As hard as it is for me to believe, it’s been nearly twenty years since I started college. As I’ve written before, the best part of college for me was RUF: Reformed University Fellowship. My campus minister, Chris Yates, was such a blessing to me and to all of us in the Yates’ years at Texas A&M. There are a handful of illustrations or phrases that I remember from those wonderful Wednesday night meetings, but there is one that has made such a mark in my life that I’ve probably mentioned it in every Bible study I’ve been in since:
Are you struggling to be free or are you free to struggle?
So what does it mean? Well, it has to do with the work we do as Christians to fight against our indwelling sin. As Christians, we will struggle, that’s a given. However, it’s important to know why we struggle. What is our purpose in doing so?
It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of believing (or behaving like) our actions are what make us right with God. What must I do to be saved? By focusing on what we do to save ourselves, we end up as legalists proud of our self-righteous success, or we end up as hedonists having despaired of ever being right with God. Sometimes both, depending on the day. Either way, we are living as if we are struggling to be free of our sin.
This is where a good understanding of justification by faith alone really helps. As the Larger Catechism says:
Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.
In other words, we no longer have to struggle to be free from sin. Christ has set us free, and we are free indeed.
But what does that mean? If we are no longer slaves to sin, and Christ’s obedience is applied to our account, are we free to go out and live lives of depravity? As Paul wrote, “May it never be!”
No, we are not free to revel in our sin, but we are now free to struggle against the sin that dwells within us.
This is where sanctification comes in. The Shorter Catechism defines sanctification as:
[T]he work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Sanctification is God’s work in us through the Spirit. It’s His work that He begins and completes, but part of that work is that He makes us willing and able to fight against our sin nature. This too is wonderful news! Having been made new in Christ, we are no longer slaves to our desires and instincts. We can struggle with our sin, and by His grace, we will have success. It’s important to remember that the process of sanctification is life-long. There will be highs and lows, success and failure along the way.
Through the Spirit and because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we are being perfected and will one day be free completely from our struggle with sin. Until then, let’s fight the good fight and not grow weary of doing good! Our salvation is secure. We no longer have to struggle to be free from our sin. But we must not forget that we are free to struggle. And as Paul wrote:
I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6 (ESV)
Footnote: Chris Yates told me recently that the quote is probably a Hal Farnsworth original. If you know who said it first, let me know, and I’ll be happy to update the reference.