Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
With the enemy at its borders preparing to invade, a country sounds a call to arms. Who will answer that call? Not the elderly. Not the fathers and the mothers. Not the children. Those expected to respond to that call to arms and those who will be drafted in time of war are the young men. The young men can leave their stations of life, their jobs, and their homes to take up the cause of defending their country. Their strength of youth is great for this warfare, to fight against the enemy.
Your calling, Christian, is to use the strength of youth the Lord gives you to fight against your spiritual enemies. God has given you a place in hostile territory where you represent His cause. In that place He gives you the strength of youth to take up arms in this spiritual warfare. Your calling is to use the Lord’s strength to hold your own in this warfare. You must maintain yourself as a representative of God’s cause in the world. Your calling is to resist your enemies’ efforts to destroy you. Your calling is also in that resistance to persevere in the worship and service of your God.
In this warfare you must first identify your enemies. Then you must know something of their tactics and strategies. You must know their ways and means. Two of those enemies are easy to identify: the world and the devil. Scripture identifies them to you. You can see them. You have experienced their power and their ways. You know their temptations. You know that the battle against them is great. They are outside of you and your nature.
But there is another enemy that is not so easy to identify and is therefore more difficult to fight. This enemy is also identified in Scripture. This enemy is given different names: the flesh, the old man, sin, the body of sin, the body of death (Rom. 6:6, 7:18, 11, 24, 25; Col. 3:9). This enemy is most difficult to identify because it is within you. It is in your nature, exercising its influencewithin your soul, your mind, your heart, your will, and your body.
This enemy within you once exercised complete dominion over your whole nature. Without the grace of God, your depravity held complete sway over you. It commanded; therefore you thought, you spoke, and you acted out. That way is the way of the unregenerate, and that way was your way by nature.
By the grace of God, you have within you a new nature. The Holy Spirit has regenerated you and given you a new heart, a new man, a spiritual, heavenly life. The influence of this new man runs through your whole nature: your heart, soul, mind, will, and body. By the power of this new man you think, say, and do what is pleasing to the Lord. By this power you believe, you see and seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness. This new man now has the seat of power in your heart.
This work of God, however, has not completely driven out or destroyed the old man, your depravity. Your depravity now has been given second place, having been driven from its position of command and control. But it is still within you, and still it works in your members, leading you into sin.
That enemy is most treacherous. It will cloak itself within you. It will hide itself. It will promote its evil ways under good motives or good appearance. It will persuade you to do good works in order that men might see them and give you praise. It will take someone’s compliment of a God-given gift and turn it into pride.
Your depravity is treacherous also because it knows how you think. It knows your weaknesses and when you are at your weakest. It will also take every temptation that comes to you from the devil and the world and will pull you toward those temptations, making them attractive to you.
You must know that one of the chief tactics used by your depravity in this spiritual battle is the cloaking of itself. It will disguise itself under good motives. It will seek to justify evil means by a good end. It will retreat into the hidden corners of your heart, and operate in its hidden depths. It will minimize its presence and power. The result of this cloaking is that you minimize this battle or even deny its existence.
There are two ways of denying this battle that you are called to fight. The first way out is to deny your depravity. That denial is not as far removed as you might think. There are doctrines that much of the church uses to deny depravity. There is the doctrine of Arminianism and the doctrine of perfectionism. Sin is only rarely talked about, if ever. You will not hear sin mentioned in sermons; you will not hear sin mentioned in prayers. Confessions of sin and petitions for forgiveness are dust-covered antiques. They were perhaps useful long ago, but no longer in today’s world.
Those denials of depravity are easy to see and refute. However, you must think of a denial that is much closer to you. Whenever you think of sin as being only “out there” in those other churches, or among those “other people,” or in the world, you forget something. You forget that sin is within you. You forget that in you is the same root of sin bearing its fruit in all the vile iniquity found in this ungodly world. Whenever you see or think about the world’s ungodliness, you must feel a sense of shame and abhorrence in yourself, the conviction of your own depravity. That conviction must lead you to humble yourself before the cross of Christ, seeking forgiveness by His precious blood.
The second way of denying this battle you are called to fight is to think that all you are is your depravity. You think that you mustsin and that all you can do is sin. You think that you are incapable of doing any good. When you think about your sins, you tell yourself that you cannot help it, and you might even defend or excuse yourself before God. “The devil made me do it!”
That way of thinking is very dangerous.
