Question: I'm new to your site, and you seem knowledgeable, and I have been struggling with living a truly victorious Christian life for years now and I don't understand it. I've prayed the sinner's prayer countless times down through the years, and because I am a member of a church that emphasizes "entire sanctification" over and against the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I have then, as a consequence, asked for the second blessing holiness experience also countless times. I'm tired of living this way. I feel like a cloud without rain, and a marginal Christian. I fail God every day and hate myself as a result! Am I one of those that has the form of godliness but that lacks the power thereof? There's so much more that I could add, but I feel certain that should be enough to obtain an answer. Thank you.
Response: Dear Friend, Greetings in Jesus Christ. From your e-mail it seems to me that there are two issues you are struggling with here. The first is personal sin. Let me assure you that we are all sinners (Rom.3:23; 5:12), and that Christ has died for all of our sins and redeemed us from them (Col.1:14). It is true that we have been called to sanctification (Heb.12:14), but it is absolutely wrong, dangerous, and even blasphemous to say or imply that we have now become sinlessly perfect – or ever could (1Jn.1:8-10). Since from your question you seem to me to be more concerned with a second issue, namely, that of measuring your personal "victory" against true biblical standards, I will focus on that aspect of your e-mail and confine myself as regarding the first issue to a short quotation from Bible Basics part 3B: Hamartiology: the Biblical Study of Sin:
As believers, we need to understand and embrace the forgiveness of sins we have received by faith in Christ, and we also need to understand that even as we strive to turn away from sin, we will, in this life, ever have need of God's continuing mercy in the forgiveness of the transgressions we commit after salvation – and we need to embrace that forgiveness. For the unbeliever, the issue is simple: forgiveness of sins – without which condemnation is assured – can come only through faith in the One who died for those sins. For the believer, the issue is more complex: having been redeemed from sin by the saving work of Jesus Christ, we are called to walk in the newness of life which rejects sin, but because we still inhabit the same bodies of sin we had before salvation, we will stumble from time to time (even though we have been called to holiness which, by definition, eschews sin: 1Pet.1:13-19). Therefore believers need to have a thorough understanding of the issue of sin, for on the one hand we must accept the fact of our imperfection without ceasing to strive for perfection, and on the other hand we must rejoice over the continued forgiveness available to us when we sin without at the same time ever becoming complacent about sin. As Christians, we need to learn to be truly repentant for our sins without at the same time being wracked with inordinate guilt about them, overlooking the love and mercy of God in the forgiveness He promises (God does love us; He does, forgive us; Jesus died for us; and the discipline we experience as a result of straying from Him merely proves His immense care and concern for our welfare). At the same time, while we are confident in the continued forgiveness of our sins, we need to learn to avoid allowing that confidence to build into apathy or arrogance, overlooking God's righteous character and the godly fear it should engender for all who have accepted the call to holiness and sanctification as believers in Jesus Christ (just as we would never have assumed that the love of our earthly fathers meant that we could do whatever we might wish, no matter how disobedient, without any consequences). This two-edged principle embodies a high standard, one which is impossible to fulfill without a solid grounding in what the Bible has to say about all aspects of sin. (see Bible Basics part 3B: Hamartiology: the Biblical Study of Sin)
Now let me turn to the second issue of how we are to measure our spiritual success, our "victory", once we have set ourselves to sanctification in a realistic, biblical way. In addressing this second issue, let me start by saying that I firmly believe that all true Christians have the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:9 says that if anyone does not have Christ's Spirit, that person does not belong to Him. Yet there are many in the Church who feel that things just "aren't working for them", and they take that to mean that there is some serious spiritual problem to blame, that they don't really have the Spirit, for example. But I would say that we know from God's loving character, from the blessed gift of His Son, from our Lord Jesus' gift of Himself on the cross, and from everything we read in the Bible, that, no matter what our eyes may tell us, God is providing us with all the resources we need, including His Spirit. Once we accept that God is not the problem, we may then come to the conclusion that we are somehow "letting God down" if we are being taught that only "prosperity" follows in the footsteps of a truly "victorious" life for the Lord.
