THE WAR BETWEEN THE NEW AND THE OLD
After a believer has been regenerated, it is most important for him to know how much he has received from his regeneration and how much is left of his natural endowment. Knowing these things will keep him advancing in his spiritual journey. Therefore, we need to explain here what is included in man’s flesh and how the Lord Jesus in His redemption deals with the elements of the flesh. In other words, what does a believer receive when he is regenerated?
Romans 7:14 says, "I am fleshy, sold under sin." Verses 17 and 18 say, "sin...dwells in me...that is, in my flesh." After reading these two verses, we know that the elements of the flesh are "sin" and "me." This "sin" is the power of sin; this "me" is what we ordinarily call the "self." If a believer desires to understand the spiritual life, he should not be confused about these two elements of the flesh.
We know that the Lord Jesus has already dealt with the sin of our flesh on the cross. Therefore, the Bible tells us that "our old man has been crucified with Him" (Rom. 6:6). Therefore, concerning the problem of sin, the Bible never tells us to be crucified. Because this has been accomplished by Christ and has been fully accomplished, man need not do anything. Hence, the Bible asks us to count this matter as true (v. 11) so that we can receive the effectiveness of the death of Christ and thus be completely delivered from the power of sin (v. 14).
Although the Bible never tells us to be crucified for our sins, the Bible does tell us that we should bear the cross for our self. The Lord Jesus said many times that we should deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Him. This is because there is a difference between the Lord’s dealing with our sins on the cross and His dealing with our self. We know that the Lord Jesus bore our sins while on the cross (He had not done it before that time), but the Lord Jesus denied His self throughout His life, not just at the time He was on the cross. Therefore, a believer can overcome sin in a moment’s time, but he needs his whole lifetime to deny himself.
The book of Galatians shows us very clearly the relationship between a believer and these two aspects of the flesh. On the one hand, it tells us, "But they who are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and its lusts" (5:24). This means that on the very day a person belongs to Jesus Christ, his flesh has already been crucified. Without the teaching of the Holy Spirit, one might assume that the flesh is no longer there because his flesh has already been crucified. But on the other hand, the Bible also tells us, "Walk by the Spirit and you shall by no means fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh" (vv. 16-17). Here it reveals to us clearly that a person who belongs to Christ Jesus, one who already has the Holy Spirit abiding in him, still has the flesh. Not only does the flesh exist, but it is also especially powerful. How do we explain this? Are these two portions of Scripture contradicting each other? No. Verse 24 stresses the sinful aspect of the flesh, while verse 17 stresses the self aspect of the flesh. The cross of Christ deals with sin, and the Holy Spirit deals with self through the cross. Through the cross, Christ fully delivered the believers from the power of sin so that sin can no longer be the lord. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ abides in the believers so that they may daily overcome their self and utterly obey Him. The matter of being delivered from sin has already been accomplished, yet the matter of denying one’s self is now being accomplished day by day.
If a believer understands the full salvation of the cross, then at the time of his regeneration (that is, when he receives Jesus as his Savior), he can, on the one hand, be completely delivered from sin and, on the other hand, receive a new life. Regrettably, many workers do not present God’s full salvation to sinners. The sinners, therefore, only believe a half salvation and are only half-saved. Their sins have been forgiven, but they lack the strength to not sin again. Sometimes salvation is preached in a full way, but because the believers only care to have the grace of the forgiveness of sins and do not really care to be delivered from the power of sin, they only receive a half salvation.
If a believer at the time of his regeneration believes in a full salvation and therefore receives a full salvation, he will experience less defeat in battling sin and will have more experience of battling the self. However, this kind of believer is extremely rare. Although we dare not say how many there are, we can say there are very few. Most believers receive only a half salvation. Therefore, almost all of their battles are with sin. Moreover, there are some who, at the time of their regeneration, do not even know what the self is.
One’s experience before regeneration also plays a part in this. Many people have the inclination to do good long before they believe. (Of course, they do not have the strength and are not able to do good.) Even though their consciences are comparatively brighter, their ability to do good is feeble. Consequently, conflict is inevitable. This is what people in the world call the conflict between reason and lust. When these people hear about full salvation, they sincerely accept the grace for deliverance from sin, just as they receive the grace for the forgiveness of sin. There is another group of people whose consciences are dark before regeneration. They sin terribly and are extremely evil; they never really try to do good. When they hear of full salvation, they naturally grasp the grace for forgiveness of sin and neglect (not reject) the grace for deliverance from sin. This kind of person will have the experience of battling with the sin in their flesh after they have been regenerated.
