Struggle Theology

While reading some feedback on Tim Challies’ post “Desecration and Titillation,” I recalled a quote from a series of messages I gave many years ago. It came from the book, “Flirting with the Devil,” by Bill Pride and has to do with Struggle Theology (an incredibly creative device invented to explain why professing Christians fail to conquer their sins). 

“Struggle Theologians say, ‘Forget that stuff about being more than conquerors in Christ and all things being possible to him who believes. Don’t start thinking you are better than other people. In fact, we’d like you to concentrate on other people. Don’t think about Jesus if you can help it. Think instead about sinners who call themselves Christians. These are your real role models.  Whatever they can’t do, you can’t do either.’”

“If a Struggle Theologian can find one person who professes to be a Christian and also is failing to overcome the sin of habitual drunkenness, he considers that sufficient reason to tell all of us that drunkenness is a difficult problem requiring complex coping strategies and that there are ‘no simple answers’ to this problem. If you try to point out that the Bible says drunkenness is a sin, not a disease, and that we are supposed to live above sin, the Struggle Theologian will accuse you of thinking you are better than other people and of being insensitive to the real problems others face. He may even go so far as to claim that when the church calls sin ‘sin’ and expects sinners to change their ways, we are driving the poor victims of sin even farther from the ‘healing’ that supposedly only occurs when we unconditionally accept them and their bad behavior” (pp. 28-29, Flirting with the Devil,” Bill pride).

Some of the debate on Tim’s blog focused on whether those who profess faith in Christ but remain in habitual sin should question whether they ever really experienced salvation. The passage Tim quoted offers a clear warning.   

“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. … Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him” (1 John 3:6,8-10).

On this subject, there is (as with all biblical truth) tension and balance to respect. The early church leader James acknowledged that, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). The book of Hebrews described the christian life as a “struggle against sin” (Hebrews 12:4). The Apostle Paul pointed to the depths of our battle when he wrote, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). 

Yet none of this is meant to ease our conscience toward habitual sin in a way that we accept it as normal to the christian life. We’re called to, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5; cf. Romans 8:12-13).

The point about “Struggle Theology” might seem a bit simplistic or in need of balanced, but it’s worth considering when tempted to abuse the truth that we all struggle. 

“We Christians are supposed to deal with sin at the point of a sword, not to ‘struggle’ with it. Satan had to stroke [Eve] up and down with tempting suggestions before she ate the fruit. This kind of struggling is just a coy way of giving in to sin. You put up the appearance of a fight to fool onlookers into thinking you’re a good person who is trying his best, when really you never intended to permanently reject that sin in the first place” (p. 29, Flirting with the Devil,” Bill pride).

 Steve Cornell

11 thoughts on “Struggle Theology

  1. Excellent. I’ve always had an issue with all this talk of “struggling” when I felt like saying “show some fortitude, be a man, get a backbone”. It may not sound very tolerant, but sometimes we just need to be able to say no to sin, and stop acting like weasels.

    –Wm.Brown MD

    Forest, VA

  2. Bob says:

    Yes , if you use “struggle” to justify maintaining sinful practices. On the other hand, Paul tells us to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling”. That sounds like a struggle to me?
    I think this topic is so broad that lumping people who self jusify their behavior together with those who contritely battle(struggle?) with particular sins; who cling to nothing but God’s promise to complete the good work He began in them, is what bothered me. As I cling to His promise, there is tremendous “fear and trembling” working to overcome my sin. But part of my work has to be knowing and accepting God’s grace and His unconditional love for me, even when I stumble. I have prayed for the “sword” to remove these vile sins. It seems God has chosen to “work” it out of me.

    • Yes, Bob, “knowing and accepting God’s grace and His unconditional love for me” exposes the foolishness of continuing in sin. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us” (I John 4:10,16). God’s love also has a compelling power to strengthen us against sin. We join the apostle in praying, “that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think” (Ephesians 3:16-20).

    • These are valid points Bob, I think. I was referring more to the whiny types, products of our therapeutic culture of narcissism (to mix book titles). The victimhood folks who watch Dr. Phil and Oprah and find cultural support to rationalise their “struggles”, which they really have no intention of abstaining from.

  3. David says:

    This is good, but needs yet another caveat for the sensitive Christian who is prone to over-introspection. The Puritans never separated repentance from the “works we do to prove saving faith”. It is not a matter of abstaining from immorality, the world can do this as well if not better than Christians. How we are different from the world is that WE can repent for our sin and receive God’s forgiveness because we have an Advocate who is interceding for us (1 John) and the indwelling Spirit of the living God who convicts and heals.

