How to Kill Sin, Part 1
From Gospel Translations
By John Piper
About Sanctification & Growth
Part of the series Romans: The Greatest Letter Ever Written
If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. 12 So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – 13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" 16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.
Three weeks ago I blew the trumpet for Planting a Passion – to waken a dream in you of being a part of spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples by starting a new, strong, God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, missions-mobilizing, soul-winning, justice-pursuing church somewhere else in the Twin Cities. I pray that this vision of Planting a Passion is simmering in all of you.
The Call for Justice-Pursuing, Coronary Christians
Then in the last two weeks we fleshed out some of what it means to be a justice-pursuing church. We focused two weeks ago on racial justice, and we focused last week on justice for the unborn. And in general my plea was that God would create justice-pursuing, coronary Christians at Bethlehem – not adrenal Christians. Christians who keep on pumping the blood of life hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade into a Cause bigger than yourself or your family or your church. Marathon Christians, not sprinters. William Wilberforce-like Christians who gave all his life to defeat the slave trade in Britain two hundred years ago.
One of his adversaries said, "It is necessary to watch him as he is blessed with a very sufficient quantity of that Enthusiastic spirit, which so far from yielding that it grows more vigorous from blows." In other words: knock him down and he gets up stronger. There are not many people like that in America today. Most people who get knocked down for righteousness' sake feel sorry for themselves, then they ask where God was, and then they take someone to court. A coronary Christian learns from the defeat, gets up, sets a new goal, and presses on in the cause.
Coronary Christians Fight Warfare Against Their Sin
Now this morning we have returned to Romans 8 to pick up where we left off on December 16. But I am still trumpeting Planting a Passion, and I am still working to build "justice-pursuing" churches, and I am still pleading for God to create coronary Christians, because that is what verses 12-13 help me do. If you are going to be the kind of person who gets up when you get knocked down and instead of planning revenge, plans fresh strategies of love; and instead of questioning God, submits to his wise and good sovereignty; and instead of whining, rejoices in tribulation and is refined like steel, then you will have to learn to kill the sins of self-pity and pride and grudge-holding and loving the praise of man. In other words, coronary Christians who joyfully press on in some great Cause of love and justice don't come out of nowhere. They come out of the fiery furnace of warfare with sin – fought mainly in their own souls.
Let's look at verses 12-13, "So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh [literally: we are debtors not to the flesh], to live according to the flesh—(13) for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live." If you are going to be a coronary, justice-pursuing, Passion-planting Christian – or, for that matter, any kind of Christian who inherits life and not death – Paul says you must not be the debt-paying slave of the flesh – that old rebellious, insubordinate, self-sufficient nature we all have (Romans 8:7). "Brethren, we are debtors not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh" – we owe the flesh nothing but enmity and war. Don't dally with your destroyer. Don't be a debtor to your destroyer. Get out debt to the flesh, don't pay for your own destruction.
How? we ask. That's what verse 13 describes. If you are going to be a coronary, justice-pursuing, Passion-planting, free-from-debt-to-fatal-flesh Christian, you must be skilled at killing your own sins. This is dangerous language here, so be careful. Don't think about other people's sins. Don't think about how people wrong you. Think about your own sins. That's what Paul is talking about. Verse 13b: "But if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of [your!] body, you will live."
John Owen on Mortification of Sin
The great teacher of the church on this doctrine is John Owen. Nobody has probed it more deeply, probably. He wrote a little 86-page book called Mortification of Sin in Believers. "Mortify" means "kill" in 17th century English. Today it just means "embarrass" or "shame." But Owen was talking about this verse – in fact, his whole book is an exposition of this verse, Romans 8:13. He put it like this: "Be killing sin or it will be killing you."
My mother wrote in my Bible when I was 15 years old – I still have the Bible – "This book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this book." Now Owen says, based on Romans 8:13, "Be killing sin or [sin] will be killing you." We will see that these two mottos are very closely connected, because Romans 8:13 says that we are to put be putting sin to death by the Spirit – "If by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live" – and what is the instrument of death wielded by the Spirit? The answer is given in Ephesians 6:17 – "the sword of the Spirit, the word of God." This book will keep you from sin – this book will kill sin. We'll come back to this in two weeks.
But for now I just want you to see how everything in these recent weeks is connected. We thought we were taking a detour from Romans since December 16, but it turns out that we were really simply giving application of what happens when Christians put to death the deeds of the body. They become coronary, marathon, God-centered, Christ-exalting, justice-pursuing, passion-planting Christians.
So now, what would be helpful to know in order to experience what Romans 8:13 is calling for? Well, I see four questions that would be helpful to answer so that we can be about this crucial duty of killing sin.
- What are "the deeds of the body" when Paul says, "If by the Spirit you kill the deeds of the body, you will live"? Surely not all the deeds of the body are to be killed. The body is supposed to be an instrument of righteousness. So what are the deeds of the body that are to be killed?
