True Christianity Is a Fight

“The child of God has two great marks about him . . .” So writes J.C. Ryle in his classic book Holiness. How would you finish the sentence?

Faith and repentance? Love and hope? Praise and thanksgiving? Humility and joy? I’m not sure what I would have said before reading Ryle, but I know I would not have finished the sentence as he does:

The child of God has two great marks about him. . . . He may be known by his inward warfare, as well as by his inward peace. (72)

Warfare and peace. Combat and rest. The clash of armies and the calm of treaties. The Christian may have more marks about him than these two, but never less. He is a child in the Father’s home, and he is a soldier in the Savior’s war.

That sentence would play no small role in saving me from despair.

Parachuting into War

When I entered the Christian life, I had no idea I was walking into war. I felt, at first, like a man parachuting over the glories of salvation — finally awake to Christ, finally safe from sin, finally headed for heaven. But soon I landed in a country I didn’t recognize, amid a fight I wasn’t ready for.

The conflict, of course, was within me. I had never felt such inner division: my soul, which for a few months had felt like a land of peace, became a field of war — trenches dug, battle lines drawn. I found myself assailed by doubts I hadn’t faced before: How do you know the Bible is true? How do you know God is even real? The more I killed sin, the more I seemed to discover hidden pockets of sin — subtle, camouflaged sins crawling through forests of tangled flesh: self-flattering fantasies, knee-jerk judgments against others, unruly and sometimes wicked thoughts, fickle affections for God. I still enjoyed a measure of peace in Jesus, but it felt now like peace under siege.

“The same gospel that brings peace with God brings war with sin.”

Something must be wrong, I thought. Surely a Christian wouldn’t face darkness this black, division this deep. Surely, then, I’m not a Christian. For a season, I no longer called God Father, fearful of presuming that such an embattled one as I might belong to him.

Christianity Fights

Then came Ryle. In a chapter simply and aptly titled “The Fight,” he proved to me, with arresting intensity, that “true Christianity is a fight” (66), and every saint a soldier. “Where there is grace, there will be conflict,” he wrote with his manly matter-of-factness. “There is no holiness without a warfare. Saved souls will always be found to have fought a fight” (70).

A battery of biblical texts followed — texts I had known on some level, yet clearly hadn’t known on another.

  • “Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12).
  • “Put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13; see also Colossians 3:5).
  • “Put on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11).
  • “Abstain from the passions of your flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
  • “Watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41).
  • “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3).
  • “Wage the good warfare” (1 Timothy 1:18).

The same gospel that brings peace with God brings war with sin. For to say, “Jesus is Lord” is also to say, “And sin is not” — and to follow Jesus is to walk in high-handed rebellion against the devil. So, the same Spirit who wraps us with heavenly comfort also clads us with the armor of God.

Ryle’s chapter filled me with strange comfort. For months, I had felt like a civilian who had somehow walked into battle; now I felt like a soldier deployed. My war was a normal war — and more than that, a good one.

Normal War

If “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17), then what could be more normal than for Christians to feel divided, split, torn asunder in our inner being — or as Ryle says, to feel that we have “two principles within us, contending for the mastery” (72)? As long as we carry both Spirit and flesh, war will be normal.

We should not be surprised, then, when we find within us a dreadfully strong pull not to pray when we know we need to pray. Or an aching longing to satisfy some craving — for food, sleep, drink, sex, entertainment — that we know we should refuse. Or a heavy lethargy when the Spirit bids us to share the gospel or serve our family. Or a fickle forgetfulness that dulls the morning’s zeal by early afternoon. Or a driving compulsion to lean on our own understanding rather than the revealed word of God.

“The presence of inner division and opposition does not mean we’ve lost; it means the war has begun.”

We should not be surprised in such moments, any more than an army should be surprised by enemy fire. Rather, we should take courage. “We are evidently no friends of Satan,” Ryle writes. “Like the kings of this world, he wars not against his own subjects” (72). The presence of inner division and opposition does not mean we’ve lost; it means the war has begun.

Good War

The Christian fight is not just any war, but the best war the world has ever known. “Let us settle it in our minds that the Christian fight is a good fight — really good, truly good, emphatically good,” says Ryle (80). Yes, the war is fierce. The battle sometimes beats and bloodies us. At our lowest, we can feel tempted to despair. Even still, oh how good is the Christian fight.

Good, because God assures us that he will tread down our foes (Micah 7:19). Good, because he has promised to strengthen us in the thickest parts of the battle (Isaiah 41:10). Good, because all who fall can find forgiveness (1 John 1:9). Good, because we slay only sins and devils, not men (Romans 8:13). Good, because this war restores rather than ruins our humanity (Colossians 3:5, 9–10).

And most of all, good, because we fight under, with, and for Christ. He is our great Captain and our fellow Soldier, who won us to himself by dying for us, and who vows now never to leave our side (Matthew 28:20). “Would anyone live the life of the Christian soldier?” Ryle asks. “Let him abide in Christ, get closer to Christ, tighten his hold on Christ every day that he lives” (76).

Today, then, we march forth under the banner “Christ is better,” unsurprised and undaunted by battle, swords drawn against everything within us unlike him. And we look to the day when “the two great marks” of the Christian become one, and war gives way to Jesus’s endless peace.