We can easily see from the pattern of Jesus’ life that conformity to Him is a lifelong process, and a goal that will never be attained completely in this life. That is why Paul refers to the continual change being wrought in us with his expression in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “with ever-increasing glory,” or as it is more literally translated in the New American Standard Bible, “from glory to glory.” That is, as the Spirit of God works in us, we progress from one stage of glory to the next. As Charles Hodge wrote, “The transformation is carried forward without intermission, from the first scarce discernible resemblance, to full conformity to the image of Christ, both as to soul and body.”
Because sanctification is a process, there will always be conflict within us between the “flesh,” or the sinful nature, and the Holy Spirit. This conflict is described by Paul in Galatians 5:17: “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” He elaborated on this struggle in greater detail in Romans 7:14–25, where he said such things as, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (verse 18).
I realize that not all Bible expositors regard the tension described in Romans 7:14–25 as descriptive of a normal Christian experience, let alone of someone who is vigorously pursuing holiness. Yet what honest Christian would not admit to the frequent gap between his or her spiritual desires and actual performance? Which of us would not concede that “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (verse 21) is a frequent lament?
The comments of John Murray are most helpful at this point. He wrote,
The presence of sin in the believer involves conflict in his heart and life. If there is remaining, indwelling sin, there must be the conflict which Paul describes in Romans 7:14ff. It is futile to argue that this conflict is not normal. If there is still sin to any degree in one who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, then there is tension, yes, contradiction, within the heart of that person. Indeed, the more sanctified the person is, the more conformed he is to the image of his Saviour, the more he must recoil against every lack of conformity to the holiness of God. The deeper his apprehension of the majesty of God, the greater the intensity of his love to God, the more persistent his yearning for the attainment of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, the more conscious will he be of the gravity of the sin which remains and the more poignant will be his detestation of it.
Think of yourself walking into a room where the lighting is controlled by a dimmer switch. As you walk in, the lighting is dim and you see the furniture all in place, no newspapers lying around, and no dirty cups on the coffee table. The room looks neat and clean. But as you turn up the wattage in the lights, you begin to see dust on the furniture, smudges on the walls, chips in the paint, and threadbare spots in the carpet. The room that looked all right in the dim light suddenly appears dirty and unattractive under the full glare of the brighter light.
That is what happens in the life of a person who is pursuing holiness. At first your life may appear fairly good because you’ve been a decent sort of person and no gross sins are visible. Then the Holy Spirit begins to “turn up the wattage” of His Word and reveal the more subtle, “refined” sins of which you were not even aware. Or perhaps you were aware of certain thoughts or actions but had not realized they were sinful.
An even better analogy might be the shining of a spotlight into the shadowy recesses of an old house. The Holy Spirit is continually shining His spotlight of conviction into the recesses of our hearts, revealing sinful attitudes and actions of which we were not aware. These newly discovered sins are usually dismaying and discomforting to us. And the more holy a person is, the more he or she is dismayed. Then as we attempt to deal with these sins, we discover that they are stubbornly entrenched in our habits of life and are not easily dislodged. Or a sinful habit we thought had been decisively dealt with reasserts itself, and we seem powerless before its onslaught. All these experiences set up the tension within us that Paul described in the latter half of Romans 7.
Does this mean then that we are no better off than the unbeliever who struggles with some habit he or she wants to be rid of? By no means. John Murray offers helpful insight into the difference between the struggle of a believer with sin and that of an unbeliever with some undesirable habits. He wrote,
There must be a constant and increasing appreciation that though sin still remains it does not have the mastery. There is a total difference between surviving sin and reigning sin, the regenerate in conflict with sin and the unregenerate complacent to sin. It is one thing for sin to live in us: it is another for us to live in sin.
The Puritan Samuel Bolton also helps us see the distinction between the believer’s struggle with sin and the dominion of sin in the unbeliever. He wrote,
We [believers] still have the presence of sin, nay, the stirrings and workings of corruption. These make us to have many a sad heart and wet eye. Yet Christ has thus far freed us from sin; it shall not have dominion. There may be the turbulence, but not the prevalence of sin.… [Sin] may get into the throne of the heart and play the tyrant in this or that particular act of sin, but it shall never more be as a king there.
Sin is like a defeated army in a civil war that, instead of surrendering and laying down its arms, simply fades into the countryside, from which it continues to wage a guerrilla war of harassment and sabotage against the government forces. Sin as a reigning power is defeated in the life of the believer, but it will never surrender. It will continue to harass us and seek to sabotage our Christian lives as long as we live.
It is important for us to understand this difference between the unbeliever living complacently in sin and the believer struggling against sin. If we are going to pursue holiness, we must accept the fact that there will be continual tension within us between our desires and our performance. As British theologian J. I. Packer so often says, our reach will always exceed our grasp.