Our Spiritual Struggle
December 5th, 1982 @ 10:50 AM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-5-82 10:50 a.m.
And the dear Lord bless the uncounted multitudes of you who are sharing this hour with us on radio and on television. This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas bringing the message entitled Our Spiritual Struggle. In our preaching through the great doctrines of the Bible, we have come to the section on practical theology, the realities we experience in the Christian life, our day-to-day living in the name and with the help and in the grace of our Lord. And the first message is delivered this morning Our Spiritual Struggle. In the middle part of the sixth chapter, the last chapter of the Book of Ephesians, we read these words, Ephesians 6:10:
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might.
Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand…
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against,
And in that nomenclature that follows are names of the demonic world and those who rule over the principalities and powers of this creation:
And then he lists the entire armor of a Roman soldier: the girdle, the breastplate, the iron shoes, the shield, the helmet, and the sword, which he says is of the Spirit [Ephesians 6:14-17].
When I read that passage, it is most evident that these strident, martial words of the apostle are indicative of his description of the Christian life. He speaks here of wrestling. Often, will you find in the Scriptures written by the apostle Paul, the imagery of contest and struggle in the athletic world. Here we wrestle. In 1 Corinthians he speaks, "I fight not as one who beats the air" [1 Corinthians 9:26]. And in his swan song in 2 Timothy, the last chapter, he says, "I have fought a good fight" [2 Timothy 4:7]. In the third chapter of Philippians he speaks of, "I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" [Philippians 3:14], straining and struggling toward a prize. And he no less often uses the imagery and the descriptive nomenclature of war, of a martial conflict. Here he speaks of the armor of God. Often, as in Timothy, will he refer to the Christians as being soldiers of Jesus Christ [2 Timothy 2:3, 4].
I took a hymnbook, and I was amazed at the martial, strident, military songs that are written in that songbook: "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?"; "Onward, Christian Solders." It is hymn after hymn depicting that martial imagery of the Christian faith and the Christian life, our spiritual struggle. After all, is it not true, the Christian faith was born in blood and in martyrdom, in crucifixion, in agony and in death? Our Lord and Savior was crucified on a Roman cross. And His apostles and disciples were fed to the lions. They were burned at the stake. They were beaten and imprisoned. And that story of spiritual confrontation and struggle continues to this present day. I have visited with Russians who had been beaten and imprisoned and exiled.
It is not without reason that the Lord closed those marvelous discourses in the upper room – fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth chapters of John – He closed it with this verse: "In the world, ye shall have tribulation" [John 16:33] – Our Spiritual Struggle. At the heart of this universe is war. In the twelfth chapter of the Revelation, "And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels" [Revelation 12:7]. And that war in heaven is throughout the whole creation and universe of God, and it is on this planet earth and it is in our lives – spiritual confrontation, war, and struggle. Job, the most righteous man in his day – God said so, the Bible said so [Job 1:1, 8] – Job was confronted with his adversary Satan who afflicted him, persecuted him [Job 1:8-12]. That is Job and Job’s righteousness. In the third chapter of the Book of Zechariah, the prophet sees Joshua, God’s high priest, standing before the Lord clothed in filthy garments. And Satan, his adversary at his right hand, accusing him [Zechariah 3:1-5]. In the tenth chapter of the statesman prophet Daniel, Michael the archangel has been hindered for days and weeks before he was able to bring a reply to the prayerful intercession of Daniel. Who hindered him? Satan [Daniel 10:12-13]. In the Book of Jude there is a dramatic reference to the confrontation between Michael and Satan over the body of Moses. Satan wanted to use that body as a trap, as a piece of idolatry for the people of the Lord. God said, "We are to bury him in an unknown tomb." And in the Book of Jude, referring to that confrontation, it says, "And Michael, the archangel, dared not bring against Satan a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke you" [Jude 1:9]. The power of evil at the heart of this universe is war and conflict and confrontation.
There was a man in the city of Dallas, a businessman, who was talking to one of the devout members of our church, and he said to this man in our church, "I used to attend divine services, but I quit. I do not go to church anymore. There was no answer to the question, "If God is a good God, and He runs this world, then why does He allow storms and hurricanes and tornados and drought? And why does He allow little children to starve? And why does He look upon war and bloodshed?" Well, the answer – the fellow goes to the wrong church. He has not heard the Word of God. God says, for example, in  Corinthians, chapter 4, verse 4, the Bible says the god of this world is Satan.
