The Workings of our Remaining Sinful Nature

51Wtr7fGObL._SX358_BO1,204,203,200_ Those who have true faith have truly been given new life in Christ.  If a person believes in Christ, he or she has been “born of God” (1 John 5:1).  Regeneration means that someone who was dead in sin is now alive in Christ (Eph. 2:4-5).  However, new birth (regeneration) does not mean that the old sinful nature is completely gone.  True believers still struggle with indwelling sin (Gal. 5:17).  As Luther rightly said, the Christian is a saint and a sinner at the same time.

This means that when we stumble into sin, we can’t simply blame the devil or the world.  The devil can mess with us and the world can entice us, but we sin because we still have the “old man” in us, the “flesh.”  So how does this “old man” function in us?  W. Brakel (d. 1711) explained this well in his discussion on sanctification.  I’ll summarize it below:

  1. Sometimes the old nature stirs us up to sin by violent assaults.  The lusts are so agitated and are stirring so vehemently that there is no time to think upon the fear of God. Even if the fear of the Lord is present, the lust is so strong and forceful that any good inclinations are quickly extinguished.
  2. Sometimes the old nature seeks some rest and relaxation.  He begins to think upon natural things and the lusts of the flesh begin to stir, and the thoughts pertaining to natural things become sinful.  His mind wanders and he lusts, covets, or becomes proud.  He falls into more sin as the moment permits, or even to the degree he never thought himself capable of.
  3. Sometimes the old nature gains strength due to recklessness.  He puts himself into situations he knows will ensnare him, but he does it anyway.  The sin at hand gains the upper hand.  Contact with grease cannot but leave a stain (vetjes maken smetjes).
  4. The old sinful nature also is engaged in keeping us from doing good.  A) He makes us think there is no time to pray, read Scripture, sing, or meditate upon the word.  B) He makes us procrastinate and say we will do godly things later.  C) He makes us believe that doing good is too difficult and impossible to do.  D) He makes us think that doing good is in vain because God is not paying attention and it will not benefit us. E) He makes us compromisers by saying the path is not as narrow as we think.
  5. The old sinful nature also wants to keep us from doing good so he attempts to spoil that which is good.  A) He makes our thoughts wander.  B) He distracts us by making us think about a good thing that isn’t applicable to the situation. C) He causes us to be proud of doing good, and the purity of the duty is contaminated.  D) He causes us to think we do not have the Spirit.  E) His atheism and unbelief surface and it ruins the good with evil.

Why is this important?  For one thing, it helps us as Christians to know ourselves.  We can’t point fingers and blame others for our sinful words, thoughts, and actions (Ps. 51:3-4).  It also keeps us truly humble to know we still have the old man of sin dwelling in us.  It helps us stay near the cross, where we receive continual cleansing from Jesus’ blood.  It makes us constantly confess our sins to God.  It makes us all the more dependent upon the Holy Spirit to give the new man strength in the battle.  It teaches us that God gets all the credit for any good in us or anything good we do in his sight.  Realizing that our old man remains in us also makes us long for heaven, when sanctification will be complete and we will be fully delivered from our remaining sinful flesh.  And the list goes on.  Paul put it this way: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body?  I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom 7:24-25 HCSB).

The above edited and summarized quote is found in volume three of Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, p. 9-11.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Talking To A Fellow Christian About His or Her Sin (Welch)

Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love Christians are not loners who plow through life by themselves – at least they shouldn’t go it alone!  Since we believe in the fellowship of the saints, there are times when one Christian has to talk to another Christian about his or her sin.  If it is done out of love, if it follows biblical patterns (e.g. Mt. 18), and if it is aimed at repentance, restoration, and spiritual growth, talking to a fellow Christian about sin is a blessing.  It’s not easy and it does sometimes sting, but it is a good thing!  Here is some advice from Ed Welch on talking to a fellow Christian about his or her sin.  He says we need to do so with humility and patience:

Humility means that we already see our sins as worse than others’ sins, so we have no reason to defend ourselves when someone points out our sin (Mt. 7:2-5).  This does not mean that we must publicly identify our own sins before we talk about sins in others.  It means that we live as redeemed tax collectors (Luke 18:9-14) who have no confidence in our own righteousness but live because of God’s lavish forgiveness and grace.

