“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. It [grace] trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, as we wait for the happy fulfillment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good.” (Titus 2:11-14)
Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me – and I in him – bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing.” (John 15:5)
Any attempt to present a realistic and biblical view of Christian living must take into account where we fit in God’s plan of history. We live in an overlapping age—possessing the life of the new creation to come through the Holy Spirit, while still living in bodies of the old, fallen creation in a fallen, evil world. That puts us in an already but not yet tension. We are already justified in God’s eyes, but we are not yet made sinless because we still commit sins. We are citizens of the kingdom, but the kingdom has not yet come to earth. Therefore, we need to understand Christian living in a way that neither underestimates nor overestimates the quality of life available to us in Jesus Christ.
Both lead to what is called a “triumphalist” approach to spiritual growth, characterized by confidence in self and a dangerously low level of respect for one’s sinful potential. Triumphalism is revealed by:
1) A low-level of perceived need for Christ. His words, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), have little meaning.
2) The common response to our own failures or to the failures of other believers, “I can’t believe I/he/she did that!” Shock that we still sin.
Added to the above wrong assumptions about the Christian life is the belief that the flesh improves and becomes “godly” over time, becoming less temptable in the process and becoming less dependent on Christ. Christians who believe this are prime targets for failure, because they tend to play with fire and let down their guard against temptation.
This is the truth: We never outgrow our need to depend 100% upon Jesus Christ. Spiritual maturity is not reached by needing less of Jesus but by depending more on his truth and his power to live a life that brings glory to God and pleases him.
While we as redeemed and justified believers have new life in Christ, we retain our old bodies in which sin dwells (the flesh or sinful nature).
What is the flesh? The term “flesh” (NIV: “sinful nature”) refers to the unredeemed portion of our humanity—our bodies and souls through which indwelling sin assaults us. We don’t know what it is, but we know how it works—sending messages to the mind that are in conflict with the Spirit. The flesh does not improve or change its nature over time, as long as we are in our bodies! At the moment of salvation, we are born again of the Spirit. Our bodies are not born again, and our souls (mind, emotions, and will) are not instantly transformed. While the flesh doesn’t improve, our choices can change over time as we learn to live by the Spirit (what you learned in the last lesson).
1. The universal experience of people who are trying to be good (on their own) yet are hampered by the flesh is described in Romans 7:14-24. The context is applicable to believers and unbelievers alike. Describe the experience. [Note: those who refuse to see this as applicable to the believer are likely living in triumphalism.]
2. What do James 4:1 and 1 Peter 2:11 add to our understanding of this struggle with the flesh?
3. Read Galatians 5:16-18. How does Paul describe this continual conflict?
Scriptural Insight: “To live ‘according to the flesh’ is to live in keeping with the values and desires of life in the present age that stand in absolute contradiction to God and his ways…Paul is first thinking not about the several ‘works’ of the flesh he will soon describe, but, as he will go on to explain in v. 17, about the basic perspective of life in the flesh. Such a perspective…radically opposes God and his ways, here designated as opposition to [living by] the Spirit.” (Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul)
4. Read Galatians 5:19-26. Contrast the evidence of living by the flesh and living by the Spirit.
Living by the flesh
Living by the Spirit
5. Read Ephesians 4:25-5:4 (also 5:8-10). Contrast the evidence of living by the flesh and living by the Spirit.
Living by the flesh
Living by the Spirit
6. Read Colossians 3:5-14. Contrast the evidence of living by the flesh and living by the Spirit.
Living by the flesh
Living by the Spirit
Think About It: Often, we blame people or circumstances for our anger. People and circumstances do not cause our anger, impatience, bitterness, etc.; our reactions to people and circumstances reveal where we are living—by the Spirit or by the flesh.
Although we no longer measure our way of living by the Law of Moses (including the Ten Commandments) which was given to Israel, the New Testament writers certainly gave us plenty of description of what sin looks like in a Christian’s life! Living by the flesh is pretty ugly, isn’t it? Would you say there is a stark contrast between the two lifestyles? The Christian life is not hard; it is impossible apart from Christ himself.
