In my last post, I left Tom, my Christian brother who struggles with same-sex attraction, with the encouragement that if we are united to the crucified and risen Christ, the struggles and sins we continually battle do not define us anymore. And I said that living out of our identity in Christ was, in fact, the only way to make true progress against sin. Because fighting sin needs to happen at the level of the heart.

What does this mean? What does it look like in real life?

First, we must recognize that this is the way the New Testament presents the Christian life. This is especially true in the writings of the apostle Paul. As many have noticed, his letters are consistently structured in what theologians call an indicative-imperative order. He reminds his readers of what is true for them in Jesus, the indicative of gospel truth. In other words, “This is the new you!”

Then Paul tells them to strive to live out of that truth, the imperative that leads to life change. In other words, “Now, work in God’s strength to live out the truth of the new you!”

My big point to Tom was this: The truth of God’s promises to you in Christ comes first in how you view and understand your life. One particularly clear instance of this is in Colossians 3. The beginning of chapter 3 marks the transition in Colossians from indicative to imperative. It is one of the clearest statements of the truth that understanding your identity as being in Christ is the key to how you live your life from now on:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.  For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Remember, the indicative (Colossians 3:1-5) establishes the foundation of all and any progress in your Christian life. It provides confidence, motivation, and direction: confidence, because you know you are considered righteous because of Christ and your eternal future is sure and glorious; motivation, because you have been given eyes to perceive the beauty and glory of Jesus, into whose image you are being transformed, and you want to bring as much as possible of that promised future glory into your present life; direction, because Jesus himself is the pattern to which you are being formed, so his love and obedience is the mark toward which you eagerly aim.

The imperative (Colossians 3:6-17) builds upon this foundation. This involves a continual “put to death” and “put on” flow to one’s Christian life.

So, how does this help you in your struggle with growing in Christ, and how does it help my friend, Tom? Three things here.

There is no kind of struggle or sin that this gospel truth does not apply to

This may seem obvious but needs to be stated. There is not any class of sins that are dealt with differently, nor Christians that experience Christ and the Christian life differently than described here in this chapter. The dynamic of gospel identity and change is the same for all of us. Tom and others who live with same-sex attraction and struggle with all the issues it brings—temptation to sin, discouragement with feeling different than others, loneliness, misunderstanding by others in the church, etc.—need to grasp this truth and be encouraged by it.

Repentance links outward actions and inward thoughts

By outward actions I mean the sins we commit by conscious decision—an angry insult spoken, a lie told, a harmful bit of gossip shared, immoral sexual desires indulged. By inner workings I mean the things you think and feel. Recognize that these inward thoughts and feelings can occur without conscious thought or deliberation. All throughout the day thoughts and feelings automatically pop up.

But I am not suggesting that outward actions are sin and what is inner is not. We sin both at the level of conscious decision and at the constant background level of the inner workings of the heart. Jesus established the principle that the inner working of the heart connects—in ways we may not fully understand—to outward behavior (see Matthew 12:34; 15:19).

The inner workings of your heart, however, are oblique, complicated, less accessible. Why are you so easily angered, for example? What are the deep beliefs that lodge in your heart about yourself, life, and God that feed your compulsion to be anxious, depressed, or lie or gossip or feel pulled by sexual desires?

These questions of inner motives, affections, fears, assumptions, etc., are especially difficult in the area of sexuality. Sexuality has the power to bring into focus many of our deepest desires and fears. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”

But how does this understanding help us in our progress against sin and our striving to grow in Christ?

It helps us to be patient and gracious with the process of repentance. In your life, and the life of my friend, Tom. It is essential to recognize that repentance in Christ includes both outward actions and the inner workings of the heart. The list in Colossians 3 includes both. If you have fought a sin, like anger perhaps, at the level of your heart, you know how slight the progress often seems; you come to expect a lifetime of the Holy Spirit pushing the “front lines” of the battle deeper into your heart. We must expect no different for Tom. So we do not burden Tom with the expectation that he “just stop” his feelings; we help him see, increasingly over time, how the inner workings of his heart can lead either to faithful living or continued falling into sin.

But to do this, those like Tom—and you and me—need one more thing.

Worship is at the core of all gospel change

At all points in the fight against sin, we must focus on Christ, loving him, learning him, hoping in him. We do not make progress against any sin by simply focusing on the sin; we make progress by focusing on Christ, “who is our life.” That is why the list of new-self things to “put on” culminates in “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, …singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

For Tom, this means his Christian life is much bigger than his struggle with sexual attractions.  He needs to increase in the joy of worshipping and pursuing Jesus. But let’s be honest. There is a big challenge here for the church. Too often worship is painful for Tom, because he feels different and unwelcome, even like an enemy, because of the feelings that persist in him.