- What does killing them mean? Do they have life that we should take away? What will killing them involve?
- What does "by the Spirit" mean? The Spirit is himself God. He is not a lifeless instrument in our hands to wield as we wish. The very thought of having the Spirit in my hand gives me the shivers of disrespect. I am in his hand, aren't I? Not he in mine. He is the power, not me. How am I to understand this killing of sin "by the Spirit"?
- Does this threat of death mean that I can lose my salvation? Verse 13a: "If you are living according to the flesh, you must die." This is spoken to the whole church at Rome. And death here is eternal death and judgment. We know that, because everyone – whether you live according to the flesh or not – dies a physical death. So the death this verse warns about is something more, something that happens only to some and not to others. So the question remains: can we die eternally if we have justified by faith? If so what becomes of our assurance, and if not why does Paul threaten us all with death if we live according to the flesh and tell us to be about the business of killing sin?
So let's start here with this last question and then take up the others in two weeks. What we should take away this morning is a general sense of how justification relates to sin-killing; and how crucial it is that we do it.
Does the Threat of Death Imply We Can Lose Our Salvation?
You know my answer: No, someone who is justified by faith alone apart from works of the law cannot die in this sense of eternal death. One of my main reasons for believing this is found in this chapter in verse 30. In this verse Paul argues that salvation from beginning to end is a work of God with every part linked to the other in an unbreakable chain. Romans 8:30, "And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified." Here the link between justification and glorification is certain. If you have been justified by faith you will be glorified. That is, you will be brought to eternal life and glory. The chain will not be broken: Predestination, calling, justification, glorification.
Killing Sin Is the Result and Evidence of Justification
So the question then is why does Paul say to the church in Rome – and to Bethlehem – (verse 13) "If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live"? The reason is this: Putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit – the daily practice of killing sin in your life – is the result of being justified and the evidence that you are justified by faith alone apart from works of the law. If you are making war on your sin, and walking by the Spirit, then you know that you have been united with Christ by faith alone. And if you have been united to Christ, then his blood and righteousness provide the unshakable ground of your justification.
On the other hand, if you are living according to the flesh – if you are not making war on the flesh, and not making a practice out of killing sin in your life, then there is no compelling reason for thinking that you are united to Christ by faith or that you are therefore justified. In other words, putting to death the deeds of the body is not the way we get justified, it's one of the ways God shows that we are justified. And so Paul commands us to do it – be killing sin – because if we don't – if we don't make war on the flesh and put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit – if growth in grace and holiness mean nothing to us – then we show that we are probably false in our profession of faith, and that our church membership is a sham and our baptism is a fraud, and we are probably not Christians after all and never were.
Killing Sin Is the Effect, not the Cause, of Our Justification
This is a good place to review and reestablish the great foundation for our call for coronary, justice-pursuing Christians. Are we calling for you to live this way so that you will get justified, or are we calling for you to live this way because this is the way justified sinners live? Is the pursuit of justice and love "by the Spirit" with life-long perseverance the cause or the effect of being set right with God?
Let Wilberforce answer. Here was a man who had a passion for holiness and righteousness and justice greater than anyone in his day perhaps. When he wrote his book, A Practical View of Christianity, to trumpet this passion for justice and for political engagement in the cause of righteousness, here is what he said,
Christianity is a scheme "for justifying the ungodly" [Romans 4:5], by Christ's dying for them "when yet sinners" [Romans 5:6-8], a scheme "for reconciling us to God" – when enemies [Romans 5:10]; and for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled.
We have spent almost four years laying the foundation for understanding Romans 8. The first five chapters of Romans demonstrate that the only way for us sinners to be declared righteous in God's sight is by having righteousness reckoned to us – credited to us, imputed to us – by grace, through faith, on the basis of Christ's perfect life and death, and not on the basis of our own works. God is just and justifies the ungodly who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
With that stunning and unspeakably wonderful foundation laid, Paul has to ask in chapter 6, two times: Verse 1, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?" Verse 15, "What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?" And all of chapters 6 and 7 is written to show that justification by faith alone apart from works does not and cannot lead a person to make peace with sin.
Paul answers his own question in Romans 6:1, "How can we who died to sin still live in it?" We can't. If we died to sin by being united with Jesus in his death, we can't stay married to sin. The faith that unites us to Christ disunites from his competitors. The faith that makes peace with God makes war on our sin. If you are not at odds with sin, you are not at home with Jesus, not because being at odds with sin makes you at home with Jesus, but because being at home with Jesus makes you at odds with sin.
Therefore, I call you and urge you, for the sake of being God-centered, Christ-exalting, soul-winning, justice-pursuing, passion-planting, coronary Christians, don't live according to the flesh but "by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body." Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.