The Struggle to Be Good

Romans 7:24-25

24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

There are two extremes, when considering sin. One extreme, is to feel the weight of sin to be so great that a person gives up any effort to do right, or turns to heretical theology to feel better about themselves. In recent years, God’s people have been taught they must learn to forgive themselves. They have been taught to love themselves. Self-Esteem Theology is now united with the Prosperity Gospel, as one heresy gives birth to another.

Historic Christian theology teaches that only God can forgive sin, and that self-love is the source of all sin. Christian theology teaches godly individuals to die to themselves, to esteem others better than themselves, and love others, no matter what is said or done.

The other extreme people take when considering sin, is to embrace the idea of human perfection. The mantra of the world says, “Every day, In ever way, I am getting better.”

No, you are not.

That is a lie from the pit of Hell. 

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9).

“There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 13:12-13).

There is daily evidence that mankind is not getting better every day, and in every way, for there are reports of rape, riot, and murder, every twenty-four hours. There are wars and rumors of war. The innate goodness of individuals is a terrible lie, a delusional teaching, of an arrogant fallen humanity.

But the idea of human goodness is not restricted to the world. Into the Church has come the Doctrine of Entire Sanctification or Perfectionism. This aberrant teaching set forth by John and Charles Wesley, and others, contends that a Christian can reach such a state of holiness that sin ceases in this life. It would be nice if it were possible, and true, but the Bible is clear. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). “For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself” (Gal. 6:3).

Though Christians cannot live without sinning in the flesh, while they are in the present body, what Christians can do, is struggle to be good. What Christians can do is to engage in spiritual battle with the flesh. A fierce engagement with the world, the flesh, and the Devil, is not just encouraged, but commanded in Scripture.

“The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. 13 Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. 14 But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof” (Rom. 13:12-13).

Many years ago, there was a young man who was very intelligent, but immoral in his lifestyle. His Christian mother had prayed and pleaded for his conversion for many years, to no avail. Then, one day, in the providence of the Lord, this young, 31-year-old scholar, was visiting his friend Ponticianus in Milan. While waiting in the courtyard he heard the voice of some children playing school singing, “Tolle liege! Tolle lege!” or, “Take up and read!” “Take up and read!” There was a scroll near him that caught his eyes and he impulsively took up the material and began to read. His eyes fell on these words of Paul to the Church of Rome. “The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. 13 Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. 14 But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof”

In that moment, God the Holy Spirit used Scripture to convict and convert Augustine (b. 354 in Tagaste [Algeria]). 

Each of the words of the Pauline passage became an arrow to his heart. He was pieced to the core of his being. In that very moment, Augustine was converted to Christianity, and forsook the false teachings of the Manicheans, which he had foolishly embraced for eleven years of his life.

Augustine was converted from a passage which spoke directly about the conflict between the flesh and the spirit.

On the day of his conversion, Augustine had no idea how God would use him in an amazing way. Augustine became one of the greatest theologians of the Church during the first millennial. His influence, positively and negatively, continues in the modern era.

Rod Sterling, creator of the popular TV program, The Twilight Zone, was involved in a business enterprise as an aspirating writer.  He and Bernard Cerf, along with other young authors, were approached by some investors trying to discover new writing talent. To test the quality of their ability, the investors had each candidate they intended to promote, select one of the literary classics and write a critical review on that work.

One person would write something from William Shakespeare. Someone else would select a work from the pen of the poet, Milton, such as Paradise Lost.  

Rod Sterling was given the task of writing a critical review of Augustine’s, The Confessions. Not surprisingly, Sterling was not impressed, and declared The Confessions to be one of the most overrated books in the history of Western literature. Why? Sterling believed Augustine was too preoccupied with guilt. Sterling’s position is not unique.