The church needs to pursue authentic fellowship with Tom and those among us who feel weak and despised. That means we must be open and transparent about our struggles to grow in Christ. United to me and you and the rest of “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” we need to help Tom grow with us as we all grow in mutual compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness as we rejoice together in how Jesus is all of that perfectly.  This is what we all need.

“This feels so compulsive!” he complained. Tom feels like he is always fighting sin. He fights against a tendency to desire and pursue sexual pleasure from men. He believes in Jesus and has seen significant changes in the direction of his life. But his same-sex attraction did not magically go away when he trusted in Christ. His faith is in crisis, “Maybe they’re right; this is just who I am.”

What do we have to offer someone like Tom? Does the gospel have an answer to this crisis, the crisis of continually fighting sin? Yes. And a vital part of that gospel answer is what theologians call indwelling sin. Why would I bring up sin to someone in a faith crisis, especially one involving same-sex attraction?  Because the Bible’s teaching on indwelling sin connects the gospel to our deepest struggles.

The Universality of Sin

Scripture teaches that we are all sinners; all who share in the human nature represented in Adam share in the corruption of sin (Romans 5:12; Ecclesiastes 7:20). But more than that, each of us is sinful in every part of us (Rom. 3:10-19; 8:7). We are whole people, with bodies, minds, wills, and affections, and it is as whole people that we are corrupted by sin. At the deepest level, what the Bible calls the heart, we recognize in ourselves a tendency towards sin (Matthew 15:19; Jeremiah 17:19).

This tendency has a corrupting influence on our thinking, our emotions, and even our physiology. This sinful leaning (what theologians call original sin) is behind whatever sin acts we commit (what theologians call actual sin). The result: sin feels natural to us.

And this is rather unconscious and spontaneous in real life. We fall into the same kinds of behavior over and over despite a desire to stop. A mature Christian faith comes to the humble self-appraisal that behind all our actions, mixed in with all our feelings, appetites, and urges, is a continual tendency towards sin.

Here’s Tom’s dilemma and ours: this sinful tendency doesn’t disappear when we become Christians. How are we to understand this? What does it mean for Tom, and us, when we were taught that faith in Christ gives us victory over sin?

Here we turn to the teaching of Paul in Romans 7, from which the term, indwelling sin, originates. But first we need a view of the context in which he brings this idea up.

Good News about the Universe and You

In the chapters leading up to Romans 7, Paul lays out a tale of two humanities, the first being “in Adam,” and the second being “in Christ.” In Adam describes our natural state, corrupted by sin, condemned by the law, bound for death. Paul often uses the shorthand, “the flesh” to refer to this.

A mature Christian faith comes to the humble self-appraisal that behind all our actions, mixed in with all our feelings, appetites, and urges, is a continual tendency towards sin.

But who Christ is, and what he did, changes everything—literally, everything—all of reality, including human nature. Christ takes upon himself the flesh of Adam, and in that flesh he dies. Though without sin or sinful tendency, Jesus fulfills the sentence of death that is on sinful humanity. Then, he is raised from the dead. And here is the key—it is not just that Jesus came back to life. Rather, he is resurrected with a new kind of life, an immortal, eternal, powerful life. He is declared to be righteous and therefore given the eternal life that from the beginning was promised to righteous humanity.

And this resurrection life which Christ was given is nothing less than the first installment of God’s plan to re-create the whole universe into a glorious and unspeakably beautiful new reality! Paul’s main point? We, who by faith are united to Christ, have our true identity in that new reality. Paul’s way of saying this is that we have died with Christ and were raised with Christ (Rom 6:1-11).

A Startling Implication

Next, Paul takes this new reality in Christ idea into our real-life struggles. In the early portion of Romans 7 (vs. 7-12), he is explaining that the law of God must be considered good, even though it produces death in us. It’s not the law’s fault, but ours; it is our persistent tendency to break the law that forces the law to prescribe death.

Then, in verse 17, he relates our tendency to break the law to our new identity in Christ in a startling way, “…now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.”

How in the world can he say such a thing? What does he mean? The answer is not that he is arguing for some sort of psychological dissociation. It is not anything in our psychology that accounts for this new “me.”

What Paul is asserting is that there is something new now; there is a new “me” even while the experience of the sinful tendency remains. In other words, something has happened that has redefined the Christian’s true identity separate from the sinful tendency he experiences.

It is the new reality, the new humanity every Christian has that has objectively come into existence with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and which defines us if we are united to him. That is why the conclusion of Paul’s argument is, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).

So What

Why does this matter to Tom who remains troubled by his persistent tendency to pursue intimacy with men?

