There are popular Christian books touting the possibility of living “the victorious Christian life,” promising “the very best” that life can offer. While God does bless His people with great blessing (Psalm 103:2-5), the Christian life is also a struggle against sin. There is a false impression that salvation will automatically bring a victorious life to believers. That is not true. Every Christian, regardless of age or spiritual maturity, struggles against sin. One of the most interesting passages in the New Testament is where the apostle Paul confesses about his personal struggle against sin. He admits that he does not do the things he wants to do (sins of omission), and even worse, he often does the things he does not want to do (sins of commission) (Romans 7:15). “For the good that I would do, I don’t do, but the evil that I would not do, that I do” (Romans 7:19). You should know by now, if you are a Christian, that you are also struggling against sin. Your flesh (along with the world and Satan) pushes and pulls you to do wrong. It is a struggle, often very difficult and sometimes painful, to fight back.
Dealing with Temptation
The Bible teaches the root of our sin comes from within. “Everyone is tempted,” James writes, “by his own lust” (James 1:14). The word tempted is in the present tense indicating that temptation is not a one-time event but something that is ongoing throughout the Christian life. The source of this temptation is inner sinful desire. Our personal cravings are the root of our sinfulness.1 This does not mean that experiencing temptation is, in itself, sinful. Temptation comes as the result of being human. Many of our desires are not even inherently sinful such as air to breathe or water to drink. Do not think that temptation is sin but that it leads to sin.
The Bible also teaches that we do not have to obey our inner desires. In 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul warns the Corinthian saints that they were in danger of temptation when it came to the sin of idolatry. Idolatry is a deadly serious. It violates the first commandment (“Thou shalt have no other gods before Me”), can involve immorality, and it is often associated with demons (1 Corinthians 10:5). The story that Paul refers to is recorded in Numbers 25. During their wilderness wandering, the Jews were invited by Moabite women to worship their false gods. Because they followed to Moabitesses into idolatry, roughly 23,000 Jews died in one day as part of God’s judgment. If the Corinthian believers followed their inner desire to worship the Roman and Greek gods, they would be in similar danger of God’s chastening. Paul writes that the story in Numbers was recorded as a warning for them (and us). We should never conclude that we can stand up against temptation on our own (1 Corinthians 10:12). Proverbs 16:18 warns that such pride leads to a fall, literally, to destruction. However, God does not leave us without any hope. Even though temptation (trial or test) is “common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13), God is faithful to help. He never allows us to be tempted beyond our ability to receive His help. Even though our hearts may desire something sinful, God will not allow the test to be greater than the spiritual strength He provides to resist. God provides by this a way out. The imagery is of someone lost in a desert canyon and in danger of death by exposure. He does not know the way through. God opens up a path to those Christians who want help freeing them from the danger introduced by their own desires.
Hand-to-hand combat requires three elements—speed, violence, and confidence (proficiency).2 The fight against sin requires the same kind of commitment. It must be radical. Here is how Jesus describes the necessary passion in the fight against sin. In Matthew 5, Jesus states that the offending body part should be amputated. “If you eye offends, pluck it out” (v. 29). “If you hand offends, cut it off” (v. 30) While Jesus is not teaching that His followers should actually gouge out their eyes and cut off their hands, He is teaching that this kind of radical commitment is necessary to fight against sin.
