‘’Every time we say, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit,’ we mean that there is a living God able and willing to enter human personality and change it.’’ J. B. Phillips.
The Christian life is not a matter of keeping laws (18). As we have seen, we trust in Jesus to rescue us from sin. (Michael Green once wrote that the very Name ‘Jesus’ means ‘God to the rescue!’) Now we come to the further truth that we are transformed by the Holy Spirit. As we live by the power of the indwelling Spirit, He enables each one of us to ‘’not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.’’ (16). Because of His enabling, we can avoid toxic behaviours such as those described in (15, 19-21 and 26.) Notice that we will feel those desires, but the Holy Spirit will help us to ‘Just say no!’ I think it was Martin Luther who said, ‘’You can’t help the birds flying around your head, but you can stop them building a nest in your hair!’’ The old hymn is spot on: ‘’Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin.’’
There is no doubt that we are capable of such bad behaviour as described in verses 19-21. Verses 16-23 point to what someone has called the fact of Christian conflict. This is a shorter version of Paul’s longer argument in Romans 7. The problem for every follower of Christ is that we still have a ‘’sinful nature’’. It is not surgically removed at the moment of conversion. It will be with us until we die. Just as a crown green bowling ball is fitted with a ‘bias’, and therefore has a tendency to go off course, so do we! We tend to veer off from the straight and true. We have this thing within that wants to sin and likes to sin. It is permanently inside us. At least, it is until we die. We can, for example, want to bite and devour fellow believers. We can feel proud or jealous. We can hate. We can be egotistical. We can have wrong sexual desires. We are capable of terrible things. Each one of us is aware of an inner ‘tug of war’ between the new nature and the old. The war within is real and relentless. A young pastor asked an older, veteran pastor, ‘At what age will I cease to battle with lust?’ The old man replied, ‘Son, when I get there I’ll let you know!’ This fight is ferocious, and it can be deeply distressing to those who long after holiness. The Holy Spirit causes us to desire things that are contrary to what the sinful nature has appetites for, but oh how this inward civil war rages! The Spirit stirs up hankerings after goodness, but the flesh resists furiously. There is no getting away from this fact of conflict.
But the passage also points to the way of Christian victory. There are two clear things we have to do: i) we must crucify the sinful nature (24): this is something we ‘’have’’ done at our conversion. But also, we know it is something we have to continually do. We must live in repentance, dealing radically with all forms of temptation; we have to be ruthless in our resistance, cordoning off all possible highways to sin (Matthew 5:29, 30); ii) we are to ‘’keep in step with the Spirit.’’ (25). It strikes me that these two principles are in tandem. We can’t perform the first without the second. Only by God’s power can anyone hammer nails into the sinful nature. Without that divine energising we will pander to the flesh and let it have its own way. ‘’Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every area of our lives. This means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.
The Message: Thank you that the Holy Spirit is in my ‘corner’ and that He is the ‘Champion’. Thank you that He has got the beating of my sinful nature, and will train me to be a winner.