In the 19th century, many evangelical Christians became involved in a movement known as the Higher Life movement that advocated victorious Christian living. Also know as the Keswick movement, its leaders taught that the Christian can live above sin by “letting go and letting God.” By completely surrendering to God by faith, one can live a life of peace and victory over sin. Anyone who continues to struggle with sin is either not a Christian or is a very poor one who has failed to surrender to God by faith.
The trouble is this doctrine is not biblical. The Apostle Paul, one of the greatest Christians that ever lived, says in Romans 7 that he continues to struggle with sin.
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am!”
Of course, this is not an excuse to sin in any possible way. The Christian must fight against sin and grow in Christlikeness everyday. But that is the point, the Christian life is a battle. Growth in Christ is a progressive growth that takes place over time, through participating in the study of scripture, prayer, worship, and in Christian fellowship but also through the struggle and toil of putting God’s Word into practice by faith. This is not easy because our sinful nature fights against us. We will never be able to perfectly obey God in this life, but we can see substantial growth in Christian character on a day by day basis.
The victorious living model of spirituality was well meaning. It wanted to encourage Christians to holy living. But the victorious living model of spirituality is dangerous because it teaches Christian victory over sin can happen instantaneously by one act of total surrender. The Christian who struggles with sin is then either not a Christian or a defective one. This leads to many problems for Christian spirituality.
First, this model can cause many true Christians to doubt their salvation or to beat themselves up as second class citizens in the kingdom of God. The truth is that the struggle against sin is a sign of true spiritual life. The true Christian sees sin as bad and enters into the battle to overcome sin by grace. The fighting is not a sign of spiritual illness, but a sign of spiritual life and health that should be encouraged.
Secure in God’s grace that we are eternally forgiven of our sins in Christ and that we can never be snatched out of his hands, we go to war. The Christian life in this world is an unrelenting battle against sin, with victories and defeats. The battle will continue until we reach our heavenly home in glory. This is true victorious living, not an easy, instantaneous experience, but an unrelenting march to victory by God’s grace “through many dangers, toils and snares.”
When we fall, we confess our sins in repentance, and rejoicing in God’s grace. This is true victorious Christian living. Though Satan knocks us down a thousand times, he can never truly defeat us. By God’s grace we stand again and we fight again and we will be victorious, not because of our efforts, but because of what Jesus has done on the cross.
Second, the victorious Christian living model tempts us to limit what is sin to what we can overcome. Having thought that the Christian ought to live a life without struggle with sin, what do we do when we find we have sins we struggle with? One solution is to emphasis those sins that I am good at overcoming and refuse to focus on sins I struggle with. For example, one may emphasize how good their are at sharing their faith with others which they are good at and refuse to look at sins of pride which they struggle with. Therefore I can maintain the facade of having overcome sin, when in reality I am failing daily. The practical import of this is to either reduce the number of things that are sin to the list of things I don’t struggle with or to divide sins into two lists, one of real bad ones and one of little ones. The real bad ones are, of course, those that I don’t have problems with. This is a human attempt to to avoid being confronted with our sin.
The biblical Christian knows that they are sinners and that they struggle with sin and knows that being confronted with our sins is normal and healthy. Yes, it is humbling, but it also life giving because it causes me to turn to God for grace and mercy and thus renews my relationship with him. The biblical Christian thus does not try to reduce the number of sins or minimize them. Secure in God’s grace, he or she can face the full range of God’s holiness in the law.
Third, the victorious Christian living model tempts us to fake spiritual growth and to live in self deception. Another possible response for the victorious living Christian when they find they still struggle with sin is to fake it to others and to themselves. They don’t want others to know they have failed to live a life of complete surrender, so they refuse to tell others about their struggles. This effectively harms their spiritual growth for without acknowledging the problem, they can’t deal with it or receive help from others who can aid them. This effectively stunts their Christian growth leaving them immature in the faith. Those around them can see their problems and simply view them as being a fake. But they convince themselves all is well, living a life of self-deception, because they can’t face they are a failure.
Biblical Christians know they can never fully overcome sin in this life and thus are free to look at themselves honestly. Secure in God’s love for them in Christ, they can seek help from others in growing spiritually and overcoming sin. They do not live in fear of discovery of their failures. They freely admit them because it is only through this admission that they can grow as Christians.
Fourth, the victorious Christian living model divides Christians into the haves and have nots. The victorious living Christian model says it is possible for one to be a Christian and not to live a victorious life because one has not surrendered completely to Christ. This tends to divide the church into those who are successful Christians and those who are not. Sometimes they even normalize this idea and make it the normal two stage development of the Christian life. Some Christians are saved and will go to heaven but are not living the victorious life because they have not fully surrendered to God. Others have entered into the second stage of the Christian life and now live in victory over sin.
The New Testament knows of no such division. We are all part of one family at different places in our spiritual journey, in different parts of the Christian life. We are all to rally to one another and help one another with our struggles, not look down on and judge one another for our weaknesses.
Fifth, the victorious Christian living model tempts us to pride and works righteousness . The victorious Christian living model tempts us to boast in how victorious we are to show it is working and that we are in the group of successful Christians. (Also this boasting can be a misdirection trying to keep people from finding out our real failings.) It thus tends to focus on what I have done and not on what Christ has done for me. It becomes a self focused form of spirituality that glorifies what I have done instead of boasting in Christ and his finished work upon the cross.
Biblical Christianity knows all our righteousness is as dirty rags and thus there is nothing for me to boast about. Instead all praise is directed to God and to Christ as the author and finisher of our faith. Biblical Christianity is Christ and Cross exalting proclaiming “I desire to know nothing except Christ and him crucified” and I will not boast anything I have said or done, but “let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Conclusion: Victorious Living Christians often disparage biblical Christians as being “miserable sinner” Christians because in regards to our own actions, biblical Christians focus on what we have not achieved and why it is necessary to trust in Christ alone. But this an epitaph that we can rejoice in because, “when we have done everything we are supposed to do, we are still unprofitable servants” and yet God still loves us in his grace. It drives us to the cross over and over again in confession for our sin, and this experience of God’s love for us in Christ is the engine that drives forth the Christian life. Focusing on our selves and our victories leads to shallow spirituality, self deception and self promotion as we try to convince others and ourselves that we are really victorious. Biblical Christianity knows the victory has already been won in Christ.