Romans 8:13 “If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
When John Owen was the vice-chancellor of Oxford University in the middle of the seventeenth century he preached to the students a series of sermons on this text. Now at that time students at Oxford could be as young as twelve remaining until they were seventeen or eighteen. Different times, you understand, but what is salutary is that one thing Owen judged teenage boys needed was some help from preachers in putting thier remaining sin to death. Times, men and women, have not changed very much. And one of the needs that all of us have today, if we want to fulfil our chief end in life of glorifying God and enjoying him for ever, is always to be crucifying the sin that so easily besets us. John Owen published those sermons on mortification and I would judge that they have never sold in such numbers or been published in as many editions as they have in the last 25 years. When Professor Rabbi Duncan gave his students in New College, Edinburgh in the 19th century this book of Owen’s to read he warned them, “Prepare for the knife.” Let’s begin by reminding ourselves about the sources of our temptation
1. THE DOUBLE WHAMMY; TEMPTATIONS TO SIN COME BOTH FROM WITHOUT AND WITHIN US.
The New Testament informs us that we are under attack both from without and within. Paul is telling us that one particular enemy is internal, that it belongs to what he calls “the misdeeds of the body.” Then there are other conflicts in which the Christian is engaged, which come from way outside ourselves. For example, we have to resist the whole world system of unbelief that ignores and scorns the Lord Jesus; “Don’t love the world or the things of the world,” urges the apostle John. He is not talking about the beautiful creation which God has given us so richly to enjoy. He is talking about the system in which all the men and women in the world act – as though there were no God. That’s the attitude that comes to us powerfully through the media and secular education and entertainment.
But again in his fight with the devil the Christian is meeting an external, cruel enemy – “principalities and powers, rulers of the darkness of this world, spiritual wickedness in high places” – and to resist them the Christian needs to put on the whole armour of God. He needs to put on each piece carefully if he’s to gain the victory, fighting against the rulers of the darkness of this world. Fiery darts are shot at us, and it takes just one to penetrate our defences and we’re in trouble. Blasphemous thoughts, sudden eruptions of lust, an explosion of hatred . . . those enemies home in on us from out there, from outside our own hearts.
Two students came to see me at around the same time but quite independent of one another. One student’s problem was of blasphemous thoughts focussed on Jesus, cursing Christ, exploding in his mind. He was deeply troubled by them. We talked and we read in Scripture that no trial comes to the Christian but those which many other Christians have experienced and that God makes a way of escape that we can bear them. We saw how John Bunyan was also troubled with these thoughts. Paul had even forced Christians to blaspheme, but that they had both cried to God for mercy and both had been forgiven. His blasphemous thoughts were not his own creation. They were the result of fiery darts from the evil one. They did not well up within him but they came from the enemy of our souls targeting him. The girl who came to see me also had horrible pictures in her mind especially in her dreams. I cannot tell you what they were but they were unspeakably ugly. She was a girl from Ulster, modest and holy. Once again talking of Satan’s devices was a help to her. I phoned a Christian doctor for counsel and he simply asked me if she was enjoying those thoughts. “Not at all,” I told him. “Then they are the fiery darts,” he said, and in a week they stopped as did the blasphemies with the man.
But now I want to say that often that external enemy and our internal enemy can often cooperate and combine. They work in harmony to destroy us. Have you ever thought that when those fiery darts zoom in, or when demonic restlessness troubles us, then the external attacking force anticipates it’s going to be successful in starting a blaze a fire? Can’t we compare our remaining sin to a container full of immoral inflammable vapours? Our fathers compared our heart to a ‘tinder box.’ One spark and there’s a conflagration! Temptations that are on their way to us from outside of ourselves, getting closer and closer, start to accelerate with excitement as they see a ‘runway’ ahead of them. The landing strip for them is already inside every Christian – the flesh – and sinful temptations lock into a beam that will set them down exactly where they can do maximum damage, where they can start a forest fire, in the dark, dry woods of our minds. Temptations from without can spot a place of welcome within us, drawing them into our hearts. That place of welcome is called in Scripture by a number of names, the misdeeds of the body, the flesh, the earthly nature, remaining sin, or another law in our members. I am saying that we are under attack from without and also from within.
