The Touchstone of Christian Warfare
Ashton Oxenden, 1882
The Bible, when referring to the Christian course, usually speaks of it as something that calls forth all our energy and earnestness. It is described as a Race, a Battle, a Struggle, a Contest. And yet, at other times, the language of Holy Scripture is somewhat different — for eternal life is set before us as a gift, a free gift, purchased for us at the cost of Christ's atoning blood, and made over to every true believer who is willing to accept it. In one passage the apostle Paul seems to combine these two opposite ideas, when he says, 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling — for it is God who works in you both to will and do of his own good pleasure.'
From this we learn that in one sense salvation is to be received as an unmerited blessing — but in another sense as something which can only be obtained by effort.
The fact is this — that on the part of God, Heaven is a gift — an undeserved gift; a gift which no one can claim as a right; a purchased possession, made over to us by one who loves us, and won for us by Him who died that we might live.
But on our part great exertion is needed to overcome our evil nature — great watchfulness, lest we miss the path which leads to Heaven — a constant putting off the sins of the flesh, and a putting on of the new man, 'which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.' Hence our Lord says, 'Strive to enter in at the strait gate — for many shall seek (or wish) to enter in and shall not be able.' 'The kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it!'
Truly, the Christian life is not easy. He has to contend with SELF at every stage of his course — self-indulgence, self-exaltation, self-dependence. He has to fight against some dominant evil passion, which is forever striving for the ascendancy. He has constantly to be keeping under control some hydra-headed sin — the sin which most easily besets him.
And here is the great difficulty of the Christian's course. It is not one or two special efforts which we have to make — but it is a life-long effort, a continued conflict, and not a thing accomplished in a moment.
I ask you: Is it an easy thing to shake off habits of long standing, which have become a second nature to you? Is it easy to bid farewell to sins which have for years been your close companions? Is it easy to root up that which has embedded itself deep in the soil? Does it not need much self-denial, much effort, much painful self-crucifixion? Were it not for the Savior's promise, 'My grace is sufficient for you' — would not some of us be disposed to give up all in despair?
Then too we have the TEMPTER ever trying to obtain the mastery over us, using every opportunity to snatch us, if possible, out of the Savior's hands. Against him there is a constant, daily warfare, a ceaseless contest. For 'we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.'
And the WORLD is ranged against us also, whispering in our ear, 'Why give yourself so much anxiety and effort? Why toil so unremittingly for an unseen prize? When I have pleasures to offer you now — why seek those which are to come? And yet there is something within, I trust, which tells you that you have chosen the better part — something which says, 'Hold fast that which you have, that no man take your crown.'
Thus we have three great enemies to contend with —
one within our own hearts;
another external, though unseen; and
another before our very eyes, but dressed up in various forms, and pressing itself upon us in our every-day life.
In other words, the Flesh, the Devil, and the World.
Hence it is necessary to be . . .
ever running the toilsome race,
ever striving for the mastery.
But if the contest is so ceaseless and so arduous, and we ourselves so feeble, and so easily overcome — what reasonable hope is there of ultimate victory?
Let us see what aids are at our disposal. Thank God, we have abundant help at hand.
There are, in the first place, pious Friends, with whom we may take counsel, and whose very companionship will be to us a tower of strength. 'Two are better than one' in this warfare. For 'As iron sharpens iron — so one man sharpens another.' And who can tell how much we may in this way help one another? Who can tell the immense influence that one friend, whom we love and respect, may have upon our daily conduct — checking us when disposed to do wrong, and encouraging us when inclined to do right. And this influence is often felt by us, even though our friend may be far away from us.
Then, we are members of a Christian Church; we are banded together in a great spiritual brotherhood; we belong to a society framed not after man's model, but after God's. Here is an additional help. We are not alone, struggling each one by himself — but we are a closely united body, an army in which each fills his rank. Our Church takes us by the hand, as it were, teaching us, guiding us, sustaining us. She provides services suited to our needs, and calls us to partake of them. She lays down certain rules and directions, and bids us to follow them.
Further, we have our Bibles, from which we may gather daily nourishment and strength for our souls, and which we may always appeal to as our great directory. If we read God's Word daily — if we read it with reverence, humility, and prayer, looking up for God's teaching — we shall 'grow thereby;' our faith will be strengthened and our views established.
We have our seasons of Private Prayer too, when we may draw near to God, and obtain His aid. There, at the mercy-seat, is our constant source of strength, a spring from which we may draw living water, and which we can never exhaust; for God is always near, ready to hear our cries, and to relieve our needs.
And then we have our Public Worship, and God has given a special promise that He will meet us in His Sanctuary, and bless us.
Above all, there is that Sacred Feast, in which we may feed upon Christ, the Living Bread, and partake of His very Body and Blood, for the sustaining and refreshing of our souls.
Thus God is with us, hemming us in with the Pillar and the Cloud — though we see them not; stretching out His hand to uphold us — and placing underneath the everlasting arms.
Jesus too is with us, ever near, walking upon the waters of this world, and saying to us, 'Fear not, for I have redeemed you! I have called you by name — you are Mine! My cross is your ransom, and Myself your strength.'
The Holy Spirit is also with us, 'helping our infirmities,' and invigorating us with His indwelling presence.
What more do we want? Is there not here abundant help suited to our every need? Let us then fight our battle boldly. Let us run our race without flagging. Let us strive earnestly for the prize held out to us.
But we should never forget that our efforts must not only be vigorous and earnest, but they must also be unceasing. There is no time to lose, no room for delay, no pausing and resting — as if our warfare were accomplished. For the present we must be as warriors, never laying down our weapons, or imagining that we may be at rest. We must fight the good fight of faith. We must guard the citadel. We must 'Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, and be strong.'
But, thank God, it will not always be so. Our time of warfare will have an end. The cry of Battle will be exchanged for the shout of Victory. It was the thought of this which cheered the great Apostle. No one fought more manfully or incessantly than he did. He gloried in the wounds which he incurred for his Master's sake, 'I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.' But then he looked forward to the resting days which were near.
God grant that we may be enabled to catch something of the Apostle's feeling which he expresses when he says, 'I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith!' Here was . . .
assurance without boasting,
faith without over-confidence,
trust without pride.
He does not say, 'I have acquitted myself well. I have fought with praiseworthy courage.' But he says, 'I have fought — and it has been a good fight. The battle in which I have engaged is a noble warfare. My course, however imperfect, is now closing; and God be praised — He has enabled me to keep the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day.'
Oh that such may be the peaceful expression of our hearts as the time of our departure draws near!