My Soul’s Greatest Trouble
“This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” (Galatians 5:16-17)
Believers are men and women with two distinct, separate, warring natures: the flesh and the spirit. When God saves a sinner he does not renovate, repair, and renew the old nature. He creates a new nature in his elect. Our old, Adamic, fallen, sinful nature is not changed. The flesh is subdued by the spirit; but it will never surrender to the spirit. The spirit wars against the flesh; but it will never conquer or improve the flesh. The flesh is sinful. The flesh is cursed. Thank God, the flesh must die! But it will never be improved.
This dual nature of the believer is plainly taught in the Word of God. It is utterly impossible to honestly interpret this portion of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, the 7th chapter of Romans, and 1 John 3 without concluding that both Paul and John teach that there is within every believer, so long as he lives in this world, both an old Adamic nature that can do nothing but sin and a new righteous nature, that which is born of God, that cannot sin, that can only do righteousness. The Holy Spirit’s work in sanctification is not the improvement of our old nature, but the maturing of the new, steadily causing the believer to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ and bring forth fruit unto God.
Every believer knows the duality of his nature by painful, bitterly painful experience. Ask any child of God what he desires above all things and he will quickly reply, “That I may live without sin in perfect conformity to Christ, perfectly obeying the will of God in all things.” But that which he most greatly desires is an utter impossibility in this life. Is it not so with you? Though you delight in the law of God after the inward man, there is another law of evil in your members, warring against you. You would do good; but evil is always present with you, so that you cannot do the things that you would. Even your best, noblest, most sincere acts of good, when honestly evaluated, are so marred by sin in motive and in execution that you must confess, “All my righteousnesses are filthy rags!”
It is this warfare between the flesh and the spirit more than anything else that keeps the believer from being satisfied with life in this world. Blessed be God, we shall soon be free! When we have dropped this robe of flesh we shall be perfectly conformed to the image of him who loved us and gave himself for us!
“This I say then.” — If we would overcome the horrible propensity of our flesh to evil, if we would avoid biting and devouring one another like mad dogs, we must live not by the carnal rule of the law, which only stirs up sin, but by the gracious rule of the Holy Spirit.
“Walk in the Spirit.” — The believer’s life in this world is often compared to a journey. The word “walk” is used in Holy Scripture as a synonym for “live” (Mark 7:5; Rom. 4:12; 6:4; 8:1). Paul is talking here about God the Holy Spirit. To walk in the Spirit is to live by faith in Christ. Those who walk in the Spirit walk with God, as Enoch did, trusting Christ alone for acceptance with the Holy Lord God. All who walk in the Spirit, all who trust Christ, have the witness and testimony of God within them that they please God, being accepted of God in Christ (Heb. 11:5-6; 1 John 5:10-13; Eph. 1:3-6). This is what Paul declares in Romans 8:1-4.
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”
“And ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” — Paul does not say that the flesh shall not be in us, or that the lust of the flesh will no longer burn within us. He says that living by faith in Christ, as we walk “in the Spirit,” we “shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” This is not stated as a possibility, but as a certainty. Believers do not live by the evil dictates of the flesh, but by the gracious rule of the Spirit. This is stated as a matter of fact. Paul is not here telling us that we might not fulfill the lust of the flesh if we can manage, by self-discipline and self-denial, to yield ourselves to the influence of the Holy Spirit. Rather, he is telling us that if we live by faith in Christ, if our lives are ruled by the Spirit of God, we “shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” Paul’s subject has not changed. He is talking about God’s ongoing work of grace in the believer. He is telling us, as Edgar Andrews states, “that the law and the flesh are co-conspirators against grace and the Spirit.”
“The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.” — As he uses it here, the word “flesh” does not refer to the physical body in which we live in this world, but to our fallen, corrupt, Adamic nature, the old man that still exists in saved sinners. It is that internal principle of corruption, “the carnal mind,” that is ever “enmity against God” (Rom. 8:7). The flesh is flesh, nothing else, just sinful flesh. It can do nothing but evil. “The Spirit” is the internal principle of grace in regenerate men and women. It refers to the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. This is “Christ in you, the Hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). This is that holy thing born of God that cannot sin (1 John 3:9).
“These are contrary the one to the other.” — They are enemies. “The flesh, or the old man, the carnal I, in regenerate persons, wills, chooses, desires, and loves carnal things, which are contrary to the Spirit or principle of grace in the soul…The Spirit or the new man, the spiritual I, wills, chooses, desires, approves, and loves spiritual things, such as are contrary to corrupt nature.” (John Gill). They are as contrary to one another as light and darkness or fire and water. They continually war against one another.
