By H. Forbes Witherby.
18. Spiritual Conflict.
Liberty leads to conflict — greater power for the believer than against him — the Spirit of God searches us — the Spirit is opposed to the flesh — the way of victory — spiritual prosperity.
We will speak of the conflict which, in greater or less intensity, every believer has to go through daily. It is not the struggle for deliverance of soul that now is to occupy us — of that we have already spoken — nor the conflict which is against Satan, wrestling with spiritual wickedness in heavenly places — but the inward conflict in the child of God.
It may be said, "What, if a man knows his sins to be forgiven, and more, liberty" (which some call "sanctification," "higher life," "full peace," etc.), "then, surely, every spiritual desire must be gratified, and thenceforward, till heaven be gained, there can be nothing more to be wished for." In things spiritual, as in things natural, when children have grown up to manhood, to ripe age, or, as scripture speaks, are "perfect," they do not find that thenceforward there is nothing to do, nothing to suffer. Quite the contrary; in one sense they may be said to begin life only when perfect. Until the great and terrible "I" be held by grace to have been crucified with Christ, the believer can hardly be said to have begun to live the new life in its liberty; but liberty attained, conflict is acutely entered into.
Greater power exists for the believer than against him. The believer knew the bitterness of inward strife before he knew his standing in Christ risen; but having been brought into liberty, he is subject to conflict. Sin is in him, Satan is active, the world attractive. But there is a vast difference between the character of the conflict in the believer who is in liberty, and in him who is in bondage. The difference is this: before he knew himself to be in Christ, the believer was like a helpless cripple in the clutch of a giant; after his deliverance, having the Spirit as power to deal with sin in him, the Spirit within him is stronger than his flesh. Mark, we do not say that the believer is stronger in himself than he was, but that the Spirit in him is power. And by the Spirit's power he overcomes.
Before we were brought into christian liberty the power of the indwelling Spirit was not known, but, being delivered from thrall to self, we are in the moral position which should gain the victory. Not that the position itself is victory, it is the vantage ground for victory; victory is obtained by the Spirit. Still, it is no little good to know what the vantage ground is, and a greater thing to occupy that ground.
The Holy Spirit, who dwells within us, knows our hearts. When He has taken up His abode in the child of God, He does not suffer the child to pursue his own course through this world at his list. The child of God has his natural inclinations, his tastes, his wishes, he is the self-same person, with the self-same tendencies as before. His nature is unchanged; it is the identical selfish, or vain, or rash, or timeserving nature as hitherto. He may be beset with the sins of love of money, or ease, or applause. His new birth does not correct his old nature, with which he came into this world, but the Spirit of God, who at the first made him feel what he was by the word, and produced in him repentance, gives the word effect in his everyday life, cleansing and purifying, and causing self-judgment by its means.
The Spirit of God dwelling within us stimulates the desires of the holy nature which He has implanted in us. He leads to humility, gentleness, and courage, and all in a divine way. We do not mean such qualities apart from God, which in that case may be merely traits of human nature.
When our flesh stirs us up to desire its old things, the Spirit of God does not remain passive in us, but occasions conflict within: "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other [in order] that ye should not (lit.) do the things that ye would." (Gal. 5:17.) He restrains the believer from doing the things which the flesh likes, and constrains him to do the things which God loves, and effects this by acting upon the new man.
The believer is not, and never will be, free from having sin in him in this world; nor will he be free from the danger of committing any kind of evil: and he is never, practically, safe except when he feels his weakness, and walks in the dependence of faith in God. Should he say, "I cannot help doing evil," then he denies the Spirit of God in him as the power for holy living, and remains in the mire of wrongdoing. Should he say, "I am holy, or spiritual, or heavenly," and in his heart think of what he is in himself, then it is self at work in another and more dangerous form, and he has denied the Spirit of. God in His power producing holiness, spirituality, and heavenly-mindedness. This last is worse than the first, for the first is unbelief in God, the last belief in self. The truth is, there is constant conflict proceeding within the child of God, and the Spirit is continually restraining from evil, as well as leading to good; and truth is the effect of the work of the Spirit of truth.
The Spirit is opposed to the flesh. The Spirit dwells in us, and in our flesh dwells no good thing. We have been called to liberty, to be free before God — not to be satisfied with, or to give way to ourselves. This condition of liberty is to be used for God; the flesh is not to be allowed to place the believer again under the religious thrall of ordinances, or law; neither is it to be allowed to run in its own evil likings of a base sort; — the liberty is to be used for serving God and walking before Him. Divinely-given liberty is marked by humility and holiness, by peace and joy.
