It’s a word with which much of the world has unfortunately become familiar in recent years: “jihad.” “Jihad” is the Arabic word which carries the idea of “struggle,” and is often referred to as “holy war” within Islam.
While not all Muslim scholars agree on the way in which holy war should look, one need not look far to understand what it means to many in our world today.
But though such wars have been going on for centuries, Christ would in no way attribute the term “holy” to them. Worship and devotion to the true God means loving, not murdering, our enemies. Those of different faiths are not to be the object of our killing, but praying.
There is, however, a true holy way commanded by God. This war is spiritual in nature. It is a war against ourselves, and against the lack of holiness within, the moment we become a Christian. The true holy war is physically peaceful towards others, but spiritually aggressive towards self. Its not about strategically hunting down, and systematically taking out, the enemies outside of us, but the enemy inside of us.
While God’s agenda advancement for his disciples today does not consist of killing others, it certainly consists of killing our own sin.
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5).
The 17th century puritan pastor, John Owen, has been greatly used of God to help the church in the holy war. He writes, “Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it [while] you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
Now, studying sin may seem strange and undesirable to many. But our sin is not something we forget about simply because we are forgiven of it. An attraction to sin still exists inside the Christian because of our residual fallenness, the flesh. As such, it is our great enemy within. And its the thing which keeps us from doing what we most want: to love Christ. That’s why the true holy war is one of the sine qua non’s of the Christian life.
Here are 7 truths to arm God’s people for the holy war:
1. The holy war begins when we are forgiven and saved by faith in Christ.
And not before. Prior to salvation, we are enslaved to sin. We are engulfed in sin. Every fiber of our being is incarcerated in iniquity. But not against our will. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Prior to Christ, we are dead in sin.
So, our will needs more than inspiration. Our nature needs more than an upgrade. Our desires need more than to observe moral heroics. We are dead. Inspiration does not inspire the dead. Upgrades do not upgrade the dead. Heroics do not heroicize the dead. The dead remain dead until made alive.
For that reason, we cannot, nor will not, fight the holy war prior to regeneration by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Once we do, the fight is on, and:
2. There are many reasons for why we must fight.
We fight sin because that’s just our new nature, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ. It’s our pneumatological hard-wiring to do so:
“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13).
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another…” (Gal 5:16-17).
More than a command to fight, being Holy Spirit-indwelt simply means there is a fight. When the flesh and the Spirit are dropped into a soul, they will go at it like two betta fish in a pickle jar.
Further, we fight sin because it’s God’s ordained means for persevering in the faith. The holy war is a chief way in which God has decided we will progress in sanctification to glorification, by his grace:
“Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Tim 4:16).
Let’s not misunderstand. Fighting our sin is not the meritorious work by which we are made righteous before God. Justification is by faith alone in Christ alone. But fighting evidences we’re justified so as to be in the fight, by God’s grace.
Further, we fight because that is how we desist from the victories of the residual sin in us:
“Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (1 Pet 2:11 ).
We also fight sin to honor what Christ paid so dearly to redeem us from.
Imagine a guy from the south who has gorged himself on nothing but fried Twinkies and lard milkshakes for the majority of his adult life. One day he discovers that he needs a heart transplant at the age of 35. His diet has nearly killed him, when suddenly, an individual steps up to donate his perfectly healthy heart to him. The surgery is a complete success; new heart, healthy, ready to go.
Now, what kind of fool would he be to continue his diet of fried Twinkies and lard milkshakes? The generosity of a new heart, reflecting on the great foolishness he previously lived in, the blessing of newness in life, and the hope of a new beginning will transform him to steer clear of his widow-maker diet.
So it is, and infinitely more, when a sinner is saved by faith in Christ. God’s radical generosity was expressed to us foolish wretches by offering up Christ to be judged in our place. And he gives us a new spiritual heart, the blessing of exhilarating new spiritual life, new hope, and eternal life. That’s not going to leave someone inert. Out of love for this God, we are going to fight for anything contrary. That’s why we engage in the holy war.
3. We are either fighting our sin or feeding our sin.
In warfare, the enemy steps up when its opposition lets up. So it is with our sin. We’re either nurturing it or nuking it. We’re either moving forward or backward.
“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Notice, there are two ways of life here. It pictures two realities. And the latter, putting sin to death by the Spirit, will be bumpy, of course. But it will be a forward movement over the long haul.
John Owen: “The vigor and power and comfort of our spiritual life depends on our mortification of deeds of the flesh.”
Paul gave added insight from his own testimony:
“Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:26-27).
In other words, Paul says, “There are two operating modes: giving the beating or getting the beating. By God’s grace, I’ll do everything I can to prevent the latter.” The idea of “let go, let God,” would’ve been completely foreign to the apostle of grace.
With help from John Owen, J.I. Packer writes:
“Indwelling sin has been dethroned and dealt its death blow through the believer’s union with Christ in his death. Now, with the Spirit’s aid, the Christian must spend his lifetime draining sin’s lifeblood. We may not relax, for sin ‘will no otherwise die, but by being gradually and constantly weakened; spare it, and it heals its wounds, and recovers strength.’”
Finally, in a brilliance of simplicity and truth, Christ pictures the war as violent as it really is: “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt 5:29).
We are either fighting our sin or feeding our sin.
4. We are weakened against our sin for many reasons.
In the book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, the believer battling his way to heaven, Christian, faces a myriad of characters who symbolize temptations we face inside and out. And there is no lack: Mr. Worldlywiseman, Obstinate, Pliable, Sloth, Simple, Presumption, the crowd at Vanity Fair, to name a few, threaten Christian’s progress in the faith.
It’s no different with us.
