Lawful Strife (Part 1) teaching by JC Philpot

Php 1:6 Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:

Preached on Lord’s Day Morning, December 27, 1840, at Trinity
Chapel, Alfred Street, Leicester
“And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned
except he strive lawfully.” 2 Timothy 2:5

The Holy Ghost appears to have made much use of figures and
illustrations in the word of God; and I believe we may find more
or less of this mode of instruction from Genesis to Revelation. For
instance, immediately after the fall, the Lord made use of a
visible figure, when he made coats of skins, and clothed in them
our first parents. What was this but a visible sign of the garment
of imputed righteousness, in which alone they could stand
accepted before him, connected with Christ’s sacrifice, as the skin
of the sacrificed animal was with its poured out blood? So after
the flood, the Lord set his bow in the cloud, that, spanning earth
and heaven, it might be a visible sign of his covenanted mercy
from generation to generation. When we come a little lower down
to the period when the Lord brought the children of Israel out of
Egypt that they might be to him a peculiar people, He still chose
the same visible mode of instruction by type and figure. The
paschal lamb, the blood sprinkled on the lintel and the two sideposts,
the ark of the covenant, the whole train of sacrifices, rites,
and ceremonies, with all the furniture of the tabernacle, were all
so many speaking figures, whereby spiritual instruction was
communicated to those who had eyes to look through the type to
the thing typified.

So when we come down to the times of the prophets, types and
figures were still employed. Jeremiah is sent down to the Potter’s
house to learn God’s absolute sovereignty (Jer. 18); was
commanded to wear a linen girdle, and then hide it in a hole of
the rock by the river Euphrates, to show how the Lord would mar
the pride of Judah (Jer. 13:1-11); and was shown the two
baskets of figs, to teach them the difference between the
precious and the vile. (Jer. 24.)

So Isaiah walked barefoot three years for a sign and a wonder upon Egypt and Ethiopia
(Isa.20:3); and Ezekiel was commanded to take a tile and pourtray
upon it the city, even Jerusalem, and lay siege against it. (Ezek.
4:1, 2.) When we come to the New Testament, we find the Lord
making great use of this mode of instruction. All his parables
were so many speaking figures, under which spiritual wisdom was

The sower going forth to sow, the woman hiding the
leaven in three measures of meal, the man finding a pearl of
great price, the net cast into the sea, the door, the shepherd, the
vine to which he compares himself—what are all these but natural
figures, which the Lord employs to convey spiritual instruction?
Indeed so apt and so beautiful are some of these figures, that it
has been a question with some, whether God had not in the
original creation of all things a special view to spiritual truths. For
instance, when he created the sheep, whether he had not a
special eye to the elect; and when he created the vine, whether
he had not a spiritual reference to Christ and his members. They
thus look upon all outward creation as a type and figure of the
new creation. But I think there is one consideration which shows
that this view is not founded on truth.

We find the apostle Paul employing figures not only altogether of man’s invention,
but even such as contain in themselves much evil. For instance, in
four different places he has borrowed an illustration from the
public games of the Greeks, which, like all large and promiscuous
assemblies, were doubtless accompanied with much evil. Thus we
find him speaking (1 Cor. 9:24-26,) “Know ye not that they which
run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run that ye
may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is
temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible
crown, but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as
uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air.” The figure
here is clearly drawn from the foot race and the boxing match in
use among the Greeks at their public games. So again (Heb.
12:1) he says, “Wherefore seeing we are compassed about with
so great a cloud of witnesses,” alluding to the multitude of
spectators that surrounds the runners for the prize, as a
cloud “let us lay aside every weight and the sin that doth so
easily beset us,” as the racers threw aside all useless
incumbrances “and let us run with patience the race that is set
before us.” So speaking of his own experience (Php. 3:13, 14), he
says, “Brethren, I count myself not to have apprehended, but this
one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and
reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward
the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
Here he clearly alludes to the runner in the foot race who never
thinks of the ground over which he has passed, in his eagerness
to press forward and carry off the prize.

The fourth place where the same apostle borrows the figure of
these public games, is the verse from which I intend, with God’s
help and blessing, to deliver a few thoughts this morning. “And if
a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he
strive lawfully.”

In order to enter into the spiritual meaning of this text, I must
detain you for a few minutes with the natural explanation of it.
The Holy Ghost has chosen by the mouth of Paul to convey
spiritual instruction under this natural figure; we must therefore
break through this shell to get at the kernel, for unless we have a
clear view of the figure itself, we shall have a confused idea of its
spiritual signification.

