J.C.Ryle, the 19th century first bishop of Liverpool, wrote the classic Christian book, Holiness. It is a series of papers, many written before he became bishop in 1880. One, published not long after Jesmond Parish Church was founded in 1861 and undoubtedly read by many of our Founders, was on the struggle that is normal in the Christian life.
As we look forward into 2018 we cannot expect life to be easy for Christians - in the world, in the church and in their own personal lives. For we are all facing (and not least those in the educational world) what can be called "Bourgeois Religion". That, according to one commentator, "denotes the fusion of church culture with the moral consensus held by the good, respectable people who set the tone for society as a whole" and focuses on sexual morals. Following the sexual revolution of the '60s, the moral consensus progressively moved from contraception for everyone to easy divorce, to cohabitation, to recreational sex and now to homosexual sex and transgenderism. All have to be affirmed. And "during all this, the same consensus became hostile to those who say otherwise. It became 'cruel, 'hateful,' and 'bigoted' to call something wrong that the bourgeois consensus now deems right." So for the Christian there is a spiritual war going on. But Ryle has good advice. Bear in mind Ryle's language is Victorian and he quotes the old Authorized Version of the Bible, but the substance is as vital and challenging in 2018 as it was in the 19th century.
True Christianity - A Fight
True Christianity! Let us mind that word "true." There is a vast quantity of religion current in the world which is not true, genuine Christianity. It passes muster; it satisfies sleepy consciences; but it is not good money. It is not the real thing which was called Christianity eighteen hundred years ago. There are thousands of men and women who go to churches and chapels every Sunday, and call themselves Christians. Their names are in the baptismal register. They are reckoned Christians while they live. They are married with a Christian marriage service. They mean to be buried as Christians when they die. But you never see any "fight" about their religion! Of spiritual strife, and exertion, and conflict, and self-denial, and watching, and warring, they know literally nothing at all. Such Christianity may satisfy man, and those who say anything against it may be thought very hard and uncharitable; but it certainly is not the Christianity of the Bible. It is not the religion which the Lord Jesus founded, and his Apostles preached. It is not the religion which produces real holiness. True Christianity is "a fight."
The true Christian is called to be a soldier, and must behave as such from the day of his conversion to the day of his death. He is not meant to live a life of religious ease, indolence, and security. He must never imagine for a moment that he can sleep and doze along the way to heaven, like one travelling in an easy-carriage. If he takes his standard of Christianity from the children of this world, he may be content with such notions; but he will find no countenance for them in the Word of God. If the Bible is the rule of his faith and practice, he will find his course laid down very plainly in this matter. He must "fight."
With whom is the Christian soldier meant to fight? Not with other Christians. Wretched indeed is that man's idea of religion who fancies that it consists in perpetual controversy! He who is never satisfied unless he is engaged in some strife between church and church, chapel and chapel, sect and sect, faction and faction, party and party, knows nothing yet as he ought to know. No doubt it may be absolutely needful sometimes to appeal to law courts, in order to ascertain the right interpretation of a Church's Articles, and rubrics, and formularies. But, as a general rule, the cause of sin is never so much helped as when Christians waste their strength in quarrelling with one another, and spend their time in petty squabbles.
No, indeed! The principal fight of the Christian is with the world, the flesh, and the devil. These are his never-dying foes. These are the three chief enemies against whom he must wage war. Unless he gets the victory over these three, all other victories are useless and vain. If he had a nature like an angel, and were not a fallen creature, the warfare would not be so essential. But with a corrupt heart, a busy devil, and an ensnaring world, he must either "fight" or be lost.
Fighting the Flesh
Even after conversion he carries within him a nature prone to evil, and a heart weak and unstable as water. That heart will never be free from imperfection in this world, and it is a miserable delusion to expect it. To keep that heart from going astray, the Lord Jesus bids us "watch and pray." The spirit may be ready, but the flesh is weak. There is need of a daily struggle and a daily wrestling in prayer. "I keep under my body," cries St. Paul, "and bring it into subjection." – "I see a law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity." – "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" – "They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts." – "Mortify your members which are upon the earth." (Mark 14.38; 1 Cor. 9.27; Rom. 7.23-24; Gal. 5.24; Col. 3.5.)
Fighting the World
The subtle influence of that mighty enemy must be daily resisted, and without a daily battle can never be overcome. The love of the world's good things – the fear of the world's laughter or blame – the secret desire to keep in with the world – the secret wish to do as others in the world do, and not to run into extremes – all these are spiritual foes which beset the Christian continually on his way to heaven, and must be conquered. "The friendship of the world is enmity with God: whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." – "If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him." – "The world is crucified to Me, and I unto the world." – "Whatsoever is born God overcometh the world." – "Be not conformed to this world." (James 4.4; 1 John 2.15; Gal.6.14; 1 John 5.4; Rom.12.2.)
Fighting the Devil
That old enemy of mankind is not dead. Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve he has been "going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it," and striving to compass one great end – the ruin of man's soul. Never slumbering and never sleeping, he is always "going about as a lion seeking whom he may devour." An unseen enemy, he is always near us, about our path and about our bed, and spying out all our ways. A "murderer and a liar" from the beginning, he labours night and day to cast us down to hell. Sometimes by leading into superstition, sometimes by suggesting infidelity, sometimes by one kind of tactics and sometimes by another, he is always carrying on a campaign against our souls. "Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat." This mighty adversary must be daily resisted if we wish to be saved. But "this kind goeth not out" but by watching and praying, and fighting, and putting on the whole armour of God. The strong man armed will never be kept out of our hearts without a daily battle. (Job 1.7; 1 Peter 5.8; John 8.44; Luke 22.31; Eph. 6.11.)
Too Strong Statements?
Some men may think these statements too strong. You fancy that I am going too far, and laying on the colours too thickly. You are secretly saying to yourself, that men and women in England may surely get to heaven without all this trouble and warfare and fighting. Listen to me for a few minutes and I will show you that I have something to say on God's behalf. Remember the maxim of the wisest General that ever lived in England – "In time of war it is the worst mistake to underrate your enemy, and try to make a little war." This Christian warfare is no light matter. Give me your attention and consider what I say. What saith the Scripture? – "Fight the good fight of faith. Lay hold on eternal life" – "Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ." – "Put on the whole armour 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 principalities, against powers, against the ruler of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand." – "Strive to enter in at the strait gate." – "Labour for the meat that endureth unto everlasting life." – "Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace but a sword." – " He that hath no sword let him sell his garment and buy one." – "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith: quit you like men, be strong." – "War a good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience." (1 Tim. 6.12; 2 Tim 2.3; Eph. 6.11-13; Luke 13.24; John 6.27; Matt. 10.34; Luke 22.36; 1 Cor. 16.13; 1 Tim. 1.18-19.) Words such as these appear to me clear, plain and unmistakable. They all teach one and the same great lesson, if we are willing to receive it. That lesson is, that true Christianity is a struggle, a fight, and a warfare. He that pretends to condemn "fighting" and teaches that we ought to sit still and "yield ourselves to God," appears to me to misunderstand his Bible, and to make a great mistake.