John's Gospel as "the Word of God."
In all of our battles with the enemy, we reach for nothing that Christ has not already won for us. Even when we win a personal battle, it is because Christ has already fought and successfully won over His trials and temptations. In Christ, the war is already won, so the battles are real but the outcome is already known.
I hear someone saying, "Wait a second, even when you guys do talk about sanctification and the pursuit of godliness, you end up talking more about justification and 'alien righteousness' than practical steps of holiness." That's correct, and any method that does not do that is not Pauline, evangelical, or Reformational in any sense. Let me give an example of how genuinely practical this approach is even for godliness. In Shakespeare's "MacBeth," the witches' prophecy that "no man born of a woman will conquer you" inspires MacBeth to fight even the dreaded MacDuff. In the heat of battle, MacBeth taunts his enemy with the prophecy and confidently wields his sword because of it. But then MacDuff informs the usurper that he was not, technically speaking, born of a woman, having been torn from his mother in her death. Just as soon as the news reaches MacBeth's ears, the strength leaves him and he is immediately taken in battle.
Many Christians live defeated lives, not because they are failing to follow certain steps or are not living up to the "victorious Christian life" (whatever that is), but because they do not have the confidence that no one, not even Satan, can "lay any charge to God's elect" (Rom. 8:32). In the heat of battle, the strength we have to keep on going is knowing that our Commander has already determined the outcome of the war by His victory. His ascension into heaven and the devil's expulsion from the same guarantees that our skirmishes, serious as they certainly are, will nonetheless not bring us ultimate defeat. Knowing that already makes all the difference.
Having said all of that, I wonder if we really want to be rid of our sins. In Romans six, Paul cheers us on: "Do not let sin reign, therefore, in your mortal body." In Romans seven, he is more sober, reflecting on his own personal struggle to "practice what he preached" in the previous chapter. In the eighth chapter, he goes on to encourage us that even though we lose battles here and there, "there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (v. 1).
As believers, we live between those three poles--energetic zeal, struggle/failure, gospel. But I wonder if we take the first two poles as seriously as we really ought. Knowing that our salvation is sealed in the courts of eternity, do we eventually ignore the challenges of Romans six because of the failures of seven and the unconditional "no condemnation" in eight? I guess what I'm saying is: What do we have to lose? If we're afraid of losing a battle, of being disappointed with a failure out on the field, we need only remember that our success or failure on the battlefield does not determine the outcome of the war. We can fight with confidence.
John Owen once said of Christ, "When He comes to war, he finds no quiet landing place. He can set His foot on no ground but that which He must fight for." We will not grow without a fight, without sharing in His sufferings. Unlike justification, our sanctification is a lifelong struggle--so much for "let go and let God." Small victories are prized; battles lost are soon forgotten, extracting lessons for the next. None of our enemies--the world, the flesh, or the devil, will simply move aside and put up a white flag. And yet, in our fighting we fail to hide our unrestrained anticipation prefigured in the arrival of Israel in the Promised Land: "Then the land had rest from war."
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
Issue: "Pilgrim's Progress: The Life of a Justified Sinner" Nov./Dec. 1996 Vol. 5 No. 6 Page number(s): 20-23
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