The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life, Chapter 9: Conflict

“Fight the good fight of faith.” – 1 Tim. vi. 12.

“Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ (or, who at all times is leading us in triumph in Christ).” – 2 Cor.ii. 14.

“Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” – Rom. viii. 37.

“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1 Cor. xv. 57.

“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” etcetc. – Eph. vi. 10, 11.

“Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” – Gal. v. 16.

ALMOST immediately after the believer realizes what it is to have eternal life in Christ he is brought face to face with conflict. It is of the utmost importance that he should understand clearly the principles on which the warfare is to be waged, and what are the essential conditions to be maintained in order that there should not only be conflict, but victorious conflict.

One of the chief passages of Scripture on this important subject is the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians.

The first thing to be noticed is the preparation for the battle. This is given us in the tenth verse. “Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.” As when the apostle puts before us the Christian life under the figure of a race, he shows us what are the needful qualifications in order to run so as to obtain, so when he speaks of the conflict, he lays down as a preliminary condition that which is essential in order that we may come off conquerors. We must know what it is to become strengthened in the Lord.

The apostle addresses himself to those who have already apprehended their judicial standing in Christ. It is not now a question of salvation, but of becoming experimentally and practically strengthened, of which he here speaks. It is something that he presses upon them as that which is absolutely essential for Christian conflict.

But how is the exhortation to be obeyed? To be made powerful in the Lord is to occupy a certain position, from which alone the battle can be successfully waged. In order to do this we must first see clearly the nature of the victory the Lord Jesus Christ has obtained for His people.

He is, not only the Mediator between God and man, He is the Conqueror of our great spiritual adversary. He has, not only atoned for our sins by His merits, He has overcome our foes by His almighty power. Through His death He has vanquished him who had the power of death, that is the devil; He has triumphed over every enemy that can possibly assail us. When God raised Christ from the dead and set Him at His own right hand, it was “far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come, and He put all things under His feet” (Eph. i. 21, 22). To be strengthened in the Lord we must first see Him as the Conqueror, we must see Him occupying the victorious position.

As it has often been observed, the Epistle to the Ephesians in the New Testament answers to the book of Joshua in the Old. It is in the book of Joshua that the Lord manifests Himself as a man of war. In Exodus He reveals Himself as the Redeemer, but it is not until the children of Israel are standing, within the borders of the promised land, that Jehovah appears to them as the Conqueror: “As the Captain of the Lord’s host am I NOW come.” It is the same Divine Person, but a new revelation; it is the same Lord, but a fresh manifestation. They had only just placed their feet on true fighting ground; to lead them forth to the conflict, and to teach them the true secret of victory does He now come.

A full view of the Captain, and a clear apprehension of the complete victory He has already obtained, is the first step towards becoming strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.

But the next step is to identify ourselves with Him in His victory. What did Joshua require the captains of his men of war to do? Not simply to take in the fact that he had conquered the five kings whom he had placed in the cave, but also to identify themselves with him in the victory. As representatives of the camp of Israel they were required to place their feet on the necks of these kings.

So our Joshua would have His believing followers, not only to recognize the fact that He has triumphed over the foe, but also by faith to plant their feet on that victorious position which He has obtained for them; He would have them to enter into His triumphs, into the fruits of His conquest. Not only to stand in His righteousness, but by faith to claim and occupy the victorious position in relation to all their foes. This is to be made powerful in the Lord, and in the strength of His might.

Now let it be clearly understood, that to occupy the victorious position, as a preparation for the battle, is not a question of progressive attainment, but a matter of immediate acceptance by faith. We take it before we begin to fight, for not until that position is taken, are we prepared for the conflict.

It is a position superior to that of the enemy. Christ does not bring the believer into the valley while the enemy is occupying the heights. The conflict does not consist in obtaining the victory with His aid, and dislodging the enemy from his vantage ground. The character of the conflict is entirely different. To see what Christ has accomplished by His victory is to see that the enemy has already been overcome and dislodged from his stronghold, and that our conflict consists in fighting, not for this position of victory, but from it. We are to fight, not in order to reach the place of victory, but, occupying that position in Christ, being strengthened in Him, we fight from it. The conflict is, not to go up and take possession, but to stand in possession. Because possession is taken the moment we stand in Christ, what we then have to do is to hold our ground. We have “to keep the field,” as Martin Luther puts it. And so the apostle uses this expression, “that you may be able to withstand, . . . and having done all, to stand” (Eph. vi. 13).

