The Christian life is a continual fight, a war, a thousand—no a billion—battles. More battles seem to be lost than won, I’m afraid. But for whom exactly are we fighting? Who are our enemies in this lifelong defeat? They have been called the unholy trinity: the world, the flesh, and the devil are their names. And they rear their ugly heads time and time again throughout the Christian life.
Sanctification is a lifelong struggle—it’s the long defeat of sin: putting it to death. This might seem like a strange way to think of the Christian life, but it’s a more realistic way of looking at Christian living than the self-help stuff we see on bookshelves. Think of the cross that our Lord was crucified on. That was defeat—at least in the eyes of the world.
Jesus took the long view. He allowed himself to be swallowed up by death for three days. Every molecule in his body was breaking down. His brain was dead. And then he rose from the dead and swallowed up death through resurrection. It was an amazing feat but first came defeat.
Our first enemy is the world. This, of course, does not mean literally every aspect of the world we inhabit. There is beauty in this world; there is some good that comes of it and within it. By “the world,” I mean the world as we know it that has been marred by corrupt hearts, treacherous hands, and wicked minds—the sin-stained world or this fallen, “present evil age,” as the apostle Paul calls it in Galatians 1:4.
God made the world and it was good—and then we made a mess of it and made it evil. That’s the world I’m talking about. The world that rebels against God and has set its rule against the Lord and his anointed (Ps. 2). This theater of God’s glory has turned into a theater of human sin, folly, war, hatred, perversion, and disgust.
And yet, it was for this world that God sent his Christ to die. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16). It wasn’t for the perfect, happy world that Jesus was slaughtered like a lamb, but it was for that ungodly, rebellious, imperfect and depressed world that the lamb was slain on a cross.
Our second enemy is the flesh. This sounds like a really strange term, doesn’t it? I haven’t heard the term “flesh” since watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (“It was but a flesh wound!”) This somewhat archaic word still has a place, a home in the Christian life.
If the world is at war without (that is, a war outside of us), “the flesh” refers to the war within. We often are at war with ourselves. Our thoughts accuse us. Our words accuse others. We doubt our salvation. We doubt ourselves. The apostle Paul describes this internal warfare experience in this way:
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Rom. 7:15–20)
Earlier in chapter six of Romans, Paul spoke in such strong terms as one who is not simply preparing for battle but entrenched in a battle. He was once a soldier fighting on the front lines, but now he suddenly finds himself captured as a prisoner of war. Christian theologians have characterized this internal struggle (“I do not do what I want”) by saying that Christians are “at the same time righteous and sinful.” We are declared forgiven and righteous as far as God is concerned, and yet, we still wrestle with sin day by day—we know it and our neighbors definitely know it. Such is the experience of Christians every day.
Our third and final enemy is the devil himself. We moderns don’t like to talk about angels and demons much—they make for epic movies (sometimes), but they don’t typically have a place in our minds or imaginations—much less do they have a place in our daily Tweets and chatter. But the devil is for real. Satan is this accuser’s name, and he is the ancient serpent who deceived our first parents at the beginning of the Bible.
As the apostle Peter says, he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). He’s smart too: he tricks us time and time again into thinking that we can actually have our best life now. He makes us think that evil is good, and good is evil.
We distrust God because of him. We mistrust others because of him. We believe false promises; and because of him, we want to embrace a false gospel, namely, that we are somehow responsible for our salvation rather than God alone. But don’t believe this trickster! His time is running out.
The Lifelong Defeat Is Over
Far too many Christians live as if we are going to lose the war. We see the long defeat of sin as a long, drawn-out defeat of ourselves, our churches, and even of God. This is so far from the truth. Usually, we feel like we’re losing all of the time because we’re busy following another self-improvement plan.
We try weight loss programs for Christians when we should be focusing on the objective, once-and-for-all sacrifice for sins that God has given us to conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil. When we return to the good news of the gospel, as when we first believed, we begin to have confidence again that nobody—not the whole world, not our flesh, and not even the devil—can “bring any charge against God’s elect” (Rom. 8:33).
Nobody can condemn us, because “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised…who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34). With such a mighty warrior, a trusted soldier, a true victor—we have our Katniss Everdeen who has stood in our place as a tribute. No one can separate us from the love of God because Christ has conquered all of our enemies for us.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38–39)
In other words, victory has already been achieved. The outcome of the war is final, and we know the ending. The long defeat is almost over. Hang in there.