Now we do not and must not say that of Christ, that he was ever tempted from within. When our Lord detected that his hour had come, and that Satan was now advancing to meet him, he was able to assure the disciples that the Devil had no ‘runway’ on which to land in Jesus’ life (Jn. 14:30). In other words, there was no well-tarmaced landing strip welcoming evil within our Lord’s body and soul. There was no natural fulcrum that could be employed by Satan as an open access into Jesus’ life. You could go in and in and into Jesus and there’d be nothing but fierce hatred of sin and the beautiful purity of a God-like and God-loving life in every part of our Saviour – “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners.” Nothing less than that was anywhere in our Lord. Every cell in his body loved God, and he did, as the man Christ Jesus, with all his heart and soul and mind and strength.
There has never been a Christian walking on this world able to have claimed that. That isn’t true of any one of us. In fact there is the opposite, that since the fall of Adam there has been in every Christian a compromised base of operations where Satan feels at home and from which he is able to stand and look around in us and do his fiendish work. We have an enemy within us, a ‘Quisling’ of remaining sin, the flesh. Every follower of the Lord Jesus – it does not matter how long he has followed the Lord, and what heights he has attained as a disciple of Jesus – he or she is daily faced with the prospect of recognising and dealing with this problem. Our flesh will smile and welcome demonic and worldly temptations, “Come in,” the misdeeds of the body will chorus to Satan. “Come in, come in, come in!”
But in our heart is also the Holy Spirit. We are born of the Spirit and so we have this internal tension between the flesh and the Spirit. You understand that when the Bible uses the word ‘flesh’ it means the whole person, a redeemed child of Adam. The word ‘flesh’ is referring our creatureliness, and our mortality, and our weakness, and our living in this fallen world. It is referring to activities of our minds as much – if not more – than our bodies. I once noticed a man across the aisle from me on a trans-Atlantic plane whose nose had been buried in a lurid paperback for hours, and I happened to see him when he reached the book’s last page. He put the book aside, and he immediately picked up another identical book and turned to the first page and began reading it . . . without drawing breath. The lusts of the mind! So the word ‘flesh’ in the New Testament is referring to our whole personality as a child of Adam now organised in the wrong direction. He is serving man and self and his own desires rather than living in the blessed service of God. In other words the flesh is human nature dominated by sin.
Now the Christian is not ‘in the flesh’; he is ‘in the Spirit’ but the flesh is present in hi. He is under the happy and liberating lordship and protection of Jesus Christ through the indwelling Spirit. You understand that every Christian has died to sin, but that doesn’t mean that sin is dead and gone from any Christian. Sin remains, and it is still sin and it will never stop trying to pull us down. What has changed is not sin’s active presence within our hearts, but sin’s status. It no longer the dominant influence in our lives, dictating to us, “Disbelieve that foolish message of Jesus Christ and him crucified! Kow-tow before me!” We Christians ignore him and he no longer bullies us, thank God. The flesh no longer dominates our lives. We no longer invariably give in to its various suggestions and commands. We are no longer its slaves. What a glorious deliverance our new indwelling Master has provided for every Christian. When sin says to the Christian, “Don’t repent and don’t trust in Jesus Christ” it might just as well be talking to a dead man, because every Christian has died to the voice and commands of sin. We keep trusting in Jesus asking for his help and forgiveness.
Our Lord is constantly us to resist sin, saying, “See what it did to me. It crucified me, but I triumphed over it and I rose on the third day and you were joined to me, one with me, when I did this.” We were in him on Golgotha, and with him on the resurrection morning. We are with him on the throne at the right hand of God. We have the authority and the fruits of victory of the Lord Jesus with which to fight against sin and resist it. God has ‘added’ to our powers by the indwelling of the Spirit, and God has also weakened the status of sin. Sin no longer has the power it once had when we were unregenerate.
So we have good reason to enter into our daily conflict with sin with a measure of holy optimism and even expectation. There should never be a morning when we awake despairing about the day to come. It is always a day that the Lord has made, over which he reigns. Through him we will be more than conquerors. He helps us to fight against remaining sin day by day. We fight against sin by the strength of our Lord Jesus, but still it is we who are doing the fighting. We are fighting by our blood and sweat and tears. Let me say again that surviving sin is not reigning sin, but that it is still real sin, and so while the flesh remains, you can guarantee that the Spirit of God, operating via the new life God has given us, will continue to make war on the flesh. As disciples in love with Jesus Christ we would in any case battle against remaining sin, but having the Holy Spirit within us is an added encouragement. The Spirit is fighting against sin, and we new creatures are also fighting against the flesh. We are determined to show it no mercy. We’ll never be satisfied until it is dead.
