Every single day, we find ourselves in a fight with our flesh. Though we have been crucified with Christ, our remaining sin is still a dangerous foe, constantly tempting us with the empty pleasures of our old life. Just like the Apostle Paul, we find ourselves on the one hand serving the law of God with our minds and hearts, but on the other hand, we also serve the law of sin with our flesh (Rom 7:25).
Our proper response is to lean into Christ by faith, to put on the armor of God (Eph 6:13-18), and in the power of His grace, once again to put to death the deeds of the flesh. In the wake of the battle, we then rebuild “accountability measures.” In our effort to confine and control our “old self” (Col 3:9), we develop spiritual self-defense measures, erect barriers to temptation, and form transparent relationships with other believers in order to help imprison our flesh and hold it at bay. It is by these means that we seek to “cage” our flesh.
These are good, biblical measures. The woman who struggles with anger and a critical spirit is right to memorize appropriate Scriptures, to seek godly counsel, to avoid persons and situations that incite her, and to have a small group of women that pray for her and with whom she can talk openly. The man who struggles with lust and pornography is right to join the men’s accountability group at his church, to add filtering software to his internet service, to be transparent with his wife, and to fervently pray to God, seeking purity of mind and heart.
If we are not careful, however, we can drift into a mindset where we begin to trust in our “cage,” rather than in Christ. I can begin to think that my dedication to prayer and Bible study is itself the reason I have victory over my flesh. I may grow self-confident in my ability to avoid tempting situations. I can draw my comfort from the nearby presence of my accountability group. And I might rest in knowing that my internet filter will prevent me from setting smut before my eyes. Without even realizing it, I can come to a place where my faith is in the cage I have constructed rather than the Christ who set me free.
In chapter thirteen of the Second London Confession, we are reminded that “in this life, there abides still some remnants of corruption in every part, wherefrom arises a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (13.2). This same chapter also directs us to our hope: “through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part does overcome; and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (13.3). It is the presence of Christ and the continual supply of His strength that sanctifies us. Thus, we must be careful to remember that:
1. Christ alone transforms the heart. A properly constructed prison cell can confine a killer, but it cannot change his murderous heart. It is good to put strong means of accountability in place. It is good to have strong cages, but we must never mistake incarceration for transformation. As we love and draw near to Christ, we will take steps to starve and deprive our flesh, but Christ alone is the One transforming us from the inside out. We must focus on and trust in Him: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).
2. Love for Christ frees us from cage-centered thinking. In salvation, we are set free from bondage to sin and granted a new heart, a heart that loves Christ and exalts Him as King. As we love Him, we desire to pursue holiness in obedience to our King’s commands. While accountability measures certainly assist us in that pursuit, if we place our trust in those rules and structures, believing they are the source of our holiness, we have effectively placed ourselves back under the law. But law cannot conquer our flesh, only Christ can (Col 2:23). Do not trust your cage more than your King, for it is the love of Christ that constrains us (2 Cor 5:14-15).
3. Therefore, our comfort is in what Christ has accomplished. Paul’s hope, in the midst of his own struggle with sin and shame, was the completed work of Christ on his behalf, not his own ability to keep the law nor the ability to protect himself with external structures and accountability measures. It is Christ who has saved us, “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Therefore, His grace is our greatest power and comfort: “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom 8:1-2).