There is, in my considered view, a mis-impression about the Christian life that is rampant in our high-prosperity society, to wit, that once someone becomes a Christian, then everything gets "rosy", troubles disappear, and prosperity follows. And if it doesn't happen that way, well then, we must be doing something wrong (what IS wrong with us?!). Such teaching is at odds with everything the Bible teaches and with every example of believers in the Bible who are truly living for God. Indeed, things are often quite the opposite. Jesus told us that we should "count the cost" before committing ourselves to Him (Lk.14:28). Why? Because being a Christian is not easy, and living for Jesus (as opposed to initially putting our faith in Him) is not something that can be accomplished in moment or with a single decision. No, being a Christian is walking after Christ, and we know that He carried His cross from the first day to the last. Things didn't get easier for Him - they got progressively tougher. This was also true of Paul, of Peter, of John. Job was tested to extremes late in his experience as believer. In short, we get to the kingdom of heaven through personal tribulations, and these are sometimes of an extreme nature (Acts 14:22; 1Thes.3:4; 1Pet.4:12). Furthermore, suffering for Jesus Christ is not only a normal Christian experience, it is a privilege given to those who are actually growing in Him, walking with Him, and working for Him (Phil.1.29; cf. Rom.8:17; 2Cor.1:5; 4:10; Gal.6:17; Phil.3:10; Col.1:24; 1Pet.4:13). This doesn't mean that our lives are cursed. Quite the contrary, it means that they are blessed, and blessed beyond what the world could ever perceive or understand. For along with the sufferings of Christ, we enjoy fellowship with Jesus Christ, and the comfort of His Holy Spirit (2Cor.1:3-7). If we are truly walking with Jesus, then we can enjoy the hard times along with the good. For in the good times we appreciate the fact that our Lord is the One who provides them, and in the hard times we have the opportunity of enjoying a special fellowship with Him and encouragement from His Spirit that is wonderful beyond the mundane pleasures of this temporary world. As believers in Jesus, we "count it all joy" in hardships because for us it is joy to be doing our Lord's will on this battlefield, and such suffering serves to confirm our obedience and success (Jas.1:2-5)!
There is no victory without faithfully engaging in the struggle such spiritual warfare requires. But this is not the sort of stuff that most people want to hear. Therefore many groups have taken to preaching the "health and wealth" scenario. Besides the fact that it is dead wrong and anti-biblical, such teaching also suffers from the severe disadvantage of creating horribly wrong and unattainable expectations. If I expect that things are always going to be happy and wonderful in the world's terms as I progress in my Christian experience, and instead I run into hardship and difficulty, then I end up not only being depressed, but also blaming myself, even if I am in reality doing everything right. Furthermore, this misinterpretation completely misses the point of what we are supposed to be doing here on this battlefield of the devil's world. We are here as witnesses to Jesus who is the truth, and the power of Him and His truth in us can and should make us the sort of people who walk through this world as if they were not of it, who show by their every action and choice that Jesus is more important to them than this world or anything in it. We are supposed to be advancing forward in the cause of Jesus Christ, through whatever shot and shell comes our way. This does not happen by accident. We cannot sit in our foxhole and win the war. We have to get up, get out, take the flak, and meet the enemy head-on if we expect to achieve the victory of which you speak. And we cannot expect such victories to come without opposition.
What that means in terms of real-world application is that we have to continue persevere in the face of personal tribulations. The devil and his minions are not likely to let us do our Lord's will without a fight. But in spite of all resistance, we have to continue to grow up spiritually, and learn to put to use and to apply the truth that helped us grow up in the first place. We have to read the Bible, and not only that, we have to understand it (this requires teaching as well as reading), and we have to believe it, really believe the truth of what scripture tells us. But the job is still not done. Once we have grown through the solid food of the Word of God, we have to train ourselves to put that truth into practice both in terms of defense (sanctification) and in terms of offense (ministering to our brothers and sisters in Christ and helping them to do the same). In terms of your question re: victorious living, the victory that overcomes the world is faith (1Jn.5:1-5), and in this faith we faithfully follow our Lord who told us that in spite of the tribulation we are going to face, yet we should be of good courage because He has already been victorious over the world (Jn.16:33). What that means in practical terms is that we have to build our faith and then use it as a shield against all the devil's fiery darts (Eph.6:16). We have to train ourselves up to facing down the world, to looking at it only with the eyes of faith, to seeing beyond the veil of tears to the realities of the New Jerusalem to come, to truly learning to esteem our Lord Jesus more than anything in this life, to be reaching to the point of being ready, willing and able to suffer anything for Him and to give up anything for Him, because only by losing ourselves in this way can we ever hope to fully gain Him (Lk.17:33; Jn.12:25). During the Tribulation to come, many believers will be called upon not only to suffer things that are nearly unimaginable in our present life and society, but actually to give up their lives as martyrs for Him. If we really are willing and ready to give up very lives for Him (and we all say we are), then how is it that we let tests and trials which are nowhere near that ultimate sacrifice get us down? We have to understand that the Lord is preparing us, and that these tribulations are for our own good, for our growth and for His glory.
There are many scriptures which agree with the general sentiment of James 1:2 which tells us to "count it all joy" (cf. 2Cor.1:3-7), but how many Christians are really capable of that when under pressure, let alone actually do so? Not many, because this is not an automatic process, even in the case of believers who have indeed progressed in their faith and in their knowledge of the Word. This is a fight we are in, and we have to battle not only the evil world and its evil ruler and all the challenging things that happen to us in it; we also have to battle the sinful side of ourselves that resists kicking and screaming any such correct interpretation. We have to learn how to control our thoughts, our emotions, our tendencies, our tempers. If we cannot tell ourselves what to think and how to feel, then who can? We are not alone in this fight, for we have the truth of the Word and ministry of the Spirit, but we have to make the (often difficult) effort to recall and apply and remind ourselves and believe the truth (then we may expect the full support of the Spirit). God gives us help and the Spirit is the ultimate help, but we have to use our own will too. God is not going to make our decisions for us. Faith actively applied is our job, and if we do our job you can be sure that the Spirit will be right by our side.
