The paradoxical security of struggle

The Christian life is a new life: a re-created life. It is a life that God restores; a life that God renews. And when Christians receive this new life, they’re thrust into a war. Or maybe more accurately, they’re commissioned to fight in a war already raging, under a new King. It is a war against sin. Yet when many Christians first really feel this war – feel the power of sin in their hearts – they wonder if it means they’re not actually in Christ. Should someone who’s really a Christian struggle this much?

Do you ever feel this way? Do you doubt your salvation? If so, my prayer is that you’ll see that Jesus died, not just so that your sins would be forgiven, but that you would also have a strong confidence in Jesus’ saving grace. Assurance in salvation is a gift from God, for our joy and pleasure in this life. It is thus worth striving after.

There are a number of reasons why a person might doubt they are saved; but one I’ve heard frequently is the continued presence of sin, and the failure to subdue sinful thoughts, intentions, actions, even after repenting. While our personal experience can’t be the source of assurance, we actually can find assurance in God’s Word. That struggle with sin that seems evidence against our confidence in God may mean just the opposite.

Human Reality: The Naturalness of Sin

One particularly eerie moment of ancient history gives us insight into the nature of man. Cain and Abel were brothers, the sons of Adam and Eve (Gen 4:1-2a). They were different from each other: Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain was a worker of the ground (Gen 4:2b). The Bible records a day in which both of these men offered God a gift of their labor. We read that God “had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Gen 4:4-5a).

Regardless of why God responded this way, Cain jealously murdered his brother because of it. And while this material and earthly conflict is horrifying enough, God gives Cain a chilling warning before Cain kills his brother:

“Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it. (Gen 4:7)

Cain’s external conflict with his brother arose from a deep inner conflict. Sin salivated and yearned for control over Cain — and took him.

We too, like Cain and Abel, are not merely in danger of conflict with material things, but have the forces of evil against us, conspiring against us, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8). God’s warning to Cain points to a universal reality: all of mankind is born into a condition (Ps. 51:5), not one which is merely susceptible to sin, but one that is altogether ruled by it (John 8:34, Rom 6:17), as a servant to its desires (Rom 7:25). Although it is destructive and miserable, sin is utterly and inescapably natural. We shouldn’t be surprised by its presence.

Christian Reality: The Supernaturalness of Grace

Paul — Paul the apostle, Paul the missionary to the Gentiles, Paul the inspired author ofScripture — bemoans this reality.

“For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:22-24a, emphasis added)

Thousands of years later, sin is still at work. And Paul exemplifies for us a distinctly Christian response to this “Cainly” reality of sin. Instead of being unthinkingly ruled by sin, now we experience it “waging war” against us. What gives?   

It's simple: a Christian is one who delights in the law of God (Rom 7:22; Ps 1). And this delight in God and God’s word arises from grace (1 Timothy 1:14). Indeed, it is this grace, implanted by God — in Christ, through the Holy Spirit — in our souls, that sin seeks to extinguish. For grace is a foreign settler in sinful flesh. This explains the outrage of our “members” (our human self - v. 23) and their war against the spread of godliness! For before, there was nothing that threatened the extinction of sin in our hearts (Eph 2:1). Now, in Christ, there is.

The Logic of Spiritual War

How easily we forget this! In some cases, waging war is a sign of health. This war is evidence of God’s grace. Grace, for man, is unnautral, supernatural, a peculiar presence in midst of our sin. We forget that if we had no war with sin, it would be either because we are perfect (which is impossible) or we are overcome by sin and serving it.

Paul shows us how to struggle while keeping the right perspective. He notices this inner war — sin battling for authority over him (Rom. 7:22); he bemoans the wretched man that he is (Rom 7:24a); and then he cries, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24). In essence, “Who can assure me of my safety? Who will rescue me from this inner war? Who will give me salvation from all of the conniving sin?”

His answer: Jesus Christ (Rom. 7:25). Do you see where he's going? Continuing immediately into the next chapter, we read that in Jesus “[t]here is therefore, now no condemnation” (Rom 8:1)!

But wait ... why does Paul say “therefore?” Isn’t it odd that Paul switches from bemoaning this raging war and the frustration he experiences right into a confident vow of assurance —expecting no condemnation? What’s going on?

Paradoxically, the very fact that a war exists between Paul’s love for God and his love for sin, forces him to conclude that he is not condemned. It leads to security! In the midst of this violent soul-level revolution, Paul affirms that he is God’s adopted son (Rom 8:14-17), safely secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus. His wretchedness isn’t the end of the story. Rather, acknowledging his wretchedness, as well as Jesus’ solution to it, is a precondition for being assured!

Our Battle for Assurance

So could it be that your battle against sin is your battle for assurance? Are you unknowingly using what God offers you — a solid evidence of grace — as an instrument of doubt? In a sense, you can change tactics: you can war against sin in Christ and be assured in his deliverance! Ask the Holy Spirit to change your perspective. We know we’re not promised a sinless life on earth (1 John 1:8, 10); we’re promised war. Consider the words of J. I. Packer:

“Regeneration makes man’s heart a battlefield, where ‘the flesh’ (the old man) tirelessly disputes the supremacy of ‘the spirit’ (the new man). The Christian cannot gratify the one without interference of the other.”

So examine your heart. It may be that you are wrongly assured and need to confront sin more vehemently. Or maybe, you’re on your way to reaching your “desired haven weather-beaten and tempest-tossed, scarcely realizing [your] own safety, till [you] open [your] eyes in glory.”

To conclude, we must be careful. We cannot rest assured in our experiences of battling sin, for our experience is inconsistent and ever-changing. But we mustn't let the battles – even the losses – discourage us. Instead, let’s be diligent — like Paul — to see that our experience battling sin drives us to wholeheartedly surrender to the Lord. Jesus’ saving work alone, and his promise of future glory, is the only firm confidence our souls have to rest in. Satan would be wonderfully pleased if his battle against you forever induced doubt. God wants Satan's war against you to drive you to Christ.

As long as you’re on earth, you will be in a raging war; but you are more secure in the midst it, than you would be fleeing from it.