I have said that there are three fundamental perspectives on the Christian life in Peter’s introduction to his description of that life in these two verses. The first is that, since we are exiles and sojourners – that is, resident aliens – in this world, our life is to be defined by our citizenship in heaven; it is to be noticeably different than the life of people who belong to this world, for whom this world is their home. The second is that we are to live in a way that leaves an impression on unbelievers; we are to do that intentionally. We are to let our light shine so that others may glorify our Father who is in heaven.
Now we come to the third of these fundamental perspectives. It is not of the same class as are the first two – that is it is not an approach or a perspective that defines our way of life – so much as it is a description of what it will take to live it. I’m speaking of the phrase in v. 11, “abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul.” I suppose it is the universal experience of Christians, whether born and raised in the faith or converts to it at some point in their adult life, that it comes as a shock to discover that the Christian life is as difficult as it is. More demoralizing still is the discovery that the difficulty is within, is our own predilection for sin, our own unwillingness to submit to the rule of our Savior and his law, our own continuing fascination with the allurements of this world.
The longer one lives as a Christian the more unassailable is the fact that “the passions of our own flesh are waging constant warfare against our souls.” Here is the blood, sweat, and tears of the Christian life. Here is the pain and the anguish, the humiliation and the frustration. Here is the all too frequent defeat but here too is the victory, however much such victory demands from us. The world imagines that we Christians think ourselves better than they. The fact is we know ourselves better than they know themselves and we despise a great deal of what we find within ourselves. When Job said that he “abhorred” himself, he was speaking for every believer!
There are few books I have picked up to read as often as John Keegan’s magisterial history of the Second World War. It is an authoritative account by a professional military historian of the progress of the war from its beginning to its end, the great movement of armies across the landscapes and seascapes of Europe and Asia, the pivotal battles, the turning points, and the horrific carnage of the greatest war in human history. It is also a specimen of magnificent prose. Keegan was a great writer of the English language. But, of course, in Keegan’s telling so much must be left out. The experience of the individual soldier, his boredom and his terror, his letters home, the heartbreak of loved ones receiving news of a son’s death in battle, the civilians who suffered so terribly in a war they did not themselves decide to fight, the destruction of the hopes of so many human beings, the millions upon millions of private tragedies, the daily heroism, the daily cowardice, the multitude of lives lost or never to be the same again. That too is the story of the Second World War, but no one can account for all of that in a single volume. Well so it is with the biblical narrative, and with Christian history as it is and will be to the end. In the Bible we get the great sweep of history, not its details. We get the progress of the conflict, the great crises that represent the fatal turning points, and the triumph and catastrophe that marks the end. We read something of the commanders of this kingdom, but little of the common soldiers. Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. That is the biblical timeline. That is the forest; it is hardly the trees. We get in the Bible some of the agony and ecstasy of Christian experience, but even in the case of the Bible’s major characters – Moses, David, Jesus himself, and Peter and Paul – we hardly get the individual’s life story, the ups and the downs, the joys and the sorrows, the struggles, failures, the thrilling victories and the agonizing failures. Paul tells us that he had many personal failures in waging war with the passions of his flesh, but he doesn’t describe them, or even tell us precisely which passions so often undid him and caused that sense of wretchedness he tells us in Romans 7 was a constant feature of his Christian life. But what the Bible does faithfully and emphatically teach us is that there will be struggle, failure, pain, frustration, and exhaustion.
And much of this, as any Christian knows, comes from his or her own experience of the passions of the flesh that war against the soul. The Christian life is described as a battle or a warfare in many different ways. Our enemies are identified: the world, our flesh, and the Devil. We are taught what weapons we are to wield, the whole armor of God as Paul describes it, and how we are to fight the good fight of faith with the weapons of our warfare by which we take every thought captive to Christ. But that the Christian life is war no one with a Bible in his hand can deny. Christ himself is frequently depicted in the Bible as a warrior, most famously in the account of his Second Coming in Rev. 19, but also famously in the prophesies of his coming in the Old Testament, especially in the prophecy of Isaiah. And we who follow him are in the nature of the case soldiers in his army doing battle with his enemies as well as ours. The spiritual warfare has other dimensions to be sure, but first and foremost it is what Peter describes it to be here.