Welch is exactly right.  If we have any sort of arrogance or pride when we confront a brother or sister about their sin, the discussion will usually go downhill rather quickly.  Have you ever had an arrogant person point out your flaws or shortcomings?  It’s not easy to hear since it sounds like what it is: someone who thinks he’s better than you reminding you that you’re beneath him.  Here’s Welch again:

“Patience is humility’s partner.  It is one of the identified fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), and it is a central feature of love (1 Cor. 13:4), so it is essential to our ability to be helpful.  It means that the one we are speaking with is like us – he does not respond perfectly, he changes slowly, and he needs a patient helper.  …Patience is interested in what direction people face.  Do they face toward Jesus?  Patience is more interested in direction and less interested in how fast people are changing.

Again, this is helpful.  Sometimes iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17) takes more than a few days!  In other words, sanctification doesn’t happen overnight.  Sometimes God works slowly in a person’s heart and mind, so we need to be patient with God’s timing.  Granted, there are exceptions to this (if someone is physically in danger, for one example), but generally it is very wise to be patient as we talk to another Christian about his or her sin.  God is patient with us, so of course, we should be patient with one another!

The above quotes are from chapter 15 of Side By Side.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

 

Causes of Spiritual Decline (Newton)

Sadly, there is such a thing as backsliding in the Christian life.  It’s also called wandering from the path of following Jesus.  Indeed, we are prone to wander!  There are various reasons why Christians do sometimes wander or backslide.  We could put it in the form of a question: What are some of the causes of spiritual decline in the Christian life?  John Newton gave a few helpful answers.  I’ll summarize them below:

  1. One of the chief causes of spiritual decline is error.  There are some errors that may be compared to poison.  Thus the Galatians, by listening to false teachers, were seduced from the simplicity of the gospel.  The consequence was that they quickly lost the blessedness they had once spoken of.  Poison is seldom taken alone, but if it is mixed with food, it is not suspected until it is discovered by the effect.  Whoever is prevailed upon to believe what is false, though it is mixed with the truth, is already infected with a disease; and his religion, unless the Lord mercifully interposes, will degenerate into either licentiousness or formality.  [We live in a day when too many people are tossed to and fro by various winds of doctrine.  Therefore those who want what is best for their own souls must be on their guard against that spirit of curiosity and adventure, which the apostle describes as having itching ears – which is a desire of hearing every new and novel teaching.]
  2. Spiritual pride and a high regard for self is also a cause for spiritual decline.  Even if a person believes right doctrine and has experienced the power of the gospel, pride causes spiritual decline.  If our knowledge and gifts give us a good opinion of ourselves, as if we were wise and good, we are already ensnared and in danger of falling with every step we take unless the Lord mercifully interposes by restoring us to a spirit of humility and dependence.  It is the invariable law of his kingdom that everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.  We have nothing but what we have received from God, and therefore to be proud of titles, wealth, or any temporal advantages we enjoy by the providence of God, is sinful.
  3. A third prevailing cause for spiritual decline is an inordinate desire and attachment to the things of the world, or worldliness.  Unless this evil principle be mortified in its root, by the doctrine of the cross, it will in time prevail over the most splendid profession.  The love of the world manifests itself in two different ways.  The first is covetousness or greed, which can be seen in Judas and Demas.  The second is not hoarding, but squandering money under the power of a worldly spirit.  In whatever degree the love of the world prevails, the health of the soul will proportionably decline.

Newton does say quite a bit more about these three causes for spiritual decline, and he gives a few others as well.  He shared them – as I’m sharing them – to help Christians avoid and fight spiritual decline: “It is sometimes said that the knowledge of a disease amounts to half a remedy.”  This is the case in spiritual decline as well: if you and I do suffer from any of these “diseases,” thankfully we can go to the Great Physician for help and cure!

This entire essay, called On a Decline in the Spiritual Life, is found in volume 6 of Newton’s Works.