Why does it matter to the Christian husband troubled by his persistent tendency to use his eyes and mind to sexually enjoy women other than his wife; to the church elder dogged by his tendency to feel self-righteous contempt for others; to the teenage son battling his tendency to resist and oppose parental love and wisdom?  And the list goes on.

What Paul is asserting is that there is something new now; there is a new “me” even while the experience of the sinful tendency remains.

Here is why it matters. Who doesn’t struggle with the troubling resiliency of sinful feelings?  Who doesn’t get discouraged at the unrelenting battle against our tendency to sin?

The answer is not that you can, by your own effort and with the right therapy, remove your tendency towards sin; this will lead you to despair. The answer is not that you should come to peace with your tendency towards sin, call it a part of you, and identify with it; this leaves you without hope and without God. The answer is not to say that true Christians no longer experience the pull of a sinful human nature; this is unbiblical and contrary to your experience and leaves you confused and desperate.

The answer is this: Jesus has borne our sin and our tendency to sin, died with and for it, and has been resurrected, inaugurating a whole new reality which shapes our hope for the future and defines us in the present. The continued experience of the tendency to sin is to be expected in this life. But that experience, for the believer, is only the “sin living in me”; it is not a part of who I am for all eternity.  Who I am is defined by the resurrection life of Christ.  This is not a small thing.  It is the gospel. It is everything.

The gospel answer of union with Christ is the only answer that doesn’t disappoint! This is your new identity!

And as it turns out, living out of your new identity in Christ is the only way to make progress against sin.  But that’s for another post…

Do you know the experience of guilt? Sometimes it is acute, a stabbing pain in your gut. At other times, it is a dull, gnawing in your soul—a vague feeling of “wrongness” about life, and when you stop to focus on why, the memory of your sin floods back. You long to be free from guilt, but as your failure persists, the pain continues. As a Christian, the guilt you experience over your sin is unavoidable.

You know the truth. You know how God calls you to live. You know the things you should be doing and the things you shouldn’t.

Worse, our experience of guilt is compounded because sexual sin is always clustered together with other sins. Lies and deceit are the constant companions of sexual sin. We squander time and resources, neglecting our calling as husbands, fathers, sons, employees, church members, etc. Sometimes we steal to support our behaviors. All these things deepen the reality of our guilt.

Because we keep our sin hidden, guilt surfaces in other ways and impacts our relationships with others. We are irritable and impatient. We become withdrawn and sullen. Sometimes we rage, even scaring ourselves. Even if you manage to hide your behavior for decades, you need to realize that there is always fallout from sin. Sin always infects our relationships with God and others. Because of the reality of your guilt, spending the evening looking at porn online will impact who you are at work the next day—how well you are able to function, interact with others, and so on. When you stop at the adult bookstore on the way home from work, it affects who you are at the dinner table with your family. When you spent time at work having a sexual chat online, you will be a different man at the home Bible study that night. If you are having suggestive conversations with a co-worker, it will determine how you interact with your wife once the kids are in bed. You may be able to hide your behavior, but there will always be relational consequences.

The hope for you today is that the gospel is true! Listen to the promise from Colossians 2:13-14: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (ESV). He does not treat us as our sins deserve, but rather, because ”the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love,” he removes our transgressions from us “as far as the east is from the west” (see Psalm 103, especially v. 8-14). In Christ, God has forever dealt with the problem of our guilt!

How do you tend to respond to others when you feel guilty? Are you angry, impatient, or withdrawn? Who tends to be on the receiving end of these behaviors?

This excerpt is taken from Harvest USA’s workbook for men, Sexual Sanity for Men, Recreating Your Mind in a Crazy Culture, published by New Growth Press. This workbook is excellent for small groups and one-on-one mentoring. Visit the Harvest USA bookstore to check out this resource and others at harvest-usa-store.com.

Updated 5.19.2017

When are you discouraged in your struggle against sin? When our focus is only on what is immediately in front of us—all of today’s temptations and failures—we lose perspective on the big picture and the ways in which God is at work, even in the midst of our sin.

Take a look at Hebrews 12:1-3:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (ESV).

In my last post, we looked to Jesus as the founder and perfecter of our faith. Now I want to consider in wonder that he went to the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” First, the passage tells us something important: Going to the cross meant Jesus experienced shame. Not only does Jesus identify with us in our temptation, but he even identifies with us in our guilt and shame, though he was personally sinless. He experienced them for us on the cross. 2 Corinthians 5:21 describes it like this: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” He became sin for us. He took all our guilt and shame on his shoulders as he faced the curse of dying on a tree (Galatians 3:10-14). He is able to understand and have compassion for everything you experience—even the pain of your guilt over repeated failures. He knows the reality of your sin and invites you to see him lifted up, bearing it for you so that you are able to walk in newness of life.