“…abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”
There are certainly biblical texts and teachings that might seem to suggest that Christ, having won a great victory over sin and Devil, those who trust in Christ, those who are in Christ, would find the passions of the flesh a toothless foe, without power to do us harm. And that is certainly ultimately true. But, though the enemy is beaten – whether our own sinful flesh or Satan himself – he has not left the field, he is not going quietly into the night, he is still hoping in the fury and bitterness of his defeat to do all the harm he can. The famous illustration of the situation that prevails in the spiritual warfare of the Christian life and the warfare of the kingdom of God against the kingdom of the Evil One was provided by Oscar Cullman, the Swiss theologian of the middle of the 20th century. He likened our situation to that of the allies after D-Day. Even the German generals knew that once the allied armies were safely ashore and ready to confront the Wehrmacht the war was over. Germany’s defeat was now inevitable. There was nothing that the Germans could do to prevent the advance of the allied armies, larger, better equipped than they, all the more as the immense Soviet army was at the same time threatening Germany from the east. The decisive battle had been fought and won; the decision had been reached. But bitter fighting remained. Most American casualties in Europe occurred after D-Day, after the issue had been settled. Well so with us. Christ’s victory on the cross and in the tomb meant that the victory he won for us was now guaranteed. But bitter fighting remains before the enemies of our souls will be finally laid in the dust to trouble us no more.
Another illustration from military history – after all, Peter here uses the language of war – works as well. I remember reading in William Manchester’s biography of Douglas MacArthur how the great general’s lieutenants used bitterly to resent his announcing to the press that a battle for some island or another was over, with only “mopping up” to do – that is what he called it, “mopping up”; nothing so hard about that! – when, in fact, that “mopping up” was sometimes the bitterest fighting of the war. The enemy, though truly beaten, had hid in caves and was fighting to the death of the last man, hoping only to take as many Americans as possible with him. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers were killed and wounded while mopping up! I read just recently an account of the battle for Okinawa, the most costly battle of the Pacific war, waged against an entirely defeated enemy, and enemy that knew itself defeated and still took many thousands of American lives. Well so it is with the Christian life: the victory is won; the outcome is certain; but there is a lot of bitter fighting to be done by Christ’s lieutenants before the last enemy has laid down his weapon or lies dead in the field.
The Lord is our witness. We want to be holy, pure, and full of nothing but love for God and man. We read about some Christians who lived lives better than ours, and we so much wish that we were they. We want our lives in every respect to be a credit to our Savior, a demonstration of his goodness, an adornment of his gospel. We know what pleases him. We don’t want to be so-so Christians. We want to be pure in heart, faithful in life, and steadfast in temptation. We want to be those who deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. We want to be heroic in our devotion to the Lord, willing even to love our enemies and bless those who curse us. We want to be and do what distinguishes the followers of Christ in the most dramatic way.
We know the good, but far too often, we do it not. “O wretched men and women that we are! The very things we do not want to do, we do. The very things we do want to do, for Christ’s sake, we do not do.” Some may wonder why Peter uses such violent, extravagant language: “the sinful desires that wage war against the soul.” But no Christian who has been in this battle for any length of time wonders about Peter’s choice of words. We have found ourselves in a war, nothing short of a war. And it is being waged within us, in the recesses of our hearts.
And our long experience of this divided mind that so troubles us has taught us that if we put up a real struggle against sinful desire, if, for Christ’s sake, we stand and refuse to budge, refuse to give in to a temptation, refuse to permit our minds or bodies to be put to unholy uses, refuse to employ our tongue as an instrument of hate rather than love, we will have a battle on our hands! The temptations will come after us with a vengeance and will not cease, in many cases, until we are left victorious but bloody and utterly exhausted in the field. And it is also very clear to us that it is just this spiritual fight for our own holiness – this refusal to give in to sinful desires which rise in the heart and which are strengthened so by the temptations of the world and the devil – that determines the character of our Christian lives.
