In recent years I’ve become a bit of a church history buff. I love looking back at the lives of faithful men and women and seeing what they did to represent Christ. Their stories serve as an inspiration and a warning to me.
One of my favorite historical figures is Athanasius. Athanasius lived in the 4th Century and was a key figure at the Council of Nicea, though he was mainly there to assist his bishop, Alexander. The heresy of Arianism, which held that Jesus was created by God the Father, was poisoning the church in those years and Athanasius was the principle defender of orthodoxy. There was, in fact, a time when nearly the entire Christian world held to Arianism but Athanasius held to the truth.
Because of his unwillingness to compromise with these powerful heretics he was kicked out of his bishopric in Alexandria, Egypt and banished. He returned, only to be banished again. He was banished no less than five times, but still he refused to acquiesce. Not even when he was falsely accused of murder and witchcraft did he waiver in his faithfulness to the Lord. There is a reason why we say ‘Athanasius Contra Mundum’.
A second of my favorite church fathers is Augustine. In his public life, he, like Athanasius, defended the Christian faith against heresy. Interestingly, we also know a great deal about Augustine’s internal struggles. In his autobiography, called Confessions, he spoke his intense battle against sin. Lust was a major issue for Augustine, but he was eventually able to subdue the temptation that raged in his heart.
As I said, these figures are a source of inspiration for me, and well they should be! They did tremendous things in defense of the truth and did not deny Christ with their deeds as so many have done (Titus 1:16). But how? How did these men stand so firmly for Christ in the face mounting temptation? How did Athanasius conquer the temptation to save his own life and position as bishop? How did Augustine control the fire of lust that burned in his chest? The answer to this question is not found in a history book. For this we must look no other place than the Bible.
How Do We Treat Sin?
Before I actually look at a Biblical text I want to take some time for introspection. I want to examine how I, and I believe many Christians, have looked at sin. As I have reflected on my own life I can recall times that I have laughed at my own sin. When I was 15 I went to the beach with my cousin. Long story short, I got drunk and left my shoes on the beach where they were washed away with the tide. Though losing my shoes is a bit humorous, there is nothing funny about my drunkenness.
Another summer I spent time some time at a camp. While there a friend and I had a contest in which we tried to see who could eat the most pizza during lunch. We both gorged ourselves to the point that we vomited. For a long time I thought of both of those stories as good anecdotes. We’ve all been there, right? We’ve all overindulged in one way or another and that point of commonality makes the story funny. But here’s the rub:
It’s not funny.
What is drunkenness? What is gluttony (my experience with the pizza was certainly gluttony)? These things are sin. They reveal a lack of self-control, which is a quality essential to Christlikeness (Galatians 5:22-24). They reveal intemperance, which disqualifies one from being an elder (1 Timothy 3:2-4) at the very least. I am convinced that if I tell these stories God is not laughing.
Perhaps, though, you do not laugh at your sin as I have. But still we can stumble upon another error, that of excusing our sin. I was riding in the car listening to a sermon give by a prominent young Christian. He made light of his lack of compassion in his description of his failed pastoral ministry. According to his thoughts, his personality made him ill-suited for that sort of work. I understand that we are not all called to be pastors, but the compassion should mark pastors should also mark those of us who are not pastors. Galatians 5:22 says that gentleness and longsuffering are fruit of the Spirit. Whatever our ‘personalities’ are like is irrelevant. Our personalities are to be brought under the subjection of Christ so that we may be conformed to God’s image, not to be used as an excuse for sinful attitudes and actions. Would this man have spoken similarly if lust had been his problem rather than a lack of compassion?
The Bible’s Attitude Toward Sin
The Bible’s attitude toward sin is much different than those described above.
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. -Romans 8:13 (ESV)
Romans 8:13 tells us to ‘put to death the deeds of the body’. What does this mean? It means we must kill those deeds. This is radical, violent language that must shape our attitude toward sin. We don’t laugh, we don’t excuse. These deeds of the body are to be destroyed in a ‘give no quarter’ fashion.
The question we must ask is, ‘are we ready to be radical?’ Many Christians in America are too interested in comfort and money to be ready to kill sin. The necessary steps cut too close to the things we hold dear. We like our lives as they are, and trading our pleasures can be a painful experience.
How to ‘Put to Death’*
What are these ‘radical steps’ we must take to kill our sin? How do we ‘put to death the deeds of the body?’ Romans 8:13 tells us that it must be done in the power of the Spirit. But what does that mean?
First it means that we cannot do this in our own power. There is no room for legalism in the killing of sin. No pharisee’s rule-keeping can conquer the lusts of our hearts. Such things affect only our external lives. This course will make us ‘whitewashed tombs’, to use Christ’s metaphor (Matthew 23:27).
John Piper has identified three steps in mortifying sin through the Spirit. First we must set our minds on the things of the Spirit. We can’t just say ‘no’ to sin. That is not enough. Our minds must be full of the things of Spirit. They must be our chief focus. We must also set our minds on the Words of God and the realities they stand for. This identifies what ‘the things of the Spirit’ are. 1 Corinthians 2:13-14 says that the things of the Spirit cannot be understood by the natural man. These things of the Spirit to which he refers are Paul’s own inspired writings. To put to death the deeds of the body we must embrace God’s Word. This is not simple reading, as the next step indicates. In Galatians 3:5 Paul tells us that God provides the Spirit for us not by the Law, but through hearing with faith. Hearing what? The Word of God. But simple hearing, like simple reading, is insufficient. It must be hearing with faith. Take God’s Word and believe it. Meditate on it. The Word must become so much a part of you that it changes the way you think and live.
Now we know it is through immersion in the Word that sin will be killed. Let me emphasis, however, that there is action that must be taken on our parts. We must be ruthless in removing those things from our lives that draw us into sin. Do you struggle with anger? Ask yourself, what do I have in my life that makes it easy for me to indulge my anger? The same goes for gluttony, drunkenness and lust. Often there are little things we allow to creep into our lives that lead us slowly down the wrong path. They must be rooted out and eliminated, remembering that it is only the power of the Spirit that enables us to conquer sin.
We are useless to God if we are enslaved by sin, and we bring reproach to His name, not glory.
My exhortation and counsel in conquering sin is that which I have learned from better men than myself. Make the Bible your bread. Root out those things that carry you away to sin. If these things are done in the power of the Spirit and not by your own flesh your life will bring glory to God. And there is no higher end than this.
*I am indebted to John Piper’s sermons on Romans 8:13 for much of this portion of the essay.