7. Graceful Living: We all have areas of our own lives in which we are still living in the flesh. So, don’t feel alone. Which ones jumped out at you when you listed them? Jesus wants you to trust him to live by the Spirit in those areas.
Sin is ugly. Very ugly! As shown in the previous day’s study, we are a new creation in Christ, yet we retain our old bodies in which sin dwells (the flesh or sinful nature). We are encouraged to live by the Spirit, yet we are warned that we can choose to live by the flesh which is at war within us, at war against the Spirit. Are we left helpless like a pawn in the midst of the conflict? No, we have God’s empowering presence in us; he is able to help us win the battle over sin. But, we have a responsibility as well. Let’s explore our responsibility.
8. Read Galatians 5:16 and Romans 13:14. In order to live by the Spirit and not by the flesh, what is our responsibility?
Think About It: Paul writes in Galatians 5:16, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desire of the sinful nature.” Notice what this verse does not say. It does not say, “If you clean up the flesh, you will become spiritual” (the logic of legalism). It does not say, “The desires of the flesh will go away” (the logic of triumphalism). As long as we live in these unredeemed bodies, sin remains a source of temptation in us.
In Romans 6, Paul personifies sin as a slave master—a power that enslaves us. Roman Christians understood this concept well as 1 out of every 2 people in the Roman Empire was a literal slave. We may not have a slave society any longer. But what we may not realize is that every human being has a master and is a servant to something—either God and his righteousness or sin and its wickedness—no neutral ground. You might think you are your own master, but you’re not. Self is really following the voice of master sin within.
All of our lives before Christ, the old slave master sin called the shots. When we believe in Jesus, a greater power moves in—the Holy Spirit. He sets us free from the power of that old slave master to become what God intended us to be. But, we are not set free to be our own masters. That’s not what it means to be set free. Our options are still: 1) sin or 2) God. We have a new master, the one who set us free—Jesus Christ.
Jesus is our master, but the old slave master still calls my name and calls your name. That old slave master yells pretty loudly sometimes. And, we listen! Yet, we don’t have to listen or carry out its orders. We are freed from sin’s power over us because a greater power has moved in—God’s Spirit—one who woos us to do right. How we yield to God’s Spirit working in our lives is our choice.
9. Romans 6 is a discussion of life choices to serve God or to serve sin and the consequences of doing either. Let’s see what advice God has for us through Paul. Read Romans 6:11-23.
10. In Romans 6:14, Paul tells believers we are no longer under law (which only shows us what we do wrong), but we are now under grace, which enables us to do what is right. Read Titus 2:11-14. What does grace do for us?
Whether or not we are presently tempted in a given area, we are capable of committing any sin mentioned in the Bible, given the right set of circumstances, time and temptation. The progression is:
Conclusion: We never outgrow our need to depend 100% upon Jesus Christ. Recognizing this should lead us to 1) have compassion on one another (Galatians 6:1) and to 2) not take risks with sinful behavior!
Think About It: “When God wants to show you what human nature is like apart from himself, he has to show it to you in yourself. If the Spirit of God has given you a vision of what you are apart from the grace of God (and he only does it when His Spirit is at work), you know there is no criminal who is half so bad in actuality as you know yourself to be in possibility.” (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, “The Staggering Question”)
11. What does God promise in 1 Corinthians 10:13 regarding temptation? Through whom does he give us the way of escape—through ourselves or through the Spirit’s empowering presence within us?
Think About It: “Every believer has a choice. If something is causing you to stumble in your following of Jesus, you have the freedom to choose not to continue interacting with that thing. If it’s political arguments, you can choose to stop engaging in political conversations. If it’s pornography, you can turn off your computer. If it’s money woes, you can choose the security of faith over the security of coin. The bottom line is, we have the power to remove obstacles and run a smooth race (Hebrews 12:1). I know several believers who feel ‘trapped’ in their sins and temptations. But God will always provide grace for sin and choice for temptation. There is always a way out of temptation (see 1 Corinthians 10:13). You just have to choose it. If you want to be mentally and emotionally free, that is.” (John Newton, Growing Young blog, “Lessons Learned”)
A habit is easier to maintain than it is to start. Faith can be a habit—a good habit. Make wise decisions to protect yourself:
12. Graceful Living: Martin Luther, the priest who initiated the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, described it this way, “I cannot keep the birds from flying around my head; but by the grace of God I can keep them from building nests in my hair.” What decisions are you making or should you make to protect yourself from what tempts you?