The Bible provides five measures in dealing with temptation. First, recognize that the world is not your friend. We live in a sinful world. It can appeal to the lust of our eyes, the lusts of our flesh, and the pride of life (1 John 2:15-17). As long as we breathe we cannot escape the world, but we can still reject the world and put as much distance between us and it. Second, take steps to cut off any avenue to sin. If Jesus encouraged the radical approach of cutting off a hand or gouging out an eye (Matthew 5:29-30), it is important that we adopt radical approaches against temptation. A man who is tempted to look at pornographic images on his computer should take steps to block such images (including ridding himself of a computer if need be).3 Third, utilize your resource—other Christians. We should confess our faults to each other (James 5:16). Keeping our sinful desires secret is not helpful. We might appear to be more “godly” than we are, but that initial impression will be ruined when our sins become public (and they will). Instead, we should be freely confessing our sin to each other (Proverbs 28:13). Many Christians find great peace in asking others to pray for them as they struggle against sin. It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. Fourth, be active in prayer. When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, He told His disciples to watch with Him in prayer. They fell asleep instead. Being wakened by Jesus, they still could not pray with Him. They fell asleep again. This happened a third time. The reason they were to pray with Jesus is so that they would not enter into temptation. The great moment of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was upon them and they would mostly abandon Him. What prayer would have done for them! Be active in prayer in order to stand against temptation. Finally, flee like Joseph. There may be times when you are in a moment of temptation. A certain sin is about to break upon you and destroy you. In that case, run as fast as you can. Do not just stand there and be destroyed. Run! Literally get out of there! This may involve actual physical movement of your body. Do not let yourself be captured by the sin. Joseph was lured by his master’s wife to sin but he fled from her presence (Genesis 39:12). He recognized that this was wickedness against God (v. 9). Do not just stand there at the moment of temptation.
The Long-Term Approach
These five things will help you deal with temptation in the short-term, but what is the long-term strategy for dealing with temptation? Unfortunately, many Christians (throughout Church history) have adopted one of the two wrong long-term approaches—legalism and licentiousness. These two wrong approaches are a lot like the driver of a car over-correcting in steering his car after hitting something in the road. These wrong approaches are like two ditches on either side of the road. The first of these ditches is legalism. Legalism is defined as attempting to gain favor with God through law-keeping. It is characterized by adhering to a rigid list of rules (the law). Freedom in Christ means total freedom from the law. There is no possible way that law and grace can coexist. If one is “under grace,”4 he cannot be also “under the law.” In the fight against sin, it is very easy to over-correct into the ditch of legalism by instituting a series of rules. The thinking goes something like this. If you can keep the rules, then you can prevent yourself from sinning. However, the Old Testament conclusively proved that man is incapable of keeping the Law. Even the greatest Pharisee broke the law of God (Romans 7:7). Legalism does not work.
The second ditch is licentiousness. Some Christians think: “Since I cannot keep the law perfectly, and I am no longer under the law anyway, so why struggle against sin at all?” Thus, they give into their sinful flesh and stop fighting against it. Licentiousness is the opposite of severe law-keeping. This is usually called antinomianism (literally, no law) because it assumes the Christian is free to do whatever he wants to do apart from the law. It is true that a Christian is no longer guilty under the law. But this does not mean that he should stop struggling against sin. Being saved by grace through faith does not permit us to live for sinful pleasures. Such an idea is the result of misunderstanding God’s grace. Grace is given to us so that we may no longer live in sin (Romans 6:1-2), not have a license to sin (Galatians 5:13). Of course, we have been set free from the penalty of sin. Jesus took our place for the punishment for our sin, and His righteousness has been given to us by faith. Grace does not mean that we have no relationship to the law. In fact, our new life Christ requires us to fulfill the law by loving others. Paul writes that the entire law can be summarized into one single command: “love others as you love yourself” (5:14).
The two ditches of legalism and licentiousness are both fleshly responses in the fight against sin. This is not how God designed Christians to react to sin. Because the flesh can never control the flesh (the answer to flesh is not more flesh), this approach never works. The answer to sin is the Holy Spirit. The only way to “walk” down God’s road (chapter 4) without falling into one of the two ditches (legalism and antinomianism/licentiousness) is to “walk” in the Spirit (the middle of the road). Paul writes confidently that someone who is presently ordering his life in the Spirit will not gratify his sinful desires. “This I say then, walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). This is one of the most important verses in the Bible about living the Christian life. God is the only One who can help us reject our sinful desires. Spirit-ruled Christians are those who learn how to fight against sin by giving up control over one’s own attitudes and actions to the guiding hand of the Spirit.