How did Jesus tell his disciples how they were to live? You know the answer well. If we are to be his disciples we must “deny ourselves, take up the Cross and follow him.” In the Gospels, as in the letters, the Cross is the most vivid symbolic term for death. To follow Christ means to pronounce the death-sentence upon sin. For example, we ache to drag on another cigarette; but we mutter under our breaths, “I’ll kill you. You are not going to kill me.” We tear the cigarette into two or three and throw the pieces into the bin and go out for a walk. We are tempted to take another glass of whisky and we do the same, pouring it down the sink. There was an interview printed in the paper last week with President Obama, and to the reporter he revealed his private life, how his wife goes to bed around ten p.m. but he stays down for a few more hours watching TV and surfing the web. I don’t know how true that is but the journalist then wrote these words, “See! He is just a typical American.” They meant a typical non-Christian, because no Christian can give in to a few hours every day drifting from one channel or one website to another. That habit has to be mortified. You can use your time far better than that. Phone your family; write some letters; read a book; do some exercising; tidy the study; visit some friends; play a game with your children; work in the garden; occupy yourself with some Do It Yourself; build a boat, embroider, knit, paint. Take your dog for a walk. But don’t watch TV night after night for a few hours especially when your wife is in bed, and particularly don’t surf the web. There’s poison on it. Our time is so brief and precious. Don’t waste it.
We take up our cross and we follow the Lord Jesus. Your own personal and particular use of time is bound to differ from mine and each one from everyone else, all according to his or her personality and health and age. Similarly, your sources of temptations are going to differ according to your resources and temperaments and circumstances. Each of us has to learn, often the hard way, where our own private areas of weakness lie. But do learn! Please learn where you need more strength. What are the sins that do so easily beset you? Where in particular do you have to watch and pray? Whatever our besetting sin might be, the necessity of weakening its influence in our life and starving it to death – however it makes its presence felt in us – it is going to be a universal crusade that’s lifelong. No person can be Christ’s disciple without daily carrying the Cross can he? And a cross is a killing instrument. It has no other purpose. No one came down from a cross alive. So the definition of a Christian is this, “Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its lusts” (Gal. 5:24). They have done it. Not thought about it, and planned it and intended to do it. They have done it! Of course they have done it by grace, by the help of the Spirit, but they have done it. They haven’t sat back and waited for God to do it. So temptations to sin come from both without and within.
2. THE HIGH CALLING: IT IS A POSSIBILITY AND A DUTY TO PUT REMAINING SIN TO DEATH
Now let me set before you a mindset. Let me set out the dynamics of the Christian life, especially of this theme of killing remaining sin. I want to say three things about every true Christian.
i] Every true Christian needs to deal with sin and kill sin because if we don’t do that sin is going to kill us, but if we do kill sin we will enjoy life far more. Paul says, “If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” The commandments of God are not taking the fun out of your life; keeping the commandments make life! Our text is from Romans 8, and Romans 8 follows Romans 7. What is the second half of Romans 7 about? It’s about striving with sin. It gives us Paul’s humble confession, “The good that I would, I do not; and the evil that I would not, that I do. Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
This is Paul’s autobiographical account of his own personal struggle with indwelling sin. He doesn’t do the things that he would want to do, and he does the things that he would not want to do. That’s your experience and it’s also mine. Even as Christians, even as those in union with Christ, even as those who are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, even as the children of our loving Father, even as those whose sins have been washed by the blood of Jesus, we still struggle with sin – everyone of us. Sin is a reality. Men and women, if you don’t know that, then it’s probably because you’re not a Christian. If you are restless by this theme of mortification, it probably means you are not a believer, because every believer knows that his sin is an ongoing challenge, and if we don’t kill it then it will kill us. But if we do kill it then we will live.
ii] Every true Christian has a desire to deal with his sin. That is a mark of grace. When the apostle John in his first letter mentions different marks of a real Christian then one of them he mentions is that the born again person overcomes the world. He doesn’t let worldly attitudes and values and enthusiasms dominate his life. Pleasing God dominates his life. So we are not content with our present level of wisdom or self-control or love for God. We want to deal with the remaining sin that pulls us back. Isn’t that your testimony? Whatever the week has been like, whatever personal issues we may have been dealing with last week, my own prevailing desire, (and it’s my prevailing mindset) is that I really want to deal with sin. I want to be holy. I want to be more Jesus-like. I want to get rid of certain things that I know offend my Saviour. It is my desire, it is my motivating desire. I want to be more like Jesus. Then there is one more dynamic in the Christian life;
iii] Every true Christian is able to deal with sin. Yes, in Jesus Christ we have the resources to deal with sin. What has Paul already said in Romans 6:11? “You also must consider yourselves dead to sin and live to God in Christ Jesus.” Every Christian here now please listen. You must not dismiss yourself as a helpless, hopeless failure of a Christian. You mustn’t put yourself down like that. You are not merely that. You are someone who has died to a former state which you were once in. It was then that sin was in control of your life, when you’d do what sin told you, when you didn’t believe in Jesus Christ or lived in obedience to him. That is what we all once were. That was our old man who acted in that way. It was the behaviour of our pre-Christian past. We are not now ‘pre-Christians,’ we are new men. We are alive in Jesus Christ. We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. We are in a position to deal with sin. We have God given resources to resist sin. Sin is not some mysterious uncontrollable entity. No!
