The New Testament presents the Christian life as a journey, a pilgrimage—what one Christian author has described as “a long obedience in the same direction.” In Scripture, we see a picture of the Christian life with all of its anquish and simulatenous hopefulness. A spiritual struggle, a battle, continues throughout one’s life. This struggle is quite real as exemplified in the life of the apostle Paul in Romans 7:14-25 and his teaching in Ephesians 6:10-17. And his own difficulties on full display in 2 Corinthians 11 must not be ignored.
The tension between the now and not yet
Yet, for Paul, these challenges are not an excuse for a joyless or slothful life. In fact, his approach is quite the opposite. Deliverance from the struggle is clearly promised, but it is an eschatological hope. We need to recognize that believers live between the fulfillment and consummation of ultimate redemption. We are “in Christ,” but the old age of flesh is still in existence. While our justification has been accomplished by Christ at the cross and affirmed by his resurrection (Rom. 3:24-4:25), we nevertheless are “in Christ” and “in Adam (Rom. 5:12-21). Between Christ’s resurrection and his return, there is an interval, which is the time in which we currently live, a time characterized by tension as believers struggle with sin, weakness, suffering, and death (Rom. 8:17-27; 2 Cor. 4:7-5:5; Phil. 3:10-14).
The entire Christian life is lived in light of the tension between what we already are in Christ and what we hope ultimately to be some day. Conversion is only the beginning; the new has not swallowed up the old. We do not attain sinless perfection in this life, nor are we ever freed from the tension and struggle with indwelling sin. Believers remain in the conflict of which we are ever aware and responsible. Christ followers are called to persevere in the midst of this struggle so as not to be overcome by the world, the flesh, or the devil. We seek to make progress in godliness with the hope of complete transformation into Christlikeness at the time that we receive our resurrected bodies at the consummation of our redemption (Rom. 8:29-39).
We sometimes read about professing believers who deny the faith they once professed or who experience what seems to be a moral collapse. While there are various factors and life issues that contribute to these events, one of the problems for the church is that the New Testament picture of tension and struggle is not adequately portrayed, causing people along the way to give up or give in. The picture of the Christian life, as presented by Paul and the other apostles, must continually be presented in the church’s teaching and preaching. For a proclamation that promises only peace, pardon, and power will ultimately result in disillusioned followers of Christ who live with a sense of defeat and duplicity.
The entire Christian life is lived in light of the tension between what we already are in Christ and what we hope ultimately to be some day.
While the understanding of struggle and tension is never an excuse for slothful living, believers need not be depressed nor conclude that grace has lost the struggle. Instead, perseverance is a marker of genuine life for true and persevering believers. We must constantly be judging indwelling sin as an offense toward a holy God. We live with the lifelong struggle while also living with the sense of joy, peace, and thankfulness for the life of grace and for the eschatological hope of ultimate transformation. The conflict seen in Romans 7 and 8 is real and does not represent only a minority of the regenerate community. Instead, it applies to the whole church as we constantly declare our dependence on God, the grace provided for us in Christ, and the spiritual enablement that comes from the Holy Spirit, the giver of life.
Helping one another pursue faithfulness
Are there practical ways that will encourage faithfulness in this life as we await our ultimate redemption? Perhaps Paul’s concluding words in his first letter to the Thessalonians will provide a helpful guide. Participating in a grace-filled church community that shows compassion for those in their struggle will be extremely helpful (1 Thess. 5: 14-15). Encouraging believers to regularly read the Bible devotionally and to develop a prayerful lifestyle is another important step.
We are told in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to be joyful, to pray continually, and to give thanks in all circumstances. Joy is not the same as happiness; it does not depend on our circumstances and is the antidote to gloominess. Whether in the midst of conflict, in times of desperation, or on a peaceful day, we are exhorted to always be in an attitude of prayer. We may not be happy about all of our circumstances, but even in them, we are to be thankful, because it is God’s will for Christ followers to be people of gratitude. Ambrose of Milan said, “No duty is more urgent than returning thanks.” When our lives are one constant “thank you, Lord,” we are liberated from selfish ingratitude and lives of debilitating self-interest.
As we participate in this journey with others in the church, we are called to encourage theological and spiritual discernment (1 Thess. 5:19-22). We are not to be gullible on the one hand or overly critical on the other, but we are called to a life of wisdom and discernment that comes from knowing and understanding God’s Word and his will and way for believers. We need to surround ourselves with other believers who have Spirit-enabled insight into the meaning of Scripture and its application for the contemporary world.
Believers need to prioritize the importance of making progress in this pilgrimage while also finding ways to help others along the journey. We are able to do this as we are sanctified through and through in every aspect of our being (1 Thess. 5:23-28). This journey is not individualistic, but it is to be carried out in fellowship with others, praying with and for others, investing in their lives and asking others to do the same for us. Genuine fellowship and love for others is vital for progress in the Christian life and for the gospel to advance.
May God help us all develop lives of faithfulness carried out in grace-filled communities that will provide encouragement for us and for others—a community in which we can celebrate together and cry together. We must recognize that the Christian life is not some one-time decision but is an ongoing purposeful and intentional commitment for a lifetime. Both the struggle and the deliverance are true and real in the lives of believers. Although Paul speaks autobiographically about these things in Romans 7 and 8, it is apparent that he speaks by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as well as by implication for all of us who are constantly in need of God’s grace, enablement, and blessing. May God grant us grace to persevere in this life so that those who live and serve with us in community as well as those who come behind us will find that we were faithful to the end.