My prayer is that this post will caution other believers to a reasonable view of Christian experience. I think that many new believers are given an unreasonable view of the Christian life, and this leads them to despair. In The Bruised Reed, Richard Sibbes warned against laying burdens upon the believer which are unreasonable of even the most seasoned believer. Instead, he urges us to treat new believers like fine glass to take great care with their souls.
The first entry details a meeting I had with a professor who encouraged me in my faith. Specifically, he told me to read a chapter in J.I. Packer's Knowing God.
The second entry deals with my thoughts about that chapter.
I pray that it will be edifying to you!
Here's a wonderful hymn by John Newton. I encountered it in ch. 21 of J.I. Packer's Knowing God, which I heartily recommend.
I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.
I hope that in some favoured hour
At once He'd answer my request,
And by His love's constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand
He seemedIntent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
'"Lord, why is this?" I trembling cried,
"Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?"
"'Tis in this way," the Lord replied,"
I answer prayer for grace and faith."
"These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may'st seek thy all in me."
I thought this text was an eloquent representation of my own experience. After accepting Christ in February of this year, I found that months later, after the initial triumph, my heart was still so sinful. Granted, I knew very well that I would still be so sinful, but I was disheartened when the temptations returned.
I met with Dr. Shawn Wright, a professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College, and after sharing with him the battle with sin in my own life, he pointed me to chapter 21 in Packer's Knowing God. While I haven't read the complete chapter yet, I was encouraged by the above text by John Newton.
Dr. Wright shared with me the relationship with God much parallels the relationship of a son and an ideal earthly father. Initially, the father protects the child and shelters him from all harm. At first, the father may refuse to let, or be very careful with letting others, hold his child. As the child matures, the father lets the child deal with more and more struggle and heartache. This is the sign of a good father.
In much the same way, I think that I have experienced this work of God in my own life. I have experienced that He has withdrawn some of the hedges and is letting me directly face more and more of the wiles of Satan. As the above hymn states, how could I find Christ altogether beautiful when He always protects from that which is not lovely. God does not tempt us, but He will let Satan assail us for a season, but He always provides a way out. Newton says that these inward trials are designed so that, "That thou may'st seek thy all in me."
The Christian life is truly a battle with sin. Since the initial victory and newness of my conversion is past, I have renewed my commitment to the battle, and I will renew that commitment to the battle daily. I will awake myself every morning and remind myself that the Christian life is a battle, and it is one in which I cannot take lightly.
Sanctification, ultimately a work of God, is not a passive experience. It requires diligence and effort, and that is where I have lacked and humbly ask God for His forgiveness. I must do a better job of actively fighting sin, and not letting it have even the smallest grasp on my life. The Christian life is war!
"But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does" (James 1:22-25).
After blogging about John Newton's poem on Thursday, I finally got around to reading chapter 21 (entitled "These Inward Trials") of Packer's book, Knowing God. I found it an immense help and blessing.
Basically, this chapter of Packer's book covers the battle with sin, and teaching of sanctification that he critiques as harmful to the believer. He never names the teaching, but it seems to be perfectionism, or at least a passive sanctification that comes very near to perfectionism. I want to relate certain quotes that I found particularly edifying.
Packer considers perfectionism to "promise at this point more than God has undertaken to perform in this world" (p. 245). Thus, in this way teachers of perfectionism set their new converts up for failure and preach a type of sanctification that is simply a bed of roses.
Aye, there's the rub!
While tough-minded listeners who have heard this kind of thing before take the preacher's promises with a pinch of salt, a few serious seekers will believe him absolutely. On this basis, they are converted; they experience the new birth; and they advance into their new life joyfully certain that they have left all the old headaches and heartaches behind them. And then they find that it is not like that at all. Longstanding problems of temperament, of personal relationships, of felt wants, of nagging temptations are still there--sometimes, indeed, intensified. God does not make their circumstances notably easier; rather the reverse. (p. 246)
Many believers have had this experience, whether they believed in perfectionism or not. I certainly have not, and I did not hold to perfectionism at the time of my conversion. However, there is definitely a tendency to believe that problems of the past will no longer remain a problem, and this is part of what I experienced earlier this year when I came to know the Lord Jesus Christ through saving faith. I had the tendency to think that the old problems and temptations would not be there. I knew that I was a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) with a new heart. However, I failed to actively attack my sin, and this led to much frustration and began to stunt my spiritual growth.
Just chapters later after writing about being a new creation in Christ, Paul urges the church at Corinth: "Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1). In the chapter before he had just discussed being separate, and even in light of the new heart mentioned in chapter 5, we still must actively choose not to sin. I still sin, and sin often. The only difference is that now I have the will and ability to obey, whereas before I was simply a slave to sin, unable to ultimately overcome the sin in my life.
The truth of the matter is that Christians will always sin, and if anyone sins that he is sinless, he is a liar (1 John 1:9), according to the Word of God. In our Thursday chapel session at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Thomas Schreiner gave an excellent sermon (click here for MP3 download) on Philippians 3:12, ff., which speaks of our perfection, which will only be accomplished in heaven. He related the story told him by Dr. Bruce Ware, another professor. Dr. Ware had a friendly, personal debate with another theologian who believed in sinless perfectionism. During the course of the discussion, this fellow theologian proclaimed that there was currently no known sin in his life. Dr. Ware asked him if he sensed that, just as in his own heart, he wanted to win the debate partly just as a matter of pride. The other theologian had to admit to Dr. Ware that he was correct in such an assumption. Thus, we'll never be perfect this side of heaven.
In fact, Packer considers the confusion between perfection in heaven and perfection on earth as the problem that needs to be addressed by teachers of perfectionism. This teaching, "confuses the Christian life on earth with the Christian life as it will be in heaven. It misconceives the psychology of Christian obedience (Spirit-prompted activity, not Spirit-prompted passivity" (p. 249).
Finally, let me share the last quote that solidified much of my thinking on this whole experience of sanctification and actively warring against sin:
God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing, so that we may learn thankfully to lean on him. Therefore he takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence to trust in himself--in the classical scriptural phrase for the secret of the godly life, to "wait on the Lord." (p. 251)Any true Christian should actively choose to obey and focus on loving Jesus Christ and seeing Him as altogether lovely and worthy of our lives. Thankfully, Jesus has provided the victory, and "there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:1, NKJV). In this way, our life is a constant, active walking and pursuit of Christ and His will for our lives, and we must choose the path of righteousness and walk in the direction of the Spirit's leading (Gal. 5:16).