Romans 8:12&13 “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation – but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
We know that there are many obligations we face as Christians, and in fact there is one that we are fulfilling at this moment, and that is to keep the Lord’s Day holy not neglecting assembling with other Christians who gather in the name of the Lord and meet with him. We are under obligation to sit under the most powerful ministry we can. We are under obligation to do the will of God. We are not under any obligation to listen to the voice of remaining sin although it speaks tenderly and lovingly, and sometimes in an agony of yearning to be obeyed. As Philip Larkin wrote, “Our flesh surrounds us with its own decisions.” If in life we proceed to do what the sinful nature tells us to do then we shall simply die. There is no alternative to that. If we join all the rest, going with the flow, or if we listen to remaining sin when it says, “It can’t be wrong for it seems so right,” and we do what it is telling us to do then our end will be eternal death. I am talking of hell. So this is not a matter of theological discussion before us today. This is a matter of life and death, and we are under an obligation to choose life. So what is the alternative to living according to our sinful natures? Paul tells us in this 13th verse of our text, “by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” That is the only way to live, and it is the only way to life, and the only way to avoid the death of hell. So today we are hearing the Christian battle cry to wage war on our sinful natures and never, never to stop. Let us first remind ourselves of the basic structures of the Christian life:
- THE SINFUL NATURE REMAINS IN EVERY CHRISTIAN WITHOUT EXCEPTION UNTIL WE ENTER HEAVEN.
The NIV translation of the Greek word sarx in our text is the phrase “the sinful nature” (v.12). It is a good translation. It has generally been translated the “flesh” or the “earthly nature” but when you see other terms such as “another law in my members” or “the body” or “sin that dwells in me” then those too refer to remaining sin. Paul has emphasized twice in the previous verse eleven that the Holy Spirit dwells in you, but lest you should think that from now on you are under unchallenged control of the Spirit Paul immediately reminds us again that also within each of us is the flesh. In other words, God did not extract every atom of sin when we were born of the Holy Spirit. God has determined that sin will remain within us, to be resisted and fought against and put to death for the rest of our lives.
I sat in a wedding reception a week ago with Andy Christofides the pastor of the St Mellons’ Reformed Baptist Church in Cardiff, and he told me of the recent conversion of his 80 year old father who passed away a few weeks ago. His parents had come to live with them and to attend the services hearing him preach week by week. What was his father, who came from a Greek Orthodox background, making of New Testament Christianity? He had cancer and was a dying man and Andy prayed that he might have an opportunity to speak to him about God. So last month he sat with him and said to him, “Dad, what is your biggest problem?” “Me,” his father promptly replied. Not that he was a dying man; not death; “Me!” It was a most encouraging answer. Andy spoke to him about dying, but he told him he had no fears about that for Christ had died for his sins. He was saying that his biggest problem was his sinful nature; it was he as to his flesh; it was remaining sin. And that is the biggest problem facing every one of us believers. People speak about the devil making them do this and that, but that is not the first problem for the Christian. It is sin that dwells in us. God gives each of us an internal battle. Of course we fight against principalities and powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world, and we fight against the world system, the lusts of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, but transcending those battles is our ongoing fight with remaining sin, and no second blessing, no spiritual high, no Holy Spirit baptism is going to end that strife. And any theological system, any promise by a conference speaker that there is secret way of deliverance from this fight, any chanting of simply “letting go and letting God” give you the victory, any encouraging you to stop fighting and being passive and claiming triumph by faith through Christ then you know that such a message comes from the pit and not from the throne. Because Scripture makes it clear that while we are in the body not a single Christian is going to be exempt from this fight with remaining sin. My worse counsel to you would be to hint that there is an experience that can deliver you from the fight. But I can give you the biblical teaching concerning how to deal with the flesh.
- THE BATTLE WITH REMAINING SIN IS OFTEN REFERRED TO IN THE SCRIPTURES.
There is I understand just one other place where the exhortation is found clothed in these exact words, and it is in Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the third chapter: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Cols. 3:5), but because there is just one other place using this phrase we are not to think that this theme is rather esoteric and found only in a few by-paths in Scripture.
