In this He That Is Spiritual article we will continue our discussion of the spiritual life from a Dispensational, therefore Scriptural viewpoint. I don’t say that simply to poke the nose of Reformed Covenantalists who believe Dispensationalism is wrong. I say that based on points made earlier in the previous three articles. Before anyone decides to berate me for saying it, please read the three other articles in this series.
The Believer’s Problem in the Christian Life
At some juncture in the believer’s life, whether it is immediate or sometime later, he will desire to live a life pleasing to God.[i] At least three major issues immediately come into play for the new believer and they will remain a mystery to him until he is made aware that these issues exist.
The first issue is intimately tied to our position in Christ. What is it that motivates us to live the Christian life? Are we motivated by a sense of duty or fear of being cast off by God? Is it a sense of trying to do something to make ourselves acceptable to Him? Or are we motivated by the fact that we know and understand who we are in Christ and the riches to which we are privileged? Chafer describes this necessary knowledge as resulting in “intelligent motives.”[ii] “The Christian who is perfected forever, being in Christ, has, nevertheless, a life of imperfection to live so long as he is in this world.”[iii] It is the lack of this knowledge that causes some believers to live in a perpetual state of defeat and impotence in their daily lives. Because of ignorance of these truths believers become disillusioned and frustrated when they realize that they are not progressing towards maturity and continually struggle with sin. They attempt to obtain and live in holiness are based on faulty knowledge. Thus they struggle to make themselves holy and acceptable to God not knowing that based on their position in Christ they are already holy and acceptable. An excellent description of this is found in Paul’s own life:
For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate….For I know that nothing good dwells in me that is, in my flesh;…For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want….Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:15,18a,19,24,25a)
Chafer offers an excellent analysis of the predicament in which the uninformed believer finds himself:
The new problem which he confronts, …is not one of how he should live that he might be accepted and perfected before God, but rather of how he, an accepted and perfected person, should live after these stupendous realities are accomplished by the grace and power of God. Until this vital distinction is comprehended and received, there will be no progress made in the extensive field of truth which directs the Christian’s life and service. Until positional truth is recognized and received to the extent that the saved one acknowledges that he is saved and perfected in the sight of God on no other ground than that, on his part, he has believed on Christ to the saving of his soul, and on God’s part, he is justified, being both forgiven and constituted righteous through the immeasurable twofold substitution of Christ…there can be only confusion and misunderstanding about the true motivating principle in the Christian’s daily life.[iv]
Therefore, the believer’s motives for living a Christian life become a central issue. Without properly grasping these truths an immature believer will go about attempting to please God in order to become acceptable instead of living to please God because he is already acceptable in Christ. He will attempt to become holy through physical means when in truth he is already holy because of divine intervention through his union with Jesus Christ, and so on. Once again Paul describes the issue when he asks the church in Galatia, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). Thus we must assert that it is imperative that the believer know and understand his newfound position in Christ.
The world, the flesh, and the Devil are the three enemies common to all believers. Identifying and learning to do battle with these enemies is the second of the three issues. It is appropriate to begin with the world since it is in this sphere in which we conduct our physical existence.
The New Testament uses three different Greek words translated as world. The one used in the vast majority of passages is the word kosmos. Of its many meanings, one prominently featured in the New Testament is the idea of a designed, ordered, and purposeful system that has been put into action by an architect. The ruler of this system is identified variously as “the ruler” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), or the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), which is Satan. The world has its own standards by which it operates (1 Cor. 1:21; 3:19). These are in opposition to God’s standards and wisdom (1 Cor. 1:21,25), and to adopt the world’s standards is to become the enemy of God (James 4:4).