Why is this so? Because once a person is born again, once he receives a new life, this new life demands that he depart from the rule of the flesh to obey God. God’s life is absolute. It must obtain complete authority. As soon as this life enters a man’s spirit, it requires him to depart from his former master, sin, and completely obey the Holy Spirit. However, sin is deeply rooted in him. Although his will is being renewed because of the regenerated life, this will is still united with sin and self and therefore many times is still inclined toward sin. Due to this, a great conflict between the new life and the flesh is inevitable. Because there are a great number of people in this category, I want to pay special attention to their experience. However, I want to remind my readers that such a prolonged struggle and failure with sin (which is different from the self) is unnecessary.
The flesh wants to exercise complete control. The spiritual life also desires nothing short of this. The flesh seeks to have man forever subject to itself, while the spiritual life seeks to have man utterly obedient to the Holy Spirit. The flesh and the spiritual life are different in every respect. The nature of the flesh is that of the first Adam; the nature of the spiritual life is that of the last Adam. The motive of the flesh is earthly; the intention of the spiritual life is heavenly. The flesh is self-centered in all things; the spiritual life is Christ-centered in all things. Since they are so different, a person cannot avoid constant conflict with the flesh. The flesh seeks to lead man to sin; the spiritual life seeks to lead him to practice righteousness. Because the believers do not realize the full salvation of Christ, they often experience such an inward struggle after they have been regenerated.
When young believers discover such an inward conflict, they are really baffled. Some become discouraged, thinking they are too bad, with no way to go on. Some even doubt the genuineness of their regeneration because of this. They should have known that it was precisely because they were regenerated that they were having such a conflict. Formerly, the flesh exercised its control without any interference. Furthermore, because their spirits were dead, they did not sense that they were sinful, even though they had sinned much. Now the new life comes, bringing with it the heavenly nature, desire, light, and thought. Once this new light enters into man, it exposes how man is so basically filthy and corrupted. The new desire naturally is not willing to remain in corruption and filthiness but seeks to walk according to God’s will. Then the flesh spontaneously desires to war against the spiritual life. Such a war makes a believer feel that there are two persons within him. Each has his own opinion and power and is trying to overcome the other. If he follows the spiritual life and overcomes, he will rejoice greatly, but if the flesh overcomes, he will not be able to avoid self-condemnation. This kind of experience is proof that such a one has been born anew.
God’s purpose is not to improve the flesh, but rather to destroy the flesh. God gives His life to man at the time of regeneration for the purpose of destroying the self of the flesh through His life. Although the life that God gives to man is very powerful, a newly regenerated person is just like an infant. Because he is newly born, he is still very feeble. However, because the flesh has ruled over him for such a long time, its power is very great. Furthermore, he has not apprehended God’s full salvation by faith. Therefore, at this juncture, although he has been born anew, it is still difficult for him not to be fleshly. To be fleshly means that he is still ruled by the flesh. The most pitiful thing is that although this man has been born again and the heavenly light has shined on him, and he knows that the flesh is hateful and he wishes with all his heart to overcome it, he is too weak in his own strength and is not able to do so. This is a time of much shedding of tears and much sorrow. Furthermore, every regenerated person must have a new desire to purge away sins in order to please God. However, his will is not strong enough, and he is overcome by the flesh most of the time. Consequently, his victories are few, but his defeats are many. How can he not hate himself at these times?
The experience Paul mentioned in Romans 7 is the story of such a conflict. "For what I work out, I do not acknowledge; for what I will, this I do not practice; but what I hate, this I do...For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but to work out the good is not. For I do not do the good which I will; but the evil which I do not will, this I practice...I find then the law with me who wills to do the good, that is, the evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God according to the inner man, but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind and making me a captive to the law of sin which is in my members" (vv. 15, 18-19, 21-23). The hearts of so many who have had the same experience will really respond in one accord with Paul’s final sigh: "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?" (v. 24).
What then is the meaning of this war? This war is also a kind of discipline by the Holy Spirit. God has already prepared a full salvation for man. Man does not obtain it either because he does not know of it or because he does not want it. God can only give to man according to what he believes, accepts, and appropriates. Therefore, when people ask for forgiveness and regeneration, God forgives and regenerates them. It is through such a war that God makes the believers seek after and hold fast to the complete victory in Christ. If a believer has not obtained such a full salvation because he does not know it, through such a war he will seek to know it. The Holy Spirit will then have a chance to reveal to him how Christ on the cross dealt with his old man so that this one may believe and may obtain it. If a believer does not have it because he does not want it, the truth he has is merely in his head. Through such a war he will know that simply to have the knowledge is useless. Since he fails repeatedly, this will create in him a desire to experience the truth he has known.
This kind of war increases as the days go by. If these believers do not easily give up but continue to press on faithfully, then they will have much fiercer battles. Unless they obtain deliverance, this kind of war will never cease.
(Collected Works of Watchman Nee, The (Set 1) Vol. 12: The Spiritual Man (1), Chapter 6, by Watchman Nee)