Shane Lems

 

Death to the Legalist (in Me)!!

  “Through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God” (Gal. 2:19 NASB).  “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Gal. 5:18 NASB).  In Reformed theology, these words are taken to mean that the believer is not under the law as a covenant of works, demanding obedience upon the pain of curse and death.  Because of what Jesus has done, we’re not under the law for justification nor are we under its curse for our sin.  Like Thomas Boston said, Christians are neither under the law’s commanding power nor its condemning power.  Boston also noted that since the Christian is not completely sanctified, sometimes the Christian sadly believes he or she is still under the law’s demands:

“In the best of the children of God here, there are such remains of the legal disposition and inclination of heart to the way of the covenant of works, that as they are never quite free of it in their best duties, so at sometimes their services smell so rank of it, as if they were alive to the law, and still dead to Christ.”

That’s true.  Sometimes Christians think they are or act as if they are still under the law, so they believe their obedience will make God love them more.  Or they think their disobedience makes God love them less.  They are then terribly frustrated by their failures and try harder to obey God only to fail and feel worse.  Or they deceive themselves and think they’ve succeeded in obedience and thus becoming proud.  They think they are still under the law and they act like it.  Boston:

“And sometimes the Lord for their correction, trial, and exercise of faith, suffers the ghost of the dead husband, the law, as a covenant of works, to come in upon their souls and make demands on them, command, threaten, and affrighten them, as if they were alive to it, and it to them.  And it is one of the hardest pieces of practical religion, to be dead to the law in such cases.  This death to it admits of degrees, is not alike in all believers, and is perfect in none till the death of the body.”

In God’s fatherly discipline, sometimes he allows the Christian to think he or she is under the law.  It’s tough, but he does this to show them not to trust in themselves or their works but in Jesus.  Boston is right: Christians are dead to the law, but we don’t always live that truth consistently because we still struggle with sin.  It has to do with sanctification.  The more God grows us in grace, the less we view ourselves under a covenant of works.  As we are gradually sanctified, the legalist in us gradually dies.  Remember what Boston and others have noted: the remedy for a legal spirit is not antinomianism, but the gospel of grace.  God loves you in Christ with a steadfast, unchangeable love.  Rest in that truth!

The above quote is found on page 176 of the Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

 

Specific Aspects of Self-Denial (Brakel)

Self-denial is a big part of what it means to follow Jesus.  On several occasions, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24 NIV).   Self-denial is something that doesn’t come easily since even as Christians we still struggle with our sinful nature that is very self-focused.  So we need grace, guidance, and the Spirit’s work to help us deny ourselves and follow Christ.  Dutch Reformed theologian Wilhelmus a Brakel (d. 1711) discussed self-denial in a chapter of his systematic theology called, The Christian’s Reasonable Service.  Here’s a section of it that I really appreciate.  I’ve edited it for length.

“[In self-denial] there must be a denial of the old Adam in general with all his motions and desires.”