There is a story from the biography of Thomas Shepard, the New England Puritan, author of great works on the Christian life, and the first president of Harvard. He was found one night, late in his life, lying in exhausted sleep on his face in his study with a copy of the New England Gazette clenched in his fist. Shepard had a friend who was a preacher, and it was no secret that his friend’s sermons were much preferred by almost everyone to those of Shepard himself. It was McCheyne who said that envy was besetting sin of ministers. Shepard wanted to believe that he was the man whose sermons should have been printed in the newspaper, given his position, his long service, and his many accomplishments. But people did not want to read his sermons nearly so much as to read those of his friend. And in that particular issue of the newspaper there was a particularly fine and beautiful sermon by his friend. And Shepard found terribly strong passions waging war against his soul and the battle he fought against them took every ounce of energy he had. His New England study had become Thomas Shepard’s Gethsemane. [Whyte, Thomas Shepard, 192-193] No wonder that, at another time, we should read Shepard, in his diary, report: “Kept a private fast for the destruction of my pride.” Have any of us kept a private fast for the destruction of our pride? But any Christian can recognize that experience of Thomas Shepard as akin to his own. Perhaps we did not fight so bravely; perhaps we did not fight the temptation to the point of complete exhaustion, but we know what it is like to find the passions of our flesh waring against our souls.
Some of us must confess that we been far too little at war against those passions of the flesh. How weak and how useless we have become to the kingdom of God. Others of us are in the cauldron of such battles for our soul and, weary as we may be, are glad that at present we are fighting the Lord’s battles. Others of us, like John Paul Jones, have just begun to fight. We are young or new Christians just now learning that holiness must be fought for, that Christians have adversaries and that the most deadly of them reside in our own heart. We are just discovering what an endless struggle it will require of us to give our hearts and bodies to Christ day after day.
Listen to Alexander Whyte, an expert, if ever an expert there was, on the spiritual warfare and on resistance to those sinful desires that wage war against your soul. This from his work on Bunyan’s Holy War.
“…my brethren, lay this well, and as never before, to heart – this, namely, that when you thus begin to keep any gate for Christ, your King and Captain… – Ear-gate, or Eye-gate, or Mouth-gate, or any other gate – you will have taken up a task that shall have no end with you in this life. Till you begin in dead earnest to watch your heart, and all the doors of your heart…you will have no idea of the arduousness and the endurance, the sleeplessness and the self-denial, of the undertaking. ‘We all thought one battle would decide it,’ says Richard Baxter, writing about the Civil War. ‘But we were all very much mistaken…’ Yes; and you will be very much mistaken too if you enter on the war with sin in your soul, in your senses and in your members, with powder and shot for one engagement only. When you enlist here, lay well to heart that it is for life. There is no discharge in this war…. It is a warfare for eternal life, and nothing will end it but the end of your evil days on earth.” [BC, iii, 18-19]
I remember very distinctly, as a young man, an adolescent, discovering for myself that, I think in a way to my amazement, that it was not going to be easy to be a Christian, at least a faithful follower and servant of Christ. That I had it in myself to betray him at every turn; that I found temptations to that betrayal very powerful, very attractive. What is more, I began to discover more and more in my own heart and life, much more than I had realized to that point, that which was actually sinful, dishonorable, and contrary to the will and the glory of God. I was going to have to put up a real fight for holiness and at many more places than I had imagined.
And I know full well that in the years since, sometimes I have fought the good fight and left my enemies and Christ’s enemies within me lying dead in the field. Other times I have fought but timidly and half-heartedly and, to my still greater shame, sometimes I have proved a complete coward and run from the field with my tail between my legs, throwing my hands in the air, surrendering to evil desires when they had hardly begun to wage war against my soul.
There are people in the Christian church, even real Christians I daresay, who hardly ever fight the good fight of faith. They have no scars to show that they have fought their master’s battles. They never slept in their clothes with their swords at their sides. They are strangers to the struggle that other Christians know so well. Ask such Christians to teach you how to fight your battles with sinful desires that wage war against your soul and they will give you a blank stare in return. They don’t know what you are talking about. They don’t know what it is to be weary of watching for the Lord, of lifting their eyes to the hills from whence comes their help. The Devil has seldom troubled them because they aren’t worth the effort. Isn’t that the Christian Paul has described in 1 Corinthians 3, the one who is saved himself, though as by fire, but all his work is burned up? But how much such Christians have missed, how much they have never become, and how much the Church has missed in them and from them because they were never willing to learn to be warriors and to set themselves with might and main against the sinful desires that war against their soul.
