Two weeks ago I directed our attention to verses 12 and 13 and tried to answer one of four questions. These verses say, “So then, brethren” — and the “so then” follows from the glorious truth in verse 11 that our mortal bodies are going to be raised from the dead and made alive by the Spirit of God, so that we can enjoy God forever as he created us to be, body and soul — “So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh [that old, rebellious self], to live according to the flesh.”
You don’t owe the flesh anything but enmity and war. It’s been trying to kill you since the day you were born. Don’t join forces with your enemy and pay for your own destruction by giving in to the flesh. You are not a debtor to the flesh.
“You don’t owe the flesh anything. You owe the Spirit of God everything.”
Now he continues in verse 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.” You don’t owe the flesh anything. You owe the Spirit of God everything. He is going to make you alive in the resurrection (verse 11), and even now, you can only have victory over your sins “by the Spirit.”
“If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.” You owe your final resurrection life to the Spirit, and the perseverance you need to make it to the resurrection as a believer in war with sin, you owe to the Spirit. If you try to survive as a Christian in any other way than “by the Spirit,” you will not survive. You will die. What I tried to show last time is that this threat is real and the demand to fight is all-important.
Until you believe that life is war — that the stakes are your soul — you will probably just play at Christianity with no blood-earnestness and no vigilance and no passion and no wartime mindset. If that is where you are this morning, your position is very precarious. The enemy has lulled you into sleep or into a peacetime mentality, as if nothing serious is at stake. And God, in his mercy, has you here this morning, and had this sermon appointed to wake you up, and put you on a wartime footing.
Jesus said in Matthew 11:12, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.” Do you want to enter the kingdom of heaven? Take it violently! But violence against whom — or against what? Listen to Jesus’s answer: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8).
Do you want to enter life? Take it violently. Cut off your hand or your foot if you must to keep from stumbling. It’s a picture of the most radical kind of assault on our own sin. Not the sins of others — our sins.
Lay that on top of Romans 8:13: “If by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Do you want to enter into life? Do you want to live? Get violent. Get a wartime mindset. Stop making peace with ears and eyes and tongues and hands and feet that betray you like Judas, and go over to the side of the enemy and become instruments of sin and make war on your soul. Put to death the deeds of your body.
The Violent Warfare of the Christian Life
Ed Welch, in preparation for his book called A Banquet in the Grave said,
there is a mean streak to authentic self-control. . . Self-control is not for the timid. When we want to grow in it, not only do we nurture an exuberance for Jesus Christ, we also demand of ourselves a hatred for sin. . . . The only possible attitude toward out-of-control desire is a declaration of all-out war. . . . There is something about war that sharpens the senses . . . You hear a twig snap or the rustling of leaves and you are in attack mode. Someone coughs and you are ready to pull the trigger. Even after days of little or no sleep, war keeps us vigilant.
There is a mean, violent streak in the true Christian life! But violence against whom, or what? Not other people. It’s a violence against all the impulses in us that would be violent to other people. It’s a violence against all the impulses in our own selves that would make peace with our own sin and settle in with a peacetime mentality. It’s a violence against all lust in ourselves, and enslaving desires for food or caffeine or sugar or chocolate or alcohol or pornography or money or the praise of men and the approval of others or power or fame. It’s violence against the impulses in our own soul toward racism and sluggish indifference to injustice and poverty and abortion.
Christianity is not a settle-in-and-live-at-peace-with-this-world-the-way-it-is kind of religion. If by the Spirit you kill the deeds of your own body, you will live. Christianity is war — on our own sinful impulses.
So let’s work on this a little bit more this morning. I said there were three questions two weeks ago that we did not get to.
- What are “the deeds of the body” that we are to put to death?
- What does killing them mean? What is this putting to death?
- How do you do it “by the Spirit”? What does “by the Spirit” mean?
1. What Are “The Deeds of the Body” that We Are to Kill?
Paul is picking up here on what he had said already in Romans 6. So go back there with me and let’s remind ourselves of a few things. Take three verses to shed light on Romans 8:13. First, Romans 6:13: “Do not present your members [your bodies] to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” What then are “the deeds of the body” that we are to kill? They are those deeds that we are about to do (you kill them before they happen) when our bodies are “instruments or unrighteousness.”
Second, Romans 6:12: “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts.” When the mortal body is taken captive by sin and made to obey lusts, then and there we see “deeds of the body” that should be put to death.
Third, Romans 6:6: “Our old self was crucified with him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” I cite this verse to remind you of the all-important distinctively Christian truth about killing the sinful actions of the body, namely, in union with Jesus Christ by faith alone, you are already dead to sin and alive to God, and what you are doing when you put to death the deeds of the body is becoming in practice what you are in Christ. “Our old self was crucified, in order that our body of sin might be done away with!”