You find it in the Old Testament, for example when David is praying and he says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart O God, you will not despise” (Psa. 51:17). David knows that remaining sin is proud. It tells you to ignore God and to do things your way. Regenerate and repentant believers pray for a broken spirit and a contrite heat. They ask for strength to kill proud remaining sin. Again he prays for this in Psalm 141; “Set a guard over my mouth O God; keep watch over the door of my lips. Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil.” That is a prayer that David will be helped to fight against the flesh.
Then there is our Lord Jesus and it would be odd if he ignored teaching putting to death remaining sin.He disdains the Pharisees’ obsession with outward ritual, with washing their hands and arms ceremonially before every meal. Christ said, “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these
make a man`unclean’. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man`unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him`unclean‘” (Matt. 15:17-20). Our problem is an internal problem. It consists of dealing with the flesh. Because if we don’t deal with it then it will deal with us, increasingly powerfully. It will make us unclean if we won’t have the mastery over it.
Jesus tells us most solemnly about mortifying remaining sin in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said,`Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt. 5:27-30). The picture is of a gangrenous limb, and if it is not amputated then the infection will spread and destroy the rest of the body. It must be cut off if you want life. The Lord Jesus is urging us to be merciless with the lusts of the flesh for the sake of eternal life, for the sake of our usefulness in the church, for the sake of the glory of God. The alternative is that we end up in hell.
Then there is the apostle Paul, and in one place he uses his observation of the behaviour of athletes. In these last week or two we have seen the utter humiliation and destruction of a fine Welsh athlete whose unmortified longing for alcohol seems to have ended his rugby career. After his club recently experienced an overwhelming defeat the team went out drinking for the night, and on an early morning plane back to South Wales he continued to drink and disturb the flight. He has been fired by his team. The man is an athlete; he knows he has to discipline his body to perform at a high level, but he has failed to discipline his spirit. This is what Paul says; “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (I Cors. 9:24-27). That is mortification, treating remaining sin like a rottweiler dog and making sure it does nothing – it doesn’t utter a growl – without express permission from you. You are in control of your body. Paul says, “I make it my slave.” Remaining sin is not a free spirit. It will plead with you, “Release me . . . let me go . . . You want me to enjoy my life don’t you?” And if you listen to its voice then you will destroy yourself and many others. How can you preach to others the liberty of the children of God if you are evidently a slave to sin?
Then there is the writer to the Hebrews, and he speaks of this same theme of putting to death remaining sin. This is how he expresses it in very familiar words in the opening words of Hebrews chapter 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Now the picture here is of a marathon run. You know that in the London Marathon 20,000 people will be running, serious runners and then thousands of men and women running to raise money for charity and they will wear all sorts of fancy dress. One man is dressed in a diver’s suit complete with a diver’s heavy boots. He is going to take two weeks to complete the course, while the winner is going to take a few minutes over two hours. Life is too short for us to handicap ourselves as Christians by neglecting remaining sin and failing to lay aside everything that hinders us from completing the course. There is a fight to be fought and a race to be won and dangers to meet by the way. So the theme of remaining sin and putting it to death is familiar biblical teaching. In other words, God the Holy Ghost has caused this to be written clearly for our soul’s good.
- KILLING SIN IS ALWAYS PARTNERED WITH TRUSTING MORE DEEPLY IN THE LORD JESUS CHRIST.
Mortification is not THE secret to the Christian life. That is a danger I suppose, that as this truth is a neglected that we might absolutise it and say that this is the silver bullet of successful discipleship. We are to explain it, but in balance with all other Christians truths in this theme of holy God-honouring living. There are parallel truths, one is putting to death sin, and the other is looking unto Jesus Christ. They are as inseparable as the two sides of a ten pound note. A picture of the Queen is on one side and a picture of Charles Darwin is on the other side. You cannot have a ten pound note with a picture of just one of them, and I know which one we would choose. So it is in the teaching of the Bible there are two ways to please God and grow in honouring him and one is mortifying the flesh, and the other is trusting in Jesus with all your heart.
