The War of GraceFebruary 18, 2018
by Chad Van Dixhoorn
WCF 13.2 This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part: whence arises a continual, and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.
WCF 13.3 In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part does overcome: and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
The truth is that, in all of us, corruption still exists. If we could X-ray our minds and hearts, a theological radiologist would see ‘remnants of corruption in every part’ of us. the apostle John, an intern trained by the Great Physician himself, said that if we deny the presence of sin in our lives we make God a liar. To live in denial of sin does not prove that there is no sin in us. It proves that God’s ‘word is not in us’ (1 John 1:10).
Every Christian should try and live at peace with other sinners, but no Christian should try to live in harmony with a little sin.
Surely, if we are half as honest as we ought to be, we will admit the problem of lingering sin to be painfully true. We ‘have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.’ The apostle Paul speaks for all of us when he admits that sin remains a powerful force in life. He wishes it were a case of mind over matter; he wishes he could just announce that all is at peace; instead, he finds himself warring against sin, because sin longs to hold each of us his prisoner (Rom. 7:18–23, especially verses 18 and 23). Paul did not obtain the heights that he wanted to reach. He freely told the Philippians that he was not perfect (Phil. 3:12). This must be true of lesser men also.
A Necessary War
It is just because the enemy has not left us that we press on. We engage in battle. The Christian is conscripted to a ‘continual, and irreconcilable war’ precisely because ‘the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh’ (Gal. 5:17). We would be fools not to fight, because whether we resist temptation not, our sinful desires will ‘wage war’ against our souls (1 Pet. 2:11). Every Christian should try and live at peace with other sinners, but no Christian should try to live in harmony with a little sin. Sin and sanctification, the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit, ‘are opposed to each other’ (Gal. 5:17).
Growing in Grace
Our struggle emerges as all the more necessary because the remaining corruption in Christians may sometimes even get the upper hand—it ‘may much prevail’, at least ‘for a time’, as the pastors of the Westminster assembly remind us in the final paragraph of this chapter on sanctification. Our Lord claims us as his own; he plants his flag and announces his sovereignty over the whole of his church and over all that we are. But guerrilla warfare continues and we still find Christians who are ‘captive to the law of sin’ (Rom. 7:23).
The good news is that Christians are regenerate people. We truly have been born again and are new creatures who have been given the Holy Spirit. ‘Through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ’ we gradually overcome our enemy. As we engage in the spiritual exercise of running to Jesus and running from sin, and as we soak ourselves in the Word of God, we grow in our fitness to combat sin.
It is not easy to describe this bifurcated existence of the Christian. A seasoned apostle managed to express this difficulty eloquently, but even the Westminster assembly was grasping for words when it wrote about corruption in every part of us, while in the same breath telling us about what is true of our entire being.
Christian brothers and sisters need to encourage one another to walk in the fear of God.
No doubt they were reflecting normal human speech, for we sometimes say that part of us wants to do what is right, and part of us wants to do what is wrong. In any case, we surely know what this this paragraph means when it says that ‘the regenerate part’ of us ultimately overcomes. This kind of phrasing is not denying that sanctification is throughout, in the whole man, when affirming that sin will no longer have dominion over us. The point is that we are not under law, but under grace (Rom. 6:14). We are being assured that ‘everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world’ (1 John 5:4). These theologians from long ago are reminding their readers of the eternal truth that Christians will eventually ‘grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love’ (Eph. 4:15, 16).
To put it in more familiar words, sinners are also ‘saints’, and saints ‘grow in grace’. Scripture calls all Christians to desire this growth—growth ‘in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18). All who are united to the living Lord will grow; it is not too much to say that we are being ‘transformed . . . from one degree of glory to another’. It may not always feel like that, but growth is what ‘comes from the Lord who is the Spirit’ (2 Cor. 3:18). That is why Paul calls us to ‘cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the body and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God’ (2 Cor. 7:1).
Christian brothers and sisters need to encourage one another to walk in the fear of God. And as we do so, let us be earnest in our dependence on the Word and the Spirit, for it is through humble dependence on God’s power that the strongholds of sin are brought done, and holiness is brought to completion.
This piece is adapted from Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A reader’s guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 182–184. Used with permission of the publisher.
Never to Die, Ever to LiveFebruary 14, 2018
by Chad Van Dixhoorn