But again: the preparation for the battle includes another essential condition. Not only must the right position be occupied, the equipment which God has provided must be appropriated – “put on.”

“Put on the whole armour of God.” Here again the words must be understood, not as having reference to our judicial standing – for this could not be a matter of exhortation – but to our practical conduct. The apostle refers to that which has to be appropriated. Without entering in detail into the meaning of this armour, we may point out in passing, that what we have here is equivalent to the direction given by the same apostle in his Epistle to the Romans: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. xiii. 14). We may sum it up by saying that to put on Christ, is to be brought into entire subjection to His supremacy, to be wholly under his control. This, as we have seen in another chapter, is the secret of having His power. Until this is actually brought about we are not ready to engage in the battle.

In the next place, observe the foe to be encountered. The enemy especially referred to in the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians is not the world or the flesh, but Satan. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high (or, heavenly) places.” That is, we are not fighting against mankind. It is not against the human instruments but against Satan himself, who is employing these instruments, that we wage war. The real enemy is not visible to the outward eye. He is an unseen but mighty foe; he is behind and underneath all that which is visible and human and physical. The enemy here contemplated therefore is not an internal but an external foe.

Now it may be objected, Is not the “flesh” an enemy? and is not the “flesh” within us? True. But let us not fail to observe that if the preparation for the battle has really been carried out, if the preliminary conditions have been complied with, then the flesh is no longer free to hinder us. That tendency to evil which continues with us to the last is no longer in power, but held in subjection by the supremacy of Christ.

The fight does not consist in an internal conflict. This would be mutiny. The believer cannot really conquer himself; but by giving Christ the throne, by simply falling in with His conditions, self is conquered, the flesh is held in abeyance, kept in the place of death, so that the believer is free to fight the enemies of the Lord.

We must very jealously distinguish between rebellion and true Christian conflict. If we are not willing that God should have His way with us, if we are setting up our will in opposition to His will, this certainly is conflict; but it is not Christian conflict, it is not “the good fight of faith.” It is like a soldier who, going out to fight his country’s enemy, is found, during the progress of the battle, sometimes on the side of the foe, fighting in his ranks against his own country, and at other times in the ranks of his own army. Unless we are really on the Lord’s side, truly loyal to Him, we are not engaged in the warfare described in this epistle.

The believer who really fulfils the conditions insisted upon in the tenth and following verses in the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians is, as Gurnal says, a “Christ-enclosed man.” Satan knows what that means better than we do. He is too experienced a general to waste his strength against walls which he knows are impregnable. So, he does not come against us with his power, when we are thus entrenched; he adopts other methods. He brings his “wiles” to bear upon us – his subtle, methodized plans, in order to allure us out of our Fortress. The apostle speaks of them as “the wiles of the devil.” His aim is to get the believer to quit faith’s position. If he can only get him to doubt, or even to entertain discouragement – for all discouragement comes from the devil – he will succeed in his schemes; for the moment the believer quits faith’s position he falls under Satan’s power. Hence the fight is not merely “the good fight,” because it may always be a victorious one, but “the good fight of faith,” because it is essentially a question of maintaining the trusting attitude and remaining in faith’s position.

It should encourage the weakest believer to remember that the “babe in Christ” who is within the impregnable Fortress is as safe as the “father in Christ” who occupies the same position; but the most advanced saint is as weak and helpless as water the moment he ceases to abide in the Fortress and have Christ between himself and the enemy.

The order in which the several pieces are enumerated is the order in which the armour of the Roman soldier was actually put on. And being armed, the soldier had then only to take up the sword or the spear. Now it is curious to note that St. Paul omits the spear; but this is exactly that part of his equipment which when on guard within the fortress the soldier would not be likely to assume.

Lastly: observe the result to be expected in this conflict. There are three “ables” in this passage that should be carefully noted. The first is in verse 11, “That you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” The provision made for us in the armour is sufficient to enable us to stand. There is no reason why even the weakest saint should be overcome by Satan. It is God’s purpose that we should come off victorious. Let us expect not defeat but triumph. How often have we been defeated because we have gone into the conflict anticipating failure!

The next “able” is in verse 13; but notice first the one in verse 16: “Above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.” Let us not overlook the little word “all.” We know something of these fiery darts and the suffering they occasion: those unbelieving thoughts, desponding, hard, abominable thoughts – inflaming our worst passions and plunging us into the darkest gloom. How we long to be delivered! Well, here is God’s warrant for our confident expectation that we may be. Where is the remedy? It is in the shield of faith. Let that shield be ever between us and the enemy, and not a single dart shall reach our souls. “All the fiery darts of the wicked” shall be quenched.