Let’s see this combination in a passage we have already considered, the opening verses of Hebrews 12, verses one through three; “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” [that is mortification] “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” [that is fixing our eyes on the Lord Jesus]. Can you see the perfect balance of those two exhortations beginning “Let us . . .”; throwing off everything that hinders us is the Siamese twin of fixing our eyes on Jesus? You can see how the two are essential. If the Christian life were only to be lived by cutting off the right hand that offends, and plucking out the eye, and beating my body and making it a slave, and killing remaining lusts then what the apostle write in this verse to the Hebrews would be the experience of all of us, we would “grow weary and lose heart” (Hebs. 12:3). Each day would be another day of fighting against sin. We would come to feel like Matthew Arnold’s character in Sohrab and Rustum when he says,
“But now in blood and battles was my youth
And full of blood and battles is my age,
And I shall never end this life of blood.”
But the Christian life is not like that. Certain
ly you shall never end the life of struggling against sin and resisting even “to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebs.12:4). But there is another delightful and demanding duty that we are to perform, and that is to appropriate our great Saviour who of God is made to us our prophet and priest and king. Every morning and each day and hour and every passing moment we look to him, “I can only get by today by your help.” The dynamics of the relationship of mortification with trusting in Christ have been made plain to us by Robert Murray M’Cheyne, for every look at your sins you take ten looks at the Lord Jesus. We turn our eyes upon Jesus and look full in his wonderful face, as often as we can. We can never look at him enough.
“Ask the Saviour to help you, comfort, strengthen and keep you,
He is willing to aid you; he will carry you through.”
There are two very valuable books and you need them both. They are both written by Puritan pastor-preachers. The first published in 1658 is by Isaac Ambrose and is entitled, Looking Unto Jesus, and the second published in 1656 is by John Owen entitled The Mortification of Sin. You need the truths that both glory in, one seeing Jesus in every part of the Bible, and the other full of exhortation about putting to death the sin that so easily besets us.
- PUTTING TO DEATH REMAINING SIN IS A PROCESS.
The exhortations are always in the continuous tense. In our text Paul is saying that by the Spirit you continue putting to death the misdeeds of the body till the end of your days, and to the Colossians he is saying, “Go on putting to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” Yet if I may coin a phrase the Bible does teach ‘definitive mortification.’ We are told very plain that our old man has been crucified with Christ, and that phrase ‘old man’ in Scripture is not referring to remaining sin. The phrase is referring to what you were before you became a Christian, to your unregenerate, unbelieving self, to the man you were before you were born again, man without the Spirit of God, persons before the Lord came into their lives. That is the old man and he is no more. You look for him and you cannot find him; you can only find this disciple of Jesus Christ. What you were has ceased to exist; he is dead. You are not old man and new man. You are certainly flesh and spirit, but you are only the new man, the new creation in Christ Jesus, who has been given the Holy Spirit and battles with remaining sin.
The great chapter in the Bible that deals with your old man being put to death once and for all is Romans chapter six. None of it is in the present tense; rather it describes our present status because of our union with Christ 2000 years ago on the cross of Golgotha. “We died to sin . . .” (v.2), “we were therefore buried with him through baptism into death” (v.4). “We have been united with him like this in his death” (v.5). “Our old self was crucified with him” (v.6). “We died with Christ” (v.8). Then he urges us to bring that into our present thinking and depend on its facticity: “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v.11).
The person that you were, skeptical about God and becoming a real Christian, is no more. The very first thing that is true of the Christian believer, from an experimental point of view, is that he is a person who is, according to this teaching, dead. Paul is not saying to us to be dead; he is not saying to us, to die; he is not, at this point, enforcing any obligation; he is not yet talking about the mortification of sin, by which we put sin to death. It is not a demand at all; it is a statement, a proposition which Paul affirms to be true of every Christian believer—you are dead. Paul is not saying, either, “You are dying.” That again is a biblical truth—believers are dying to sin, they are mortifying the sin that is in their members. And although that is truth, it is not the truth which is taught here, because what is before us here is not a process of dying, it is the fact of death. You are dead! It is not that they are dying. It is that they have passed away, and Paul is not even simply saying to us that we are in a state of death, but he is saying to us that in the life of every Christian there has occurred already the event of dying. What Paul is in fact saying to us is this, “You died!” It is fundamental to Paul’s practical application of his Christian teaching. The Christian believer is a person who has died. At a particular point in his past life, there is this completed event, there is this past experience; there has been this definitive, once-for-all, irreversible event, the believer has died.
