Introduction: Christian Fights Himself
Have you ever read The Pilgrim’s Progress? It’s an old book from 1678 written by John Bunyan about a man named Christian. He’s on his way to the Celestial City and Bunyan documents all the troubles and victories he encounters along his pilgrimage. It is a wonderful work that represents theological truths through allegory. It’s a story that represents the believer’s real pilgrimage through this sinful world, as we are on our way to eternity with Christ. For example, Christian encounters Mr. Worldly Wiseman who attempts to sway him from his narrow path, clearly representative of the “wisdom” this world offers to deter us from walking with the Lord. Another example in this story is a man named Evangelist who points Christian on to the right path to the Celestial City, which represents the duty of all believers – pointing others to the right and only path to God.
There are dozens of other characters and events that represent biblical truths through allegory, and I would encourage you to read it. Recently I was reading it and there was a particular encounter that attracted my interest – and it was Christian’s encounter with a monster. Along Christian’s journey, he meets a beast named Apollyon. They fight against each other, and as Apollyon seeks to take Christian’s life, he throws “a flaming dart at his breast . . . [and] he had almost pressed him to death; so that Christian began to despair of life.”¹ Of course, we know that this was an epitome of Satan, powerful Satan, that Christian had fought against. But here’s what is interesting: Christian only fought with Satan for “above half a day.” The battle was brief and momentary – it was deadly, but it was quite pithy when you consider that Christian fought with himself all the way to the Celestial City. He only battled Satan for a short time, but he battled a war within himself all the way through the rest of his journey. Throughout the rest of Christian’s pilgrimage, he is tempted to give up; he is tempted to go astray; he is full of doubt; he continued to battle within himself.
And this exemplifies a profound but painful truth: no enemy can be as powerful as ourselves. The influence of the world, and the fiery darts of Satan may come and go, but they cannot cause us to sin – we make choices to sin and fall short of God’s glory. And the reason we make those choices are because of desires. So while it is true that we face many other enemies in the Christian life,² none of them can control our actions. Satan cannot force you to sin, because he cannot control your desires – he can only use your sinful desires against you. Neither can the world force you to sin, even with its sinful influences. Only you have the ability (a weakness, really) to act on your desires. Our sinful desires are far more deadly than our adversary Satan, and the world – because sinful desires lead to sinful choices and acts. Scripture states that the source of our temptations are our desires (James 1:14), and that we should overcome them through the power of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16). The 90’s rock band Lit had it right when they sang, “It’s no surprise to me that I am my own worst enemy.”
This doesn’t mean we should subject ourselves to nihilism (the belief that life is meaningless), and it doesn’t mean that we should be pessimistic about ourselves. But evidently, the warnings of Scripture about our own sin nature appear to be very serious and urgent. In James’ letter where we are warned that our desires are the source of our temptations, it is because those desires lure and entice us (James 1:14). In Galatians, we are exhorted to walk by the Spirit because there is a war taking place between our desire to sin, and the Spirit’s desire to glorify God (Gal. 5:16-18). In Romans, we are strongly exhorted not to supply our flesh with the weapons that it needs to defeat us in temptation: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14).
Among these warnings about our flesh and sinful desires, one of them is found in 1 Peter 2:11. This is perhaps the most imperative of all the warnings regarding our desires and sinful nature. In this verse, Peter the apostle admonishes his readers: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”
Peter has been calling his readers to holy living all throughout this letter – he is genuinely concerned about their sanctification. And one of the noticeable patterns that emerges as you read this letter is that imperatives follow realities. Peter will state what has happened to the Christian, or Peter will state who the Christian is, and he will follow this with a command or exhortation. For instance, Peter states that the believers have been born again (1:3-5), and because of this they are called to set their hope fully on God’s grace (1:13). Or you could look at 1:22-2:3, where Peter exhorts his readers to live sanctified lives because they have been born again.
This pattern is also found in the verse we just read. This verse follows a statement about a certain Christian reality, and it’s only one verse above it: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (2:10). Christians are God’s people, who have received God’s mercy. And it is on this basis that Peter admonishes his readers to abstain from their sinful desires. Because they are Christians, they have battle to fight – and just like Christian on his pilgrimage, it is a battle within with ourselves.
