The Normal Christian Experience

What does normal life look like for the believer in Jesus Christ? Most certainly, it involves living in a new relationship to God. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, the believer is no longer God’s enemy, but God’s child. Understanding this is crucial, but this is not the only new relationship that salvation brings us. Dan Kirk, a fellow contributor to the CBCD, has often said that Jesus’ work gives us a new relationship to sin as well. For the believer, this new relationship to sin is not a peaceful relationship, but a relationship of conflict. Yes, after conversion we still sin, but we are not at ease with it. It is a burden, we hate it more and more, and we are increasingly aware of a battle being fought within us against its power.

In Galatians 5:17, Paul articulates this conflict when he writes, “For 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.” As Christians, we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, whose desires run in direct contradiction to the desires of our sinful nature. We may expect this kind of inner warfare in the heart of a new believer who still has a significant amount of growing to do, but Paul gives us no indication that he is only speaking to baby Christians. That is why Jerry Bridges can say, in reference to this text, “Regardless of how much we grow spiritually, we will all our lives experience the conflict between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit.”¹ To Bridges (and the Apostle Paul), this is “the normal Christian life.”²

Coming to the conclusion that we don’t move on from our conflict with sin in this life is an important truth to grasp because believing it keeps us from despair. Let’s be honest, our fight against sin is ugly. As we sense the conflict, we come face-to-face with the reality that our hearts want things that God calls evil. We pray, we turn our minds to God’s Word, and we seek the ministry of God’s family, but still, we wake up the next morning to fight again. This disturbs us and we think, “It shouldn’t be this way!” For some, the ongoing fight can lead them to question their salvation and, for others, they wonder, “What’s the use?” But as we meditate on verses like Galatians 5:17, we realize what is truly disturbing is when there is no fight. The reason why there is a conflict in your heart at all is because the Spirit dwells there, and if the Spirit dwells there, then that is evidence that you are a child of God (see Galatians 4:6).

Perhaps, your response to this is, “But certainly, after years of being a Christian, I should be seeing less sin in my heart, and the struggle shouldn’t still be so fierce.” To such thinking, Bridges again speaks words of encouragement: “The Holy Spirit does not reveal all our sins of the heart to us at once. Instead, He brings us along gradually as He works to transform us into the image of Christ.”³ According to Bridges, then, the continued recognition of sin within us is proof of spiritual growth. This may be the reason why Paul could say, well into his Christian life, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15, emphasis mine). Strangely, the discovery of new pockets of sin in our hearts can be an encouragement to our heavy hearts, showing us that the Spirit is accomplishing His sanctifying work in us—that we are being transformed “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

When you see sin inside your heart and sense its internal struggle with the Spirit, the temptation can be to think that you are outside the normal Christian experience. Actually, the opposite is true. God has changed and is changing believers through Christ. So, instead of leading you to despair, the fight against the flesh should draw you to praise the One who has opened your eyes and given you the Spirit to oppose the enemy of sin within.

¹ Jerry Bridges, The Transforming Power of the Gospel (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012), 14.
² Ibid.
³ Ibid.

Note: This article originally appeared on thecbcd.org. We encourage you to visit the Center for Biblical  Counseling and Discipleship where you can find helpful, biblical resources by a number of trusted pastors and authors.

Brent Osterberg