How long do you think you can go without sinning, without doing something that is a work of the flesh? Six days? Six hours? Can most of us go 6 minutes without having impure thoughts or selfish behavior—unintentional and unrecognized? God understands this about us. Because we still retain our old bodies in which sin dwells, we will sin—unintentionally as well as deliberately. All sin is disobeying God, whether unintentional or deliberate. All sin is covered by Christ’s work on the cross—whether unintentional or deliberate. All sin is forgiven before it is ever committed (you have forgiveness)—whether unintentional or deliberate.
13. Review what is promised in these verses:
Remembering who you are in Christ can help you recognize and avoid two errors in thinking regarding your sin that stem from the logic of legalism: 1) when you sin, God cuts off fellowship from you until you repent, and 2) a believer’s sins build up until she confesses them and asks for forgiveness.
The first error in thinking ignores the fact that Christ is both in us and considers us in him. Nothing in our radical identity even opens the possibility of being alienated from God! If you are deliberately living by the flesh rather than by the Spirit in your life, you may choose to cut yourself off from praying to your God, reading the Bible, and community with other Christians. But, that is not God cutting himself off from you.
14. Read Hebrews 4:15-16 and Romans 8:26. What in these verses gives you assurance that God does not cut himself off from you when you are weak?
God’s throne is open to every believer for grace and help in our time of need, which certainly includes while we are weak from sin’s influence. The Holy Spirit is interceding for us in our weakness, which includes sin. The Spirit does not stop speaking to us or working on us just because we do not want to listen. The fruit of thinking that every time you sin you have broken your fellowship with God is tremendous guilt and insecurity. This is living by law rather than by grace. Because of what Christ did on the cross, we are set free from fear of God because of sin, can bask in His amazing love, and gratefully serve him.
The second error in thinking also is evidence of living by law. What is the fruit of teaching that our sins build up until we confess them to receive forgiveness? It is guilt, worry, and time spent trying to stay “confessed up.” We envision God erasing the “not guilty” verdict on us and considering us “guilty” until we confess and are declared not guilty again. What’s the difference between that and the Old Testament system of sacrifices where sins would build up between trips to the altar? Nothing!
Realistically, we can’t even confess a quarter of our sins in a lifetime of being a believer. It’s not biblical to think that we can do so, and teach that we have to do so, in order to maintain forgiveness or fellowship with God. By the way, just saying to God everyday, “I confess all the sins I’ve done lately” is not what He’s after. He’s after a transformed life. That’s why he went through all this trouble to give us a new identity. Knowing you already have forgiveness leads to confidence, peace, joy and freedom. Remember and rest in your acceptance in Christ because of his finished work on the cross.
Think About It: When we received the great exchange, we received Jesus’ righteousness. Jesus received our sin. God decided this was how it would be 2,000 years ago. Sin doesn’t mix with righteousness, does it? God doesn’t erase Christ’s righteousness from our account so he can add sin to it, does He? No! He gave us Jesus’ righteousness permanently. That means there’s only one place for our sin to go. As soon as we sin, God removes it and puts it on Christ’s account. That’s what Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 5. It is confirmed in 1 John 1:7 where John says believers are continually purified from sin.
God wanted to remove the sin barrier between him and us permanently. He’s interested in us spending our time and effort producing fruit for him to reflect his glory as he designed the human race to do. The righteous live by faith—in a God—whose grace defies man’s attempt—to still “measure up” (live by law) in some way. We should be thanking him daily for his forgiveness and his love and acceptance of us in Christ and the opportunity we have to live a radically different kind of life. What an outstanding privilege this new identity is!
Sin can no longer enslave us unwillingly because there’s a competing and greater power—God himself— in us. Transforming power in our hearts has set us free to produce his fruit. Living by the Spirit reveals to us through the Word and through prayer what is sin in our lives and helps our repentant hearts follow through with our desire for change.
