This question has been a theme in conversations and Bible studies for me the last couple weeks. It's not something I think I'm mastering. It's just a different way of looking at things, that I thought I would share with all of you.
One might think these two things are the same, but there's a slight but important, very significant difference in the nuance of the question. The difference is in focus and in motivation.
The goal in our Christian lives is supposed to be Jesus. God is our focal point, because we are supposed to be in relationship with Him. It seems obvious, but He is the One who makes the Christian life anything. He is our exceeding great reward. But sometimes, we, as Christians, can become focused and consumed with fighting sin. Our eyes are on the battle, not the goal. We see a problem in our lives, and understand that we should not be sinning as Christians, so we become determined to beat the sin, and to overcome the besetting sins that we are faced with. We set up tons of boundaries and strategies, and completely focus on fighting the battle. It is important to understand the point of the fight though and not lose sight of that. Obviously, we have to fight sin...but why? What is our motivation? Is holiness the goal? Is humility the goal? Actually, the reason we work towards all these things is because sin gets in the way of our relationship with Jesus. We love Him; we are focused on Him, and therefore, we want to love the things He loves and hate the things He hates. Even if we were able to completely eradicate sin in our lives, it would not solve the root issue of our cold heart, which is in need of a relationship with God. We eradicate sin to get it out of the way of our relationship with God.
David's Men Fighting to the Well at Bethlehem
I love the stories of David's mighty men, and one of my favorites is when David longs for a drink from the water in the well of Bethlehem. Three of his great men overhear, and they fight through the enemy lines just to get him a cup of water. However, they were focused on a goal. Can you imagine if they got distracted from their goal and were focused on the battle? If in fighting the battle and trying to get through, they suddenly became completely focused on killing the enemy, they never would have accomplished the goal for their master. They killed enough people, fought through just enough to get the water and get back to their king because they loved him. They weren't thinking about the fight as much as the prize, but the fight was necessary to get the prize.
The following verses really encapsulate this concept for me:
Philippians 3:9-14 And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: (10) That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; (11) If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. (12) Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. (13) Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, (14) I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
I love this because faith is not a one-time thing like so many people seem to believe. Faith is a lifestyle. It is actively and continually choosing to trust and hope in God and throw ourselves at His mercy. We MUST fight sin BECAUSE we believe what He says is true and we obey Him.
I see praying and reading my Bible as an end sometimes. I know I NEED to do it, but it can be difficult. The other day when I finally prayed, and hadn't for two consecutive days, I asked myself why. I was telling God that I want Him to work in the ways I've been learning and the things I have been teaching about walking in the Spirit and not in the flesh, but I realized I'm scared. I'm scared that it won't work. I'm scared that He won't come through in the way that I understand the Scriptures to be communicating. I don't really trust Him. When I realized this, I sort of broke down, and said, "God, I know I need to trust you, but I don't know how." And it seemed like He said, "Obey me." Do the things that you know I've commanded, and demonstrate in that way that you believe that His promises are true, and that He will do the things He's said. It freed me up a little bit. I could do the basic things I knew to do like pray and read my Bible to become closer to Him, and He could handle the rest. The focus is Him.
This is one thing the Pharisees didn't understand. A mentor gave me an analogy that I know I have mentioned before, but it made so much sense to me, so I am going to bring it up again. The law was intended as a safety net for the Jews. Their focus was supposed to be on God, and the laws were intended as boundaries to show them when they were falling too far back or straying too far from His character. Instead of looking to Yahweh and letting the law keep them from sin, they elevated the safety net, which was the law, and began looking to that. The law became the standard instead of their God being the standard. The law was a means to keep them in right relationship with God, not an end in itself.
Now, however, we do the same thing. As Piper mentioned, and the apostle Paul asked the Galatians, "Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?" Romans 6 shows that we cannot continue in sin, but Romans 7 shows that we cannot overcome it solely by relying on our flesh or willpower, because we have a sin nature. Romans 8 describes walking in the Spirit. We are walking in His footsteps, following after Him. What the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son did, by doing all the work for us, and inviting us into His family. Romans 8 describes a deep, intimate, personal relationship as adopted sons, rather than slaves in bondage, communicating with the Spirit of the One who groans on our behalf, and helps us in our weaknesses.
Superstitious Bible Memory
Sometimes people look to strategies for conquering sin, and approach the Christian life almost superstitiously. If I do certain things I will be fine. Even things like memorizing the Bible...they think there is some intrinsic power in memorizing the words that will keep them from sin. But when Psalm 119:11 speaks of hiding His word in our hearts so that we might not sin against Him, it isn't saying that the letters making up the words themselves have some kind of hidden power...rather, the concepts contained in the pages of Scripture, when transferred to our heart, and when it becomes part of our motivation, it shows us how to live and what God wants and how to keep from sinning. Our focus needs to be on God though. His character. His Word. His Name. When we focus on Him, we understand what He loves and what He hates, and are able to fall in love with Him, and do the things He wants, which includes the battle against sin.
To sum up what I am trying to say, if we love Jesus, we are going to shun sin, but the point isn't to shun sin, the point is to get to Jesus. That has to be understood.