We “have to reconcile two sets of instincts…there are some people who say they are irreconcilable and that it just can’t be done”. Politics is said to be the art of making the impossible, possible. But this week, we heard a political ruler speaking about going beneath the surface of society into the human heart and reconciling potentially irreconcilable instincts. The wisdom of political tradition, he said, could provide “the best insights in how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart”. There are various created natural instincts such as: self-preservation, natural affection, fostering and preserving society and acknowledging and worshipping God. They ought not to compete with one another but the trouble is that they are warped by sin. So we have to contend with the instincts of sin in the heart which will never compromise. We pray for national leaders and long that they would seek a higher wisdom in their unenviable task. For what politician indeed would dream of declaring war on sin?
The Christian knows all about irreconcilable instincts in the heart; desires that are opposed and contrary to one another. Regeneration sets up a conflict between grace and remaining sin. There are sinful desires that wage war against the soul (1 Peter 2:11) and they are deceitful in their operation (Ephesians 4:22). In the following updated extract in relation to Galatians 5:17, James Fergusson opens up this conflict further. He shows how Paul proves that following the instincts of the renewed part of their heart means keeping under the unrenewed part.
Paul says that the renewed, and unrenewed part, or spirit and flesh incessantly oppose and labour to suppress one another. This is because they are two principles that absolutely contrary to each other (John 3:6). Paul goes on to show how they are both supported and assisted with contrary superior powers in verses 19 and 22. This conflict prevents us from completely and effectually doing either the good or the evil to which the will inclines. The flesh or sinful nature always opposes what we seek to do in accordance with the direction of the Spirit. The spirit likewise opposes the directions of the flesh. This is also implied in verse 16.
1. These Instincts are in a Regenerate Person
The regenerate person has a renewed principle of grace in all the faculties and powers of the soul; it has been produced within them by the Spirit of God. In all those parts of the soul, they also have some remainder of sinful corruption that has not yet been put to death. This means that our whole mind, will and affections are partly spiritual, partly carnal, both flesh and Spirit are in us. The two sets of desires are against one another (Galatians 5:17).
2. These Instincts are Constantly Active
None of those powers or principles in the regenerate person are dead, dull, or merely passive. Both sin and grace are working and active. The flesh lusts and the spirit desires. Both of them influence the whole person to work in a way congruous to the nature of these respective principles; the one to good and the other to evil.
3. These Instincts are Completely Opposed
The operation of these two active principles is in flat opposition, the one to the other. Thus, in one and the same person even while they are engaged in one and the same action, there is a conflict and battle between these two contrary armies (Romans 7:19, 21). The lusts of the flesh are against the spirit, and the spirit’s desires are against the flesh.
4. These Instincts are in Every Action
Both these principles combine in all the powers and faculties of the regenerate person. So there is a mixture of their respective influence and efficacy in every action. Though one may prevail over the other in some actions there is not one action to which both of them do not contribute something. If there is not a causal influence there is some measure of active resistance. Their desires are constantly working against each other.
The actions of the regenerate are not perfect and free from some sinful admixture. But there is still a difference between their worst actions and the same actions as done by the unregenerate. The difference is that in the regenerate the flesh does not sweep along with a full gale in its sails but encounters the contrary tide of resistance from the spirit to some degree. Just as the flesh lusts against the spirit, so the spirit’s desires are against the flesh. This means that we cannot do the things we want to do in relation to both.
5. These Instincts are in Spiritual Combat
Unregenerate people may have something similar to this spiritual combat, they may sometimes experience a conflict between their natural conscience and rebellious desires (Romans 2:1). But they do have not the very same combat spoken of here. This combat is not just one faculty set against the other but every faculty, as it is flesh, is set against itself, as it is spirit. This combat is not in the unregenerate because they are wholly flesh (Genesis 6:5) and not spirit at all. This combat is between flesh and spirit not natural conscience and sinful desires.
6. These Instincts are Frustrated in Our Actions
The mutual resistance and opposition of those two opposing parties (flesh and spirit) in the regenerate begins at the very first rise of every action in the understanding, will or affections. It continues and grows ever more fierce as the action progresses towards its full accomplishment by the governing faculties. Not being able to do the things that we would implies that our willing good or evil is more (but not entirely) free from this opposition, compared to our actual doing or accomplishing what we have willed (see Romans 7:18). We cannot do the things we have willed to do.
The better we understand the nature of the warfare within the battlefield of our heart, the better equipped we will be to advance in being Christ-like. Whether or not they are aware of it, the Christian has a constant conflict in every aspect of their inward life and in every action. There are irreconcilable instincts in constant combat (James 4:1-3). One principle cannot prevail unless it is at the expense of the other. There can never be compromise. But the believer has divine help to advance in this warfare. The previous verse (Galatians 5:16) speaks of walking in the Spirit and later we understand that the flesh is a dying enemy (Galatians 5:24). Sin will not have dominion over God’s people (Romans 6:14). In the midst of such unceasing and unremitting conflict there is hope. Who will give deliverance? Paul answers this question, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25).
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