15. Read Psalm 139:23-24. What should be our heart attitude toward God regarding sin in our lives?
Step One: View yourself rightly.
Your identity is not “_______” (coveter, greedy, gossiper, whatever it is). You are in Christ, a child of God, who sometimes “_____” (covets, is greedy, gossips).
Step Two: Recognize (confess) the truth regarding your sin.
To confess biblically means to agree with God about what you and he both know to be true. Confession is not a formula, a process, or dependent on a mediator. Regarding sin in my life, it is not saying, “I’m sorry.” It is saying, “I agree with you, God. I blew it!” See your sin as awful!
Using coveting for example: while reading Philippians 4:12, the Spirit convicts you that you have been coveting rather than being content. You agree with God that your coveting is actually not being content with his provision. Coveting doesn’t fit someone who knows God. That is confession.
Step Three: Confession is incomplete without repentance.
Repentance means to change your mind about that sin, to mourn its ugliness, resulting in changing your actions. Paul calls that godly sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7:9-11, and he says godly sorrow brings repentance. It’s saying, “I recognize what I am doing is wrong. This fills me with sorrow because it displeases You, God. Please help me to live differently.” He will certainly do that! That’s how our lives get transformed.
Using coveting for example: You want to not covet any longer, and you want to be content and grateful for what God has already provided. So, you pray, “Lord Jesus, please have your Spirit nudge me when I want to covet. Replace my coveting with contentment and gratitude. By faith, Lord, I want you to do that in my life.” That is repentance.
Think About It: Repentance isn’t repentance until you change something. You can confess “until the cows come home” (daily, habitually) and never change anything. Jesus called for people to “repent” not “confess.”
15. Paul describes repentance well in Ephesians 4:25-32. (See also 5:4.) What changes in both mind and action can be made to overcome the sinful behaviors listed in this section?
Change of mind/action
Step Four: Repentance leads to dependence.
Depend on the living Christ inside you for that change to take place. Our Lord Jesus Christ is not interested in our compliance (outward conformity) as much as he desires our obedience from the heart.
Using coveting for example: Memorize Philippians 4:12-13 and any other scriptures that deal with being thankful for God’s provision. Be sensitive to the Spirit’s nudging when you are tempted to covet. Choose to be thankful instead.
16. Graceful Living: Is there any ugliness in your life that you mourn? Follow the steps above to live in freedom from that ugliness. What will you trust the living Christ inside you to do for you in that area?
The Lord Jesus said he came to give us abundant life (John10:10), and the whole New Testament speaks in lavish terms about the quality of life God wants his children to experience. We are exhorted to press on to maturity in Christ. But, how is spiritual growth recognized?
Focus on the Meaning: “Spiritual growth is not growing ‘more and more of me’ so I need ‘less and less of Christ.’ It is growing in knowledge and experience as we walk with him, discovering more and more our need to depend totally on him.
Growth is gradual. There is a common misconception that one’s life is either 100% “carnal’” (living by the flesh) or 100% “spiritual” (living by the Spirit) at any given time. In fact, probably every believer is trusting Christ with some aspects of his life at the same time and right alongside other areas of his life where he is living in self-sufficiency. Growth, therefore, involves Christ progressively teaching us to trust him in new unexplored areas of our lives, and deepening our sense of dependency in areas where we have previously grown a little.
You don’t become more aware of your own “holiness” as you grow. On the contrary, the voices of the saints through history consistently agree that as you grow you become more aware of how far short you fall from true holiness. You become more aware of your sinfulness as you grow, not less.
Understanding these things underscores our need to understand the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and our identity in him. Only because of the Lord’s grace can we grow in self-knowledge and handle the ongoing struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. We would sooner or later throw in the towel without our assurance of his continued acceptance, teaching, and kindness. (Tim Stevenson, T.E.A.M. Training, Session 17)
17. Graceful Living: Looking at your life, reflect on your growth over time.
Spiritual growth involves God growing us, stretching us, and reconstructing us because he loves us and lives in us and desires that we be transformed into the likeness of his Son. It’s for our good and his glory! Praise Jesus for working out your salvation in such a personal way. Feel free to use any creative way to reflect on your spiritual growth.