The flesh in its pride would say, "I can live to God by means of law-keeping and religious observances;" the flesh in its lusts would say, "I am safe for eternity, and thus can live for myself." The new life God has given us has no affinity for either the one or the other of these evils, and the Spirit of God opposes the flesh in each.
The way of victory in everyday life for the believer is solely by the power of the Spirit, and the first step on the way is, putting to death the deeds of the body. There are evil things to which we naturally incline; it is the pleasure of our old Adam to commit specific bad and sinful deeds. The members of our bodies are the servants of our desires; we have absolutely to refuse and put to death those activities, and the power for this action is the Spirit who dwells in us.
The tree itself God has cut down judicially in the cross of His Son; this truth is not affected by our daily walk; what we are as men in the flesh, God has judged and condemned in Christ when occupying our place; but we have grave responsibility before God as to our ways, we have to cut off the sprouts of the tree. God condemned our nature once for all, when His Son was made sin for us; but sin is in us, and we have continually to keep the shoots down or they will become branches. We were noticing the other day a felled and branchless elm tree, yet it was sprouting all over! "If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live." (Rom. 8:13.) No natural power can put to death the results of nature, the Spirit of God is the believer's only force to effect this great end.
Having the divine nature, the child of God abhors the evil, and the indwelling Spirit of God is his strength for not doing evil and for doing good. The scriptures set before us this power of the Spirit of God affecting our every detail of life. Be the deeds of the body those of the gross kind, or those of a more subtle nature, still the Spirit of God gives the strength enabling the child of God to get the victory.
The Spirit is opposed to the conceptions of our evil hearts, and by Him we subdue and slay our evil actions. There is no practical living the life of faith without this conflict, and, no doubt, every child of God does, more or less, put to death these deeds. Living to God, practically speaking, does not take place in the believer's life on earth unless he set aside the ways of his flesh. We say practically, for, as we have shown, the life which we have is in the Son of God, and secure before God, hid with Christ; but having the new life, and living out the new life in these mortal bodies, are widely different facts. All the children of God have the life; we cannot affirm that all truly live it out daily.
Spiritual prosperity depends greatly upon spiritual weeding. Cost what it may, the weeding must be done, else there will be no golden harvest. Children, when they see poppies and other weed flowers amongst the corn, may say, "How pretty they look!" but every weed sucks strength from the harvest. Weeding is not done once and for a lifetime, but is a continuous and laborious work, and weeds increase according to soil and seasons. Some soils and seasons make weeds with terrible rapidity. So it is with the believer; but get rid of the weeds he must. He cannot get rid of the soil, his flesh, in which no good thing dwells, he cannot free himself of sin in him; but by the Spirit of God he can put the weeds to death as they come up, he can avoid giving way to what it is natural to him to do.
The flesh produces weeds more rapidly than the sourest land, and, at times, the devil and circumstances favor their rapacious growth in such a way that the strength of the soul seems eaten up; but "if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live." There seem to be times for special kinds of evil growths amongst christians generally; Satan is permitted to make certain assaults on the prosperity of souls in different ages. Thus we find that the difficulties disturbing believers are frequently of the same sort over large sections of Christendom While men sleep Satan sows his evil seed, hence the need of constant prayerful watchfulness in each child of God for what may be springing up in his own soul. Laxity or indifference as to the truth of the scriptures, and laxity or indifference as to morals, are prevalent weeds of these our times.
Though weeding be toilsome, heart-breaking, and afflictive work, it is the only way to spiritual prosperity; and let us remember, that as old fields grow weeds as well as new, so it matters not how old a christian may be, he is always to be putting to death the deeds of his body. There is no safety from sinning unless we walk according to God, whether we be young or old.
The endeavor to live to God will cause deep heart-searchings and conflict in each individual believer. It will cause work as painful as judicial to self; but it is written, "They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts." (Gal. 5:24.)
Victory over our ways introduces us to, as well as springs from, the enjoyment of the presence of Christ. The deeds our natural hearts delight in, caused our Lord His cross and suffering for us. He was crucified, and being risen with Him, it is our privilege to reckon ourselves to be alive unto God, and to put to death those members of our bodies which are sin, and the Spirit of God is our only power for this end.