The means by which we “walk” the Christian life is to “walk” in the Spirit (as discussed in lesson 4). This is how we must fight against sin. When Christians are “walking” in the Spirit (filled with the Spirit by yielding control over the life to the Holy Spirit) they worship God properly (Ephesians 5:18b-20). Spirit-filled wives will respect their husbands. Spirit-filled husbands will love their wives as Jesus loved the Church (Ephesians 5:22-25). Spirit-filled children will learn to obey their parents. Spirit-filled parents will learn how to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-4). Spirit-filled employees will do their work faithfully whether seen or unseen because they serve their bosses as if they serve the Lord. Spirit-filled employers will run their offices differently from other companies because they know that they are simply servants of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 6:5-9).
The question many Christians have is: “How can I know that I am walking in the Spirit?” There is a universal spiritual principle that every Christian must learn. It is the principle of sowing and reaping. Whatever you sow (plant like a farmer planting a seed) into your life you will reap out of your life. This is true in all of life, but especially the spiritual life. If you sow to your flesh (carnal living) you will reap corruption (Galatians 6:8a). If you sow to the Spirit, you will reap life (Galatians 6:8b). Then you might ask: “How can someone ‘sow’ to the Spirit?” The answer to that comes from God’s Word. (1) Read and meditate on God’s Word. If you come to realize that the Holy Spirit is not controlling your life, read through the problem. That is, take out your Bible and begin to read. If you are struggling with fear or depression, read the Psalms. If you are struggling with sin, read Leviticus or Deuteronomy or portions of the Gospels. Psalms 32 and 51 are good words for repenting Christians. If you are having difficulty at church, read the Pauline epistles (Romans – Philemon). If you are going through a crisis, Job (Psalms again too) will be an especially comforting book. If you are a new believer, a good study Bible can help you navigate through some of the more difficult passages in the Bible. Do not stop reading your Bible until you know that the Holy Spirit is warming your heart. (2) Pray for God’s help. God does not refuse to hear a cry for help from one of His own children. Ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. Seek God’s wisdom. Yield up your situation to the Lord. Give it over to Him. Prayer is the means by which you wield the “sword of the Spirit” which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:18). Jesus told His disciples to pray so they would not enter into (fall to) temptation (Matthew 26:41). (3) Seek help at church. You might be encouraged through counseling from a pastor or accountability to a fellow church member. This is especially true if the sin you are struggling with is a life dominating sin such as addiction. Fellow Christians are there to help you (Galatians 6:1). There is a blessing in asking church leaders and fellow members to pray for you (James 5:14-15). (4) Don’t give up. Paul encourages the Galatian believers not to grow weary in their fight against sin (Galatians 6:9). Whatever your sin struggle may be, one of temptations is to give up. Don’t do it. Do not give up your fight against sin. The truly victorious Christian life is not a life of rest and comfort. It is a life of struggle. It is a life of continual conflict. Do not be lulled into thinking you can “arrive.” There is no “arriving” here on this earth. The conflict will only end when you “arrive” to be with God (1 John 3:2).
Personal Application Questions
- Are you struggling against sin right now? What sins are they? What are you doing about it?
- Think through the list of the “fruits” of the Spirit. Which of these fruits is obvious in your life? Which of them are not? Why not?
- Do you need to yield yourself to the Holy Spirit right now in some particular situation?
- Read Acts 4:23-37.
- What qualities of God’s nature do the apostles emphasize? How should we pray in similar situations?
- What request does the prayer make of God? (vv. 29-30)
- What two specific things occurred when the people were “filled” with the Holy Spirit? (Hint: the first thing is a direct answer to the prayer in v. 29)
- What is preventing you (choose from the four areas of help—Bible reading, prayer, church fellowship, constancy) from living a “Spirit-filled” life?
- How might the word “radical” influence you in these four areas?
1 See Mark 7:21. See also 1 Timothy 6:10
2 From the United State Marine Corps Martial Arts Program
3 But, the objection goes, he needs that computer for work. Find another job. But, the objection goes, the job he has pays for his house. Find a cheaper house. But, the objection goes, that’s too radical. Is that more radical than gouging out an eye?
4 Grace is considered a kind of law (Romans 6:14).