  1. Specifically, one must deny his natural and darkened intellect.  We must renounce this corrupt intellect and not give heed to or follow it. “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5 NIV).
  2. We must deny our own will.  Man wants to have his own way – no matter what the cost.  He wants to do whatever pleases him, and he says, ‘Who is lord over me?’  But we remember what Jesus said, ‘not my will’ (Mt. 26:39), and he teaches us to pray, ‘Thy will be done’ (Mt. 6:10).
  3. We must deny our inclinations.  Natural man is empty and desires to be filled.  He does not know God as the all-sufficient One and he has no desire after God.  His passions therefore focus on the creature and he says to whoever appears to be capable of entertaining him, ‘be thou my satisfaction.’  However, we must not yield to such inclinations.  ‘Dearly beloved, I beseech you…abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul’ (1 Pet. 2:11).
  4. We must deny our own honor.  There is no sin more common to man and more deeply rooted in the heart than a desire to be honored.  In all that he does he has honor in view.  Such an objective and such a desire we must purge ourselves of.  ‘Let us not become conceited’ (Gal. 5:26 NIV); ‘do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.’ (Phil. 2:3 NIV).
  5. We must deny our desire for possessions.  Man’s corrupt nature focuses on the physical.  He desires to possess much, puts his trust in it, and determines to live from it.  A person who denies himself, however, is satisfied with necessities and purges himself of a desire to have much.  If he does not have much, he is well satisfied; if he prospers, he does not set his heart up on it (1 Tim. 6:8-9).
  6. We must deny our friends.  Man will very readily cleave to another person who either loves or pleases him.  Father, mother, children, husband, or wife are very dear to the heart.  God commands appropriate love in the second table of the law; however, we so readily make an idol of them, and rely upon and put our trust in them.  The person who denies himself purges himself of such inordinate cleaving – particularly if it draws him away from the practice of religion and profession of faith in Jesus.  ‘Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (Mt. 10:37 NIV).
  7. We must deny our life.  It is the duty of a Christian to preserve his life.  To cleave to it, however, as if it were tantamount to salvation and felicity itself, and thus to quake and tremble when thinking about death – this kind of cleaving comes from ignorance, lack of faith, or a condemning conscience.  A Christian must therefore not be so attached to his life, but by faith commend it into the hands of his Father and rest in this.  ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple’ (Lk. 14:26 NIV).

The entire section is found in volume three of Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, pages 400-402.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Good That I Was Afflicted? (Newton)

Sometimes during a hard and heavy trial there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.  Just when you think the trial may be going away like a storm passing, just when you think the sun might finally be coming out, another dark cloud blows in and the trial is back – sometimes with a vengeance.  That’s when you think, “What’s it all worth?”  That’s when you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning.  That’s when tears come at random during the day.  That’s when you can sort of understand why people might want to just give up and die.

God’s promises speak to this.  Although they don’t take the storm of trial away, they do provide shelter during the storm of trial.  God’s promises don’t always immediately show us the light at the end of the tunnel, but they do give us a firm reminder that there is a Light at the end of it!  God’s promises give us reason to get up and go on with life by his grace and strength.  John Newton talked about this well in a letter he wrote to a Christian friend facing a hard trial.  These words are for all Christians facing affliction:

“Many are the trials and exercises we must expect to meet within our progress; but this one consideration outweighs them all: the Lord is on our side.  And if he be for us, none can be against us to harm us.  In all these things we shall be more than conquerors through him that loved us. Afflictions, though not in themselves joyous, but grievious, yet, when sanctified, are among our choice mercies.  In due time they shall yield the peaceful fruits of righteousness, and even at present they shall surely be attended with seasonable and sufficient supports.”

“One great desire of the believer is to understand the great word of God more and more; and one principal means by which we advance in this knowledge is the improvement we are enabled to make of our daily trials.  The promises are generally made to an afflicted state, and we could not taste their sweetness, nor experience their truth, if we were not sometimes brought into the circumstances to which they relate.  It is said, ‘I will be with them in trouble’; but how could we know what a mercy is contained in these words unless trouble was sometimes our lot?  It is said to be the believer’s privilege to glory in tribulation.  But we never could know that this is possible unless we had tribulation to glory in.”

“However, this is a matter of joy and glory indeed, to find peace and comfort within when things are disagreeable and troublesome without.  Then we are enabled to set our seal that God is true, then we learn how happy it is to have a refuge that cannot be taken from us, a support that is able to bear all the weight we can lay upon it, a spring of joy that cannot be stopped by any outward events.”

“A great part of the little we know of our God – his faithfulness, compassion, his readiness to hear and answer our prayers, his wisdom in delivering and providing when all our contrivances fail, and his goodness in overruling everything to our soul’s good – I say, much of what we know of these things we learned in our trials, and have therefore reason to say, ‘It was good for us to be afflicted’ (Ps. 119:71).”

And, as the Lord has brought us safe through thus far, we have good ground to trust him to the end.  We know not what is before us.  Perhaps we may meet greater difficulties by and by than we have ever yet seen.  But if we keep in mind who has delivered us from the lion and the bear, we may face the Philistine also without terror.  God will be with us, and strengthen us with strength in our souls.  It is our wisdom to keep close to him, that, when the evil day comes, we may have confidence before him in all our troubles.”