The apostle then, as I have already shown, borrows a figure here
from the public games in his time, where there were prizes given
to those who obtained the victory in one of these five contests,
the chariot, and the foot race, wrestling, boxing, and a combat
made up of the two last. The “man that strives for masteries,”
means he who wrestles, or otherwise contends for victory, the
prize being a crown of leaves, which was given publicly to the
victor. Now there were certain rules and conditions, laid down
beforehand, which were to be rigidly observed by all the
candidates for the prize, and if any one of these what we may call
“rules of the game” were broken by a candidate, then though he
came in foremost, yet he lost the prize, because “he had not
striven lawfully.” that is, had not complied with the rules. To
borrow a comparison from the horse-races of this country, a
practice I condemn, though I use the figure to throw a
light upon the text if a horse runs the wrong side of the post,
or carries less weight than the rule of the race requires, he loses
the prize, though he comes in the first.

Having thus far opened up the natural meaning of the figure, we
will now proceed to the spiritual instruction conveyed by it. We
gather from it, then, that in spiritual things, there is a striving
lawfully, and a striving unlawfully; and that the prize is not
necessarily given to him who wins the race, if he has not
complied with certain rules laid down.

I think then we may say that there are three distinct ways of

  • There is an unlawful striving after unlawful objects.
  • An unlawful striving after lawful objects.
  • A lawful striving after lawful objects.
    Of these three kinds of striving two are wrong, and one is right.
    To strive unlawfully after unlawful objects is clearly wrong. To
    strive unlawfully after lawful objects deprives a man of the prize,
    and it is therefore wrong too. To strive lawfully after lawful
    objects is the only strife that the Lord crowns, and therefore the
    only strife that is right.
    I. But as what is right is often more clearly shown by holding up
    what is wrong, I shall attempt to describe first what it is to strive
    unlawfully after unlawful objects.
  • To To strive then after the pre-eminence, to be a Diotrephes in a church (3 John 9), is an unlawful striving after an unlawful object. There is to be no superiority, or pre-eminence among the followers of Christ. “All ye are brethren,” said Jesus to his disciples (Matt. 23:8); “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is he who is most like a child.” (Matt. 18:4.) “The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you; but whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” (Matt. 20:25-26.) Pre-eminence among brethren is an unlawful object, and must therefore be always unlawfully striven after.

All strife about vain and idle questions is unlawful strife. “Of
these things,” says Paul, “put them in remembrance, charging
them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no
profit, but to the subverting of the hearers.” (2 Tim. 2:14.) So he
speaks of those who “dote about questions and strifes of words,
whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse
disputings of men of corrupt minds.” (1 Tim. 6:4, 5.) When men
of this cavilling, contentious spirit arise in churches, woe to their

  1. To seek after a form of godliness, while secretly denying the
    power thereof, or to have a name to live when dead in sin, is an
    unlawful striving after an unlawful object. To strive to be a whited
    sepulchre, a painted hypocrite, a deceiver of the churches, is
    awful striving indeed.

4. To strive after fleshly holiness and creature perfection is an
unlawful strife. God never designed that the flesh should be holy.
In his discourse with Nicodemus, Jesus laid it down at the very
entrance in the divine life, that “that which is born of the flesh is
flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” thus
establishing an eternal and unalterable distinction between them.
“I know that in me,” says Paul, “that is, in my flesh, there
dwelleth no good thing.” “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and
the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the
other.” (Gal. 5:17.) All attempts therefore to improve or sanctify
the flesh, are bidding “the leopard change his spots, and washing
the Ethiopian white.”