When someone is down to his or her last few dollars then gets an unexpected bill, there is a great temptation to scream "why me, God?". But if we were watching this from heaven, if we formed the ranks of the angelic audience that is learning about God's grace from our experiences here and now, wouldn't we want to advise that person to "count it all joy"? For we would recognize the truth that God is never going to forsake that child of His, no matter what the world may think. You see, hardships are only the cause of negativity when we allow that reaction. God has given us truth. He has given us resources beyond imagining - He has given us His Son Jesus Christ. And having sacrificed His one and only Son for us, He is certainly not going to let us down in material terms. Furthermore, so that we might know and understand and apply these truths, God has given us the Bible, and His Son and He have sent us the Spirit. But although we have the Spirit, that does not mean that the Spirit's control is automatic - we have meet the Spirit half-way with obedience, accepting the truth. An emotional high can be worked up by singing, by group worship, by any manner of means. In my experience and observation, such things do not sustain a person when the "bad things" start to happen. No, what sustains is turning things over to God in faith, aggressively recalling and applying the truth we know and say we believe, by actually getting to the point of considering the heavenly gain we get from honoring God the Father and His Son through a good attitude and a genuine willingness to lose everything for Him as more important that what we are suffering. The power is there, but it does take will to grab it, and this is not a one day, one time, one shot effort. It takes consistency in study, in prayer, in ministry, in mental discipline. And it also takes getting up off the mat when we fail - because we all stumble. The key is not to never fall down in the first place (that is impossible). The is getting back up off the ground again, and getting back to doing everything that God has called us to do, with determined purpose fueled by faith and love and the hope of rewards to come.
Everything we know about our Lord and about His disciples (after the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit, anyway) suggests just such a total commitment and total effort. Now we can't get to "total war" in a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year, but in order to become true disciples of Jesus Christ, we need to learn to turn away from the world in our hearts, and start the process of truly making our Lord the number one priority in our lives and in our hearts. We do this the old-fashioned way: read the Bible, submit to teaching, believe the truth, pray, minister, and put into practice the things we believe in everything we do, and say, ... and think, and then help others to do the same. For if we truly do come to esteem the resurrection more than the health of this body, the reward we will receive from our Master more than the riches of this life, the peace of the eternity to come more than ease in this life, the fellowship with Him more than any relationship on this earth, then we really shall be at the point where we can say along with Paul "for me, dying is gaining, and living is all about Christ" (Phil.1:21).
Under such blessed circumstances, we know that whatever comes our way in life, from the routine to the catastrophic, is the will of God (Rom.8:28; 1Thess.5:18; cf. Matt.26:42), and being the will of God, it is a matter of joy ... or should be. Because when our faith is complete, we have come to accept everything that happens as being in His control, and we have come to trust Him that He will control it for good, indeed, IS controlling it for good, even when everything our eyes see tell us that things are completely out of control. He loves us, cares for us, is concerned for us, and wants only the best for us. But we have to learn to actively believe that once we are walking as we should, everything that falls into our lives is being orchestrated by Him for our true good, even if it seems the exact opposite at the time (Rom.8:28). True victory is understanding this and being able to rejoice in trouble in the knowledge that God is being glorified and His purpose being accomplished - not an unending stream of worldly material prosperity.
And when we really are doing this, we can relax in Him and have peace in Him even at the most difficult of times. Ephesians 6:13 tells us to put on God's full panoply of spiritual armor "so that you may be able to stand [your ground] on the day of evil, and, having fully done everything, to stand [your ground]". This I take to mean that once we have done all we can do that is right and proper in the eyes of God to do, then we can in peace stand still and watch for the deliverance of the Lord, come what may, in total confidence of His deliverance. We don't have to worry any more about our sinfulness or failings. He has forgiven us, and we have done all we have been called to do. This is a blessed thing, because it means to me that once we have dealt with whatever temporal situation we face with the temporal resources AND with the spiritual resources He provides, we can now leave the whole matter in God's hands, in complete confidence of His love and His deliverance, no matter how long that deliverance might take or what form it might take. This is faith. And faith genuinely held and correctly applied puts our hearts to rest though we are tested by fire and by water, for by this faith which esteems only Him and has contempt for everything else we truly enter into His rest and truly experience His peace (Jn.14:27; cf. Heb.3:12 - 4:11).
Dear friend, the power is in you as you are of Him. Don't lose heart, rather, encourage yourself in the Lord who loves you, and make every effort to pick up your cross and follow Him. Once you have done so, you will indeed be living a victorious life in fact, regardless of what the world may think.
Please also see:
Waiting on God
The Peter Series: Coping with Personal Tribulation
Fighting the Good Fight of Faith.
Faith and Encouragement in the midst of Fiery Trials.
Encouragement, Isaiah 6:11-13, and the Hope of Repentance.
Encouragement in Christian Sufferings.
In need of encouragement.
God's Free Gift of Salvation
Christology: the Study of Jesus Christ (part 4A of Bible Basics)
Soteriology: the Study of Salvation (part 4B of Bible Basics)
In Him who died for our every weakness, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.