If “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17), then what could be more normal than for Christians to feel divided, split, torn asunder in our inner being—or as Ryle says, to feel that we have “two principles within us, contending for the mastery”? As long as we carry both Spirit and flesh, war will be normal.
“The child of God has two great marks about him…” So writes J.C. Ryle in his classic book Holiness. How would you finish the sentence?
Faith and repentance? Love and hope? Praise and thanksgiving? Humility and joy? I’m not sure what I would have said before reading Ryle, but I know I would not have finished the sentence as he does:
The child of God has two great marks about him…He may be known by his inward warfare, as well as by his inward peace. (72)
Warfare and peace. Combat and rest. The clash of armies and the calm of treaties. The Christian may have more marks about him than these two, but never less. He is a child in the Father’s home, and he is a soldier in the Savior’s war.
That sentence would play no small role in saving me from despair.
Parachuting into War
When I entered the Christian life, I had no idea I was walking into war. I felt, at first, like a man parachuting over the glories of salvation — finally awake to Christ, finally safe from sin, finally headed for heaven. But soon I landed in a country I didn’t recognize, amid a fight I wasn’t ready for.
The conflict, of course, was within me. I had never felt such inner division: my soul, which for a few months had felt like a land of peace, became a field of war — trenches dug, battle lines drawn. I found myself assailed by doubts I hadn’t faced before: How do you know the Bible is true? How do you know God is even real? The more I killed sin, the more I seemed to discover hidden pockets of sin — subtle, camouflaged sins crawling through forests of tangled flesh: self-flattering fantasies, knee-jerk judgments against others, unruly and sometimes wicked thoughts, fickle affections for God. I still enjoyed a measure of peace in Jesus, but it felt now like peace under siege.
“The same gospel that brings peace with God brings war with sin.”
Something must be wrong, I thought. Surely a Christian wouldn’t face darkness this black, division this deep. Surely, then, I’m not a Christian. For a season, I no longer called God Father, fearful of presuming that such an embattled one as I might belong to him.
Then came Ryle. In a chapter simply and aptly titled “The Fight,” he proved to me, with arresting intensity, that “true Christianity is a fight” (66), and every saint a soldier. “Where there is grace, there will be conflict,” he wrote with his manly matter-of-factness. “There is no holiness without a warfare. Saved souls will always be found to have fought a fight” (70).