When Christ died, we died in him if we are united to him by faith. And we died with him so that we might demonstrate this death by putting to death the sinful deeds of the body. Because we already have the victory we can succeed in our violence against sin! He breaks the power of cancelled sin. We can only kill the sin that has already been killed when we were killed in Christ. This is Christianity, not moral self-improvement.
So the answer to the first question, “What are the deeds of the body in Romans 8:13?” is the deeds that we are about to do prompted by sin or lust or unrighteousness. Sin is deeper than deeds. The deeds are the instrument of the sin. And when that is what our bodies are about to do — go over to the side of the enemy — we put that action to death. In this war with ourselves, traitors are put to death.
2. What Is This Putting to Death?
The answer is that you suffocate the sinful deeds of the body. You cut off the lifeline, the blood flow. Deeds of the body come from somewhere. Jesus said, “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; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man” (Matthew 15:18–20). Sinful deeds have a lifeline that must be cut.
“You kill the bad fruit by severing the bad root.”
In other words, there is a condition of the heart that gives rise to the “deeds of the body.” It’s a heart issue. We must cut off the hands and gouge out the eyes, not literally — that would do no good — but with that kind of violent heart-work. You kill the bad fruit by severing the bad root.
What’s the bad root of “the deeds of the body”? You can see it in Romans 8:7: “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” The root of “the deeds of the body” that have to be killed is the flesh that is hostile to God and unwilling and unable to submit to him.
Verse 12: “If you live according to the flesh you will die.” Flesh is the great enemy here. And it’s an enemy because it is insubordinate and hostile to God. It doesn’t like God and does not want to be told by him what to do.
So to kill “the deeds of the body” that this enmity produces, you have to cut the lifeline. Pinch the air pipe. Stop the blood flow. Deeds must be killed before they happen by severing the root of hostility and insubordination that rejects God.
3. How Do You Do This “By the Spirit”?
Let’s get at answer by following three steps, each with a different text.
Step One: Set Your Mind on the Things of the Spirit
Notice Romans 8:5–6 and how Paul speaks there of the flesh and the Spirit (the same pair he contrasts here in verse13): “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, [set their minds on] the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death [as verse 13a says!], but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace [as verse 13b says].”
So the first step in the answer is this: putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit involves “setting the mind on the things of the Spirit.” You don’t just look at the temptation and say no. You do that! But if you are going to put it to death by the Spirit, you have to do more: you direct your mind, your heart, your spiritual focus another way, namely to the “things of the Spirit.”
Step Two: Set Your Mind on the Words of God and the Realities They Stand For
What are “the things of the Spirit”? If we are going to rivet our minds and hearts on them in the hour of temptation so as to kill sin, what are we looking at? Here the key text is 1 Corinthians 2:13–14 where Paul talks about his own teaching as God-inspired words. This is the only other place in the New Testament where the very phrase “things of the Spirit” is used. He speaks of his revelations like this:
which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit. . . . But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
So here “the things of the Spirit” are the words of God spoken by the apostles. From this I infer that when Romans 8:6 says that “those who are according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” he means that they set their minds on the words of God and the realities they stand for. These are the “things of the Spirit” that the natural person rejects and the spiritual person embraces. So to put to death the deeds of the body “by the Spirit” is to “set your mind on the things of the Spirit,” which we now see means embracing the words of God (and the reality they point to) spoken by his inspired spokesmen.
This is especially significant because the “word of God” is called “the sword of the Spirit” in Ephesians 6:17. And swords are used for killing. And that is what we are to do “by the Spirit” in Romans 8:13. Kill the deeds of the body by the Spirit, that is by fixing your mind on “the things of the Spirit,” that is, by welcoming and embracing the “word of God” in your mind and heart, that is, by taking the Sword of the Spirit which is the deadly sword for sin-killing.
Step Three: By Hearing with Faith, not Works of the Law
Very practically what do you do to bring the power of the Spirit by the word of God into vigorous, sin-killing action? The answer is clear in Galatians 3:5: “So then, does he who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” The answer is that the Spirit is supplied to us for the miraculously mighty killing of sin not by works of the law but by “hearing with faith.”
“The sword of the Spirit helps us kill sin.”
Why does he say “by hearing with faith” instead of just “by faith”? To emphasize that what faith hears and receives and embraces is something heard, namely, “the word of God,” which is the sword of the Spirit, which kills sin.
How does it do that? Well, let’s save that for a whole sermon when I come back. But we are not left helpless this morning. What we are saying is that when temptation comes, alongside a very powerful and resolute no, you look to a word from God, especially a word that promises he will be more for us and do more for us than what this sin promises. And if you believe him — there is the main battle — you will sever the root of sin.
So immerse your mind and heart in the fountain of truth and life and power — the promises of God, and when the temptation comes, take this all-satisfying word, this sword of the Spirit, and believe it, and by it sever the root of sin. Kill it.