The Double Cure

Augustus Toplady’s hymn speaks of the “double cure”—that is, cleansing from both sin’s guilt and power. God does not forgive because He wants to be lenient with us. He forgives because His justice has been satisfied. The absolute forgiveness of our sins is just as rock solid as the historic reality of Christ’s death. It is important that we grasp this wonderful truth of the gospel because we can face our “respectable” sins only when we know they are forgiven.

However, Toplady’s hymn speaks not only of cleansing from sin’s guilt but also from its power. Sometimes when we are struggling with some particular expression of our sin, we wonder if the gospel does address the power of sin in our lives. We wonder if we will ever see progress in putting to death some persistent sin pattern that we struggle with. Can we honestly say with Toplady that Christ, the “Rock of Ages,” does indeed cleanse us from sin’s power as well as its guilt?

To answer that question, we need to see the cleansing from sin’s power in two stages. The first is deliverance from the dominion or reigning power of sin that is decisive and complete for all believers. The second is freedom from the remaining presence and activity of sin that is progressive and continues throughout our lives on earth. Paul helps us see this twofold deliverance in Romans 6.

In Romans 6:2, Paul writes that we “died to sin,” and in verse 8, he says, “We have died with Christ.” That is, through our union with Christ in His death, we have died, not only to sin’s guilt but also to its reigning power in our lives. This is true of every believer and is accomplished at the time of our salvation when God delivers us from the domain of darkness and transfers us to the kingdom of His Son (see Colossians 1:13).

Paul’s statement that “we died to sin” is a declarative statement. It is something God has done for us at the moment of our salvation. Nothing we do subsequent to that decisive transaction can add to or subtract from the fact that we died to both sin’s guilt and dominion.

At the same time, however, Paul urges us to “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Romans 6:12). How can sin possibly reign if we have died to it? Here Paul is referring to the continued presence and ceaseless activity of sin that, though it is “dethroned” as the reigning power over our lives, still seeks to exert a controlling influence in our daily walk. It, so to speak, continues to wage a spiritual guerrilla warfare in our hearts. This warfare is described by Paul in Galatians 5:17:

The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

We experience this struggle between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit daily. This tension causes us to sometimes wonder if the gospel really does address this aspect of sin’s power—that is, its ability to pull us toward its desires. This seems especially true in the more respectable sins in our lives. Some of these subtle sins seem tenacious, and we must battle them daily. With others, we sometimes think we’ve turned the corner on one, only to discover a few days later that we’ve only gone around the block and are dealing with it again.

At this point in our struggle, we are prone to think, It’s fine to be told sin no longer has dominion over me, but what about my daily experience of the remaining presence and activity of sin? Does the gospel cleanse me from that? Can I hope to see progress in putting to death the subtle sins of my life?

Paul’s answer to that pressing question is found in Galatians 5:16: “I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” To walk by the Spirit is to live under the controlling influence of the Spirit and in dependence upon Him. Paul says that as we do this, we will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

Practically speaking, we live under the controlling influence of the Spirit as we continually expose our minds to and seek to obey the Spirit’s moral will for us as revealed in Scripture. We live in dependence on Him through prayer as we continually cry out to Him for His power to enable us to obey His will.

There is a fundamental principle of the Christian life that I call the principle of dependent responsibility; that is, we are responsible before God to obey His Word, to put to death the sins in our lives, both the so-called acceptable sins and the obviously not acceptable ones. At the same time, we do not have the ability within ourselves to carry out this responsibility. We are in fact totally dependent upon the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. In this sense, we are both responsible and dependent.

As we seek to walk by the Spirit, we will, over time, see the Spirit working in us and through us to cleanse us from the remaining power of sin in our lives. We will never reach perfection in this life, but we will see progress. It will be incremental progress, to be sure, and sometimes it will appear to be no progress at all. But if we sincerely want to address the subtle sins in our lives, we may be sure the Holy Spirit is at work in us and through us to help us. And we have His promise that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). The Holy Spirit will not abandon the work He has begun in us.

Actually, as we carefully read the New Testament letters, we see that the writers, especially Paul, ascribe this work in us sometimes to God the Father, then to Jesus the Son, and at other times to the Holy Spirit. The truth is, all three members of the divine Trinity are involved in our spiritual transformation, but the Father and the Son work through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us (see 1 Corinthians 6:19). For example, Paul prays to the Father that we will be strengthened with power through His Spirit in our inner being (see Ephesians 3:16). And as someone has said so well, “The Spirit conveys what Christ bestows.” So when I speak of the power of the Holy Spirit, I am speaking of the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is communicated to us and worked out in us by the Holy Spirit.

How the Holy Spirit works in us and through us is a mystery in the sense that we cannot comprehend or explain it. We simply accept the testimony of Scripture that He dwells in us and is at work in us to transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ (see 2 Corinthians 3:18). We do need to actively believe this great truth about the Holy Spirit. We need to believe that, as we seek to deal with our subtle sins, we are not alone. He is at work in us, and we will see progress as we walk by the Spirit.