Because the flesh ever lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, “ye cannot do the things that ye would.” The believer would do perfectly good. That is our desire. Yet, we cannot do that which is good, because sin dwells within us. Our old nature of flesh would do nothing but sin, that which we hate. But the Spirit of Christ reigning within keeps the flesh from having its way (Rom. 7:15-17,22,23.)
This is the lamentation expressed by God’s church in the Song of Solomon (6:13). — “What will ye see in Solyma? As it were the company of two armies.” She is saying, “There is nothing in me but conflict and confusion. In my heart two armies are at war. If you look upon me, you will see a raging battle, good fighting evil, light contending with darkness. I am a house divided against itself.” This is a true and accurate description of the people of God. All of God’s elect experience constant warfare within, constant conflict between the flesh and the Spirit, so long as we live in this body of flesh. This conflict, this warfare causes us so much pain and trouble.
These inward conflicts are facts in every believer’s life. The believer’s life is not all sweets. It is not all joy and peace. Faith in Christ brings some bitter conflicts, which cause God’s child much pain, much toil, and many tears. The struggles between the flesh and the Spirit are evident enough to all who are born of God. To the unbelieving, unregenerate religionist, true Christians are confusing paradoxes. We are the happiest and the most mournful people in the world. We are the richest and the poorest people on earth. We are men and women who possess perfect peace; yet, we are always at war.
We see traces of this conflict throughout the Song of Solomon (1:5; 3:1; 5:2). We see these inward conflicts throughout the Psalms of David (Psa. 42; 43; 73). We see them dealt with and explained in Romans 7:14-25, and here in Galatians 5:16-18. And we see these terrible inward conflicts in our own daily experience of grace.
The people of God throughout the centuries have had the same struggles that we now have. John Bunyan wrote a book about his conflicts of heart and soul, which he titled, “The Holy War.” Richard Sibbes wrote a similar book called, “The Soul’s Conflict.” Though we are born of God, God’s saints in this world have a corrupt nature within, which would drive us to sin. Yet, we have within us a righteous nature, which would draw us into perfect conformity and union with Christ. Between these two forces of good and evil there is no peace (1 John 3:7-9).
This conflict is caused by and begins in regeneration. C. H. Spurgeon said, “The reigning power of sin falls dead the moment a man is converted, but the struggling power of sin does not die until the man dies.” A new nature has been planted within us; but the old nature is not eradicated.
Do not think for a moment that the old nature dies in regeneration, or even that it gets better. Flesh is flesh, and will never be anything but flesh. Noah, Lot, Moses, David, and Peter, like all other believers, had to struggle with this fact. We need no proof of the fact that God’s people in this world have two warring natures within beyond an honest examination of our own hearts and lives. Our best thoughts are corrupted with sin. Our most fervent prayers are defiled by lusts of the flesh. Our reading of Holy Scripture is corrupted by carnal passions. Our most spiritual worship is marred by the blackness within. Our most holy aspirations are vile. Our purest love for our Savior is so corrupted by our love of self and love for this world that we can hardly call our love for Christ love. From time to time we have all found, by bitter experience, the truthfulness of the hymn…
“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it!
Prone to leave the God I love:
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.”
I am reasonably confident that I am loved and chosen of God (Jer. 1:5; 31:3), redeemed by the precious blood of Christ (Gal. 2:20; 2 Cor. 5:21), and born again by the power and grace of God the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:1-4). These things give me great joy, peace, and comfort. I have a good hope through grace regarding these things. I have some measure of confidence and assurance before God that these things are so, and that I am a child of God and an heir of eternal salvation. And I base that assurance upon the fact that I trust the Lord Jesus Christ alone as my Savior (1 John 5:1, 12-13; Heb. 11:1).
“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”
Yet, there is a terrible struggle within my soul, a tormenting trial in my spirit, a heavy burden upon my heart. I have a new heart and a new will, a new, heaven-bent nature, created in me by the grace of God, a nature that longs for and seeks after righteousness and conformity to the Lord Jesus Christ. But I cannot do the things I would. I find a law in my members that when I would do good evil is present with me. I find in my soul iniquity, transgression, and sin far more hideous and ignominious than the most profane acts of ungodly men. I want to pray; but there is too much selfish lust in my prayers to call them prayer. I want to worship God; but there is too much pride in my worship to call it worship. I want to be completely free of earthly care, trusting God in all things, but there is too much unbelief and selfish resentment toward God’s providence to call my faith, faith, or my submission, submission. The envy that is in me is enmity against God. My lack of contentment is the despising of God’s providence. My worry is questioning God’s wisdom and goodness. My fears are the denial of God’s power. My covetousness is proud rebellion against God.