It is warfare, conflict, and combat. What is true of war is true of the war with our own passions and desires. For Christians, there is a war going on. It is real, it is deadly, and it is costly. It is with this in mind that we now look at this verse together. And as we unpack this passage, we are going to see why we are in this war, what we are fighting, why we are fighting, and how to fight this war.
The Text: 1 Peter 2:11, ESV
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”
I. Who We Are (v. 11a)
Peter first describes who we are – we are citizens of God’s kingdom and His holy nation. He says in the first part of v. 11 that it is because of who we are (or better, whose we are) that a war is going on. He says that believers are sojourners and exiles, as he addresses his readers, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles” (v. 11a).
Because we are God’s people, there’s a war going on. There wouldn’t be any battle with sin if we still lived under the dominion and tyranny of sin. But because we are “set free from sin” (Rom. 6:7), and because we are those called “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9), we are in a war against sin. That’s what Peter just finished talking about. He told them, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (v. 10). Since we have received God’s mercy, we are His people, now in an ongoing conflict with the sin inside us.
He addressed them as those whom he loves, as those “Beloved,” and then urges and exhorts them as sojourners and exiles. Those are terms used to describe outsiders, foreigners, a group or individual that doesn’t belong or fit in. Peter is saying that we as Christians are citizens of God’s holy nation, not primarily citizens of the society that we live in. As the old song says, “This world is not my home, I’m just-a passing through.” So this is who we are: citizens of God’s kingdom and rule. This echoes Paul, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20).
We are citizens of God’s kingdom because He has saved us through faith in Jesus Christ and has given us that privilege. Now this says a lot about the way we should live our lives. Citizens of a particular country conduct themselves in accordance with what is required of their citizenship. A Chinese man does things as a citizen of China that we wouldn’t do as a citizen of the United States. A citizen of an indigenous tribe on the coast of Vietnam has different requirements for citizenship than would a Hispanic living in Mexico.
We are citizens of God’s kingdom and world, so we are outsiders in our own society. This doesn’t mean we should completely abandon our social responsibilities, but it does mean that we should live as citizens of God’s world. Are you living like a citizen of God’s kingdom? Can people see a difference in you?
II. What We Fight (v. 11b)
We’ve seen who we are, and that answers why we are in a conflict. But what are we fighting in this war? What is our enemy? Peter answers by telling us that we are fighting the passions of our flesh, our own sin nature: “abstain from the passions of the flesh.” As one enlisted in battle, we have objectives to carry out. We have a task to be done if we are going to come out of this battle as victors, and that is to refrain from engaging in anything related to our sinful passions. The sinful passions that Peter is referring to here basically means our sinful impulses and desires to sin against God. Even though we are saved, it doesn’t make us immune to experiencing temptations to sin. And Peter calls us to abstain from the desires that cause our temptations.
In many schools today, students are taught about the importance of abstinence from sex before marriage. It’s an important program that I believe every student should go through. Sex is an irreplaceable gift that God has given to a man and woman within the boundaries of marriage, and misusing that gift is like opening a Christmas present that was meant for somebody else. What schools seek to do through teaching abstinence is to help students refrain from engaging in sexual intercourse before marriage. It’s a struggle to fight those impulses, but if we want to be safe and prevent ourselves from seriously damaging our bodies, we should abstain from sexual activity before marriage. Peter has a similar idea in mind. He is telling us to do the same thing with passions of our flesh. He is telling us to refrain and stay away from the passions of our flesh, because indulging in them can bring great harm upon us, even our own souls (v. 11c).
Abstaining from these passions and desires to sin against God is to be obedient to one of the greatest commands in Scripture: “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-17). We must abstain from the passions of our flesh if we are truly members of God’s kingdom and society (we will see at the end how we can do this). This is our chief objective as soldiers against sin in this deadly war.
