Our Spiritual Struggle
December 5th, 1982 @ 8:15 AM
OUR SPIRITUAL STRUGGLE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-5-82 8:15 a.m.
And God bless the hosts of you who are sharing this hour on radio. This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled Our Spiritual Struggle. This is the first sermon in the new section on "Practical Theology." In the great doctrines of the Bible, we now come to "The Christian Life": the realities, the struggles, all of the promises of God in our daily living.
As a background text, Ephesians chapter 6, the last chapter of Ephesians, beginning at verse 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 against the wiles of the devil.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against –
And then he has a list of nomenclature there that describes the spiritual world of darkness; "Wherefore," he repeats again, "take unto you the whole armor of God." Then he describes each one of those pieces of Roman armor: the sash, the girdle, the breastplate, the iron feet shod, the shield, the helmet, the sword [Ephesians 6:12-17].
When I read that I have a sense as you do of strident struggle, warfare. He will say, "We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers in high places" [Ephesians 6:12]. Many times will Paul use those athletic terms of strife and struggle. In 1 Corinthians he says, "I fight not as one beating the air" [1 Corinthians 9:26]. In the last swan song in 2 Timothy 4:7, "I have fought a good fight." In the third chapter of Philippians, "We press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" [Philippians 3:14]; straining, struggling, striving. You have here, of course, the whole background and imagery of war: the armor of God, the shield, and the sword [Ephesians 6:11, 17]. That’s often used by Paul. He pleads with us in Timothy to be "good soldiers of Jesus Christ" [2 Timothy 2:3].
I went through the hymnbook, and I was amazed at the number of songs that we sing that are martial in character. "Onward Christian Soldiers."
Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb,
And shall I blush to speak His word?
["Am I a Soldier of the Cross?"; Isaac Watts]
All of them strife and struggle.
When we look at the Christian faith, it was born in blood and in persecution, in martyrdom and in death. The Lord was crucified; the disciples were fed to the lions or burned at the stake. The Lord closed that beautiful, marvelous upper room discourse in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of John, "In the world, ye shall have tribulation" [John 16:33]. Our spiritual struggle: God says that there is war at the heart of the universe. Revelation 12:7 says, "And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels." And that war at the heart of the universe is in this planet Earth.
Job is first presented to us as a godly, righteous man [Job 1:1, 8], and Satan accusing him before the presence of the Almighty [Job 1:10-11]. In the third chapter of the Book of Zechariah, Joshua the high priest stands before God, dressed in filthy garments, and Satan at his side to accuse him [Zechariah 3:1]. In the tenth chapter of the Book of Daniel, Michael, who champions the people of God, is hindered from coming to the intercessor in answer to his prayer by Satan [Daniel 10:12-13]. In Jude you have a dramatic confrontation between Satan and Michael over the body of Moses. And Michael dare not bring against Satan a railing accusation, but said, "The Lord rebuke you" [Jude 1:9]. There is conflict, and war, and strife, and struggle at the heart of this universe.
One of the men here in the city, a businessman, spoke to another man in our church, saying, "I used to attend services, but I quit. I don’t go to church anymore. I didn’t have an answer why the good God who controls this universe allows storms and hurricanes and tornadoes and drought. And why would a good God who controls the universe look upon starving children, or worse still the ravages of war? So I quit going to church."
Here is the answer: first of all, he was going to the wrong church. He didn’t hear the Word of God. Second of all, the god of this world is Satan. [Second] Corinthians 4:4, "The god of this world is Satan" [2 Corinthians 4:4]. And in the great, beautiful discourses of our Lord, beginning at John 14 and 15 and 16 and 17, three times in that one discourse does our Lord refer to Satan as "the prince of this world." And in Ephesians 2:2, he is called "the god of this world." Satan has the power of sin and of death; and he sows down this world universally with the ravages of hurt, and sorrow, and sin, and starvation, and blood, and tears, and finally death.
There are two wills in this universe: there is the will of God, and there is also the will of Satan and the principalities and powers and demons of the air. When we pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven," you are praying for the day when God’s will will be done: it is not being done now. And that struggle, and that strife, twofold, is in every one of our daily experiences. Paul described it eloquently in the seventh chapter of the Book of Romans: "O wretched man that I am! What I would do, I do not do; and what I do not do, I would do. Who shall deliver me from this body of death?" [Romans 7:15, 24]. And there is no one but that daily lives in the civil war of those two strifes in his soul. There is in us what takes us away from God, and there is in us what magnifies ourselves.