I hear men talk of becoming less and less sinful and progressively holier today than they were yesterday. I hear men talking about what they call “progressive sanctification.” Their doctrine is that God’s children grow in righteousness and holiness until they are ripe for heaven. They teach that glorification is the end result of their own progressive attainments in personal holiness. If their doctrine is true, then, it is possible for men, by diligent self-denial and personal holiness, to eventually attain sinless perfection in this life.
Such doctrine, of course, is contrary to Holy Scripture (1 John 1:8, 10). Honesty compels me to acknowledge that such doctrine is totally contrary to all personal experience. I have, I believe, over these past 37 years grown in grace. My love, faith, commitment to Christ, and joy in the Lord have grown, increased, and matured by the grace of God. But, my sin has not diminished. My outward acts of sin are more restricted and controlled. But the inward evil of my flesh has not diminished. If anything, it is worse now than ever. Reader, Is it not so with you? With aching heart, I confess my sin. Though I am redeemed, justified, and sanctified in Christ, I am still a man in the flesh, full of sin. Do you not experience the same thing? Paul did (Rom. 7:14-24). This is my soul’s greatest trouble. I wish it were not so, but it is. The fact is, we who believe God, we who walk in the Spirit, trusting Christ as our Savior, are people with two natures, two principles, warring against one another continually; and those two natures are the flesh and the Spirit (1 John 3:9).
The thing Paul is talking about in Galatians 5:16-17 is clearly displayed in the life of David, the man after God’s own heart. In Psalm 73 David describes before God the warfare and struggle of his own soul between the flesh and the spirit. When he looked over his own household, with all its troubles, and thought about the propriety and peace of the wicked around him, he said, “My feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped. For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked… Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning” (Ps. 73:2,3,13,14). Then, he went into the house of God and understood their end. Then, he said, “Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins. So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee” (Ps. 73:21-22).
Taking David’s words as my own, I make the painful confession of my sin before God and before you who read these lines. It is my hope that by writing as I do in the first person, you can and will identify with what you are reading. Though I am saved by the grace of God, I am a terribly foul and sinful man. — “So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee” (v. 22). I have had a few trials in my life. But the most painful, most difficult trial I have ever had to endure is one that I must endure so long as I live in this world. It is the ever-increasing realization and awareness of my sin.
David uses three words to describe his sin before God: “foolish,” “ignorant,” “beastly.” He says, “I have behaved as a fool before God.” This is a very strong word. It is the same word he uses to describe the atheist in Psalm 14:1. It means “one who forgets God and loves evil.” Yet, David uses this word to describe himself. He even intensifies his foolishness – “So foolish was I.” Then he says, “I have been ignorant.” My speech, my thoughts, and my actions betray my ignorance. How often we act like ignorant men and women! And David goes on to say, “I have behaved like a brute beast before God.” This word “beast” speaks of some hideous, monstrous, astonishingly wild creature. This is an accurate description of our flesh. The old man is a sinful, beastly, monstrous creature.
“I would disclose my whole complaint,
But where shall I begin?
No words of mine can fully paint
A picture of my sin.”
Like David, I most truly describe myself when I describe myself “as a beast before” God. Like the brute beasts of the earth, I am too much attached to this world. The hog, grubbing in the mud for its roots, cares nothing for the stars. The wild ass’s colt, roaming the hills, cares nothing for the angels of God. The ravenous wolf has no regard for eternity. Educate the beast, train it as well as you can, but it will have no regard for anything, but its natural appetite. How much like beasts I am! ― Is it not so with you? Are we not too fondly attached to the things of this world? Let us never be content with our beastly attachment to this world. But do not be so proud and foolish as to deny it.
I am like the wild beasts in this regard, too. I seem to have so little emotion and passion for heavenly things.
“Look how we grovel here below,
Fond of these trifling toys;
Our souls can neither fly nor go
To reach eternal joys.
In vain we tune our formal songs,
In vain we strive to rise;
Hosannahs languish on our tongues,
And our devotion dies.