  1. Again, all attempts to please God by anything that we
    ourselves can do, is an unlawful striving after an unlawful object.
    He cannot be so pleased. The corrupt fountain of our heart is
    continually pouring forth its polluted streams, and therefore all
    that comes out of it is polluted. Nothing short of perfect purity
    can please a perfectly pure God; and as no thought, word, or
    deed has passed from us by nature which is not defiled, it cannot
    please God. But how many think that their prayers or their tears
    or their good actions are acceptable to Him.
  1. All attempt to keep the law in its strict requirements is an
    unlawful striving. That is, it is not done as God would have it
    done. Jesus, and He alone of all the sons of men, kept the law;
    and he who would go about to establish his own righteousness, to
    the neglect or contempt of Christ’s righteousness, strives
  1. To strive to convert the world, and to turn goats into sheep, to
    seek to overthrow the eternal lines of distinction between the
    elect and the reprobate, and frustrate Jehovah’s sovereign
    decrees of judgment and mercy, is an unlawful strife after an
    unlawful object. To break down the barriers of the church and the
    world, and reduce to mere nullities the distinguishing doctrines of
    grace, is indeed to strive contrary to every rule in the word of
  1. To seek to find an easier and smoother path than the strait
    gate and the narrow way; to come into the fold, but not through
    the door of regeneration, as the Porter opens it; to be aiming at
    any other salvation than an experimental acquaintance with
    Christ and the power of his resurrection; to set up human talents,
    and creature religion as sufficient with, or without the Holy
    Ghost’s heavenly teachings; to strive after natural faith, hope,
    repentance, and love—all are so many branches of unlawful
    striving after unlawful objects. By unlawful is meant as I said
    before, not that which is contrary to the letter of the law, not that
    which is not in strict accordance with the moral law, or the ten
    commandments, or any branch of the Mosaic law. The words
    “lawful” and “unlawful” in the text have no reference whatever to
    the law properly so called. The words “lawfully” and “unlawfully”
    mean a complying, or a not complying with certain rules and
    conditions, laid down in God’s word. The laws and rules are not
    legal, old covenant rules, but gospel, law covenant conditions.
    Mistake me not. I do not here mean conditions to be performed
    by the creature, but certain rules, according to which the Holy
    Ghost works. “We are the clay, and He the Potter;” but the
    heavenly Potter works according to certain rules; and could it be
    possible for a vessel to be made contrary to these rules, it would
    not be a vessel of honour meet for the master’s use. I wish to
    explain myself clearly, for directly a man begins to talk about
    rules and conditions, there are plenty of persons so ignorant or so
    prejudiced, that they will be sure to make him an offender for a
    word. Remember this then, that by the word rules, laws, or
    conditions, I mean certain modes laid down in God’s word,
    according to which the Holy Spirit acts, when he works in us to
    will and to do of his good pleasure.

All the striving then of carnal unregenerate professors is an
unlawful striving after one or more unlawful objects.

Being destitute of heavenly teaching, lawful objects, that is, such
objects as are set before the eyes of the elect, are never striven
after by them. God has never enlightened them into the depths of
the fall, nor brought his holy law into their conscience in its depth
and spirituality. The fountains of the great deep in their heart
were never broken up, nor their secret corruptions laid bare. Sin
is a burden under which they never groaned, unbelief never
grieved and plagued them, the utter alienation of their heart from
God was never so discovered to them as to convince them of
their helplessness and hopelessness. Isaiah’s experience was
never theirs, when he cried out, “Woe is me, for I am undone; for
my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Their comeliness
was never turned into corruption like Daniel’s nor did they ever
abhor themselves in dust and ashes, like Job. Had this work been
wrought with divine power on their consciences, had the law been
inwardly applied, it would effectually have cut them off from all
unlawful striving.

Nor on the other hand did the Holy Spirit ever set before the eyes
of their mind the gospel of the grace of God. No carnal professor,
whether Calvinist or Arminian, ever had a spiritual knowledge of
law or gospel. Had he experimentally known the law, it would
have cut him off from unlawful striving. Had he known
experimentally the gospel, it would have cut him off from
unlawful objects. Thus they never had any inward taste of the
sweetness of the gospel. The outward scheme and theory they
might perfectly understand, and discuss it most exactly and
learnedly; but the inward power, the heavenly sweetness, the
divine application of it they had never the least acquaintance
with. Their heads may be at Mount Zion, but their hearts are at
Mount Sinai.

These unlawful strivers after unlawful objects are never crowned.
They may indeed seem to arrive first at the goal; and we well
know how an unburdened professor outstrips in zeal, activity, and
outward religion, the poor heavy laden, panting child of God. But
he is not crowned. He has carried no weight. He has run the
wrong side of the post. He has won the race and lost the prize.
We hear the great Judge at the last day, in reply to all his
declarations of his having prophesied in his name, cast out devils,
and done many mighty works, refuse the crown of eternal life
with this awful sentence; “Depart from me, I never knew you.”