3. THE TREACHEROUS ENEMY; THERE IS A FALSE MORTIFICATION TO BE SHUNNED.
I have explained to you that when the Bible uses the word ‘flesh’ it’s not at all focusing on our physical bodies. But that is the way that Martin Luther – while still in the Roman church – thought of the flesh and how to become holy. He was a typical medieval Roman Catholic, and he sought for salvation, by physically abusing and mistreating his very body, weakening it through not eating, and by sleeping without blankets over him in an unheated stone room throughout the German winter, by wearing a shirt covered with hairs and bristles that tormented his skin, and by whipping his back until the blood ran. He said, “I myself was a monk for twenty years. I tortured myself with prayers, fasting, vigils and freezing: the frost alone might have killed me. It caused me pain such as I will never inflict on myself again, even if I could . . . If I could have gone to heaven by fasting I would have merited that twenty years ago.” After he had whipped his back until the blood ran he would say to himself in despair, “Who knows whether such things are pleasing to God?” He would chastise himself and then say, “You didn’t do that properly. You weren’t contrite enough. Now you’ve got less peace.” So that was how Luther sought to mortify sin. A thousand years before Luther the Welsh patron saint, Dewi Sant, Saint David, would stand for hours in a freezing river in Pembrokeshire during the winter to mortify his body. Because of this he was nicknamed David the Waterman. He spent hours submerged in a Welsh river. Medieval church goers considered him to be a very holy man because he did that.
You do understand what was wrong about such grievous and unnecessary heroism, don’t you? It was this, a serious confusion about our physical bodies. Our bodies may be the instruments of sin, but they are not the sources of sin. To deal harshly with the various organs of our bodies, beating, castrating, branding, starving them, is no solution to the problem of remaining sin. It would be like dealing with measles by picking off the measles spots until the blood ran. No, no. It’s the measles’ virus that has to be dealt with not, the spots. The virus of sinful flesh has to be dealt with, not your hands and back and stomach and loins and feet! It is remaining sin not our remaining bodies that must be the focus of our attack. You have to start with forgiveness for the sins we’ve done in our bodies, and that comes through the finished work of Christ, through his suffering in his body on the cross; that is what deals with the defilement and condemnation of our sin. The Son of God became the Lamb of God and he has borne the guilt and condemnation of our sin. Then the Spirit of God has also come into our lives and he has given us new energy and new power to overcome our temptations. He has given us a new heart that loves and praises God, and this new heart also has a new motive for pleasing God – the love of Jesus Christ for us, and that causes us to live for him and give ourselves in dependence on him day by day.
Now in the early church the question of maturing, growing more wise and holy and loving, and gaining victory over temptations – these things were the stuff of Christian discussion and prayer, what is called by Luke, “the apostles’ fellowship.” They passed on to the early church the Table Talk of Jesus and his teaching and answers to the questions they had asked him. This was the stuff of the New Testament letters. Of course that had to be so. So how could the apostles neglect such a practical question as how to put sin to death? Long before the later eras of church history, during the time of the apostles themselves, false teaching on this question of mortification was already being propounded.
It is in the letter to the Colossians in particular that you discover much help. There were clearly false teachers who had moved into Colosse after Paul had gone on to plant a church in another city, and these false teachers were saying to the Christians that if they really wanted to grow in faith so that God was pleased with them then there were rules and regulations and duties they had to do each day – the rules were all about mortification. There were certain things which were not to be even touched and handled, other things were not to be eaten or drunk, other items were taboo. This was the way of dealing with sin and going on to a life of holiness and perfection. That was the message that was being canvassed.
