Read our other “Tactic” articles below!
Tactics: Waging Wise Warfare for Your Sexual Purity – A New Series
Tactic #1: Fight From Your Justification, Not For It
Tactic #2: Recognize that Your Soul is at Stake
Tactic #3: Don’t Despise God’s Good Gift
Tactic #4: Anticipate the Battle
It’s certainly true that we need to have the right view of our sinfulness and spiritual inability in order to rightly understand God’s grace. But there is a strain of teaching within some Christian circles that so emphasizes our sinfulness and spiritual inability that it discourages Christians from actively pursuing holiness with the anticipation that we will grow as we attend to God’s divinely-sanctioned means of sanctification. The argument runs thus:
Because we are so sinful and unable in ourselves to achieve any spiritual success, we shouldn’t view growth so much as overcoming actual sin. Rather, we should understand sanctification as our growing ability to remember our justification and rest in the truth that Jesus Christ is our righteousness. The effort that Scripture calls us to is primarily the effort required to keep recalling our justification so that we don’t fall into the trap of works righteousness and the attempt to earn our right standing with God. We need to be diligent to stand against the deadly trap of legalism, something that Scripture warns us strongly against.
Now, there is certainly a lot of truth in that statement. We are sinful and unable, in ourselves, to achieve spiritual progress. It’s also true that we must ever rest in Christ and not in our own righteousness (see tactic #1). Legalism is a real and deadly foe in our pursuit of sanctification that must be regularly identified and addressed. But the above way of viewing sanctification is ultimately reductionistic and fails to fully appreciate what God has done for us in our salvation. In a sense, the above view also says Christians are still “totally depraved” when in fact they are not.
While it’s true that Christians are still sinners and, even after their conversion, wholly dependent upon God for their sanctification and growth (see Heb 6:3), it is just as true that salvation is a radical (i.e., touching at the deepest aspects of who we are) work of God in which he has given us a new heart which results in a new affection that compels us toward holiness. And he has endowed us with the Holy Spirit who empowers us to make genuine progress in the Christian life (Ezek 36:26-27; 1 Thess 4:8). Yes, Christians need to be reminded that we are always in need of God’s cleansing and forgiveness due to our sin (1 John 1:9). We need reminders that we are still weak and frail so that we don’t overestimate our spiritual abilities (1 Cor 10:12). But we also need to be reminded that God has given us everything we need to really (not just hypothetically) put sin to death (Rom 8:13), grow in spiritual maturity (2 Pet 1:3-11), overcome temptation (Gal 5:16), bear the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), and make progress in the faith (Phil 1:25; also 1 Tim 4:15).
Frankly, I find views of sanctification like the one I mentioned above downright discouraging. You mean to tell me that God has saved me, changed me at the core of who I am, and granted me his Holy Spirit, but I can’t expect to make progress in my faith and put to death some of these sins that daily afflict me? You can keep that weak brand of Christianity, thank you very much.
The good news of the gospel is that God has provided for our justification and our sanctification in the person and work of Jesus Christ (see 1 Cor 1:30). Specifically for our topic of sexual purity, we need to be reassured from Scripture that we can experience real, heart-level change in our desires and practice. We can learn to resist temptation, to love what is good and resist what is evil, and put to death lust and acts of immorality.
I fear that, when it comes to sexual sin, far too many Christian men are left to remain adrift on a sea of expected defeat. “There’s no way I can really overcome this sin. I must learn to be content to let it afflict me until the day.” Not only is such an attitude spiritually deadly (see Rom 8:13); it robs men of the confidence that Scripture provides them to take steps in their fight against sin.
Yes, we will never get to a point of sinless perfection in this life (see Rom 7:14-23; Phil 3:12; John 1:8-9). Historically, some have taught that our sanctification can progress to where we no longer sin, willfully or otherwise. Such a view must be rejected because it doesn’t comport with clear biblical texts that indicate sin will be an ongoing reality until the day we die. There will even be some sins so pernicious that they will rear their heads even after years of success in that particular area. But we must be careful that in response to wrongheaded views of perfectionism we start framing the Christian life in such a way that we no longer anticipate progress. Tactic #5 in our fight for sexual purity, therefore, is to expect that God will give us some advance over our enemy as we utilize the resources he’s given us.