What was his motivation? The joy set before him. That joy includes you and me. In my last post, I also quoted Titus 2:14, in which Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” The point of this passage is to consider him as our perfecter, committed to purifying his people. But the whole point in our purification was to make us a people fitted for his own possession. Jesus went to the cross, for the joy of liberating us from our slavery to sin so that we could be his beloved Bride. He has betrothed himself to us, and, as we both await that great Wedding Feast of the Lamb, he is joyfully purifying us in glorious anticipation—even though on our end, the purification process is anything but joyful and glorious!

This truth radically impacts the call to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1). How? There is a goal towards which we are running. This isn’t mindlessly circling a track until you’ve suffered enough in abstinence from sexual sin. God is not a killjoy who dangles pleasures, only to see us drool. There is a glorious destination in view. One awaits us with a smile brighter than we can imagine (like the sun!), whose arms are outstretched, whose heart is overflowing with love, who delights in us and even sings over us.

We need to cast aside everything slowing us down because Jesus is eager for us to arrive, to offer us pleasures at his right hand forevermore—pleasures that right now, in this existence, with these bodies, we can’t even begin to fathom. He promises that joy, pleasure, peace, and contentment beyond our ability to comprehend await us at the end of this race. He promises we will be satisfied for eternity. Contentment in this life is often fleeting at best. In his presence is “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). The pleasures offered to us in this life are good gifts from a loving God that enable us to glimpse in a mirror dimly the infinitely greater glories awaiting us.

How would your battle against sin change if your eyes were focused on the end of the race? Do you believe that Jesus isn’t holding out on you, but reserving pleasure and delight that will infinitely satisfy your soul at the race’s end?

Updated 5.10.2017

How do you feel about New Year’s resolutions? Do you get excited about ways you can grow and mature in the coming year? Or are you bombarded with memories of all your past failures, all your grand hopes for change that were dashed before the end of January? This passage is in favor of New Year’s resolutions because it challenges us to take stock of where we are in life—and then get moving!

Read the following passage from Hebrews 12:1-3:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (ESV).

It’s the first day back after the holidays, so we’ll keep it simple. The passage describes the Christian life as running a race. What does this mean? The Christian life isn’t easy. Spiritual growth is grueling, strenuous labor. We are encumbered by “weights” and entangling sin that thwart our progress.

Many men have said to me, “I know what I have to do—I need to put Jesus where porn is in my life.” Theologically this is true. Idol worship needs to be replaced with worship of the true and living God. But here’s the rub: Jesus will never become like porn for you. If it was that simple, none of us would sin. The Christian life is always living by faith, and, as my colleague Bob says, sometimes living by faith doesn’t seem like much. We aren’t tortured for our faith in this country. Faith doesn’t usually produce a runner’s high. Let me tell you: Having spent many years abusing drugs, running the race of faith is not my definition of being “high.” But it is better in the long run.

Do you know why I keep running? Because of how I feel when it’s over. The process is torture, but the end is glorious. Sexual sin lures, promising immediate pleasure, but it withholds the truth of the guilt, shame, wrecked relationships, etc., that always follow. The Christian life is hard, probably much harder than you realized it would be when you signed on. But it’s worth it.

What do I mean? The Christian life is kind of like a runner’s high. After my wife’s passing in 2010, I started taking exercise seriously and began running regularly. I hate to run. But at long last, I experienced the runner’s high.

So, let’s look at three quick things the passage tells us about this race:

1)      The race has an audience. Following the list of Old Testament saints in chapter 11, this passage begins telling us that they are witnesses to the race we are running. They are cheering us on! And, more importantly, they stand as a witness to us that the end is in sight. This race will be over before we know it. They encourage us to persevere, standing as proof that God’s grace is sufficient for us.

2)      The race has been set for us. Your life is not an accident. This includes all the painful trials, temptations, unwanted attractions, etc. You are running a path set for you by a loving God who promises that he is working everything together for your good to conform you to the image of Jesus so that he will be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters (see Romans 8:28-29).

3)      The race has already been run by your Champion. We’ll spend more time in later posts considering this crucial reality. Jesus has already run this road, faced every trial and temptation you face, but never stumbled. He ran the race ahead of us, blazing the trail, and offers us the exact grace we need to face all the specific challenges because he has already endured them for us victoriously.

Are you weary at the start of the New Year? Where do you need to be encouraged? What “weights” are slowing you down? What sins are entangling you? May God give us the grace to look to Jesus and get up and run!

Updated 5.10.2017

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