What was wrong with it? What do you see here immediately in the teaching of these heretics? No Christ. What do you see? Man. Human effort. Human denial and human mortification. In other words, what we are being told are the basic principles of the world, what themes and emphases are present in every single man-invented religion, what man has to do to please God. Man as to keep a day, and then also certain fast days or months, and certain washings in the river or the sea. He goes to meetings, and he refrains from certain foods, and he repeats certain prayers in a certain posture a certain number of times a day, and he lives by a certain moral code and if he does that every day – lo and behold – God will accept him and he will go to heaven when he dies. Where is Jesus? Where is the imputation of our sin to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to us? Nowhere. The focus is on the basic principles of what the world considers ‘religion.’
Paul cuts through this humbug in his wonderfully devastating fashion: he says this to the Colossians; “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Cols 2:20-23). Paul says, “The heretics that have entered your church life in Colosse, who are rubbing your consciences raw, and clubbing you with these rules, they are behaving in just the way all the world’s religions act, by giving you a rule book. What you’ve got is simply human commands and teachings. They are an appearance of wisdom. This is false humility. They urge harsh treatment of the body in fasting and denial, but they don’t help you to gain victory over your base instincts and lusts.”
What Paul is doing in the letter to the Colossian Christians and to us today is confronting those heretics. They were teaching that faith in Jesus Christ was not enough, and so Paul concentrate his answer by showing the Colossians how great was Jesus Christ, and how our Lord has saved us all by himself and that in him dwells all the fulness of the godhead bodily and we are complete in Christ. Paul had gone to Colosse and he had laid a proper foundation for true religion in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. He saved us all by himself, and all we can do and must do is to focus all our trust and hope in Jesus’ mercy, and glory in his finished work alone. After Paul had magnified Christ before them he went on to explain to them how someone who believes in the implications of the true gospel is changed, how he grows in wisdom and love, and how he puts sin to death. The Colossians were being told, “There are these things you’ve go to do; you have to starve your physical body, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.” Paul tells them that if they believe that error then they’ve been taken prisoner of false teachers, “through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Col. 2:8). John Owen put his finger on the issue when he wrote: ‘Mortification from self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, to the end of self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all the false religion of the world.’ If we build our religion on man-made rules (“Don’t do this; don’t go there; don’t touch this; keep away from that”) we are living under the delusion that we’ve learned the secret of profoundly dealing with indwelling sin, when in fact we are merely adjusting and rearranging some outward behaviour. This is no lasting foundation, and when the crisis of the ‘day of evil’ comes (Eph. 6:13) we’ll find ourselves on sinking sand.
4. THE SINGLE VICTOR: IT IS THROUGH CHRIST THAT WE PUT TO DEATH REMAINING SIN.
It’s our new identity as people joined to Jesus Christ for ever that is the new incentive and motivating energy we need to deal with sin. Think of a newly-married bride. She is married to the one she loves with all her heart. She has been given a new name and a new identity. That new identity is the only incentive she needs to live a new life as his wife and please him in everything. Her affections are entirely focussed upon her husband. She can’t get over the fact that he loves her above all others. Beforehand she may have felt varying degrees of love towards other men in church and in her work, but now her husband must have a unique affection, and anything that would tend to mar, distort that affection must be rigorously and consistently refused. So it is with those who are married to Christ by grace and faith.
There are numbers of you here today who have come fresh from skirmishing with sin. You’ve lost another engagement with the enemy and you’re discouraged. I’ve told you nothing new today but I’ll repeat that your resources for this battle are in the fulness of forgiveness and strength and mercy in Jesus Christ. You will sin many, many more times and much worse than you have sinned so far before you can start thinking that you have exhausted them, but then you would be mistaken because those resources are utterly inexhaustible. Call upon the Holy Spirit of God to help you and never stop, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Spirit who now indwells you, who has come to make his home in your heart and in your soul. By the strength and power of the Holy Spirit, call upon God for the resources to deal with sin, and to deal with it because life and death hang in the balance.
So “If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” That is the promise that God makes to you now. You will live if each day you kill remaining sin. You know that there can be no reconciliation between the Christian and sin.There can be no platform for negotiation. It’s either Jesus or sin, and the great question is what’s it going to be? What is it going to be? Is it going to be your sin alive and flourishing or your sin dying daily? Oh that by the strength and power of God’s Holy Spirit we might see the course that leads to victory – overcoming in Christ, more than conquerors through the blood of Jesus Christ, triumph through the resurrection of Jesus Christ; encouragement because the Spirit who indwelt Christ, the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead now dwells in you. Don’t ever forget it.
16th September 2012 GEOFF THOMAS