And in those beautiful chapters that I referred to a moment ago – fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen of John – time and again does the Lord Jesus refer to the prince of this world who has nothing in Him, Satan [John 14:30, 16:11, 17:15]. And Ephesians 2:2 describes Satan as the god and "the prince of this world." He sows sin; he sows death; and he sows it universally. When you see tragedy and heartache and sorrow and affliction and death, that is the cruel hand of the god of this world, Satan. There are two wills in this world. There is God’s will, and there is Satan’s will. When you pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is heaven" [Matthew 6:10], you are praying for the millennial consummation of the age when God shall reign supreme in this earth. He does not now. He does not now. There are two wills in this world, and you experience it in your heart and in your daily life. Paul cried saying, "O wretched man that I am!" [Romans 7:24] "What I would do, I do not; and what I ought not that I do" [Romans 7:15]. "Who shall deliver me from this body of death?" [Romans 7:24]. Every one of us experiences that awesome civil war in our hearts. There is in us that which takes us away from God; and there is in us that which exalts self above all else.
May I turn aside here for just a moment? Why that? Because God made us free, freedom of choice. I am not free if I cannot choose. And God made us free to choose. It is like your child. When you look at the innocent, precious baby, did you ever think in your heart, "I wish the child could be like that forever? Precious, innocent, beautiful?" But you would be horror struck with the thought that the child does not grow. And that is what maturity is. Maturity is the right to choose. And when your child chooses good, you are so proud. "This is my boy. This is my girl. How well do they do." But when that child chooses wrong, you look and say, "My heart is broken. My spirit is crushed." That is what it is to be free – to choose.
There was a time when the angels were free to choose and, according to the twelfth chapter of the Revelation, one-third of them chose to follow Satan [Revelation 12:3]. And they are fallen angels, and their state is forever fixed. We also are like that in our generation. We have the power of choice, and someday, having chosen, our state is fixed. There is a gulf fixed between those in hell and those in heaven [Luke 16:19-30]. That is the way God made us. We are free to choose. And that struggle of choice is always in our daily lives.
Now to continue. At the heart of this universe is war, is blood. The story of humanity, history, is written in war and in blood. If we were on the moon, or if we were on Mars, or if we were on Saturn or Jupiter, it would be the same thing, the same way. We are a fallen humanity. We are now building a satellite in space – a space platform. Why? In order to rain death and damnation on our enemies. And they, our enemies, are doing the same for us – spy platforms and platforms on which to rain hell down on the earth. All the story of humanity, all of it, is written in war and in struggle, in blood – the warriors, the Hittites, the Hyksos, the Elamites, the Sumerians, Tiglath-Pileser, Shalmaneser, Sennacherib, Sargon, Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal, Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes, Ahasuerus, Phillip of Macedon, Alexander the Great, Caesar, Pompey, Vespasian, Titus, Scipio, Hamilcar, Hannibal, Attila, Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, Tamerlane, Martel, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Wellington, Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler, Tojo – and we are getting ready for the next one. In time of peace, prepare for war. We are doing it in America by the billions and billions of dollars spent each day.
That same history of blood and of war I find in the record of God’s people – Moses, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, the kings – it is the history of war, of blood. I do not know of anything more typical in the Bible than the story of Nehemiah, especially chapter 4, with one hand his people held a sword, and with the other hand they held a trowel to build the wall of the holy city [Nehemiah 4:17]. Our story, past, present, future, is one of warfare, of struggle, of blood. And the same is true in our Christian experience – the flesh, the devil, the blandishments of the world. There is no Christian, there is no soldier of Christ, there is no disciple of Jesus but shall know the strife and the confrontation, and many times the heartache of defeat in that spiritual struggle.
But there is something wonderful about the Bible. I notice at the end of this sixth chapter of Ephesians, when he gets through talking about the armor of God and the wrestling against flesh and blood and against the powers of Satan, I notice in the last two verses, the words peace, love, faith, grace. That is the way it ends – peace, love, faith, grace [Ephesians 6:23-24]. That is the way it always ends. It never fails to end like that. Jesus is victorious. Life and light, immortality are brought as gifts from His gracious hands. The story never fails in the Bible. It is always that. The Bible is an unusual book. In vivid reality it will portray even the man after God’s own heart – David, Simon Peter. It tells the story just in vivid white revelation. That is the Bible. It tells the story of human history and human life exactly as it is. It is a book of tremendous realism. But, did you ever notice throughout the story of the Bible, there is never a note of despair, never one of ultimate defeat? Always, it carries with it a resounding revelation and victorious song of ultimate deliverance, victory. It never fails.
I do not know of a better illustration of that in the Word God than 1 Samuel, chapter 16. What had happened was Samuel had anointed Saul as king over Israel, and Samuel loved Saul – the young man humble, precious. He was head and shoulders taller than any other man in Israel [1 Samuel 9:2]. And Samuel had been sent of God to anoint him king over the people of the Lord [1 Samuel 9:15-10:1]. But [Saul], instead of serving God, turned aside to his own ways and disobeyed the commandments of the Lord [1 Samuel. And God rejected him [1 Samuel 13:5-14]. And Samuel fell into despair. And he was weeping and mourning and lamenting over Saul [1 Samuel 13:5-14; 15:10-35].