    The counter argument is arrived at immediately: “True repentance means you don’t keep making the same mistake.” Yes and no. Now we are back to the categorical error of equating besetting sins with characteristic sin, as well as the crucial detail of whether or not one is indifferent toward their sin either when lovingly confronted by Word or friend. For Calvin, assurance is the essence of faith, not merely based upon assent to knowledge but by the determining factor of ‘fiducia’ (personal faith, i.e., Christ died for ME specifically). Calvin’s soul processing was not based primarily upon fruits dealing with abstinence from immorality, which a Christian must pursue, but upon the professors attitude toward their sin. Were they indifferent about their sin, then the faith was an assent to knowledge and not personal, saving faith. Further, any movement forward, Perkin’s “least measure of saving grace (one apple)” which includes the immediate act of repentance, desire for righteousness and a trusting on Christ’s righteousness to cover a multitude of sins.

    It is a qualitative change more than a quantitative change. I think we make the categories to broad when saving faith amidst sin struggle is easily evident. The person who is addicted to pornography and views it whenever they get a chance, has hoarded it in places and is unrepentant but professing, hiding a secret with no real desire to be free is within the category of characteristic sin. He is an adulterer. The person who has been saved and has left the latter scenario may still struggle with a desire for pornography and they may still fail from time to time but there is progress, no matter how small and there will eventually be victory. It is wrong for us to process a soul and examine their hearts on their behalf when there is a desire for obedience to Christ, immediate confession and repentance upon sinning and the subsequent action of removing everything they can that provides occasion for sin. How many of these scenarios should we allow before we judge no saving faith is present? “Seventy time seven.”

    As soon as we go down the road of quantifying our faith, “how much obedience is enough to show saving faith”, we are on a slippery slope that leads to condemnation and despair because the answer is, “no amount is enough”. We do not rely upon the strength of our faith and obedience but upon the strength of the Object of our obedience. Or said another way. “We are not saved by grace through faithfulness, but by grace through faith in Christ’s faithfulness.” Now, this is not a reason to keep on sinning and if antinomianism is present then, and only then, do we have a good reason to cause someone to examine themselves… yet in this case it is a moot point because the indifferent professor does not care that they are sinning.

    So, yes… Christ said that if we even undress another woman with our eyes we have committed adultery with her in our heart, but committing adultery in this way is different than being an adulterer (characteristically) or else King David had no saving faith. How much sin determines which one we are? Is there progress at all, is there desire for righteousness and to obey Christ, is their mourning over your sin and a trusting on Christ’s righteousness to save you from your sin… seventy times seven. Understanding this difference is essential for peace and assurance in doing the work of God, which is “believing in Him Who He sent”.

    • Bob says:

      Thank you very much for such an articulate response. I have been feeling pretty beat down since reading Tim C’s original article; very discouraged, even though I KNOW God is working in me. Your words are very helpful.

      • David says:

        Thanks Bob. As a sensitive soul, this is something I have struggled through and still struggle to believe as I am prone to throw the baby out with the bathwater with even one indiscretion. People like us are prone to see the whole one day at a time but I was encouraged to look back in five year increments to get an accurate assessment of my progress in sanctification. When I do this I am greatly encouraged. Satan tries to rule us with the tyranny of the moment, but like Luther, agree with our adversary quickly and look to the cross, and then tell yourself the wisdom of Wilberforce:

        “I am not what I want to be. I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I one day will be. But I am not what I was. And by the grace of God, I am what I am.”

        I am thankful for respected and fruitful men like John Piper who admittedly wake up each morning feeling unsaved and who are prone to be too introspective and who are honest about it. Many times these articles are written by a-type personalities like a John MacArthur who do not struggle with assurance, and it is nothing based on legalism or over-confidence on their part, just different personalities. But what often happens is that the a-types don’t have a category for the sensitive soul and so they speak broadly and to the point, leaving the sensitive soul in their wake, struggling to say afloat. It’s just a good reminder. The MacArthurs are not necessarily prideful and the Piper’s of the world are not necessarily humble, but being a good pastor means both types are GENUINELY taken into consideration. John showed this beautifully in 1 John 2, after his admonition.

        As a Calvinist I find it interesting that this almost legalistic interpretation is so common. Calvinism demands, in light of total depravity, that even the desire for righteousness and obedience to Christ and repentance means one has been regenerated… even amidst sin struggle. Sin struggle is different than sin practice. And Perkins is in sync with his theology. It could be that the ‘hole in our holiness’ is simply a hole in our humility.

  4. nathan says:

    Everyone experiences life differently. bbrown1w wants everyone to “snap out of it.” Life doesn’t work that way. Until you die for me, you don’t get to judge me. Until you give everything to help me — to bring me along with you — you don’t get to talk to me that way, bbrown1w.

    –signed, Struggler

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