That thinking is false. That thinking ignores the truth of regeneration, of conversion, and sanctification, the work of the Holy Spirit to make you holy. That thinking ignores the truth of II Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” That way of thinking also denies the one glorious and blessed exception given in Lord’s Day 2 of the Heidelberg Catechism, “. . . except we are born again by the Spirit of God.”
That you can possibly fight your depravity, that you can see its evil, and that you can confess it before God as your sin are marks that you are regenerated. You have been born again by the Holy Spirit of God. You have been converted and you are sanctified. By these gifts of God’s grace you have become a new creature. By these same gifts you are able to fight against your depravity.
This battle is both defensive and offensive. This battle is defensive in that your depravity is always working to take back what it lost in your regeneration: government over your human nature. Before regeneration your depravity held sway over your heart, soul, mind, and body. Regeneration, the gift of the resurrection life of Christ infused into the depths of your heart, broke that horrible bondage of sin. Your depravity now works to take back that lost territory. Your depravity also looks for emptiness and gaps to exploit. When there is nothing to do, or when you tell yourself there is nothing to do, your depravity then begins its operations, leading you into temptation and evil. It works to bring you back into bondage to sin. Your defensive work against your depravity is to resist these impulses of your depravity.
One of the most powerful weapons in this defense is the Word. First, use the Word to identify your depravity. Read and study a passage like James 1:14, 15. See where the warnings of Scripture are concentrated. Consider the examples of sin in the lives both of saints and of sinners. Trace them down to their root of depravity. Second, use the Word to rebuke yourself. When there is need, administer to your depravity the rebuke of Christ to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Matt. 16:23). Third, find through the power of the cross your separation from sin. See in the death of Christ the heinousness of sin, including your depravity. Your esteem and value of the cross will make sin all the more abhorrent and repugnant. See in the cross your own death to sin according to Romans 6:6-14, 7:4-6; I Peter 4:1-3; Galatians 2:20, 6:14.
This battle against your depravity is also offensive. You must take action to drive your depravity further from that point of control in your heart and life. This action is, first of all, to identify the corners of your mind and heart in which that enemy still lurks. From where does your depravity launch its assaults? What are you thinking about, and where are you, when you feel yourself tempted? These are the times, places, and subjects where you need the Word of God. Use that Word to discern those places and times that provide the temptation your depravity uses. Then flee from them and avoid them. If these places and times are not at fault, then find in them opportunities to exercise yourself in the things that are new, the work of Christ in you.
Another offensive aspect of the battle is to promote the presence and the influence of the new man within you. Turn your thoughts toward good (Prov. 11:27). Take delight in good things (Phil. 4:8). Spend your time reading and meditating upon Scripture (Ps. 119:97). Fill your mind and heart with the praises of God in prayer and worship (Ps. 146:2). Witness to those around you of the truth of God’s Word and its power in your life (Ps. 119:46). Give weight to that witness by doing good works (Ps. 37:3). By doing those things you train your mind and your heart to run according to what is new in you by the grace of God.
Here is where the battle rages: within you, within your heart and soul. This is a battle for territory, the old nature to regain what was lost, and the new nature to keep and advance from what has already been taken. This battle is great and this conflict is fierce. Before you is relentless, vigorous warfare! Required is discernment to see the battle wherever it rages. Necessary is spiritual strength to fight it, applying your strength always for the new, and alwaysagainst the old.
The battle is within you, but rest assured that you cannot destroy yourself in the process! You are no longer to identify yourself with your depravity. Those things are old. They are passed away. You must instead identify yourself with the new man, all that you are in Christ (II Cor. 5:17). Without that new man given in grace to you, the only thing in you is the old man. Such would make not only victory impossible, but even the battle. You can fight only as the work of God’s grace is in you, giving you eyes to see this battle within.
This battle is great. It requires discernment to identify the enemy. It requires all the spiritual strength you can muster in defensive and offensive engagements. At times in the conflict you may think you are losing. In those times you may despair of ever gaining the victory over your depravity. Know even then that God’s grace is working to keep you in the struggle. Through His grace, always mighty over evil, you will overcome.
As you fight and as you overcome temptation, give thanks to God. Be thankful to Him for the battle itself. Be thankful for your place in this battle, given you by God’s grace. In this battle you have assurance of final victory. God’s grace will keep you in this battle and will give you the complete victory. Fight on, then, in the strength of your youth!