Now, the sixteenth chapter of the Book of 1 Samuel, it starts off like this: "And God said to Samuel, "How long will you lament and weep and mourn over Saul, seeing I have rejected him?" [1 Samuel 16:1] "Arise, get thee up into the place that I shall send thee, take thy horn full of anointing oil and set aside him to be king over Israel whom I have chosen, a man after my own heart" [1 Samuel 16:2]. Do you remember that phrase, "a man after my own heart?" [Acts 13:22] And, sent by the Lord, Samuel came to Bethlehem. And in Bethlehem to the house of Jesse. And in the house of Jesse, he anointed king over Israel, a boy, an unshaven lad of a beautiful countenance who sang with his harp to the sheep that he kept [1 Samuel 16:1-13]. That is God. How long do you lament and mourn and wring your hands and cry, weep over Saul? Arise, get thee up. I have chosen a man who will do My will. Always that upbeat, never defeat.
Isaiah lived in the days of the prophecies of the destruction of the state of Judah. He had seen Israel already carried into captivity. And how does he begin his prophecy? On a note of despair? Never. He speaks of the godly remnant that God shall choose. That is Isaiah [Isaiah 1:8-9]. Jeremiah is no different. He lived in the actual day of the carrying away into the Babylonian captivity. He saw the destruction of the holy city. He saw the burning of the holy Temple of God. What does he say in chapter 25 and in chapter 29? He says, "And after seventy years, God will visit you and bring you back to the Promised Land [Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10]. Always that note of victory and triumph after the battle is over. Always. Malachi, the last prophet in the Old Testament, he has so much of discouragement to say about the apostasy of the children of Israel. But how does he end it? Get ready, he says, for the king is coming; He will rise with righteousness and healing in his wings. God will send Elijah before his face, and he will come. He for whom you pray, the Lord, Messiah, He is coming [Malachi 4:2-5]. That is the way the prophecy ends.
And when I read in the New Testament, there is that same note of triumph and victory. They saw Jesus crucified, but they also saw Him raised from the dead [1 Corinthians 5:1-9]. They felt the heavy hand of Roman persecution, but they had also seen the iron door open for Simon Peter [Acts 12:1-17]. They saw John, God’s sainted apostle, exiled from Ephesus to Patmos, but they also saw with John the glorious revelation of the reigning Lord, our Christ and Savior, the Lord Jesus [Revelation 1-22]. Stephen, a deacon, a layman – while they stoned him to death, the record says, his face shown as the face of an angel. And he did see heaven open and Jesus standing on the right hand of God [Acts 7:54-56] – the only place in the Bible where Jesus is seen standing. Always He is seated on the right hand of power. Standing on the right hand of God ready to receive His first martyr. And I think no less a miracle is this: as they stoned Stephen and as he died, he prayed God to forgive those who crushed his life. Then it says, "And he fell asleep in the Lord" [Acts 7:60]. You never lose. You cannot. God is in it.
And thus it was with the apostle Paul. The last half of the eleventh chapter of the Book of 2 Corinthians is a recounting on the part of the apostle of the sufferings of his life: enemies on the outside, enemies on the inside, perils by the way, perils in the sea, perils on the land, stoned to death and left for dead, beat and placed in the innermost dungeon [2 Corinthians 11:23-33]. Yet the apostle says, after he recounts his life of suffering, "These things are as nothing to me," he says, "that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrected life, and the fellowship of His sufferings" [Philippians 3:10]. "If we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him" [2 Timothy 2:12].
O Lord, that I might know Him and the power of His resurrected life. Power in Jesus, ruler of the winds and the waves, king over disease and death itself; power in His death, the atonement for our sins, His suffering that we might be cleansed; power in His resurrection, living to declare us righteous; power in His ascension, "able to save to the uttermost them who come unto God by Him" [Hebrews 7:25]; power in His ultimate and visible and personal and return, when He is apokalupsis, when He is unveiled, when He is revealed, and He is King and Lord over the whole the earth, "The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever" [Revelation 11:15]. With what magnificent persuasion and faith does the apostle Paul look upon our Lord and this struggle and this conflict – always with that note of ultimate and final victory. He was despised and rejected of men, but someday, Paul says, every knee shall bow before Him [Philippians 2:10]. He was cursed and outcast, but someday, every tongue shall confess He is Lord to the glory of God in heaven [Philippians 2:11]. He was led as a Lamb, dumb before His shearer [Isaiah 53:7], but someday His voice will command the hosts of heaven and earth. He was, in His life, followed by eleven men; but someday, "And I saw a great throng that no man could number out of every family and tribe and nation in the earth" [Revelation 7:9]. "These are they who . . . have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" [Revelation 7:14]. One day, crowned with thorns [Matthew 27:29; John 19:2, 5]; that day crowned with the diadems and the worship and the adoration of all the angels in God’s heaven and all of the raptured and resurrected of God’s people [Revelation 4:8-11, 5:9, 21:22-26]. We do not lose. It is a spiritual struggle, but victory and life and light and triumph and immortality God has promised to us.