John Newton, Works Volume 6, p. 35-6.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Motives at Work in Sexual Sin (Powlison)

Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken by [Powlison, David] Last week I mentioned David Powlison’s forthcoming book, Making All Things New.  Today I want to highlight part of it that is quite helpful in thinking of the nuts and bolts of sexual sin, whether it be adultery, pornography, homosexuality, or lust (and so on).  Below are various motives at work in sexual sin, which I’ve edited for length.  These motives are helpful for those who are fighting lust and other sexual sins:

  1. Angry desires for revenge.  Sexual acting out can be a way to express anger.  I once counseled a couple who had committed backlash adulteries.  They had a big fight, and the man angrily went out and hired a prostitute.  In retaliatory anger, the women went out and seduced her husband’s best friend.  The erotic pleasure wasn’t necessarily the driving force; anger was.  Though it’s rarely that dramatic, anger frequently plays a role in immorality.  A teenager finds sex a convenient way to rebel against and to hurt morally upright parents.  A man cruises down the internet after he and his wife exchange words….
  2. Longings to feel loved, approved, affirmed, or valued through romantic attention.  Consider the situation of a lonely and unattractive teenage girl who doesn’t necessarily enjoy sex.  Why does she sleep around?  It’s not because she longs for erotic pleasure.  She sleeps around in order to feed her consuming desire to have someone care for her romantically and pay attention to her.  It makes her feel loved.  She is enslaved by the desire to get attention and affirmation.  This is an extreme case, perhaps, but many people become sexually active at a young age because they feel pressure to be acceptable, they don’t want to be rejected, and they desire attention.  Sexual behavior can be an instrument in the hands of non-sexual cravings.
  3. Thrilling desires for the power and excitement of the chase.  Some people enjoy the sense of power and control over another person’s sexual response.  The flirt, the tease, the seducer are not motivated solely by sexual desires.  Deeper evil desires are at work than just sex – the thrill and rush that comes with being able to manipulate the romantic-erotic arousal of another.
  4. Anxious desire for money to meet basic survival needs.  Sex makes lots of money for lots of people.  The desire for money is greater than the desire for sex in this case.  One difficult example is the case of a single mother who was in desperate need of money.  Her sleazy landlord offered her free rent in return for sexual favors.  (Thankfully, this woman refused and her church family ended up helping her financially.)
  5. Distorted messianic desire to help another person.  Sometimes people play the rescuer-savior and they sleep with someone because they feel sorry for that person’s loneliness, rejection, and abandonment.  It is a sexual sin, but it is fueled by a warped desire to be helpful, admired, and to “save” a person.
  6. Desires for relief and rest amid the pressures of life.  Sexual sin often serves as an escape valve for other problems.  Consider a man who faces extreme pressures in the workplace.  He and his team pull a few all nighters to get an important project done.  They make it and he goes home completely exhausted.  But he finds no relief in having the project done.  So he revels in pornography and forgets his troubles.  Lust is at work, but there’s more to it.  He is looking for rest, and he sinfully finds it in erotic pleasure.
  7. Indifference, cynicism, ‘Who cares?’, ‘What’s the use?‘.  A single student – a Christian – once confessed that she slept with a co-worker.  She was working late and was tired after a long shift.  She had no accountability that night and was somewhat attracted to her co-worker.  He invited her over, and with a “what does it matter?” attitude, she accepted and sinned by sleeping with him.  This is the sin of acedia – sloth, giving up, spiritual laziness, not caring, saying ‘whatever.”

There are, of course, other reasons why people fall into sexual sins.  The point Powlison was making is that “sexual sin is symptomatic.  It expresses that deeper war for the heart’s loyalty.  We’ve looked at a handful of different ways the deeper war operates.  There are other dynamics, too!  But I hope this primes the pump so you learn to recognize more of what’s going on inside when red-letter sins make an appearance.”

The above-edited quotes are found in  David Powlison, Making All Things New, p. 80-87.

Shane Lems