Martin Luther said that he did not learn all at once how to be a minister of Christ. It was his temptations and his corruptions and his sinful desires that taught him how to preach Christ. The Devil, he said, had been his best teacher of practical Christianity. He won his stripes in the field. Before he entered battle he was a child, but battle made a man out of him. I’ve read that one of the great worries of the American commanders on D-Day was that they were sending so many untested men into battle. In the very first waves were thousands of men who had never been in combat before. They worried that the men might melt under the pressure, turn and run, forget all they had been taught and care only about their own survival. But, to their relief, they discovered in the case of these green troops that three minutes of real combat was worth three years of training. These rookie soldiers learned the craft of a soldier in moments because nothing can teach that craft like battle itself.
And there have been a great many Christians, trained very quickly in the heat of spiritual combat, who then through the course of their lives fought bravely and nobly, who defended Christ’s honor when set upon by those sinful desires, and who were still standing in the field when the battle was done. “Fight neither with small or great, but only with the Prince of Israel.” That is the Devil’s strategy and his orders to his soldiers. Fight to the death with that young Christian, that dangerous Christian, he will tell his underlings; bring me his head or hers on a platter, or we will regret the day he or she ever entered the field. You learn to be that kind of Christian by waging war with the passions that war against your soul. I want you all, as I want myself to be numbered in that worthy company!
Now, Peter here doesn’t say anything more than that we should fight, that we should manfully resist the attacks made upon our faith, our purity, our holiness, our faithfulness to God. Very often this is the Bible’s way. It simply tells us to fight. It doesn’t explain the command. It does not provide specific instructions or tactics. It simply orders us into the field. And in this way, we are taught that ordinarily what must be done will be obvious, at least to a lively Christian conscience. We must simply say “No” to this and “Yes” to that. We are simply to do what is pleasing to God. And we are also taught in this very simple instruction Peter gives us that what is really involved here, the real issue here, is not strategy or tactics in the first place, but determination, inflexible resolve.
That is not, of course, to say that the Bible does not furnish us with strategies and tactics by which to resist the sinful desires that wage war against our souls, to put down the risings of sinful desire in our hearts — lust, greed, selfishness, anger, pride, laziness, indifference to God and others, and so on. But, even then, the strategies and tactics are almost always put in a general form so that, once again, the issue resolves itself into a test of the will. Will I or will I not do what I fully know is the will of God or will I do what sinful desires incline me to do?
- We have the instruction in Eph. 6, for example, about putting on the whole armor of God and by so doing to equip ourselves to resist the Devil and ward off his fiery darts. But that is a figurative manner of speaking. It is an inspiring and helpful image, but it is not an explicit guide to resisting temptation. Taken together it still means that, in one way or another, we must answer sinful desires with our Christian faith — with what we know to be right, with the promises God has made to us, with the warnings God has given us — and must have the will to do so when it counts.
- Or, there is the wisdom repeated often enough in the Bible that those who would be holy should, whenever possible, avoid the occasions of sin and temptation. That is, the best way to resist temptation is to avoid it whenever possible. “Do not go near the door of her house” the father in Proverbs tells his son concerning the sexual temptress. “Flee youthful lusts,” we read in James. And we see Joseph doing just that in Potiphar’s house. Instead of standing and discussing the adultery that Potiphar’s wife was proposing, he ran from the house leaving his cloak behind him. As Spurgeon once memorably put it: the answer to many temptations is a good pair of legs and the king’s highway.
But, everyone who knows the spiritual warfare, who is familiar with the sinful desires that war against the soul knows that that advice, true as it is, in a sense, only carries the issue back a step. For, as McCheyne admitted concerning himself, our problem is that we want to be tempted, we want to get as near to the sin as we can, telling ourselves all the while that we will not finally succumb. Whether it is gossip, lust, greed, or the fear of man, we take steps toward the sin which are already sin! To avoid the occasion of sin requires that already, at that first point, we resist the desires that war against the soul.