Christ is the shield that faith apprehends. Let Him stand between you and the foe, and you need fear no evil. This invisible and impenetrable shield shall surround you on every side, and guard you from every assault.

In the thirteenth verse we read, “That you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” This expression, “withstand,” occurs also in the Epistle of St. James, “Resist (i.e. withstand) the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas. iv. 7); and also in St. Peter’s first Epistle, “Resist him, (withstand) steadfast in the faith” (1 Pet. v. 9). This translation, and others, might lead perhaps to the idea that the believer’s duty was to go out and encounter the enemy, and seek to overcome him by dint of his own power of resistance; but bearing in mind that the word is really “withstand,” we see at once that the only way in which Satan can successfully be encountered is for us to be found by him entrenched in Christ. The only way we can ‘resist” him is for us to stand in Christ our Fortress, and to meet his assaults with Christ as our wall of defence. So is that passage in St. Peter to be understood. We are to “resist” Satan by being steadfast in the faith; that is, by standing fast in faith’s victorious position.

All these passages enable us to see clearly, that the conflict is indeed a fight of faith, and also to detect the secret of our past failures. We have not seen the indispensable necessity of this attitude of trust; we have relied on our own efforts, our own resolutions, our own prayers, it may be. While we have believed that justification was by faith, we have not really believed that the fight and the victory were also to be known and realized through faith. But this is God’s appointed means. Let us not make experiments by using any other method.

“The law of liberty” is nowhere more necessary to our spiritual success than in this matter of conflict. If we are not really free from ourselves, we cannot fight so as to “withstand.” Too much stress cannot therefore be laid on the tenth and following verses. There lies the secret of a continuous life of triumph over the power of the enemy.

How David anticipated the great truth set forth in this chapter we see from what he says in the eighteenth Psalm:

“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

* * * * *

“It is God who arms me with strength, And makes my way perfect. He makes my feet like the feet of deer, And sets me on my high places.

“He teaches my hands to make war, So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. You have also given me the shield of Your salvation; Your right hand has held me up, Your gentleness has made me great.

* * * * *

“For You have armed me with strength for the battle; You have subdued under me those who rose up against me.

“You have also given me the necks of my enemies.

* * * *

“Therefore I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the Gentiles, and sing praises to Your name.”

But an important passage as bearing on this subject of conflict has not yet been noticed. It is the well-known declaration which the apostle gives us in his Epistle to the Galatians: “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. v. 16 – 18).

It is of the utmost importance, in order to understand the meaning of these words, that we have clearly before us what the apostle here means by “the Spirit.” There are multitudes of Christians who read the words as if we have here described the struggle between the two natures, flesh and spirit. Let us once and forever dismiss that thought from our minds in connection with this text. This is not the teaching of the passage. The apostle by the term “Spirit” here does not refer to the human spirit, that which is a part of every man’s constitution; nor does he here speak of the new nature, “that which is born of the Spirit.” As Alford observes on this text, Spirit here is “not man’s spiritual part; it is (as in verse 5) the Holy Spirit of God.” So to the same effect another well-known commentator has remarked: “Spirit is here doubtless the Holy Spirit; it is that that overcomes the flesh. He enters, it is true, into the hearts of believers, and works only by impelling and determining the walk, as He who dwells in the believers. But yet ‘Spirit’ (here) is not on this account equivalent to the new disposition of the believer himself, sanctified by the Spirit, but remains ever distinct from the individual human spirit, as Divine, transcending it” (Lange).

This moreover is clear from the context. To “walk in the Spirit” is to walk in the Holy Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit” (verse 22) is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, not of our new nature. So here what the apostle declares is the opposition between the flesh and the Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit being here regarded, not so much as working externally on the believer, but as an indwelling Power.

What the apostle here declares is that “walking in the Holy Spirit is the means of living in continual triumph over, or in a state of deliverance from, the “lust of the flesh.”

