To say that 2020 has been chaotic and disappointing would be an understatement. Both nationally and globally, unbelievable challenges and disappointments have abounded again and again … and again. And these challenges have revealed the true nature of the human heart. Despite the culture’s insistence that people are essentially good, the truth of the matter is, 2020 has revealed again what Scripture long ago taught: this is a fallen world.
That being said, this last year has also been revealing for believers. As many of us have been forced to stay home and jettison our routines, some have not fared well in the isolated war of stay-at-home orders. The “make-your-own schedule” in our domestic exiles has, for many, been painful, numbing, and even spiritually disastrous. For some, old patterns of sin have re-emerged, and for others, new patterns of sin have bubbled to the surface.
Who would have suspected that a global lockdown would have come with so many lessons about sanctification? And yet, COVID has reminded us again that the real evil is not outside of us, but within us. And there is no social distancing from ourselves.
I write this article, then, with the discouraged and defeated in mind, not just them, of course, but especially them. Because although the war against sin can be bloody and disheartening, it is not hopeless. In fact, it is the opposite of hopeless. For if you belong to Christ, victory over sin is not merely a possibility, but an inevitable reality.
The question I want to pose in this article is this: how can a believer actually put sin and temptation to death in their life? Another way to ask it is: how can we gain access to the transforming power of Christ and, thus, live a holy life that brings glory to the Father?
The answer to this question will come in two parts. These are not simple fixes or magic formulas, but truths to dwell upon. My prayer is that the more these theological realities become realities in your heart and mind, the more you will see the budding flowers of spring emerge in your spiritual life.
Victory over sin requires knowing what it means to be a branch.
The battle with sin begins not with a thing to do, but with a posture to have. In order to fight sin, we must first be saturated with the virtue of desperation. We must realize that there is a power in poverty. We must despair of our worthless resources and cast ourselves upon Christ to free us from these fetters of sin.
Listen to the tenor of the Lord’s words to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). In Mary’s song to the Lord at the beginning of Luke, she declares the workings of the Lord: “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:52–53, italics mine). Are you humble in your posture and hungry for the things of the Lord?
This posture is again evident in Jesus’ metaphor in John 15 when He calls Himself the “Vine” and believers the “branches” (John 15:1–5). We can become so hung up with the picture of vine and branches and fruit that we miss the utter desperation and dependence that is at the core of this metaphor. Christ is helping believers understand that apart from Him, they can do nothing (15:5). Our sanctification and holiness and every fruit of the Spirit only come when we lean upon Christ in needy dependence. This metaphor of the vine and the branches puts each party in its rightful place—Jesus is the all-sufficient giver of grace, and we are the needy beneficiaries of that grace.
The reality that believers are compared to branches is not flattering for believers. It means that if we are snipped off, we die. We don’t have a life source; we are alive only because of who we are connected to. It means that we are spiritual cripples and beggars of grace. Our sanctification takes a wrong turn when we begin to define ourselves by anything other than that—when we begin to think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Rom 12:3). We underestimate our own neediness, and we overestimate our ability to resist. And then sin takes hold.
In sum, the fight with sin begins by realizing our dependence upon Christ, our all-sufficient Vine, the one who opens eyes and lifts up the lame (John 15:5). However, we must also avoid the irresponsible let go and let God mentality where we downplay our own role in resisting temptation. Instead, victory begins with humility and dependence upon the one who asked the invalid, “Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6)
Victory over sin requires abiding in the Vine.
Abiding in Christ is at the very heart of sanctification. This is where Jesus, in John 15, takes his disciples next. Jesus says, “he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, italics mine). And then in verse 8 Jesus explains, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.” So those who abide in Christ, and Christ in them, bear much fruit, prove to be His disciples, and bring the Father glory. So we must probe at the foundation of this. What does it mean to abide in the Vine—Jesus Christ? And what does this look like in real life?
What does it mean to abide in Christ?
If Christ is like a Vine that supplies the branches with all they need (and He is); and if we are like branches that desperately need the Vine (and we are), then to abide in Christ is nothing less than moment-by-moment desperation and dependence upon Christ to supply what we need to do what He commands.
The analogy of a branch abiding in a vine is the perfect analogy because it captures the unceasing connection and dependence upon an external source of power. This is precisely what Christ wants to produce in all of us: continuous and conscientious clinging to Him with white-knuckled tenacity for all that He is and all that He accomplished.
Consider the hope that the reality of abiding in Christ provides. We are 100% responsible to wage war with sin, but we are to do so in the power supplied by Another. In fact, the Father doesn’t command us to do anything that He hasn’t already provided the power through Christ to obey. This is one of the many features of the New Covenant that makes it far superior to the Old (cf. Ezek 36:27).
But what does this actually look like? How do we abide in Christ?
How do you abide in Christ in actual, real life situations?
Referring back to the definition I provided, what does “continuous and conscientious clinging to Christ with white-knuckled tenacity” look like? In John 15:7, Christ supplies the answer: “If you abide in Me and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
Read Jesus’ words just one more time. “If you abide in Me and My words abide in you.” Notice what he did. Instead of saying “and I abide in you,” which he did say earlier (4, 5), he now adds My words. When you have His Word, you have Christ Himself. It is not Christ or His Word. It is not Christ and His Word. Rather, it is Christ in and through His Word! His Word is the means by which weak and brittle branches cling to the Vine.
Believers should depend upon every word that comes from God, as revealed in the Bible. Believers should reflect upon the commands of the Lord to the nation of Israel, to “teach them diligently to your sons and … talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:7–9). These verses make clear that the very words of God were meant to be the lifeblood of His people. His people shouldn’t even be able to walk through a door or to look at their hand or to go to bed without remembering the words of their God. And Jesus is taking this a step further, he wants His words to not just be wrapped around their hands or carved into their doorposts, but pressed into the minds and hearts of His people so that His words “abide in you” (John 15:7). How do we do this?
We must remember the Word. One helpful way to do this is to memorize Scripture, and not just isolated verses, but passages and even whole chapters.
We must recall the Word. In real time throughout our day, we must actively bring to mind the words of Scripture. It might be wise to regularly turn off political talk radio or podcasts and instead recall God’s Word.
We must recite the Word. Rehearse and repeat the passage again and again as you drive, walk, or shovel snow. This is what the psalmist means by “meditation.” It is not mindless mantra, but rigorous, aggressive thinking about the text and what it means for our lives.
We must rely upon the power of the Word. We take the text and make it our prayer back to God. We use the words of the passage and plead with God to work these precious realities into our lives. In John 15:7, Christ said, “ask whatever you wish” directly after talking about His Word abiding in the disciples. He seemed to anticipate the inseparable connection between His Word in us, and desperate prayers from us.
We are all familiar with the radical call of Jesus to pluck out our eye, or cut off our hand to keep from sinning (cf. Matt 5:27–30). However, let it be said that the eye-plucking, hand-severing work of sanctification happens as we cling in real time to Christ through His Word.
Abiding in Christ is a living, vital, desperate dependence upon Christ through His Word as we navigate our days. And it is precisely the act of abiding in Him that gives us such hope that even a bleak and dismal 2020 can end on a note of glory.