Prayerlessness, for example, drains our strength for the fight. As Owen has said, “If we do not abide in prayer, we will abide in temptation,” and, “Whoever wishes to avoid temptation must pray.”
Spiritual self-sufficiency and self-trust are also killers. J.I. Packer observed, “Sin’s strategy is to induce a false sense of security as a prelude to a surprise attack.” Like Peter’s boast that he would never deny Christ in Matthew 26:33-35, pride comes before a fall.
Distancing ourselves from local church involvement can also be a catalyst to sin’s weakening presence. The church is God’s greenhouse for our growth and his hospital for our recovery. Mark it: casual demeanor towards local church involvement and accountability is a killer.
Consider, for example, those post-surgery moments in the hospital. It’s critical that the patient be monitored from all angles by the physician in the hospital. Becoming a Christian is not entering into the moral hero’s club, but finally checking in for surgery. And we don’t leave God’s hospital, the local church, until glory. Doing so is a digression in the fight.
Unchallenging relationships provide avenues for temptation as well. Sometimes we can be more interested in a local church and relationships that flatter and fluff us instead of challenging and spurring. Our view of relationships degenerates into finding a collection of individuals who, in mutual half-heartedness, give one another an unspoken pass on each other’s mediocrity. And it’s a disengaging from the holy war.
Giving into a sin also ensures greater temptation. Sometimes we can think, “Well, if I just give in, that sin, that temptation, it will relax.” It will relax, but in the same way that a starving lion does after you throw it a 100lb buffalo steak. That beast will devour the steak, then go into food coma. We suppose that since we’ve fed the beast, all is well. But we’ve merely strengthened and nourished it, ensuring it will come back stronger and swifter. And what’s worse, we’ve habitualized ourselves to feeding it instead of starving. So, if we are going to kill the beast, we must starve it.
“Let no man think to kill sin with few, easy, or gentle strokes. He who hath once smitten a serpent, if he follow not on his blow until it be slain, may repent that ever he began the quarrel. And so is he who undertakes to deal with sin, and pursues it not constantly to the death.”
“Sin is never less quiet, than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep, when they are still.”
“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Rom 13:14).
Also, things like delayed repentance (i.e. David progressed from adultery to murder, 2 Sam 11:15), poor doctrine and knowledge of the word, prosperity (spiritual, material, etc), physical struggles (sickness, sleep deprivation, hunger), little intake of Scripture (cf. Ps 119:11), and failure to apply the word can pave inroads for greater temptation.
5. Our battle against sin will not end until death.
The point of this is not morbidity but reality. You see this in the apostle Paul’s life. At all points he is rejoicing in Christ while simultaneously grieving and fighting sin. He went down swinging.
At times, we may let up in the battle. But that no more means that the battle isn’t happening than to stop shoveling snow in December in Wyoming means I will have no more to shovel for the winter.
Further, there are no commands in Scripture indicating we need to, at any point in our lives, “let go and let God.” The fight continues until the fight is over. For that reason, we do not pray, “Lord, remove me from the battle,” but, “Revive me for and in the battle; to never leave the battle until there is no more battle.” We don’t pray to flee the fight, but to keep from failing in the fight. We do not pray to be rescued from effort in the battle, but for effort in the battle.
We’re going to need strength until the end.
J.I. Packer again: “No one gets out of Romans 7 in this world.”
Some encouragement though:
6. It is a mark of spiritual health and humility to grieve our own sin.
Because we are seeing ourselves for who we really are. And it is that bad, and worse.
In Christ’s most famous sermon, among other things, he begins with blessing on those who see and loathe their sin: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” It’s the kind of hate that is good.
When Paul cried, “Wretched man that I am!” (Rom 7:24) that was not a regression in his faith, but a progression. When Isaiah was morally shattered before the holiness of God, crying, “Woe is me, for I am ruined!”, God does not interject by saying, “Relax, you’re not that bad.” Its as Lloyd-Jones said, “The greater the saint the greater is the sense of sin and the awareness of sin within.” To grow up is to grow down.
So we can be encouraged that seeing and loathing our sin is not failing, but growing. Moreover, it’s something we could never do apart from the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit. We can be encouraged in those moments because it is the power of almighty God responding in you to a lack of holiness. It means, though there is war, all is well.
Along those lines, we need not worry much about the individual who says, “My sin is so discouraging. It’s just such a battle for me regularly. I just hate it.” That’s a healthy soul who is positioned to see and cherish Christ in a fresh way.
John Owen understood this well:
“…oftentimes we are carried into distempered affections, foolish imaginations, and pleasing delightfulness in things that are not good nor profitable … When the soul is doing…quite another thing…sin starts that in the heart…that carries it away into that which is evil and sinful. I know no greater burden in the life of a believer than these involuntary surprisals… And it is in respect unto them that the apostle makes his complaint [in] Romans 7:24.”
Sidenote: consider that Owen suffered much in his day, having buried his first wife and many children, while also enduring the chaos of the Great Ejection. Even so, he knew “no greater burden” than the surprisals of inner sin.
It is a mark of spiritual health and humility to grieve our own sin.
7. No matter how hard the fight, or if we fall, we remain God’s children on the basis of Christ’s death in our place.
That’s good news. Regardless of punches landed on our sin in a given day, we’re fastened in the family of God. Our performance in the holy war is not what renders or keeps us righteous in Christ. The force with which we fight is not the grounds for our permanent, no-condemnation standing before holy God.
God unleashed the full measure of his righteous wrath on Christ so that he might unleash on us the full measure of mercy. Our faith in him seals the deal. No more condemnation. Our assurance in the fight is that Christ already won.
When we are weary in the battle against our sin; when we fall, when we fail, when we feel like giving up, the cross declares that we yet stand before a satisfied God.