Most of us who have walked with Christ for more than a few days are familiar with the experience of an inner struggle. We want to follow Christ. But we also find things in us which seem to press in the opposite direction. So I feel comforted when I read things like Romans chapter 7 and into chapter 8, and I hear Paul saying: “I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” This seems to describe the familiar struggle, even for the Christian. Of course, Paul does not (ever, really) end on a note of defeat. He goes on to say: “I thank God– through Jesus Christ our Lord,” which seems to answer his question, “Who will deliver me?” However, he immediately observes, “So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.” Which seems to say, “But still, though final victory is assured, I know the experience of having something in me (called “flesh”) which struggles against serving God’s law.” And he follows this up with the first two verses of Romans chapter 8, which say: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” Again–final victory is assured, but the struggle does remain.
I hear similar things in Galatians chapter 5, where Paul writes: “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” That’s ESV. NIrV says it: “The sinful nature does not want what the Spirit delights in. And the Spirit does not want what the sinful nature delights in. The two are at war with each other. That’s what makes you do what you don’t want to do.”
Isn’t this describing the experience so many of us have, of a battle we feel inside of us? Interestingly, several of the commentaries I’ve read on these passages, by New Testament scholars, say, “No.” And they say it pretty forcefully. They say that Paul is talking about people who are not saved. He’s not talking about believers. The two books I have in mind (one on Paul’s letters and one on Romans) both make this claim, but then give no explanation for the sense of the battle within so many of us feel. If the New Testament doesn’t want me to think of a battle within, why do I feel it, and why do these passages so clearly seem to point to it? This has been kind of an open question for me, for a while. So I was very interested the other day to find this passage in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It seems that John Calvin knew the struggle too. This is from a section in Book 3 titled: “The Conflict in the Heart of the Believer.” Enjoy…
In order to understand this, it is necessary to return to that division of flesh and spirit which we have mentioned elsewhere. It most clearly reveals itself at this point. Therefore the godly heart feels in itself a division because it is partly imbued with sweetness from its recognition of the divine goodness, partly grieves in bitterness from an awareness of its calamity; partly rests upon the promise of the gospel, partly trembles at the evidence of its own iniquity; partly rejoices at the expectation of life, partly shudders at death. This variation arises from imperfection of faith, since in the course of the present life it never goes so well with us that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith. Hence arise those conflicts; when unbelief, which reposes in the remains of the flesh, rises up to attack the faith that has been inwardly conceived.
But if in the believing mind certainty is mixed with doubt, do we not always come back to this, that faith does not rest in a certain and clear knowledge, but only in an obscure and confused knowledge of the divine will towards us? Not at all. For even if we are distracted by various thoughts, we are not on that account completely divorced from faith. Nor if we are troubled on all sides by the agitation of unbelief, are we for that reason cast down from our position. For the end of the conflict is always this: that faith ultimately triumphs over those difficulties which besiege and seem to imperil it.
(Calvin, Institutes, I.3.18)
I mean, at this point in my Christian journey, I agree with this. I agree that the Bible teaches final victory over unbelief for believers, in some way, shape or form, but I also am aware of a constant struggle, on my own part and the part of those around me, to press towards that victory. And it seems like that struggle won’t be fully over until we reach the resurrection, and Christ finally delivers us from these “bodies of death.”