The rewards and threats of the flesh
You are something of a Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. You want to do what is good, but you do what is evil. You desire to please God, but you end up doing the things he hates. You see the sinful nature lives in you, we have an enemy within.
The sinful nature knows how to make a fool of you. It offers you rewards. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us of Moses ‘who chose not to enjoy the pleasures of sin’ (11:25-26). These rewards are enticing. Starring at that lady jogger actually realises endorphins. Fantasising about another man relieves some of the sin of having to live with Mister Not-So-Perfect. Gossip really is juicy. Laziness is comfortable. A critical spirit gives a great sense of superiority. Gluttony tastes good for a while. Indeed sin is like pigging out on junk food—it seems nice for a moment but ends up leaving you feeling sick.
If the sinful nature can’t get you with the carrot it will threaten you with a stick. When Moses forsook the pleasures of sin he had to endure being mistreated and disgrace. Generosity is costly. Kindness takes effort. It is not easy to tell the truth. If you think people are easy to love then you don’t really know very many of them. Giving up resentment feels like death. Forgiveness requires letting go of bitterness. The sinful nature will remind you of the cost of holiness. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of resisting sin to the point of shedding blood (12:4). The Christian life is not for the timid!
The enemy of the flesh
Thankfully, all is not lost. Not only does the sinful nature dwell within you, but, if you are born again, the Holy Spirit dwells in your heart. Every Christian has been given a new heart (Ezek. 36:26). We have the mind of Christ (Rom. 8:26). God grants us new desires (2 Cor. 5:2). While the sinful nature within us wars against the Spirit, the Holy Spirit dwelling in us wars against the sinful nature (Gal. 5:17).
One fruit of the Holy Spirit is a hatred of sin. It is not that the Christian cannot sin, but they cannot ultimately be happy in their sin. Sin makes us feel miserable. There is a godly sorrow that leads to repentance, which leaves no room for regret (2 Cor. 7:10). The Anglican Book of Common Prayer says, ‘we weep and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions.’ If you are not sorry about the sin in your life then I doubt that you are born again. If you have made a truce with your sinful nature then you are in grave spiritual danger. We should actually be asking God to reveal more of our sin so that we could seek his help to change. ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart … See if there is any offensive way within me, and lead me in the way everlasting’ (Ps. 139:23-25).
The battle of the mind
The battle against the sinful nature begins in the mind. Think of Joseph. His master’s wife said, ‘Come to bed with me!’ She was relentless in pursing him day after day. He knew she could make his life miserable. But he applied his reason. His mind was protected by two truths: the awfulness of sin (‘how could I do such a wretched thing?’) and the goodness of God (‘how could I sin against God?’). Remember that every sin is a matter of forsaking the God whose love endures forever (Jer. 2:19).
Keep the cross in view. It is at the cross where we most clearly see the wretchedness of sin and the goodness of God. As one writer puts it, ‘If you want to know how infinitely deep the rot of sin reaches, you have to think through the implications of the cross. If you want to know how far God is willing to go to rescue you from sin, you have to see his precious Son hanging on the cross for you.’ Centre all your prayers on the cross of Christ.
But the battle is often lost in the mind. The sinful nature preaches a distorted gospel. ‘Go ahead and sin. Hasn’t Christ’s blood already paid for that transgression?’ The sinful nature loves to divide and conquer (remember you cannot serve both God and money, and you cannot both love the world and God). The sinful nature provides great excuses. ‘Sure you are only human, and everyone else is doing it.’ When you find some measure of victory in one area of sin the sinful nature then tempt you towards the greater sin of pride.
Cultivate intimacy in God
The Psalmist asks, ‘How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word!’ (Ps. 119:9). The Bible displays the beauty of God, centres of the death of Jesus and promises to work within us. It can change our mind. Allow this book to fill you with the thoughts of the character, glory, majesty, love, beauty and goodness of God.
God has also given us prayer. Strive for an intimate relationship with God. But realise that the sinful nature will fight tooth and nail to get you not to pray. Getting out of bed in the morning to pray is a battle (the sinful nature knows about the snooze button). When you get down to praying don’t be surprised that your mind is filled with distracting thoughts. The sinful nature will even remind you of all the urgent and good things that you could do instead of spending time talking with God. We have to be prepared to sacrifice the good for the best.
It is those who are truly heavenly-minded who will be holy. Look forward to what awaits you. ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure’ (1 John 3:2-3).
The benefits of holiness
What are the benefits of holiness?
Assurance of salvation is one of the benefits of holiness. Without holiness no one will see God (Hebrews 12:14). We grow in our confidence that Christ has saved us as we see evidence of the new desires and actions that the Holy Spirit enables.
Intimacy with God is a benefit of holiness. Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God (Matthew 5:8). As Don Carson explains, ‘The pure in heart are blessed because they will see God. Although this is not ultimately true until the new heaven and earth, yet it is true even now. Our perception of God and his ways, as well as our fellowship with him, depends on our purity of heart’.
Avoiding the negative consequences of sin is a benefit of holiness. The psalmist declares, ‘many are the woes of the wicked’ (Ps. 32:10). The apostle Paul warns us that we reap what we sow (Galatians 6:8-10). While we may know God’s forgiveness sometimes the evil we do nevertheless results in consequences that hurt us.
Holiness makes us beautiful. Humankind was made in the image of God. But when Adam and Eve sinned we were given over to corruption (Romans 5:12-21). We are still God’s image-bearers (Genesis 9:6, James 3:9), but the image is distorted (Genesis 6:5 and Ecclesiastes 7:29). A beauty has been lost. Yet as God transforms our lives he restores this beauty. He not only want to make us more like Adam, before he fell, but like the wonderful human of all, Jesus. Holiness is beautiful. The godly man displays the wonderful virtue of a kind strength. The gentle woman has an inner beauty that outward appearance can never match (see Proverbs 31:30).
A labour of love
Let holiness be a labour of love.
Love is a powerful force. ‘Love is as strong as death … it burns like a blazing fire … rivers cannot wash it away’ (Song of Songs 8:6-7). Jesus said, ‘if you love me you will obey my commands.’ Love delights in the thought that our little lives, taught and enabled by the Holy Spirit of God, can actually bring pleasure to our Father in heaven.
But never think that your efforts to be holy are paying God back for saving your soul. Holiness is actually his gift to you. Apart from him you can do no good thing. He is the one who stirs up the desire to be holy and who enables us to overcome temptation. So ‘good deeds do not pay back grace, they borrow more grace’ (John Piper). Our God wants us to go deeper in debt to grace. He wants us to draw freely from his infinite love and enabling so that we might experience the ever-increasing joy of a life that is being made more like Jesus.