Believers are warned not to love this kosmos system (1 John 2:15-16). In fact, part of the mission of the believer is to destroy the “fortresses” containing this worlds “speculations (man-made philosophies) and every lofty (pretentious) thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and taking every thought (false belief) captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:2-5). This feat is not easily accomplished since the believer must be matured in “the knowledge of God” (v.5) in order to do so. Chafer offers valuable insight into how to experience victory when he states, “The Biblical, as well as practical, cure for “worldliness” among Christians is so to fill the heart and life with the eternal blessings of God that there will be a joyous preoccupation and absent-mindedness relative to unspiritual things.”[v] In other words, to overcome the poisonous “wisdom” of this kosmos system it is absolutely necessary to avail ourselves of the “mind of Christ” that we possess because of our union with Him (1 Cor. 2:16). This may be accomplished only in the believer who knows and understands this truth, and it is made possible only through the power of the indwelling Spirit and the application of the word of God to everyday events of life (1 Cor. 2:10-13; John 17:17 cf. 2 Pet. 1:3-4).
The believer has a precarious balancing act to perform in that he must live in this world (John 17:11,15-16) without becoming tainted by it (James 1:27). Only by knowledge of the Word of God and the power of the indwelling Spirit (2 Pet. 1:3-4) and faith (1 John 5:4) will the believer overcome this world system.
The devil also presents a major impediment for the believer who desires to live the Christian life. Recall how Paul described our pre-salvation existence; “you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world” (Eph. 2:1-2). This system is governed by one who is directing its course, which is “according to the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). This ruler is Satan, the Devil, the accuser of believers (Rev. 12:10). Peter warns believers to “be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Again, Paul warns believers to be prepared with the armor of God in order to “be able to resist in the evil day,” having taken “the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph. 6:13,16). He is a formidable foe for whom the believer must be on guard. Without proper knowledge and preparation the believer will be powerless in the spiritual battle that he faces.
Finally, the third of the identified enemies that stand in the way of the believer’s successful execution of the Christian life is his own flesh. This is a somewhat controversial idea, but it should not be since it is clearly biblical. The flesh composes the inner source of our sinfulness. The Greek word sarx is translated as flesh. It can refer to human or animal flesh, the physical body, but also speaks of what is more than physical in man. It often refers to “man’s nature generally.”[vi] Chafer says that “it includes in its meaning the whole of the unregenerate person, – spirit, soul and body.”[vii] Unlike the other obstacles to the Christian life, this particular enemy is internal and its influence cannot easily be overcome. Paul makes the clearest statement concerning the fact that believers are capable of living by their flesh and thus reflecting the actions of the old man, the lost man. In 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:4 Paul identifies three separate types of men; natural, spiritual, and men of flesh. It is the third person that he names is of concern to us. He chastises the Corinthian church for living like “men of flesh,” which is the translation of sarkinos, a word related to sarx. Paul’s admonition is that they stop acting like infants in Christ, like mere natural or lost men, and grow to maturity as a spiritual man (2:15). Knowing the background of the Corinthian church allows us to see that it is indeed possible for a believer to live as if he is a lost man, as a carnal believer who is out of fellowship with God. It is a difficult task to overcome the flesh and not live as “men of flesh.” However, Scripture is clear that we can overcome even our flesh.
Paul declares, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). As we will see in the section dealing with progress in Christian life, walking in the power of the indwelling Spirit of God is key to living out His will in our lives. Notice how Paul describes the means of walking, or living. One instance is by the Spirit, or by means of the Spirit while the other is carrying out the desire (epithumea – craving, longing, lust) of the flesh. The inner war is seen in the competing desires as Paul explains, “For the flesh sets its desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (v.17). What Paul is describing here are two competing forces. The one of concern at this juncture is the flesh. Chafer further describes the moral use of the word flesh correctly when he wrote that it “implies that it [flesh] is still alive and includes that which makes it alive and that which expresses itself through the physical body.”[viii] Scripture attests to this in numerous places either by direct pronouncement or strong implication (2 Pet. 2:18; 1 John 2:16; Rom. 7:18; 13:14; Eph. 2:3).
[i]It seems highly improbable that a new believer will not have the desire to live pleasing to God, but typically that zeal will fade, and later at some point in his life he will face a time of upheaval that will bring the need and desire into focus more clearly.
[ii]Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1973), 6:162-65.
[vi]H. G. Liddell, A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996) Logos Bible Software.
[vii]Chafer, Spiritual, 111.
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