One of the ways the Holy Spirit works in us is to bring conviction of sin. That is, He causes us to begin to see our selfishness, our impatience, or our judgmental attitude as the sins that they truly are. He works through the Scriptures (which He inspired) to reprove and correct us (see 2 Timothy 3:16). He also works through our consciences as they are enlightened and sensitized by exposure to His Word. I have even known Him to bring to my memory a specific act of a subtle sin and, using that single act as a starting point, begin to point out to me a pattern of that sin in my life. It stands to reason that conviction of sin must be one of His vital works because we cannot begin to deal with a sin, especially one that is common and acceptable in our Christian culture, until we have first realized that the particular pattern of thought, word, or deed is indeed sin.

Another way in which the Holy Spirit works in us is to enable and empower us to deal with our sin. In Romans 8:13, Paul exhorts us by the Spirit to “put to death the deeds of the body.” In Philippians 2:12-13, he urges us to “work out [our] own salvation… for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” That is, Paul urges us to work in the confidence that God is at work in us. Though Paul refers to God, presumably God the Father, as the One at work, we have already seen that God works through the Holy Spirit as the transforming agent in our lives.

Then we read in Philippians 4:13 Paul’s words that “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We can deal with our pride, our impatience, our critical and judgmental spirit as we depend on the Holy Spirit to empower and enable us. Thus, we should never give up. Regardless of how little progress we seem to make, He is at work in us. Sometimes He seems to withhold His power, but this may be to cause us to learn experientially that we truly are dependent on Him.

In addition to His empowering work to enable us to work, the Holy Spirit also works in us monergistically; that is, He works alone without our conscious involvement. In His benediction in Hebrews 13:20-21, the writer speaks of God “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight.” That particular truth should greatly encourage us. Even in our most dismal days when we see little progress in the battle with sin, we can be confident the Holy Spirit is still at work in us. It is quite possible that though He is grieved by our sin (see Ephesians 430), He may even use that sin to humble us and to exercise us to cry out to Him with a sense of greater dependency.

Still another way in which the Holy Spirit works for our transformation is by bringing into our lives circumstances that are designed to cause us to grow spiritually. Just as our physical muscles will not grow in strength without exercise, so our spiritual life will not grow apart from circumstances that challenge us.

If we are prone to sinful anger, there will be circumstances that trigger our anger. If we tend to be judgmental toward others, we will probably have plenty of occasions to be judgmental. If we easily become anxious, there will be ample opportunities to deal with the sin of anxiety. God does not tempt us to sin (see James 1:13-14), but He does bring or allow circumstances to come into our lives that give us opportunity to put to death the particular subtle sins that are characteristic of our individual lives. It is obvious that we can deal with the activity of our subtle sins only as the circumstances we encounter expose them.

Of course, all I have written in the last two paragraphs assumes that God is absolutely in sovereign control of all our circumstances. There are numerous passages of Scripture that affirm this, but one that states this truth most explicitly is Lamentations 3:37-38: “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?”

There are many applications that we can draw from this passage, but the truth I want us to see now is that God is in control of every circumstance and every event of our lives, and He uses them, often in some mysterious way, to change us more into the likeness of Christ.

Romans 8:28 is a text many of us go to for encouragement in tough times. For those who do not recognize the reference, it says, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” However, while that passage is indeed one of all-around encouragement to us, Paul is actually talking about our spiritual transformation. The “good” of verse 28 is explained in verse 29 to be conformity to the image of God’s Son. This means, then, that the Holy Spirit is at work in us through our circumstances to make us more like Christ.

So in summary we see that the Holy Spirit works in us to convict us and make us aware of our subtle sins. He then works in us to enable us to put to death those sins. Then He works in us in ways of which we are not conscious. And then He uses the circumstances of our lives to exercise us in the activity of dealing with our sins.

We do have a vital part to play. We are responsible to put to death the acceptable sins in our lives. We cannot simply lay this responsibility on God and sit back and watch Him work. At the same time, we are dependent. We cannot make one inch of spiritual progress apart from His enabling power.

But the Holy Spirit does more than help us. He is the one actually directing our spiritual transformation. He uses means, of course, and I pray that He will use even this book to help us all uncover and deal with the subtle sins in our lives. But He does not leave us to our own insight to see our sins or our own power to deal with them.

I also urge you to pray that the Holy Spirit will enable you to see the hidden, subtle sins in your life. Sin is deceitful (see Ephesians 4:22). It will cause you to live in complete denial of a particular sin or mitigate the seriousness of it. Only the Holy Spirit can successfully expose a sin for what it is.

Be prepared to be humbled. I well remember the occasion when the Holy Spirit revealed to me selfishness in my life. Up to that time, I had always defined selfishness in terms of the obvious, overt selfishness I saw in the lives of a few other people. It was humbling to admit I was also selfish, but in a much more subtle way. Jesus, however, promised blessing to those who are poor in spirit—that is, to those who face up to their sins and mourn because of them. He also promised blessing to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—that is, to those who earnestly desire to see the sin in their lives put to death and replaced with the positive fruit of the Spirit (see Matthew 5:4, 6; Galatians 5:22-23).

J. Bridges

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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