What does Paul mean? He is telling us in Romans 6 that the believer is a person who has died to sin. He is not a person who has died to the influence of sin. He is not a person who is without sin, but he is a person who has died to the dominion of sin. Sin still rages within the Christian believer, but sin does not reign in the Christian believer, and Paul’s exhortation is not simply, “Let not sin reign,” it goes beyond that to the categorical assertion, “sin shall not reign.” It is absolutely impossible for unbelieving God-hating sin to reign in the Christian believer again. It is not to sin that we are servants or slaves. It is not from sin that we shall receive our wages. And the dominion of sin does not mean sin exercising influence – of course it exercises influence and that is why we must oppose it and put it to death – it means sin no longer exercises tyranny over us as he previously did in our lives when we were without God and without hope in the world.
There is a great distinction suggested to us in the Shorter Catechism, a distinction between perfect obedience and real obedience. The unbeliever, as the slave of sin, is not capable of any obedience whatsoever. “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). The believer, in a state of grace, is not yet capable of a perfect obedience to the will of God, but the believer is capable of a real obedience. When Paul says that we have died to sin, when he says that we have shaken off, by the grace of God, the tyranny of sin, he is perfectly aware that we’re not capable of a perfect obedience, but he is saying to us, “Will you please try and appreciate the tremendous change that has taken place in your lives and characters, so that you who were previously totally averse to all that was godly, averse to all that was spiritual, you are now capable of the real obedience of Christian faith and Christian repentance.”
Or again, it means this, as Paul says to us later on in Colossians 3, we “have put off the old man.” We are not simply dying, we have died, and we have died in this sense, that the old man is like a rotten stinking garment full of holes, and we have taken off that garment of the old man for ever. Now Paul doesn’t mean that we have discarded indwelli
ng sin. No, as I am emphasizing, the flesh, remaining sin, is still in every single Christian. It is not until we see Christ that we shall be like him, but the apostle knows this, that the unregenerate man that he was has ceased to be. And we can go on and we can confess to one another our great falls and inconsistencies and hypocrisies and doubts, and we can expound and expatiate upon all the sin of which we are conscious in ourselves. Yet whatever the believer is and whatever power sin may exercise still in his life, he is not the man that he was. He has no right to deem himself the man that he was, and he has no right to live like the man that he was. The unregenerate old man, that person has ceased to be; the carnal mind that was enmity against God, that has ceased to be. The human being who was totally incapable of receiving the things of the Spirit of God; that has ceased to be. The believer is not an unregenerate and regenerate man. He is not a man with a new heart and an old heart. He is, and he is only, a regenerate man. He has, and he has only, a new heart. He has only the one nature, the one human nature, transformed by the grace of Almighty God. The man dead in sins, the carnal man, the unregenerate man – that man has definitively been mortified. That is our past. Our regeneration and our union with Jesus Christ represent a break, and it is a decisive break, with what we used to be. But our calling henceforth is to progressively put to death the sin that remains in us.
- EACH CHRISTIAN MAKES IT HIS DUTY TO PUT TO DEATH THE MISDEEDS OF THE BODY.
The unbelieving person we once were no longer exists. The new people we have become are determined to starve to death remaining sin, to give it no tit bits whatsoever. We will not throw it a lifeline. Rather we will strangle the life out of it. We are new creatures, and we are aware that these new people have members upon the earth. The word of God would define the flesh as sexual sin, greed, cowardice, anger, impatience, drunkenness, boisterousness, pride and covetousness. Such sins are latent in every regenerate heart – ask the apostle Peter in the courtyard of the High Priest or years later in the congregation of the church in Antioch where he stopped eating alongside Gentile Christians. He says, “Oh yes all those sins are in me.” We might protest, “Well, I’m not so sure that I could sink so low. Am I a dog, that Paul would give me these warnings?” But Paul built his life and his strategy on one peculiar fact – his own infirmities. And it is well for us to build our lives upon the same platform, our spiritual weakness and our remaining temptability. What are we to do with remaining sin, those carnal members of the new man? Paul says, “Put it to death! Mortify! Kill it!” Don’t explain, and don’t condone; don’t nourish, cherish, or tolerate. He says, “Exterminate! Destroy!” Why should I? For this reason, he says, “You died! Therefore, put to death every remnant of God hating life within you!”