I shall have occasion to show as I proceed with my subject, that
the Judge of quick and dead gives the lawful victor two crowns, a
crown here and a crown hereafter: the crown of his love and
approbation in the conscience on earth, and the crown of eternal
glory in heaven. The unlawful striver after unlawful objects has
neither of these crowns bestowed upon him, for the one is but the
foretaste and sure forerunner of the other. He has therefore no
secret crown of divine approbation set on his heart. God never
smiled into his soul, nor sanctioned with a divine manifestation in
his conscience his words and works. Professors of every degree
may have bepraised him; but the sealing of the Spirit, the
heavenly diadem of God’s own putting on, was never felt nor

God’s children themselves are often entangled in this freewill
strife, especially younger days, before the Lord has purged away
their filth by the Spirit of Judgment, and the Spirit of burning. We
find this much in the case of the disciples, whilst their Lord was
with them, before they were baptized with the Holy Ghost and
with fire. Though quickened into spiritual life, they were
continually striving after pre-eminence, each wishing to be
greatest. Thus the sons of Zebedee, fearful of their own
persuasive powers, must needs employ the voluable tongue of a
woman, that powerful weapon which so few men can withstand,
to induce their master to seat them on his left hand and his right
hand in his kingdom. So, on another occasion, the same two
disciples would have had fire come down from heaven to
consume the Samaritans, when they would not receive Christ
(Luke 9:54). Thus we in our youthful religious day were striving
after many unlawful objects. Holiness in the flesh, to please God
by our own exertions, to make ourselves religious, and
understand the doctrines of grace by reading all sorts of religious
books, to please professors, conciliate the world, avoid the cross,
shun the imputation of uncharitableness, soften down carnal
relations, and keep up old acquaintances,—who of us has never
thus striven after these unlawful objects? But we could never get
the Searcher of hearts, to put on our consciences the crown of his
approbation. We strove for the mastery but were never crowned
because we strove unlawfully.

II. But now I come to another kind of striving, which is unlawful
strife after lawful objects. The strife we have just been describing
was unlawful strife after unlawful objects. In that the things
aimed at and sought after were as contrary to the rules of the
word of God as the mode of striving to obtain them. In the strife
that we are about to consider now, the objects aimed at are
lawful and good, but they are sought after in an unlawful, wrong

I repeat again, that lawful and unlawful here do not mean, and
have nothing to do with the law properly so called, but signify a
compliance or a noncompliance on the part of the striver with
certain rules, which God has laid down in his word. What those
rules are we shall see before long.

There are then certain lawful objects, set forth in the word of
God, as the things to be aimed at by every one who runs the race
set before him by the Holy Spirit. These lawful objects are the
blessings which God blessed his church with in Christ Jesus. Who
sits at the end of the race to award the prize? What says Paul?
“Let us run with patience the race set before us, looking unto
Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” (Heb. 12:1, 2.) Now
to whom can the runners in a race look, but to him who sits at
the goal? They leave the spectators behind, and without stretched
necks look forward to the Judge of the prize. He is “the Author of
their faith,” giving them power to run, and “the Finisher,” by
crowning it with his approbation.

To “win Christ” then is the object set before the soul that runs the
heavenly race. “That I may win Christ,” says Paul. (Php. 3:8.) But
what is it to win Christ? Why to have him in our hearts as the
hope of glory, to embrace him in our arms of faith and affection,
and to be able to say feelingly, “My beloved is mine, and I am
his.” Again, pardon of sin, manifestations of mercy, visitations of
God the Father’s presence and love, the Spirit of adoption
enabling the soul to cry, “Abba, Father,” applications of Christ’s
atoning blood, and gracious discoveries of his glorious
righteousness, these are lawful objects for the living family to
strive after. Lawful, not because the law, strictly so called, speaks
of them, for the law never did testify of them either outwardly or
inwardly, but because the believer’s rule, the glorious gospel of
the grace of God, sets forth these blessings as the portion of the
people of God in the New Testament. Now none but a living soul
ever panted and longed after these spiritual blessings. Hypocrites
and reprobates may desire heaven to escape hell, as Balaam
desired to die the death of the righteous. But I never can believe
that any but a living soul desired an eternal heaven. Pardon of sin
a reprobate may desire, to escape the gnawing of the worm that
dieth not, and the fire that is not quenched; but I feel fully
persuaded, that no one dead in sin longed and panted with
intense breathings and burning desires after the manifestations of
the pure love of an all pure God.

No natural man, no, not the highest doctrinal professor, ever
poured out his soul after the blessed overshadowings of the Holy
Ghost. It was never his daily longing, nor midnight cry. Such a
blessing he has neither a heart to ask, nor a heart to receive.