As a student of history at Ft. Hays State University in the later part of the 1970’s, I read The Confessions of St. Augustine as part of an elective philosophy course. When I met privately with the professor to discuss the book, he smiled and said, “Augustine overdid it, didn’t he?” He meant that Augustine was too preoccupied with guilt, especially his youthful indiscretions of stealing pears.

Augustine remembered.

“We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart–which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself.”

In his mature years, Augustine reviewed what he had done in life, and confessed that among the things he was most ashamed, he regretted stealing the pears. That particular memory flooded his soul, and broke his heart afresh, for it established, not only the course of his life until the hour of his conversion, but revealed who he was as a person.

When the professor of philosophy said that Augustine, “over did it,” I replied, “I do not think so. I believe that Augustine had the grace of a guilty conscience that magnified sin, whereby most of us tend to minimize our transgressions.” The sin of stealing pears was among the innumerable sins which put Christ on the Cross of Calvary, and so it should not be minimized.

But there was something else that bothered Augustine about the incident of stealing the pears. In contrast to the other sins which he had committed, such as fathering a child outside of marriage, stealing the pears had no explanation.

There are transgressions which, while not excusable, are understandable. A man who is starving might steal. That is understandable. It is not right, but it is understandable.

The incident of stealing the pears was neither excusable, nor understandable.

It was an act of pure evil.

It was an act of outright rebellion against righteousness.

It was an act without any compelling reason, not even selfish pleasure, for Augustine did not eat the pears, but gave them to the hogs.

What Augustine regretted was the exercising of his fallen nature, his flesh, for no other reason than the sheer joy of doing it.

Said Augustine,

“It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error–not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.”

Herein is spiritual self-awareness that is lost to so many people. As individuals try to explain why they are cruel, or angry, why they lie, cheat, or steal, as people justify their bad behavior because someone else made them do it, or changed them, Augustine said, “I am a sinful man O Lord. I did evil for no other reason but the pure joy of sinning.”

Why is this self-awareness important?

Spiritual self-awareness is important because without it, the heart will continue to justify the unjustifiable, offer an explanation for the unexplainable, and minimize what should be magnified.

Without spiritual self-awareness of the evil of the flesh, a person will not be inclined to say, “I AM a sinful man, O Lord”, as Peter did (Luke 5:8). Nor will any effort be made to “make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” What the heart will say is, “I am weak.” Or worse, “This is who I am. This is the way God made me.”

Without any spiritual self-awareness, the homosexual can keep his lifestyle, and even run for a highest office in a society, in order to lead others into perversion, and death.

Without any spiritual self-awareness, the liar can continue to lie, and desecrate the halls of the highest legislative deliberative body in the land. 

Without any spiritual self-awareness, the vandal can continue to violate the property of someone else.

Without any spiritual self-awareness, there is no need to mortify the deeds of the body. There is no reason to continue to struggle against the world, the flesh, or the Devil.

It is only with an illuminating “Pear Tree Moment” that a person, enslaved to an addiction, or the tyranny of a repetitive practice, can hope to change, for when sin is magnified, Christ is glorified, because of His saving work at Calvary.

Are you aware of your own heart of darkness? Have you had a “Pear Tree Moment” whereby the Holy Spirit illuminated to your mind the exceeding sinfulness of sin? Or, does Satan whisper to you in the hour of gospel repentance, “Do not over do it”?

If the state of your fallen humanity, called flesh, is real to you, then take hope in Jesus Christ. Remember that where sin abounds, grace does much more abound (Rom. 5:20).

Though the spiritual warfare is real, intense, and prolonged, the ultimate victory has been won through Jesus Christ the Lord, through sanctification of the Spirit, “that the righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4).

What is a person to do?

First, a person must repent. That means to change the mind. 

Second, a person must be converted. Conversion brings a renewal of the heart, resulting in different behavior.

Third, a person must love the Lord God, and their neighbor.

Fourth, a person must not make any provision for the flesh, which is the Old Fallen Nature. And this we will do, by the power of the Holy Spirit.