- Or, there is the Bible’s emphasis on the active pursuit of one’s spiritual duty as a great protection against sin. Like Nehemiah, we should be able to say to sinful desires when they surface in our hearts and seek to draw us away from the will of God, “I am doing a great work and cannot come!” We see David fall at exactly that moment he laid down his responsibilities. “In the spring, when the kings go out to battle, David stayed in Jerusalem.” – the opening verse of 2 Samuel 11. And because he was at home instead of in the field he saw Bathsheba bathing and a chain of events was set in motion that would have been impossible had he been where he belonged, doing what he was supposed to do as the King of Israel. Paul says the same thing in Gal. 5. “Keep in step with the Spirit” and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. Live the Christian life in all its parts with a vengeance; it is the best way to ride roughshod over your sins. And, in any particular case, if you struggle with stinginess, practice generosity with a vengeance; if you find your eye wandering, throw yourself heart and soul into loving your wife; if you find it within yourself to take advantage of others, make it the great interest of your life to be scrupulously careful to give others more than anyone could say was due from you, and so on. But, will you take such steps and keep taking them? We are back to the fundamental issue. Will you say “No” or “Yes” when God calls you to say it and mean it? That is where the spiritual warfare is joined and your answer is more important than any tactic or strategy.
- And that is true even of that wonderful wisdom on preparing a Christian heart for battle such as you find in the great classics of the spiritual warfare – John Owen’s great works (On the Mortification of Sin; On Temptation; On the Nature and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded); Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying; or William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armour – and other such works in which so many Christians, myself included, have found so much help and encouragement.
Once again, to prepare yourself for battle in that way, to furnish your mind and heart with the weapons of this war is itself an act of the Christian soldier and is itself opposed at every turn by sinful desires that war against the soul. We can certainly find other things to read and watch besides Owen and Gurnall! And the passions of our flesh will be quick to suggest them and make them seem altogether more attractive and important and urgent. No, finally, the issue is the determination of your will as a soldier of Jesus Christ. Will you follow him into the field? Are you determined to do so? All of us who are Christians, certainly should be so determined. And it is well to pause to consider why.
Rutherford, in one of his letters, reminds his friend John Gordon of thirteen reasons for fighting the Lord’s battles with relish and with an absolute determination to give no quarter to the enemy waging war against your soul. Will you find them persuasive? I’ll give you nine of the thirteen.
- Weeping and gnashing of teeth…or heaven’s joy;
- There is sand in your glass yet; and your sun is not gone down;
- Joy and peace in Christ’s service;
- To have mercy on your seed and a blessing on your house;
- The pain of a guilty conscience;
- Sin’s joys are but night dreams;
- What dignity it is to be a son of God.
- To have true honor and a name on earth that casts a sweet smell;
- (And in Rutherford’s own inimitable voice): “How ye will rejoice when Christ layeth down your head under his chin, and [upon his chest], and drieth your face, and welcometh you to glory and happiness.” [pb. ed. pp. 63-64; Bonar ed. Letter CXXIII, 247-248]
What stories will eternity tell of the faithful men and women – unrecognized men and women like you and like me – who struggled alone in battle so fierce and so bitter that had Christ not lifted them up and strengthened them they could not have withstood! Young Christians and old; Men and Women, Ministers and People alike. You would not know, you could not know what battles they are fighting, how severe the wounds they have suffered, how exhausted the fight has made them. They live among you and seem like all others. For they have washed their faces and changed their clothes to come into your presence. They could not tell you how fierce the battle has been for them.
The Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, after surviving the terrible WWI battles of Gallipoli and the Salonika front, was killed instantly on the Western Front when a shell exploded near him. He is buried in a cemetery with 506 other soldiers whose bodies could not be identified. He had written this verse while at the front:
A keen-edged sword, a soldier’s heart,
Is greater than a poet’s art.
And greater than a poet’s fame
A little grave that has no name.
Christian warriors, though unrecognized in this world and perhaps soon forgotten are remembered above. And their battles and their exploits, so secret, so mysterious, and so seemingly unimportant to the world make the great wars of world history, in comparison, tales full of sound and fury signifying almost nothing. “Abstain from the passions of your flesh that wage war against your soul,” “Fight the good fight,” says Peter. It is what Christians have always done.
Then outspake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate;
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his God[s]?”