I love the old spiritual “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” I hear in it the echo of Luke 9:62. Listen, for example, to the third stanza: “The world behind me, the cross before me. No turning back, no turning back.”
In this simple song we see a profound biblical truth: the Christian life is a constant movement forward to our heavenly home. We are not called to retreat in the face of the many spiritual battles that will crusade against us. We are called to advance in godliness—come what may.
I’ve been indulging lately in a wonderful biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Jean Edward Smith. One theme that persists in Grant’s career as a general was his constant movement forward. Grant, in other words, was always on the offensive. His battle strategy was not to “dig in” and fight a defensive war. He was on the march, pressing the Confederacy into submission. Grant’s persistence—his stubborn determination to move forward and not look back—was summed up succinctly by Abraham Lincoln when he said in response to calls for Grant’s removal in early 1862: “I cannot spare this man; he fights.”
As the sun was setting on the Apostle Paul’s ministry he wrote in 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Unlike Grant, Paul’s fight was not against flesh and blood, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). But like Grant, Paul left no room for retreat. His life was marked by a steady, determined, rugged movement forward. Consider this astounding example from Acts 14:
But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed (19-23).
Paul was “struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:9). After being stoned and left for dead, he got up and moved forward. “But one thing I do,” Paul said, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
I’m reminded of one of the most moving passages in Smith’s biography of Grant describing an episode after the first day of fighting at Shiloh leaving Grant’s army on the brink of defeat:
Later, sometime after midnight, raining harder now, Sherman went looking for Grant. He had worked five hours to prepare his division to attack, but it seemed hopeless. His men had been thoroughly beaten and Sherman—who would have been the last to say so—thought it important “to put the river between us and the enemy.” This is why he sought Grant, to see when and how the retreat could be arranged. The rain was coming down in buckets, punctuated by heavy thunder and lightning in the background. In this surreal setting Sherman found Grant standing alone under a large oak tree, dripping wet, hat slouched down over his face, coat collar up around his ears, a dimly glowing lantern in his hand, cigar clenched between his teeth. Sherman looked at him for a moment from a distance. Then, “moved” as he put it later, “by some wise and sudden instinct not to mention retreat,” Sherman approached and said, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”
“Yes,” answered Grant, puffing hard on his cigar. “Yes. Lick’em tomorrow though.”
Which of us has not experienced a crushing defeat in the Christian life? Against the constant bombardment of the world, the flesh, and the devil we battle everyday to believe the promises of God held out for us in the Gospel. And, if we’re honest, some days we don’t feel like we’re winning at all. In fact, some days defeat feels certain.
But arrayed in the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20) we get up by grace ready to “lick’em tomorrow.” We remind ourselves that God in Christ “always leads us in triumphal procession” (2 Corinthians 2:14) “so that [we] may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3).
[This blog post was originally published in my weekly devotional column at Crosswalk.com. To sign up for the devotional go here.]
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