In the summer months of 1941, Hitler’s tanks tore across the Bug River into Russia. The surging flood of fascism left much of Europe under Axis control and threatened to drown Stalin’s Soviet Union. How could the impoverished nation withstand such a seemingly unstoppable torrent? To resist the ferocious Germans, Stalin looked not to new innovations or modern weaponry, but to history books. There, he rediscovered the time-tested, “scorched-earth policy,” made famous by Alexander I’s defeat of Napoleon’s Grand Army a century earlier.
The scorched-earth policy is a retaliatory retreat in which, as civilians and military personnel abandon the frontline, they take or destroy anything that could be utilized by the enemy. In a speech delivered shortly after the invasion began, Stalin implored his countrymen, “to the enemy must not be left a single engine, a single railway car, not a single pound of grain or a gallon of fuel.” Thus, the Nazis marched through smoldering Soviet ghost towns of smoke and ash; crops, forests, machinery, homes, villages and livestock had been put to flame. By the time the Germans pushed east to Stalingrad the following year their supply lines, which had been stretched too thin, buckled and broke, forcing their surrender.
Like allied soldiers of WWII, Christians are engaged in a bitter struggle against a brutal enemy. “Put on the whole armor of God,” Paul urged the Ephesians, “that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil (Eph 6:11).” Christians have been graciously liberated from the guilt and condemnation of their sin not merely to repose in the green pastures of eternal security but also to joyously charge after King Jesus, the Man of War (Ex. 15:3), into the fight of their lives against the indwelling sin that clings like crude oil to their souls. Ours is not the religion of pacifists but of warriors.
Good soldiers are students of warfare. In his Sermon on the Mount, Christ gave his followers timeless instructions, a scorched-earth sanctification strategy, that ought to be employed to resist the enemy’s assaults: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell (Mat. 5:29-30).”
Was Jesus prescribing barbaric self-mutilation? Certainly not! Rather, he was commanding his followers to cherish the cultivation of personal holiness above the pleasures of Christian liberty. Regarding these verses John Calvin commented, “However difficult, arduous, troublesome or painful God’s rule may be, we must make no excuse for that, as the righteousness of God should be worth more to us, than all other things which are chiefly dear and precious. Christ in hyperbole bids us prune back anything that stops us offering God obedient service, as he demands in His Law. He does this deliberately, for men are too generous to themselves in the limits they allow over these things.” What does it look like for contemporary American Christians to engage in this kind of spiritual warfare?
Given the immediate context in Matthew’s gospel (lust and sexual sin), it seems that Jesus’ instructions deal with battling stubborn, habitual sins in particular. These are resilient sin patterns that drive despairing believers to their knees crying, “O Lord, will you ever free me
from this?” These sin patterns include drunkenness, pornographic enslavement and sexual immorality, drug addiction, crude and inappropriate speech, fits of rage, anxiety and fear… to name a few. Oftentimes we fall because we approach the battle lines of our spiritual warfare committed firstly to the preservation of our liberty and comfort instead of being gripped by a willingness to sacrifice any cherished freedom, “making no provision for the flesh (Gal 5:13)” that sin might be increasingly eradicated from our lives. This is scorched-earth sanctification.
I saw this type of godly grit in my dear friend and college roommate when, upon returning from Christmas break and entering our room, I noticed that his desktop computer was gone. The cables strewn across his desk indicated that his computer had been taken in haste. My roommate had stayed on campus to take a winter-term class designed to prepare him for medical school. When I asked him about the computer he informed me with palpable grief that the solitude and freedom were too much for him to bear and he fell to temptation. “So,” I asked, “where’s your computer?” “It’s gone,” he replied, “I threw it away.” My jaw dropped. Had I heard him correctly? Millennials compute, therefore we are! Surely my friend had grossly overreacted! “But how will you get your school work done?” I begged. “I’ll just use the computers in the library from now on.” He said quietly. “Nothing is worth hating myself this much. Nothing.”
It is impossible to overestimate the impact of that event on my budding Christianity. I had never heard someone express such loathing for indwelling sin. Never before had I witnessed someone so radically committed to personal holiness. God had graciously granted me front-row seats to behold a type of Christianity that far-exceeded my own. His was more than the mere cultural Christianity of my youth, which I had convincingly decked in the external accoutrements of sincerity. No, his was a hard and living religion in which Jesus, having graciously accomplished everything for him on Calvary’s cross now demanded everything from him on the battlefield of faith. He, as a blood-bought son, was striving to “walk in a manner worthy of [his] calling (Eph. 4:1).”
Beloved, are there patterns of sin in your life that torment you, making you feel like a slave instead of a child of the living God? Is it possible that certain sins reign in your members because you are unwilling to do that which is necessary to destroy them? Are you giving the devil a foothold and making provisions for the flesh because you refuse to sacrifice your liberty and lawful pleasures on the altar of obedience to King Jesus? Are you warring against addiction to pornography while clinging in unwavering dependence to your computer, tablet, or smart phone? Gouge out your eye! Are you struggling with drunkenness and moderation with a stocked liquor or medicine cabinet in your home? Cut off your hand! Is your life woefully pocked by fits of rage while you voraciously devour violent music, films, and games? Hear Paul’s urging, “If anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work (2 Tim. 2:21).”
How often do we dream about the kind of Christian we aspire to be tomorrow while comfortably wallowing in spiritual mediocrity today? For how long have you put off making the hard and even radical changes that will bring about real growth in godliness and victory over the sins which plague you? Let us, “as those who have been brought from death to life (Rom 6:13),” with righteous indignation and utter intolerance, “out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of [our] sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God (WCF 15:2)” do anything and everything necessary, sacrifice any liberty that the Lord should lovingly require, that we might be found exhaustively pursuing Christ-likeness. Such pursuit is our joy and privilege as those who have been redeemed by his blood, clothed in his righteousness, and enlisted into his service.