Dear Lord, and shall we ever live
At this poor, dying rate?
Our love so faint, so cold to Thee,
And Thine to us so great?”
There is a beastly deadness, coldness of heart, and apathetic indifference about everything I do. My preaching, my repentance, my Bible reading, my praying, my singing, my worship, everything is so dead! Like brute beasts, we are terribly short-sighted. Our hearts and minds are too much concerned for the things of time, and too little concerned for the things of eternity.
And we may well compare ourselves to brute beasts because of our animal like passions. I will not go far into this dark path of our painful experience. I will say only enough to make you understand that this is the common experience of God’s elect. C. H. Spurgeon said, “He that hath fellowship with God will sometimes feel the devil within him till he thinketh himself a devil.”
When we honestly look within, we will find that there is nothing lovely to be seen. We are as brute beasts before God. There is no evil of which this sinful flesh is not capable. We are evil, only evil, and that continually. Were it not for the free grace and sovereign love of God for us, we could not live with ourselves. The characteristics of beasts rage within each of us. In my flesh there still remains the pride of a lion, the lust of the horseleech, the raging anger of a bull, the envy of a wolf, and the stubbornness of a jackass.
Again, let us understand that the grace of God does not change our old nature. Grace gives us a new nature. But flesh is still flesh, undiluted evil, just as evil as it was before the Lord saved us. Old Adam is still old Adam, even though Christ is in the heart. Grace conquers Adam and grace rules Adam, but grace does not change Adam. “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh.” This warfare and struggle within each of us is constant and perpetual. It will continue, until at last grace wins the victory, the flesh returns to the earth, and we are received up into glory. This is my painful, but honest confession of sin. “So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee.” This one thing I must acknowledge, “I am carnal, sold under sin…I know that in me, that is in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.”
Though I am a vile, sinful man, I still trust the Lord Jesus Christ. I am a believer still. I still sing with David, “Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory” (vv. 23-24). I am sinful, shamefully sinful; but God is faithful, gloriously faithful. Therefore, trusting the Lord my God, I can say with joy and confidence, “Nevertheless I am continually with thee.” Notwithstanding all my sin, God is faithful! This is a glorious fact. If you are a believer, if you are in Christ, your sins shall never be charged to you, be they ever so great, ever so many, and ever so constant! And they will never separate you from the Lord your God (Rom. 4:8; 8:1; 1 John 2:1-2).
Here are four blessed pillars for your faith and mine.
1. First, the Psalmists asserts God’s perseverance. — “Nevertheless I am continually with thee.”
God perseveres in his grace toward us. We are one with Christ. Not until the Lord God forsakes his own dear Son will he forsake us who are in his Son.
“Near, so very near to God,
Nearer I cannot be;
For in the Person of His Son,
I am as near as He.
Dear, so very dear to God,
Dearer I cannot be,
For in the Person of His Son,
I am as dear as He!”
Our position and relationship with the eternal God is as immutable as God himself. We are continually upon his mind, before his eye, in his hand, on his heart, and in is favor. We are accepted in the Beloved.
“With His spotless garments on,
I am as holy as God’s own Son!”
It takes very little faith, when you think you have many graces and many virtues, to say, “I am accepted in Christ.” But when a vile, wretched man, who knows his own evil heart and tastes the bitterness of his utter depravity, can look to God and say, “Though I am a sinful beast before You, I trust Christ alone as my Lord and Savior,” that is faith. Only as sinners do we need a Substitute!
Our security does not depend upon our faithfulness, but upon God’s faithfulness (Mal. 3:6). It does not depend upon our perseverance, but upon our God’s. I want you to get this. May God help you to understand it and rejoice in it. I made this statement in a Bible conference more than 20 years ago. What an uproar I stirred! But I cannot tell you how this blessed fact comforts my soul! ― My relationship with the eternal God does in great measure determine what I do. But what I do in no way determine my relationship with God.
It is good, wonderfully good, for me to look up to my Father, my God, my Savior and say, “Nevertheless, I am continually with thee.” But here is something even better. I could be mistaken. But when God beholds my sin and says, “Nevertheless,” he is not mistaken. Read Psalm 89:27-37.
“Also I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth. My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him. His seed also will I make to endure for ever, and his throne as the days of heaven. If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips. Once have I sworn by my holiness that I will not lie unto David. His seed shall endure for ever, and his throne as the sun before me. It shall be established for ever as the moon, and as a faithful witness in heaven. Selah.”