If I can diverse here for just a moment, why that? That’s the price God had to pay for our freedom: freedom of choice. I’m not a robot; God made me free, and if I am to be free, I am to be free to choose. It’s like your child, your baby: the child grows, and grows, and if the child didn’t grow it’d be the most disastrous thing that you could look upon; but the child grows. But that means that when the child becomes of age, the youngster chooses; and maturity means freedom of choice, freedom from you. That’s the way God created us: free, free to choose.
There was a time when the angels were free to choose. And according to the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation, one-third of them chose to follow Satan, and fell, and thereafter their state is forever fixed [Revelation 12:4]. We also in our time and in our generation follow the same pathway of choice and freedom. We can choose now one or the other, God or Satan. And finally, that choice is forever fixed. There is a gulf fixed between those who choose Satan and those who choose God [Luke 16:26].
Strife and struggle in this universe: the history of mankind is written in blood and in war. When you turn the pages of history, these are the people of whom you read: the Hittites, the warring Hittites; the Hyksos, the Elamites, the Sumerians. Then Tiglath-Pileser, and Shalmaneser, and Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal, and Sennacherib, and Sargon; then Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar, then Cyrus and Cambyses, and Darius, and Xerxes, and Artaxerxes, and Ahasuerus; then Philip of Macedon, then Alexander the Great, then Antigonus, and Cassander, and Lysimachus, and Seleucus, and Antiochus, and Ptolemy; then Pompey, then Caesar, then Vespasian, then Titus, then Scipio, then Hamilcar, then Hannibal; then Attila, then Genghis Kahn, then Kublai Kahn, then Tamerlane, then Martel, then Charlemagne, then Napoleon, then Wellington; then Bismarck, then Kaiser Wilhelm II, then Hitler, then Tojo. And who will be the next? The whole story is written in human blood, in strife, and in war. In times of peace, prepare for war – and we are doing it now.
When I turn to the Bible itself, I read no other story than that same struggle: Moses in Egypt, Joshua conquering the land of Canaan, the wars of Judges and of Samuel and of the Kings. I do not know of a more typical scene in history or in the Bible than Nehemiah chapter 4: with one hand holding a sword, and with the other hand holding a trowel, rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem [Nehemiah 4:17].
We don’t see it any different in our lives. We don’t see it any different in the headlines of the papers. We don’t read it any different in history; spiritual struggle, war, and bloodshed, and strife. The difference lies in the Christian faith. There is a great commitment in the heart of every humble disciple of Jesus that there is deliverance and victory and millennial peace at the end of the age. The Bible is a book of realism. It presents human nature and human history as it is. But in all the Word of God there is never a dismal, abysmal, despairing note: always there is a great day coming. If there is death, then there is resurrection. If there is darkness, there is light. If there is defeat, there is victory. It’s the whole story of the revelation of God.
It’s in the prophets. I don’t think anything more typical of God and His people than when the Lord said to Samuel, in the sixteenth chapter of 1 Samuel, it starts off like this: God says to Samuel, Samuel, how long will you weep and grieve and lament over Saul?" [1 Samuel 16:1]. Samuel had anointed Saul [1 Samuel 10:1], and with what prospects did the humble young man have, head and shoulders taller than any other man in Israel; and going out to fight the battles of the Lord, and in great consecrated victory winning them all, and then turning aside from the will of God. And the thing broke the heart of Samuel, and he wept and lamented. And God said to him – and that’s the beginning of chapter 16 – "How long will you weep and lament and wring your hands over Saul? Arise, get thee up," said God, "I am sending you to anoint for Me a new king, a man after Mine own heart, who will do My will." The rest of the story is so familiar to us. He’s sent to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse, and anoints there a boy, a youth unshaven, ruddy-faced, beautiful of countenance, who sings to his sheep [1 Samuel 16:1-13]. That’s God: never defeated, always some great day that lies ahead!
That is the prophets. Isaiah, who stood in the midst of the destruction of his people and the destruction of the city and the destruction of the house of God, begins his prophecy in the first chapter with the remnant [Isaiah 1:9]. God always has a faithful remnant. The same with regard to the prophet Jeremiah: when he saw his people carried away into captivity, in chapter 25 and in chapter 29, Jeremiah says, "After seventy years, God will visit you and bring you back" [Jeremiah 25:11-12, 29:10]. Malachi closes the Old Testament revelation, and he does it with the promise that the great King and Savior is coming: "He shall rise with righteousness and healing in His wings" [Malachi 4:2]. Somebody is coming.
