Like a swift flowing river, progressive culture seems to surge forward, sweeping all with it. Like dead branches, liberal churches are caught up in the stream. Sometimes evangelicals feel battered by the torrent, barely clinging to the bank. We need renewed confidence in the Spirit’s power. GK Chesterton stated ‘a dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it’. We pass from death to life when the Holy Spirit awakens us to our sin and misery and unites us to the holy Christ.
The Spirit works to close the gap between who believers are (in God’s image) and how believers are (with remaining sin). Christians often emphasise that every human is created in God’s image, entailing intrinsic human value and the sanctity of life. We must also stress that sin has marred the image, requiring the Spirit to renew it in us. The Spirit makes God’s living replicas more like Christ, enabling us increasingly to die to sin and live to righteousness.
Original sin has made our hearts launch pads for sin. As medieval monks discovered, the monastery did not isolate them from sin because they took their sinful desires with them. Such heart desire lures and entices us, giving birth to all manner of sinful actions (James 1:14-15).
Sanctification shines a light on these launch pads and works to demolish them. But some launch pads have incredibly deep foundations; the desires that take off from them seem so natural. We are desperate to excuse them as who we are – when in fact they are how we are. All manner of selfish desires can be left unchecked. But the Spirit’s desires are contrary to the flesh – he identifies and empowers us to destroy the launch pads.
Original sin has also made our hearts landing grounds for sin. Remaining sin means we welcome rather than resist temptation. The term Same Sex Attraction (SSA) is in vogue. One weakness is that it can lead people to identify themselves by how they are rather than who they are. Denny Burk has identified the ambiguity with SSA: does moral responsibility lie with the one who attracts or the one who is attracted – or both? The key issue is this: is there a landing ground for sin in the heart? Is there a craving that instinctively welcomes temptation when it comes?
Burk argues that SSD (Same Sex Desire) is a clearer and more scriptural term describing how someone is but not who he is. A man might experience desires for women who are not his wife. But he would be foolish to identify himself by them e.g. ‘I’m a Christian who experiences NWD (non-wife desire)’. As we saw last month, the tenth commandment forbids desire (voluntary or involuntary) for anything that God forbids. The Spirit alone has the power to change involuntary desire.
The Spirit’s aim is to conform us to the image of Christ, who had no original sin. Christ was conceived through the Holy Spirit as holy (Luke 1:35). Christ’s sinless heart had no launch pad or landing ground for sin. Our sympathetic high priest experienced human weaknesses but not human sinfulness. All his appetites were under control and he did not experience desire for anything forbidden. When killing sin is hard, we can rejoice the Spirit is conforming us to his perfection.
Plaques on memorial benches seem to be today’s gravestones. On the Kent coast, one commemorates the first Miss Herne Bay, the 1934 beauty queen. Physical beauty is fleeting. But the beauty and glory of God’s image in us increases as we keep in step with the Spirit. People spend much time and money and experience such pain trying to delay the inevitable decline of physical beauty. How much more should we be prepared for painful conviction, repentance and mortification as we pursue a moral beauty that increases. Rejoice that the Holy Spirit will continue to change how we are until no sin remains to bring tension with who we are – until we are conformed to Christ’s perfect image!
Paul Smith, is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Broadstairs, Kent