But in his gracious dealings with his own children, the Lord
usually sets before them certain blessings, of which he makes
them feel their deep need, and after which he kindles in their soul
intense desires. I well remember how ardently not quite fourteen
years ago my soul longed after the knowledge of God. It came
upon me in the depths of affliction, unsought, and abode with me
for weeks at times night and day. what a spirit of grace and
supplication I then had after the internal knowledge of God in

But there is an unlawful striving in quickened souls after these
lawful objects.

Now God has laid down in his word of truth three solemn rules,
laws you may call them if you like, which constitute lawful

  1. The Holy Ghost must begin, carry on, and finish the inward
    work of grace.
  2. The soul must be brought under his divine teaching to be
    thoroughly stripped and emptied of all creature wisdom, strength,
    help, hope, and righteousness.
  3. The glory of a Triune God must be the end and motive of all.
    Any departure from these three rules of striving makes a man
    strive unlawfully.

Now in early days with us we are often striving after lawful
objects, but our manner of striving after them is not in
compliance with these three rules, and therefore we strive
unlawfully. We are not stripped and laid low in a day. It is often
the work of time. I can speak well from experience here. I was
not stripped, nor brought down for several years after, as I trust,
the Lord quickened my soul, though from the first I was led to
strive more or less after lawful objects, and could not do without
an internal religion. But thorough soul poverty had not laid hold
of me, shame and confusion of face had not covered me. I had
not then felt what a vile monster of iniquity I was, nor loathed
and abhorred myself in dust and ashes. Man’s utter helplessness
was to me more a doctrine than a truth; I was not acquainted
with the mighty overwhelming power of sin, nor had the
ploughshare of temptation turned up the deep corruptions of my
heart. I therefore strove unlawfully. When I fell as I fell
continually, I had some secret reserve in self, some prayers, or
repentance, or hopes, or resolutions to help me out of the ditch.

Have we not all been more or loss here? We had a legal spirit
influencing us, and there was a kind of dead hope that if we lived
holy lives, believed the promises, looked, as we thought looking
then was, to Christ, and kept perseveringly on, we should get the
object of our desires. And though we never got a step forward in
the matter, there was a dim struggling after progressive
sanctification, and seeking the blessings of the gospel by the
works of the law. Now what was the result of all this unlawful
striving? Did God ever crown it with his gracious smiles and
heavenly approbation? We know that he never did. When is the
crown put on? “In the day of the espousals, and in the day of the
gladness of the heart.” (Song. 3:11.) And there can be no
espousals, no manifested betrothing of the soul unto Christ in
loving kindness, in mercies, in faithfulness, until we are dead to
the law, our first husband. Then the crown is put upon the heart.

God is a jealous God, and will not give his glory to another. Our
own strivings shall never procure us the looks of his love. Now
this denial of the crown to all their ardent desires and earnest
strivings sadly puzzles and bewilders the seeking soul. Nay he is
almost ready to quarrel with God, and accuse him of
unfaithfulness, because he will not smile, and speak peace and
pardon. Jeremiah was here, when with intemperate complaint, he
cried aloud, “Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable,
which refuseth to be healed? Wilt thou be altogether unto me as
a liar, and as waters that fail?” (Jer. 15:18.) But we cannot learn
religion, as we learn arithmetic; we cannot take the slate, and
copy out the rule, and work the sum. God’s teachings are of a
very different nature, intended to baffle and confound all the
pride and wisdom of the creature. Nor can we hasten God’s work.

His teachings are not hasty teachings for the most part, but line
upon line, line upon line, here a little and there a little. I cannot
stand in your experience; you cannot stand in mine. Neither of us
know one jot more nor one jot less than the Holy Ghost has
written upon our heart. We do not learn religion in a day. The
way from Egypt to Canaan was but a few days journey, but the
Lord choose to lead his people about in the wilderness, amid fiery
flying serpents, drought, and famine, for forty years. And why,
but “to humble them, and prove them, and know what was in
their heart?” This was one part of the lesson; and the other was
that “he might make them know that man doth not live by bread
only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the
Lord.” (Deut. 8:2, 3.) And thus we have to learn by painful
experience the inutility of all creature strivings, and to be brought
down into that state where all exertions fail.

May the Good and Gracious Lord above give everyone of HIS children the Gift of the Holy Spirit, to bring a living revelation to these amazing truths and that it will change their understanding and therefore bring His Victory into all of our LIVES!!!

The Lord bless you one and all.

In His Love……


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s