I love novelty t-shirts. One of my favorite old shirts reads this way: “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” This famous quote was penned by the great Puritan theologian John Owen in The Mortification of Sin. Although a staunch defender of the doctrines of grace, Owen nonetheless gave a clarion call to justified, born-again, Spirit-indwelt believers to actively wage a ruthless, all-out war against their remaining sin. The apostle Paul states it clearly in the eighth chapter of the Book of Romans: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Let me say it plainly: Fellow preacher, your efforts to deliver Christ-centered sermons will implode without an equally zealous pursuit of personal holiness. To that end, my friends, let’s spend some time pondering Paul’s call to arms:
1. What does “if you live according to the flesh you will die” mean?
Is Paul implying that genuine Christians can suffer eternal death? The short answer: No. But we must qualify this response. In verse 30 Paul emphatically declares: “… and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Everyone who is truly justified (i.e., unified to Christ by faith alone) will surely make it home to glory. So to explain Paul’s warning, let’s take advice from Dr. John Piper: “…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.” (Piper, How to Kill Sin, Feb. 2002).
2. What does “by the Spirit” mean?
Paul tells us that our weapon against sin is the Spirit. Compared to other texts (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14, Eph. 6:7), it seems best to understand Paul to mean that the Spirit-inspired, authoritative Word of God is our primary weapon against sin. More specifically, it is the blood-bought promises of the gospel that the Spirit brings into our lives with satisfying, sin-killing power when we hear or read them, trust them, and exercise faith in God through them. The tension here echoes that of Philippians 2:12-13. In both cases, we see a combination of the Spirit’s power and serious human endeavor. We do not simply pray that our sin would be removed; we trust the promises of Scripture, take action, and the Spirit moves in power. In 1886, Russell Carter penned words that compliment this line of reasoning: “Standing on the promises of Christ the Lord, bound to him eternally by love’s strong cord, overcoming daily with the Spirit’s sword, standing on the promises of God.”
3. What does “put to death the deeds of the body” mean?
In Colossians 3:1-17, Paul grounds the call to “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” on the reality of the Christian’s union with the living Christ. Once that is established, Paul names the things in our lives that are to be executed: sexual immorality, evil desire, anger, obscene talk, etc. Like John Owen, Paul is calling for ruthless, cut-throat battle. There is to be no quarter given to the enemy; no peace treaties are to be signed. The rebel forces of lust and idolatry that remain in us are to be starved, hung, shot, or beheaded.
So, how do we practically apply all that we’ve said? When you are tempted to hide away with your iPhone and watch filthy, God-dishonoring, human-belittling pornography, renew your mind in the promise: “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). Then, install software like Covenant Eyes or Accountable2You and get an accountability partner as ruthless as yourself. If that fails, take a hammer to your phone and sing, “In Christ Alone” with each crushing stroke. If the pull of materialism threatens you, ground yourself on the promise: “Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life’” (Mk. 10:29-30).
Our war on sin begins with a long, loving look to the Savior. John Owen said, “Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin. His blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this, and thou wilt die a conqueror; yea, thou wilt, through the good providence of God, live to see thy lust dead at thy feet.” When it comes to indwelling sin, we are not to be civil. Dear preacher, look to his promises – then get your knuckles up and swing with all the power the Spirit supplies to you.