The enemy which the apostle has now especially in view is not Satan – the conflict in that relation we have already considered in connection with the sixth of Ephesians; but here it is the flesh. We must ask, however, What does the apostle mean here by the “flesh”? We know the term is used in Scripture to denote mankind generally: “All flesh is as grass.” It is also used of our physical nature, our bodily organism: “The life that I now live in the flesh.” But there is another sense in which the word is used, and especially by the Apostle Paul. The flesh is spoken of as the seat of sin. “The expression gives us no right whatever to think of the bodily organism more than of the soul” (Lange). It must not be taken as equivalent to our material or physical natures. “The essential element in the idea of the flesh is the turning away from God and referring ourselves to ourselves, the self-seeking, egoistic element. This is primarily in respect to God; but immediately connected with it is the fact that a man in reference to other men, also seeks himself, his enjoyment or his gain. It is easily explicable therefore why love appears as the first effect of the Spirit being the temper and act opposed to selfishness (Muller on “The Christian Doctrine of Sin,” quoted in Lange’s Commentary). Selfhood is the essence of that principle called the “flesh.” The flesh is that tendency to self or to sin which exists even in the regenerate. Adam was created originally without this evil tendency, though he had the liability to sin. But we must not overlook the distinction between the tendency and the liability to sin. A piece of wood floating on the water has no tendency to sink. It is liable to sink, because it may be submerged by external pressure. But a piece of lead floating on the water by means of a life-belt, though it does not actually sink, has a tendency of its own to sink. Now we believe that the “flesh,” however it may be defined, is that which is incapable of being turned into spirit. And we believe moreover that the Scripture teaches us that it will exist in the believer as a tendency to evil to the last; that is, that it is not in this life actually eradicated. Therefore it is we need a power greater than that we possess by nature, greater than that we possess in ourselves by grace, a power which is Divine, even the Holy Spirit Himself, to meet that tendency and give us continually deliverance from it. We need continually the exercise of that Divine power which “is able to keep us from falling.” And we may always have it; so that, though the tendency to sink is not removed, it is effectually counteracted.

The two principles are diametrically opposed. But, as Lange observes, “the contest” described in this passage (Gal. v. 16-18) “is by no means to be conceived as an interminable one. The context shows that on the contrary there is expected of the Christian a complete surrendering of himself, in order to be actuated by the one principle, the Spirit, and a refusal to give way to the lust of the flesh.”

What then is needed on the part of the believer in order that his life may be a life of triumph? Not struggles with the flesh to overcome it. He has no power really to conquer the flesh; but he is free to choose either the flesh or the Spirit. He can yield either to the one or the other; and by the constant surrender of his will to the Holy Spirit, he finds at once that power in God which he does not possess in himself, a power that completely conquers the flesh and gives him continually a path of deliverance from its lusts. And hence the result is, we do not the evil things we otherwise should inevitably do if the Holy Spirit were not in us. But note what the apostle says at the end of this chapter, “They that are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with the passions and the lusts thereof.”

“The meaning, to be sure, is not that now the flesh, with its affections and lusts, is not any longer present at all with those that have become Christians.” . . . Crucifixion “naturally alludes to the cross of Christ, and the fellowship with Christ involves a crucifixion of the flesh, for the very reason that it is fellowship with Christ’s death on the cross.” Those, therefore, who appropriate to themselves in faith Christ’s death upon the cross “have divested themselves of all vital fellowship with sin, whose seat the ‘flesh’ is, so that as Christ was objectively crucified, we, by means of the entrance into fellowship of His death on the cross, crucify the flesh subjectively, in moral consciousness of faith.” That is, have made it “inoperative through faith as the new vital element to which we have passed over. To Christians considered ideally, as here, this ethical slaying of the flesh is something which has taken place; in reality, however, it is also something taking place and continuing” (Lange).

What we have already said on the subject of “conformity to the death of Christ,” in another chapter, bears on this point. It is our identification with Christ’s death unto sin, and being made one with Him in mind and heart in that death, that not only brings the flesh to the cross but keeps it there. To keep it in the place of death is the only way to walk in a path of continual deliverance.

It is in, and through, and by the Spirit then that this mortifying or putting to death of the flesh is to be accomplished (Rom. viii. 13), and this only by means of the cross.

What therefore this chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians puts before us, is not a description of that struggling between the two natures which so many Christians mistake for true Christian warfare, but the way of deliverance from one of our most serious hindrances to victorious conflict. It shows us how by the power of the Holy Spirit we may stand in a position of freedom from the harassing influences of the “lust of the flesh” – a freedom which is essential in order that we may engage in the conflict, run in the race, labour in the work, and abide in the fellowship to which by God’s grace we have been called.

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