And the apostles echoed that same marvelous victorious refrain. They saw Jesus crucified and buried, but they also saw Him raised from the dead [Luke 24:36-48; John 20:19-29]. They felt and experienced the heavy hand of oppressive Rome; but they also saw the iron door open for Simon Peter [Acts 12:6-10]. John the sainted apostle saw exile; but he also saw the vision of the glorified Lord [Revelation 1:9-18]. That layman Stephen, deacon, the first Christian martyr, they stoned him to death! But the Bible says that his face shone like the face of an angel [Acts 6:15], and the Scriptures say that he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God [Acts 7:55-56] – the only time in the Bible He is ever presented as standing – ready to receive the spirit, the soul, of His first martyr. The greatest miracle of all, as he died, he prayed for those who threw the stones that crushed out his life, then fell asleep in Jesus [Acts 7:60].
Victory undeniable, invincible inexorable, inevitable! The whole half, last half of the eleventh chapter of  Corinthians Paul recounts there the sufferings: enemies on the outside, enemies on the inside, perils by the way, perils by the land, perils by the sea, stoned, imprisoned, beat; he describes all of those [2 Corinthians 11:23-27]. Then he says, as he writes from his jail in Rome to Philippi, "These things are as nothing, that I might know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings [Philippians 3:8-10]. That I might know Him," think of it, "and the power of His life": His living life, power in the days of His flesh over wind and wave and disease and death; power in His resurrection, raised to declare us saved righteous; power in His ascension, "able to save to the uttermost those who come to God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them" [Hebrews 7:25]; saved by His promised return, "when the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He reigns forever and ever" [Revelation 11:15]. What a victorious gospel the apostle Paul preached: he who suffered more than any other of the apostles of Christ.
Our Lord, he says, despised and rejected, before Him every knee shall someday bow [Philippians 2:10]. Our Lord, who before His inquisitors was dumb and opened not His mouth [Matthew 27:11-14], someday His voice shall command all the hosts of heaven and earth [Matthew 26:53]. Our Lord, who was crowned with thorns [Matthew 27:29], someday shall be crowned with the diadems of all God’s creation. Our Lord, who had a following of eleven men, "And I saw a great multitude that no man could number, out of every nation, and tribe, and tongue, and family under the sun" [Revelation 7:9], the millions of us now, and these before, and these after us, who shall acclaim the glory and the wonder of Jesus our Lord. It always ends in victory.
In the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts, the apostles who were beat, went out from the presence of the council – do you remember the verse? Rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer for His name [Acts 5:41]; our spiritual struggle that ensues in a glorious fellowship, relationship, closeness in praise and glory with our Lord.
I couldn’t help but be impressed by something I read the other day. Before a college group of students, a representative of an affluent denomination made appeal for the mission field. And he spoke before those young people of the endowments of the denomination, of the affluence of the mission board, and of the inviting luxury they would enjoy as they assumed the place of responsibility in another nation. A beautiful home awaited them, a hospital was there to take care of them, a fine school in which to educate their children, everything inviting. Then he made his appeal for the young people to come forward and to give their lives for the mission field. And not a soul responded, not a youngster replied.
As the days passed, there was another representative of another mission board, who stood before that same group of young people. And he described the sacrifice to which he was calling for volunteers: fever, malaria, poverty, human need, and human sacrifice. And then he made appeal. And by the scores the young people streamed down the aisle.
So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, ‘Thou must,’
The heart and the life reply, ‘I can.’
[Ralph Waldo Emerson]
The struggle is of God. The blessing and the reward is of the Lord. If it costs me nothing, it doesn’t mean anything. God is tempering us and trying us and preparing us for the great millennial kingdom that is yet to come. That’s God, and that is our spiritual struggle over which He presides.
We’re going to sing our hymn of appeal. And while we sing it, a family you, a couple you, or just one somebody you, "Pastor, we’ve decided for God today, and we’re coming"; there’s time and to spare. If you’re in that balcony round, down one of these stairways, down one of these aisles, in the throng in the press on this lower floor, into one of these aisles, "Pastor, God’s spoken to my heart, and I am coming. I want to be numbered among the people of God. I want to take the Lord as my Savior," or, "I want to be baptized into the fellowship of His church," or, "I want to move my life and work and service for Christ in this wonderful and beautiful fellowship. I’m coming today, pastor. I’m on the way." May angels attend you and God bless you as you come, while we stand and while we sing. Welcome.