Many Christians have a basic desire to live a holy life, but have come to believe they simply cannot do it. They have struggled for years with particular sins or deficiencies of character. While not living in gross sin, they have more or less given up ever attaining a life of holiness and have settled down to a life of moral mediocrity with which neither they nor God are pleased. The promise of Romans 6:6–7 seems impossibly beyond them. The strong commands of Scripture to live a consistently holy life only frustrate them.
Many have sought to live a holy life by their own willpower; others have sought it solely by faith. Many have agonized in prayer over particular sins, seemingly without success. Scores of books have been written to help us discover the “secret” of the “victorious life.”
In our search for answers to our sin problems, a troublesome question arises: “What should I look to God for and what am I responsible for myself?” Many are confused at this point. When we first start to live the Christian life, we confidently assume we will simply discover from the Bible what God wants us to do and start doing it. We fail to reckon with our tendency to cling to our old sinful ways.
After experiencing a great deal of failure with our sinful nature, we are told that we have been trying to live the Christian life in the energy of the flesh. We need to “stop trying and start trusting,” or to “let go and let God.” We are told that if we just turn our sin problem over to Christ and rest in His finished work on Calvary, He will then live His life in us and we will experience a life of victory over sin.
Having experienced failure and frustration with our sin problem, we are delighted to be told that God has already done it all and that we only need to rest in Christ’s finished work. After struggling with our sins to the point of despair, this new idea is like a life preserver to a drowning man, almost like hearing the Gospel for the first time.
But after a while, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we discover we are still experiencing defeat at the hands of our sinful natures. The victory seemingly promised us still eludes us. We still struggle with pride, jealousy, materialism, impatience, and lust. We still eat too much, waste our time, criticize each other, shade the truth just a little, and indulge in a dozen other sins, all the time hating ourselves for doing them.
Then we wonder what is wrong. “Why can’t I,” we ask ourselves, “experience the victory described in all the books that others seem to have experienced?” We begin to feel that something is uniquely wrong with us, that somehow our sinful natures must be worse than others. Then we begin to despair.
Years ago a fellow Christian warned me that Satan would try to confuse us on the issue of what God has done for us and what we must do ourselves. I have come to see the insight he had in making that statement. Lack of understanding on that issue has led to great confusion in our pursuit of holiness. It is very important that we make this distinction; for God has indeed made provision for us to live a holy life, but He also has given us definite responsibilities.
Let us first look at God’s provision for us.
In the Bible we read, “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (Romans 6:12). The first thing we should notice in this passage is that the pursuit of holiness—this not allowing sin to reign in our mortal bodies—is something we have to do. Paul’s statement is one of exhortation. He addressed himself to our wills. He said, “Do not let sin reign,” implying that this is something for which we ourselves are responsible. The experience of holiness is not a gift we receive like justification, but something which we are clearly exhorted to work at.
The second thing to note from Paul’s exhortation is that it is based on what he had just said. Note the connecting word therefore. Clearly he meant to say something like, “In view of what I have just said, do not let sin reign in your mortal body.” To state it another way, we are to pursue holiness because certain facts are true.
What are these facts?
Let us take a look at Romans 6. In answer to the question “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” Paul said, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (verses 1–2). Then Paul developed that idea (verses 3–11). It is evident that the word therefore (verse 12) refers back to this fact that we died to sin. Because we died to sin, we are not to let it reign in our mortal bodies.
If we are to obey the exhortation of verse 12, it is vital that we understand what Paul means by the expression we died to sin. As we read this passage, the first thing we observe is that our dying to sin is the result of our union with Christ (verses 2–11). Because He died to sin, we died to sin. Therefore, it is apparent that our dying to sin is not something we do, but something Christ has done, the value of which accrues to all who are united with Him.
The second observation we can make is that our dying to sin is a fact whether we realize it or not. Because Christ died to sin, all who are united with Him died to sin. Our dying to sin is not something we do, or something we make come true in our experience by reckoning it to be so. Some have misunderstood this point. We have gotten the idea that to have died to sin means to somehow be removed from sin’s ability to touch us. However, to experience this in our daily lives we are told we must reckon ourselves dead to sin (verse 11, KJV). We are further told that if we are not experiencing victory over our besetting sins, it is because we are not reckoning on the fact that we died to sin.
We are indeed to reckon—or to count or consider—ourselves dead to sin, but our reckoning does not make it true, even in our experience. Verses 11 and 12 must be taken together. Because we are dead to sin through our union with Christ, we are not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies. Our daily experience with regard to sin is determined—not by our reckoning, but by our will—by whether we allow sin to reign in our bodies. But our will must be influenced by the fact that we died to sin.
Bridges, Jerry. 1978. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs: Navpress.
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