Last week we talked about the challenge of why our theology does not change our lives quickly, at least not as fast as we wish it would. We also talked about the expulsive power of a new affection — that new, holy affections for God push out of our lives the fallen desires we have for sin. But from those topics emerges another related question: Realistically, how changed will my desires become in this life?
This question is from a listener named Emma. “Pastor John, hello! I think I understand Christian Hedonism. By the sovereign grace of God in regeneration, God gives me new desires that align with his desires. This includes a new delight in what most delights God — himself! Amen and amen. But boy, do I sure struggle with a ton of desires within me that are not God-honoring! So how in the world can I be sure God has given me new, holy desires when I so often feel inundated by my old, unholy desires? Even Jesus seemed to be more motivated in his earthly life by future joy (Hebrews 12:2). So how much desire-victory is realistic and normative in the Christian life, inside this fallen flesh and inside this cursed planet?”
Emma asks two questions, as I’m hearing it. First she asks, “How can I be sure that I have been given new, holy desires?” And this is really a question of “How can I be sure I have been born again?” Because that’s what the new birth does; it gives us these new, God-centered, Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered desires. And the other question she asks is “How much desire for God and victory over contrary desires — sinful desires — is realistic or normative for the Christian life?”
So, let’s go about answering these two questions this way: Let’s describe how the New Testament pictures the desires of the person who has been born again and the kind of battle this introduces into the person’s life. And then we’ll see if the answers to Emma’s questions don’t flow from this description of the new birth and what comes with it.
Before we’re born again — and I mean born again by the Spirit of God through the word of God — the Bible describes us as natural persons, meaning that we don’t have the Holy Spirit. And therefore, we do not have the spiritual ability to see the beauty of Christ and his gospel for what they really are, or the ability to feel them for what they really are — namely, precious. First Corinthians 2:14:
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
Christ and the gospel are foolishness, folly, unreal, boring to us until we are born again and we’re no longer natural people, but supernatural people: we’ve been made children of God, inhabited by the supernatural Holy Spirit.
Now, here’s how that happens and the effect of it. Here’s a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 4:6–7: “God, who at the beginning in creation said, ‘Let there be light,’ has now, in our hearts, shone (the same kind of miracle) to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” In other words, in the new birth, God overcomes our blindness, our deadness to the glory of God in Christ. He shines into our heart with a spiritual — not a physical, but a spiritual — light. And the result is that we see. Paul calls it the eyes of the heart (Ephesians 1:18). We see the glory of God in Christ as a treasure.
The word treasure is used by Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7 to describe what he’s talking about when it happens. He’s saying, “We have this treasure — the one I just referred to back in verse 6, when we saw the glory of God in the face of Christ — in jars of clay.” The jars of clay are our mortal bodies — these fragile, sickness-prone, depression-prone bodies of ours.
But the key thing is that the effect of this miracle of sight — seeing Christ and his gospel as beautiful, as they really are — is that we now know Christ as a treasure. He’s not boring. He’s not foolishness. He’s not mythological anymore. He’s a treasure. Our desires, therefore — our preferences, our pleasures — are transformed by discovering that what we once thought was foolish, unreal, boring is now the most precious reality in the world. That’s the fundamental change at the new birth.
So, Jesus describes this transformation like this in Matthew 13:44: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found” — that’s the point of conversion, the point of new birth. He found the treasure, he covered it up, and then “in his joy” — because that’s what happens when you have your eyes open to a treasure — “he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
And then Paul describes it like this in Philippians 3:8: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” So, the effect of the new birth is that we are made alive spiritually by God, with the effect that we now see Christ and his gospel as our supreme treasure. We prize him, we love him, we treasure him and enjoy him, are satisfied in him more than in our former dearest pleasures.
This Means War
Now, here’s what causes the problem for Emma and for all of us: This new reality does not yet completely destroy the old reality called my flesh. In a sense, a decisive victory has been won over my flesh. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul says (Galatians 2:20). Done. Decisive.
But in another sense, we must lay hold of this decisive victory by faith, hour by hour, and reckon our old self — our flesh — dead, according to the reality that it really is dead. We have to make war on the flesh and count ourselves dead as we really are. So, Paul says in Galatians 5:16–17 (here’s the reality we’re dealing with),
Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other [this is war!] to keep you from doing the things you want to do.
And no book in the Bible is more insistent that the new birth produces a real change than John’s first epistle, and yet this book emphasizes that we’re not sinless. The battle goes on. Here’s what he says in 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So, we do sin. That is, we don’t value God the way we ought to. We do value the world sometimes the way we shouldn’t. Then he continues, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
And Paul describes his own battle like this: “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:22–23).
Never Beyond Warfare — or Hope
So, what should we say? How should we answer Emma’s two questions, which are really our questions?
1. In view of this battle, how can I be sure that I have been given new, holy desires? And my answer is that the question is one of authenticity and reality of our desires for Christ, not primarily a question of intensity or frequency of the battle, because we are talking about God-given spiritual delight in the glory of Christ and the beauty of the gospel — a delight which in any quantity the natural person does not have.
So, pray that the Lord would not only show you the fruit of such spiritual desires, but would, by his Spirit, bear witness that your sight and your delight in Christ are real, are authentic. That’s the work of the Spirit: to witness with your spirit that you have really tasted Christ, and your desires, however small or big, are the real thing that no natural person has.
2. How much desire for God and victory over sinful desires is realistic or normative for the Christian life? I would put it something like this: never expect in this life that you will get beyond warfare with your flesh, and never assume that the Lord may not have a far greater victory for you than you have ever known.