Be what you are. Live according to what you are. You have no right to live like an unregenerate man. You have no right to condone one little detail that looks like a symptom of indwelling sin. No mercy, no quarter, no explanation, and no condoning. How shall you the new man, who has died to sin, live any longer therein? Paul is holding before us the absolute absurdity of a sinning Christian. It is not the absolute absurdity of an apostate Christian, not even the absolute absurdity of a backsliding Christian, but the absurdity of a sinning Christian. How shall you? How? How logically, how in any way, can you that died to sin live any longer therein? Paul is saying, it is anomalous, it is ridiculous and illogical. He is not saying it does not happen. “I find another law in my members.” But he is seeking to get Christians to a situation where they will not regard sin as natural, explicable, and tolerable. But how shall you, in union with Christ, how shall you do this? “If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (v.13). Only then!
- EACH CHRISTIAN CAN PUT TO DEATH THE MISDEEDS OF THE BODY ONLY BY THE SPIRIT.
In other words you don’t do it like the early church father Jerome attempted to do it, by becoming a hermit and living in the wilderness with the wild animals and scorpions. You don’t do it by living on top of a pole in all weathers for 25 years. You don’t do it as Luther first tried to do it by fasting and whipping his own body and wearing the most uncomfortable hair shirt that agitated his flesh. You don’t do it by attacking your body with a knife. You do it by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. You go to church because the church is the fellowship of the Spirit. You go to church because the word of God is the sword of the Spirit. You go to church because the Spirit is communicated by the regular means of grace, Christian fellowship, praise sung to God, the Lord’s Supper, prayer and baptism. By those means God’s grace comes to us, the strength to overcome temptation and keep fighting against remaining sin and not giving up. The Holy Spirit’s delight is to draw our attention to Jesus Christ to receive of his fulness and knit our heart with his heart. In other words you begin this great warfare on your own sin by knowing what resources God has made over to you, and they are vast. They are all the fulness of the help of God to change you and give you likeness to Jesus Christ. You do it by the disciplines of private and personal godliness, but crying mightily to God to help you.
The foundation of all mortification is the presence and activity of the work of the Holy Spirit within you. He has come to us and implanted within us a very different mindset and attitude from abiding sin. It is a spirit of life and fruit and he creates love, joy and peace and all the other graces in us. Without the Holy Spirit we are totally incapable of putting to death remaining sin and so we cry for his help all through our lives.
- BUT WE DO IT . . .
It could not be clearer. It is a command to every Christian; “Put to death the misdeeds of the body; you will live.” It is 100% God the Holy Spirit’s work and it is 100% the duty of every single Christian. There is a fascinating new book called Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney. I don’t think they are Christians but they are very earnest about the power of the will. They say, if we cannot bring our behaviour into line with our ‘real’ carefully considered preferences we don’t just lack will power we are slaves. We may have all sort of freedoms about what colour socks we are going to wear or what jam we want to put on our bread and butter or which of 100 TV channels we intend to watch but if we lack the willpower to restrain our destructive desire we are hardly free at all.
They studied students and they discovered that self-control is a better predictor of students’ grades than IQ tests. These two authors are encouraging moral mus
cle! They want to see men and women managing their thoughts and emotions and impulses. They say that if you are not able to say ‘No’ to certain simple challenges then you are less able to exercise self-control in other areas, but if you do succeed in trivial acts of self-control, for example, to avoid slouching – then that can strengthen the capacity of self-discipline in the long term. The moral muscle can be exercised and grow stronger. When Henry Stanley was exploring Africa he insisted on shaving every day. When Hudson Taylor went to the bathroom in the night he combed his hair. Flabbiness and carelessness in minor matters are linked to weakness in bigger matters.
Now multiply by eternity, and add the help we are promised from the Holy Spirit and the possibility of become stronger wiser, kinder and more loving people through obeying this command of Scripture. This is enormously encouraging.
15th April 2012 GEOFF THOMAS