In his book Comrades, Stephen Ambrose writes this about warfare:
Combat requires all the nerves, all the physical attributes, every bit of the training. It is only in combat, nowhere else, where time is measured in other ways than by clocks or calendars. Only in combat does the soldier realize that he is in the worst situation that can ever be imagined, that nothing else can compare to it, that the longer he stays where he is the more likely that he will be dead, or if he is extremely lucky he will be wounded. Only in combat is one in a position in which youngsters his age he doesn’t know, has never met, are trying to kill him — and he is trying to kill them.
Combat is deadly. Someone will die. The combatant must neutralize through surrender, capture and imprison, or put to death his enemy. And if he does not do those things, his enemy will do them to him. Life is on the line in warfare.
The same things might be said about the process of sanctification. The believer in Christ is a combatant who must war against remaining sin in the flesh. And as long as he lives, even as mature as he becomes, he will always have this fight against the flesh. That’s Paul’s lament, warning, and exhortation in Romans 7:14-25. Every believer’s life is a battle against remaining sin.
And while it might seem overwhelming (Paul also felt that weight, when he cried, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from this body of death?” Rom. 7:24), there is also much encouragement to be found in the midst of the battle, as this passage either directly teaches or implies.
First of all, if you don’t feel the tension of remaining sin and the weariness of wrestling with sin, it may be because you are not a believer. And if that is your situation, you must repent and trust in Christ as your Savior from sin. Believe that He can free you from sin and believe that living for Him is better than living for sin. This is hopeful because believing in Him will result in a transformed life.
Secondly, the one who struggles with sin is generally giving indication of salvation. Only a believer hates sin. Only a believer desires to do good for the glory of God. As one pastor tweeted a couple of days ago, “A Christian may feel so low he feels very near hell…Yet he will never go there. Likewise…A self-righteous person may feel so exalted he feels close to heaven… Yet he will never go there.” [Jesse Johnson] So if you are fighting against sin and even frustrated with the fight, then be encouraged that this is almost certainly a clear indicator of your salvation and changed heart.
Thirdly, the battle against sin in the life of the believer is not unusual. It’s the norm. Yes, we have Christ, but we also have remaining sin. Nothing unusual has happened to you if you are battling against sin. Remaining sin in the life of the believer is not only typical, it should be expected. Sin is the reality for every believer. (And it is not a sign that you are weaker than some “super Christian.”) Every growing and mature believer you see is a battling believer; there are no mature, unfighting believers.
Fourthly, the spiritual life is a process, not an event. We would rather not go through the process, but there is no shortcut to spiritual maturity. It will take time and not all sin will be completely removed from your life, yet there is also some victory in the fight. And with that we should also remember that while not all sin will be removed, there will be seasons when you go for periods — even long periods — without sinning in some areas or even feeling the pull of temptation. Romans 7:14-25 does not mean a believer sins all the time; in fact, if he has been justified by Christ and inhabited by the Spirit, he should expect that he will be putting off sin and growing in Christlikeness to some extent (and generally, growing significantly). Rather, this passage is given as an explanation of what is happening to a believer when he does sin.
Remember also that the presence of some remaining sin is a kind of grace in our lives, because it makes us dependent on Christ and stimulates us to turn to him for help. It makes us realize that our righteousness is an alien righteousness — a righteousness that is outside of ourselves and outside our ability. How will I ever know the sufficiency of His grace except that I have need of that grace every day in my fight against sin?
Fifthly, while it is a struggle to fight against sin, fight against sin (e.g., 1 Pt. 2:11; 1 Tim. 1:18). Don’t give up in the struggle. It’s worth the struggle. It’s worth the fight. No one will stand before God’s throne and regret one sin he gave up; no one will regret one ounce of energy expended against sin and temptation.
Sixthly, always remind yourself of the devastation of sin. Sin is never for your benefit; sin is always to your detriment and sorrow and destruction. Remember that as with Cain, sin is always crouching and awaiting to destroy people (Gen. 4:7; Rom. 7:21). And Satan is not offering liberty and freedom; he is coming to destroy — and the sin he offers in enticement is death (1 Pt. 5:8-9).
Finally, your battle against sin is more than a battle against what you do. It is a battle for the mind (Rom. 7:23, 25). The flesh is warring against what is in the inner man. And if we are going to win the war against sin, it is going to require that our minds are changed and that our affections are redirected toward submission to Christ. Fight against sin by putting godly structures in place. But even more, fight against sin by addressing sin at the level of your desires and longings and places of refuge. If you will win against sin, your desire for satisfying Christ is going to have to defeat your desire for indulgence.
If you are in Christ Jesus and have been saved by Him, yes, you are in a fight for your sanctification. It will take every ounce of energy and strength you have to fight. But if you persist, you will never be disappointed.