In the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts there is a little note about those apostles who were beaten. "And they went out from the presence of the council and" – now do you remember it? – "and rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for His name" [Acts 5:41]. When the trial is hard and the battle is fierce and the struggle is intense, that is just God preparing us for that worthy place He is preparing for us in the kingdom yet to come. Do not be discouraged. Do not be afraid. Our spiritual struggle is real and intense, but God is for us [Romans 8:31].
You know, it is a strange thing to me how our hearts respond to that inward, spiritual struggle. It is like this. A denomination sent a representative of their mission board to a college. And the representative stood before those students, those young men and women, and made an appeal that they give their lives to the mission field. And the representative of the denomination, being affluent in the extreme, described how they had an endowed board – millions of dollars. And on the field to which they would be sent, there were nice and beautiful homes. And there was a hospital with a full staff. And there was a fine school in which to educate their children and everything was prepared for their coming. Then he made his appeal, and there was not one student – not one, who responded. Not one. In that same school and before that same student group, there came another missionary and made an appeal. And he described the heartache and the sacrifice of the call, the malaria, the starvation, the loneliness, the vast and desperate need. And when he made appeal, those young men and women came forward by the scores.
So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When duty whispers low, "Thou must."
Our hearts reply, "We can."
[Ralph Waldo Emerson]
That is God. That is the Lord. Dear God, any man can say, "I thank Thee that you matched my soul against such a struggle." God is getting us ready, making us strong for the wonderful, wonderful life in a kingdom yet to come. May we stand together?
Our Lord, maybe I preached the sermon for my own soul. This world is so much with us. And Satan sows such depth of heartache and tears among us – finally ends in death; universal sin, universal death. Lord, were it not for Thee, how hopeless and hapless, how desperate would our case be. But Jesus is Lord. He has conquered sin and death and the grave. And He lives to see us through, to receive us to Himself, to crown our efforts with an everlasting victory. O blessed be God for Jesus our Lord.
While our people pray just for you, a family to put your life with us in this dear church, a couple you; a friend, a wife, a husband; the two of you; or just one somebody you, "Pastor, we have decided for God, and here we are. I want to accept Jesus as my Savior, and I am coming. I want to be baptized as God has commanded in His Word, and I am coming." Or, "We want to put our lives in the circle and circumference of this dear church. We are coming." May angels attend you in the way down one of those stairways, down one of these aisles, "Here I am. Here I come. Here we stand."
And, our Lord, bless the invitation hymn. May the Spirit of God have full course and weight and freedom in our souls. And we answer with our lives and thank Thee, Lord, for the sweet harvest You give us in Thy saving and keeping name, amen.
Welcome, while we sing. Welcome. Welcome.
I. The text portrays a struggle, conflict
A. Wrestling(2 Corinthians 9:26, 2 Timothy 4:7, Philippians
B. Nomenclature of war(Ephesians 6:11, 13-17, 2 Timothy 2:3-4)
1. Our martial
C. The birth of the Christian
faith in blood, persecution, martyrdom
II. There is conflict, war, at the heart
of the universe
heaven and on earth (Revelation 12:7, Job 1,
Zechariah 3:1-7, Daniel 10, Jude 9)
Man speaking to one of our members about why he quit church
a. He had no answer for
suffering in the world
God of this world is Satan(2 Corinthians 4:4,
John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11, Ephesians 2:2)
3. There are two wills
in the universe – God’s and Satan’s(Matthew
4. We live in the
experience of it(Romans 7:15, 24)
made us free to choose
III. We never escape from the curse of sin
A. History of the world
written in blood
B. History of the
people of God(Nehemiah 4:16-18)
IV. Our ultimate victory in Jesus
A. Bible a book of
realism, truthfully presents human nature, history
1. Yet never
defeated, gloomy; never ends in despair(Ephesians
B. Always a note of
ultimate deliverance, victory, hope
prophets(1 Samuel 13:14, 16:1, Acts 13:22,
Isaiah 1:9, Jeremiah 25:12, 29:10, Malachi 4:2-5)
3. Stephen(Acts 7:54-56, 60)
Paul(2 Corinthians 11:23-33, Philippians 3:10, 2
Timothy 2:12, Hebrews 7:25, Revelation 7:9, 14, 11:15)
rejoicing they were counted worthy to suffer (Acts