2. Second, David speaks of God’s unfailing help. – “Thou hast holden me by my right hand.”
The right hand signifies strength. For God to hold me by my right hand implies that the hand of my strength is only weakness. He holds me by omnipotent grace. He has held me. He is holding me. He will not let me go!
He may, in his wise and good providence, allow me to fall; but even when I fall, he is holding me still.
3. Third, the Psalmists sings confidently of divine guidance for the future. – “Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel.”
According to his wise decree, God orders my steps. By his written Word, God directs my path. By his Holy Spirit, God leads me in his way (Prov. 3:5-6).
4. Then, fourth, he speaks with assurance of everlasting acceptance in glory. — “And afterward receive me up to glory.”
Yes, old Adam shall soon be sent to the grave to rot because of sin; but God will receive his own up into glory (Eph. 5:25-27; Jude 24-25; Jer. 50:20; Psa. 17:15). Did you ever notice what our Lord Jesus said to Peter immediately after telling his faithful disciple that before the rising of the morning sun he would deny his Savior three times? Here is the Master’s very next word to that disciple…
“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:1-3).
My soul’s only hope of eternal glory is God my Savior. — “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever” (vv. 25-26).
I have no hope in myself. ― “My heart and my flesh faileth.” There is nothing in me, nothing done by me, and nothing felt in my heart that gives me hope or commendation before God. My only hope of salvation and acceptance with God is God himself, the Lord Jesus Christ. In simple faith, because I can do nothing else, this sinful man turns to Christ Jesus the Lord and casts himself upon a Substitute. Christ is my only Hope. And Christ is Hope enough. Christ is all the hope I have and Christ is all the hope I desire. ― “Whom have I in heaven but thee?” No one. “And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee.” “Christ is all” for cleansing, for pardon, for righteousness, for peace, for holiness, for sanctification, for acceptance. Jesus Christ alone is the Rock of my salvation and the Strength of my heart. He is the Rock upon which I am built. And he is the Strength, the Support, Comfort, and Assurance of my heart. God, as he is revealed in Christ, is my portion forever. Therefore, I will hope in him (Lam. 3:21-26).
Do not ever expect to be free from sin in this world. Do not ever expect your brethren to be free from sin in this world. In the midst of your sin go on trusting the Lord Jesus Christ. He will not cast you off (1 John 2:1-2). Give praise, honor, and glory to God your Savior. His blood is effectual. His grace is unchangeable. His love is unfailing. “His mercy endureth forever!”
Without question, our heavenly Father could remove all this evil from us, but he chooses not to do so. Why? — The fact is, these inward conflicts do have some good effect. Hard as they are to bear now, in heaven’s glory we will look back upon these days of great evil with gratitude, and see the wisdom and goodness of God in all of our struggles with sin. Our struggles with sin help humble us and curb our pride. Our struggles with sin force us to lean upon Christ alone for all our salvation (1 Cor. 1:30), and confess with Jonah, “Salvation is of the Lord.” Struggling hard with sin, we find that “Christ is all” indeed. Our struggles with sin cause us to prize the faithfulness of our God (Lam. 3:1-27). Our struggles with sin upon this earth will make the glorious victory of heaven sweeter. And our struggles with sin make us rejoice in the fact that “salvation is of the Lord.”
I do not doubt that in eternity we will be made to see that God wisely and graciously allowed us to fall into one evil to keep us from a greater evil, or to make us more useful in his hands. Certainly, an honest acknowledgement of the sin that is in us, and of the fact that we are never without sin (1 John 1:8-10) ought to make us gracious, kind, forgiving, and patient with one another.
Blessed be God, these inward conflicts will soon be over (Phil. 1:6; Jude 24-25). We shall soon drop this earthly tabernacle and shall be completely free from sin. We shall be perfect, personally perfect, at last. We shall be triumphant in the end. In that day when our God shall make all things new, the former things shall not only pass away, they shall be remembered no more! All the evil consequences of sin shall be forever removed. We shall be forever “faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy.”
Yet, so long as we live in this world we will be “as the company of two armies.” So I give you this word of admonition — “Keep thy heart with all diligence: for out of it are the issues of life” (Pro. 4:23). Keep your heart tender. Keep your heart in the fellowship of Christ. Keep you heart full of the Word. Keep your heart in prayer. Keep your heart full of the cross. Keep your heart full of Christ and rest your soul upon Christ. — “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.”