We began looking at this part of spiritual warfare–killing sin–by explaining the basis for our sanctification, namely, our justification. Then, positively we saw that killing sin meant remembering and continually trusting what we first believed: the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here we come to the command itself: put sin to death.
Paul says, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 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.”
Here, Paul says that sanctification involves putting to death the deeds of the body. Or to put it more succinctly–sanctification involves killing sin. No one in all of Christian history has written more on sanctification than the Puritan John Owen. In fact, he wrote an entire book on one verse: Romans 8:13. The book was called, The Mortification of Sin in Believers. Today, we use the word mortify to mean ‘embarrass’ or ‘shamed.’ But it comes from a Latin word which means ‘death.’ That’s why we put dead people in morgues and mortuaries. Mortification means, ‘putting to death’ or killing. And John Owen sums up his entire book on killing sin in one little sentence: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
That is exactly what Paul is saying here. If you kill sin then you will live; you will have spiritual life. But if you don’t kill sin. If instead you live by sin, then you will die. You will experience spiritual death, eternal separation and judgment from God. That might sound a little like we’re earning our salvation. Do this and die; do this and live? But that’s not what Paul is saying at all. Quite the opposite in fact. 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 saved. Remember, lost people aren’t worrying about killing sin. Real sanctification is actually evidence that you have God’s Spirit and have experienced God’s salvation.
After all, killing sin is not just about changing behavior. Non-Christians can change behavior. But do you remember what Jesus says about dealing with sin? He says, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you . . . . And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” Jesus is using hyperbole to make his point. He doesn’t what us to be cutting and hacking on our physical body. Instead, he’s teaching a principle that lays behind killing sin. He says, if you sin with your body parts it is not enough to say, “Well, I shouldn’t have done that, and I’ll try not to do that again.” No, he says, get rid of the thing that led to your sin. Cut it out of your life and throw it away!
We are to put the death the deeds of the body. But, where do these things come from? Jesus again gives us the answer. In Matthew 15, he says, “The things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man;”
Jesus says there is a condition of the heart that gives rise to the “deeds of the body.” It’s not a body issue; it’s a heart issue. The work of killing sin is a heart work. If we are to put to death the deeds of the body; if we are to kill sin in our lives, we must cut off the lifeline between our hearts and the sinful actions that flow from them.
One of the things I hate doing is going over a lost email in my spam folder. The spam folder is the place for all of the emails my system thinks is junk mail. But sometimes it puts a legitimate email there I have to go looking for it. And it’s like wading through a cesspool. Every sin known to man is being advertised in very unsubtle ways. And, in his book on Mortification, John Owen wrote, “Let not that Christian think that he makes any progress in true holiness who is not prepared to walk over the bellies of his lusts.”
In other words, if you are going to really make progress in sanctification, you’re going to have to know the cesspool of your own heart. You’re going to have go in there like that spam filer and be honest with what you find there. You’re going to have to admit the specific sins that so often flow out of your heart, and not laugh them off but deal with them. It’s not pleasant work. But it’s what it takes to put sin to death in our lives. It’s what it takes to grow in our sanctification.
In 1993, Donald Wyman was clearing timber in a remote Pennsylvania forest. Late in the day a tree fell on him, pinning his leg. For over an hour, he screamed for help, but no one heard him. No one came to rescue him. Realizing that if he did nothing, he would die, Wyman tied a tourniquet around his leg with a leather boot lace from his free leg. He then took out his pocket knife and began to cut-off his leg about 6 inches below his knee. Once he leg was fully amputated, he crawled back to his truck and drove himself to the hospital.
How could he cut-off his own leg? He understand about his physical life what Paul wants us to understand about our spiritual life – “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.” There is a choice of life or death before you: You can live according to the flesh and suffer spiritual death. Or you can kill the deeds of the flesh and you will experience spiritual life.
Paul says that as God’s people, saved by the blood of Christ, called to be holy as our heavenly Father is holy, we must seek the death of sin in our lives. And that work of killing sin is not something we do on our own. If we are to be successful in killing sin, we must do it by the power of God’s Spirit.