Human will-power alone is not enough. Will-power is excellent and we should always be using it; but it is not enough. A desire to live a good life is not enough. Obviously we should all have that desire, but it will not guarantee success. So let me put it thus: Hold on to your principles of morality and ethics, use your willpower to the limit, pay great heed to every noble, uplifting desire that is in you; but realize that these things alone are not enough, that they will never bring you to the desired place. We have to realize that all our best is totally inadequate, that a spiritual battle must be fought in a spiritual manner.
— Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones
Many years ago, I was enamored with the game of chess. I thought one day I would get better at it, but sadly my skills that I attained at the age of 10 years old have not changed. However, I still remember my first chess game. My opponent was my uncle, and within the first thirty minutes of the game… I knew I lost. I had two pieces left: my queen and my king. It was my turn, and I noticed that I had a possibility to win the game by killing a rook. There was a thought in my mind: Don’t do it! What if it’s a trap? But I was just a boy, I thought back: What could go wrong?
I was so convinced that I knew what was better. I knew that deep inside it was a foolish decision to give away my last, and best piece, of the game for a possible checkmate. Sure enough, I killed the rook. Before I could finish saying, “Your turn!”… my uncle had already moved a bishop from across the board to kill my queen. Within two turns, I lost the game. I know, looking back, that I would’ve lost anyway, but the point is that I knew that I was about to make a wrong decision and I did it anyway.
As human beings, we tend to treat our lives the same way. We know what’s good, we know what’s right, and we know what’s lawful, yet we do the opposite. We know it’s wrong to speed, we know it’s wrong to lie, and we know it’s wrong to gossip. There’s a kick out of it, isn’t there? I have to admit that I have these troubles. I am not a perfect person by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, there were times when I wondered why it was so easy to sin, despite the fact that I know I am a child of God!
Have you felt the same way? Have you, oh man, ever known that you had an obligation to do good, but you didn’t do it? Did you, oh woman, have a desire to be upright in your actions, but you chose a different path? And I ask this question to myself a lot: did you, oh James, knowing the truth of the Gospel and what you are required to do, just sin before a just, righteous, fear-worthy, all-powerful, and holy God? It is truly a war between my flesh and my spirit. It is a continuous war that becomes discouraging sometimes.
My life is full of “foolish chess game” decisions. Sin after sin, mistake after mistake, and failure after failure. One could get lost in all of them. I have felt alone many times, and sometimes it seems like the only ones who feel this way are the weaker brothers and sisters. I become easily discouraged under the weight of my fight against sin, but then I’m reminded of the greatest man in the Bible, other than Christ Himself: Paul.
Paul was a missionary. Paul was an apostle. Paul was a church-planter. Paul was the writer of many books of the Bible, some of them being my favorites like Galatians and 1&2 Timothy. He was a great man and the closest to being perfect. In my mind, Paul is the best Christian that has ever lived. That is why many theologians, pastors, and great minds throughout Church history are shocked when they read what Paul writes in Romans 7:14-15 (ESV):
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.“
Then, Paul says something in Romans 7:19 (ESV) that, to this day, shakes my inner being to an awakened state:
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.“
Paul is like many of us. He knows that there is a right decision, and he knows that he loves God because he says this in Romans 7:22-23 (HCSB):
“For in my inner self I joyfully agree with God’s law. But I see a different law in the parts of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body.“
It is still hard for me to believe that a man like Paul, a man who had seen Jesus Christ with his own eyes, had this struggle. He was waging war against himself every day, working diligently to see the mortification of his sin. He loved God and feared Him with all of his heart, but Paul was also a man. We tend to look up to people and think: they don’t go through what I go through. They do. They definitely do.
As I see Paul’s struggle with sin, I am reminded of my first chess game. Paul, I’m sure, had a hard time trying to defeat his opponent: sin itself. He would think that he could checkmate the enemy, or possibly corner him, but it was to no avail. I relate myself to Paul. I want to give God my very best, 100%, all the time… but I fail. I am human, imperfect, and prone to wander. One of my most beloved hymns, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, has these words:
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it / Prone to leave the God I love.
My dear brothers and sisters, make no mistake, we are all stuck in this chess game. We will all make stupid decisions. We will all fail in our walk with God, and it is because we are in the body. Paul himself cries out in Romans 7:24 (ESV):
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Paul wanted to escape this horrible, horrible match against sin. However, there is wonderful news. We are not alone! We are not waging war against sin on our own! Romans 7:25 (ESV) ends with a glorious truth that says this:
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
My dearest friends, we have Christ. Christ! He is our righteousness! He is our right standing before God, and He is the mediator between us and the Father. It is not by my own righteousness that God will continue to love me, but by His perfect love and grace that He has shown to me before the world even began. In 1 John 2, the word of God tells us that Christ acts as our lawyer if we sin. He is our advocate to the Father, our representative before the throne of God.
God calls me to follow Him, and to obey Him now that I have a new heart. I am not able to do that on my own, even with a regenerate heart. But as it says in the Scriptures, it is the Holy Spirit that will sanctify us. The Galatians were taught that they could please God purely by their own works, and that somehow they could checkmate sin through their own demise. Yet Paul reminded them that it was only by the Spirit of God that we can be sanctified, and that we could kill sin every day.
As I read Luther, Calvin, Owen, Lloyd Jones, Whitfield, Spurgeon, Watson, and many other Reformers they all said the same thing: we must be killing sin! John Owen’s most famous quotes is, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Romans 7 that killing sin was important in our sanctification. I could go on about how they say that waging war against sin is important, but remember… we will lose some battles. The Reformers knew this. That’s why they encouraged their students, followers, and readers to follow the Holy Spirit. They would constantly remind every Christian, in the same spirit Paul did, that it was only by God’s power we’d get anywhere.
It’s easy to get discouraged, my friends. It seems to be a good option to give up. It is perceivable that giving up would help us. After all, the world is chasing after sin. But my brothers and sisters in Christ, we must never give up. Don’t even look at your own faults. I know it’s tempting, but don’t even waste your time doing that. Sin will abound, but Christ’s grace is greater. We will not sin to abuse that grace, no never, but we will live knowing that He will not forsake those He loves.
Look to Christ. Don’t beat yourself up over the sins you commit, and don’t ever think that God can’t forgive it. Don’t bear your griefs and sorrows on your own. Run to Jesus! We are in a war, and He is our general. He will guide us in our chess game against sin. He is good to us, and He is our Greatest Friend. Remember the words of the hymn Come Ye Sinners that still ring true as you continue to fight sin alongside Him:
“In the arms of my dear Savior / Oh, there are ten thousand charms.”
Soli Deo Gloria.