III. Why We Fight (v. 11c)
Now that we know who we are, and what we are fighting (the passions of our flesh), then why are we fighting? Why go through all the trouble to fight the sin in our lives? It shouldn’t hurt to indulge in a little sin should it? Peter tells us why it is urgent to abstain from the passions of our flesh and fight with all our might: “abstain from the passions of the flesh [because they] wage war against your soul” (v. 11c).
Our sinful desires wage war, and they do so upon our own souls. Our sinful desires have declared war upon us the moment we crossed over from death to life (John 5:24). The army of sinful desires have encamped around us, ready to ambush at any time – and like any army, sin has great strength. One person cannot wage war against an army, but war consists of armies against armies. So it is with our sin – it wars against us with an entire camp of evil desires.
Peter is also says here that the passions of our flesh target our own souls. They are aiming at our souls, they are shooting at our souls, they are fortifying their equipment against our own souls to wage a deadly war. And this is imperative to realize because our souls are the most valuable thing about us, and if our souls are lost, then everything is lost.
These passions don’t wage war against our physical bodies, but they seek to destroy our own souls. Everyone has a soul, and our souls are our innermost beings. God gave us all a soul, and it is what gives us life. We are not just fleshy beings with emotions and desires, as today’s evolutionists teach. We actually have souls, and these sinful desires, even though they may seem harmless, “wage war” against our souls. If they are not fought, they can do the most serious damage to us. This is why it is urgent to abstain from the passions of our flesh.
IV. How to Fight (Rom. 8:13; Prov. 6:27; Psa. 51:10; 119:11; 1:1-3)
We’ve seen who we are, which explains why we are in this war. We looked at what we are fighting, and why we are fighting. But we would not do justice to this passage of Scripture without knowing how to fight those passions of our flesh. So how can we fight those desires within? How can we abstain from the passions of the flesh?
1. Depend on the Holy Spirit to overcome the passions of the flesh (Rom. 8:13). The Holy Spirit indwells believers, enabling them to live a victorious Christian life. Galatians 5:16-18 teaches us that if we will depend on the Holy Spirit, submitting to Him consistently, we will overcome our sinful desires. He will give us the power we need to overcome sin. So we must walk daily with Him in order to abstain from the passions of our flesh.
2. Do not allow the occasion for the passions of the flesh (Pro. 6:27). We should not be willingly putting ourselves into situations that we know will light up our sinful desires like a fire. It is meaningless to try and fight our desires if we are putting ourselves in tempting situations that will only supply weapons to our desires. Anyone knows not to park a freshly washed car underneath a tree full of birds – and we should not expect to be clean if we put ourselves into situations that we know will get us dirty. The Proverbs give us practical warnings, and in Proverbs 6:27 we are warned that one cannot expect to remain unharmed or clean if he involves himself in sinful situations.
3. Pray that God would change your desires (Psalm 51:10). If the passions of our flesh are the problem, then they need to be changed. We need to ask God to create within us a clean heart, and continually ask Him to change our desires. When we have a sinful desire present in our lives, we need to combat it with the word of God and with prayer.
4. Get into the word of God, and let the word of God get into you (Psalm 119:11). If there are particular sins you struggle with, memorize particular Scriptures. We are familiar with Psalm 119:11, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” The psalmist there says that his defense against sinning was that he had stored God’s word in his heart. Scripture memory involves not only getting into the Bible, but allowing the Bible to get into us. It is allowing the word of Christ to dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16). Scripture memorization involves taking time to memorize the Bible, whether a few verses or a few chapters.
It is very beneficial, for we can call to mind a Scripture that is especially helpful for us in a time of need or when we are dealing with our sinful desires. The Spirit of God can’t call to your memory a Scripture you’ve never read or memorized. If the word of God is in you, then you’ve brought the greatest weapon you have to the very place of battle.
5. Remember the results of godly living (Psalm 1:1-3). Keep it constant in your mind that God doesn’t want you to live a life defeated by sin. God wants you to live godly. Living a godly life is living a prosperous life that God blesses, and He blesses our lives when we abstain from sin and associate ourselves with Him and His word: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:1-3).
There is a war going on inside of us – our sinful desires wage war against our own souls. We must fight through the sustaining and empowering grace of God that He will freely give us.
1. Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress, (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007), pp. 80-81.