What is “normal”? One dictionary (New Webster’s, 1993) defines normal as “conforming to the standard or average for a particular type or group; (loosely) mentally or emotionally sound.” But what is “the standard”? And what does it mean to be “mentally or emotionally sound”? It becomes obvious very quickly that determining normal behavior, normal thinking, or normal feeling can be quite a challenge.
But what about the Christian life? Does the Bible give us a description of what is normal for believers? I think so. Though we may not like what we read, I believe Romans 7 and 8 are just such a description.
There are times I would rather apply Romans 7:15—“For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.”—to my tennis game than to my walk with Christ. But this verse seems to portray the normal Christian life. It is a life characterized neither by sinless perfection nor total despair. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry. There are moments of peace when small victories are won, and there are periods of all-out war when besetting sins lay siege to our lives.
What is the source of this strife? Is it the law of God? No! Paul states on three occasions that the law is a good thing (Rom. 7:12, 14, 16). Am I the source of the conflict? The “I” Paul is referring to is the new man in Christ who loves good. So it is not “I” (v. 17) wanting to sin, but indwelling sin that does not what “I” want to do but what “I” hate. Thus, indwelling sin is the source of the strife.
In Romans 7:14, Paul declares, “I am carnal, sold under sin.” This is the situation faced by every Christian, for Paul is writing as a believer. Only a Christian, one who knows God’s grace and His law, could have the view of himself Paul has—saved and yet “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:15, 18, 22, 24).
Remember the old excuse, “The devil made me do it”? No, he simply stimulates what is already there. The stage is set for battle. We will never find the motivation to take on this task in and of ourselves without the work of the Gospel. The Gospel comes to our hearts, wholly from outside of us, and causes us to desire to engage in fighting the enemy that seeks to destroy us.
Thus, we are affected by strife and conflict from within and without. From within, the flesh wants to be pleased. From without, the world and the devil beckon. But the Spirit is also working within us, to conform us to the image of Christ. Thus, the more we grow and obey God’s Word, the more we struggle. This is the normal Christian life.
That is why the Westminster Confession of Faith refers to the Christian life as “a continual and irreconcilable war” (XIII, ii). A civil war is under way between the flesh and the spirit, fought on the very turf of our hearts to decide who ultimately will reign there. It is this dilemma of dealing with two occupying armies that leads to difficulty in our Christian experience (Rom. 7:15, 18). Thankfully, the opposing forces are not equal in might and the question of dominion has been settled. The problem lies in living with that decision when our flesh, the devil, and the world seem to be unaware of the victory the Spirit has secured.
Both our minds and dispositions are affected by our innate sinfulness. My thoughts are first affected: I don’t trust God. I love and enjoy my sin more than I love and enjoy Christ.
John Owen wrote, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.” The active putting to death of sin and repentance from sin is to be the normal practice, and a common characteristic of the believer. It is the consistent and deliberate rejection of anything (philosophy, activity, or emotion) that steals our affection for Jesus. It is the constant vigilance of the eye-gate and ear-gate, turning away all that competes against Christ for my will and affection.
However, mortification is not just a constantly negative or corrective approach to the Christian life. It also has a positive, preventive posture as we constantly work to set our minds on what the Spirit desires. After our minds are set, exposing ourselves to the means of grace is necessary for our spiritual nourishment, for remaining strong in the battle. This is the normal Christian life.
But the normal Christian life is not just using the sniper’s rifle to pick off sins of commission. It is not merely setting out with new battle plans to institute in our lives deeds we have omitted. The normal Christian life also involves our dispositions, our outward demeanors, the “tone” of our Christian life. Do our lives display a pleasant tone, a pleasing fabric? Such a tone is set by a heart attitude of self-denial at home, at church, and in the market place. The warfare in the soul is intended to produce the pleasant fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, meekness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. How can the noise and pain of battle on the inside produce beauty on the outside? Because it produces humility. The battle will not allow us to think of ourselves more highly than we ought.
This strife is the normal experience of this life. With one voice Paul sighs in defeat, “O wretched man that I am!” (v. 24). With another voice he answers the question, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” by crying, “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24–25). How does Paul move from defeat to victory? How does he live without condemnation (Rom. 8:1), seeing himself in the assured position of being more than a conqueror in this irreconcilable war? Paul knows himself and he knows God. He understands his sin and knows what God has done. It is the work of Jesus Christ, His offering of Himself for our sin (Rom. 8:3), that satisfies the justice of God. God did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all (Rom. 8:32).
The normal Christian life is, indeed, an irreconcilable war. But if, ultimately, the victory has been decided, why can we not live in daily victory over sin? It is because our flesh is fallen, and it will not retreat without at least an attempt at gratification. At the same time, the Spirit will not allow us to be comfortable with gratifying our desires. So a “normal” Christian will find himself on the front lines, earnestly endeavoring never to retreat, never to give up an inch of conquered space to the enemy. A “normal” Christian will desire to remain strong and secure, steadfast in his resolve, because he has died and has risen with Christ and the Holy Spirit dwells in him. A “normal” Christian may fall or be wounded, but his soul will never be destroyed in the battle. The “normal” Christian is promised victory—through Christ, our Conqueror and King.