Friday, June 02, 2006

Putting to Death the Deeds of the Flesh

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.


Amy Jo said...

i really enojoyed reading this and soaking it all up! i struggle with a re-occuring sin daily and being raised in a christian home with a pastor as a father i am highly aware of the power of prayer and daily time with God. However, sometimes it seems as though the temptations creep up slowly and i have all the time and focus during these minor temptations to pray and seek out God for strength...but then after time it builds and builds and soon enough i feel could come directly after i spent time in prayer and in the could come in a moment right after wise council from a just comes at times when you feel you are totally equipt with God's strength and tools to fight it...but then i cower and even when a bible is in plain site, i feel as though it is near to impossible for me to put self aside and God on the thrown of that moment. i cannot seem to understand why my love for christ and my joy in spending time with Him hasnt proven to be enough... said...

Thanks for this post. I dont even know how i came upon it.Last night I read this mans testimony of how God dealt with him concerning his eating. I laughed a little bit, thinking why would God convict a man about how much food he eats when there are worse things on can do? Then I read your words on gluttony and it kinda cut right to my heart. I have put on 50 lbs in the past ten or so years because I eat like a pig. I love food. I now see this is a sin and an area that has not been submitted to God. I feel so sad now and not for the right reason. I should be sad because I havent been pleasing God in this area of my life. But the truth is I feel sad because now that I know this is a sin I must stop doing what I've been doing. Food has been my pleasure all these years and now I must give it up. I hear the little voice saying, 'this is such a little thing, dont worry about it.' I wonder who's voice that is? Probably the same voice that was in the garden of Eden, and the same voice tempting Jesus to turn the rocks into bread. Thanks again. The Lord has used your words to show me my sin.....

Steve said...

Romans 6 1-11
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that 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; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

I use to stumble very badly in sin. But its interesting that in Romans 3:23 it says that all have SINNED and fall short of the glory of God. By looking at other scriptures, this glory is what Jesus from the dead. And it says that the Spirit of God raise Jesus from the dead. The Spirit of God is what ALL man has fallen short of. And Joshua, as you have pointed out, the Spirit is what helps us conquer our flesh. But first we MUST DIE to our flesh. I will be bold and say MANY Christians have not died to their old self and this is why Paul talks about the Christian Struggle. They want to serve God but they are always burdened with sin. Well to get rid of sin you have to die to it. Get it washed away!

Acts 2:38 - Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

1. How do we have our sins forgiven?
2. How do we receive the Holy Spirit that is to help us overcome our sinful flesh?

Anonymous said...

6.My daily struggle with pornography and the terrible burden of guilt that I endured everyday led me to believe the lie that the passages of Romans and Galatians were just impossible to live up to. No matter how much I prayed and what I tried I could not overcome my desire for it. After years of shame and guilt and prayers of “please forgive me, I promise I wont do it again”, there came a day where I hit rock bottom as my heart just ached knowing I was hurting my savior Jesus with my daily sin. How could I trample on his precious blood like that on a daily basis and take advantage of his mercy? I finally realized I had been fighting the war on my own even though I was praying to the Lord to help me (not because he didnt want to help, but because I took matters into my own hands and never allowed him to fight for me). To make a long story short, the Lord led me to know what it meant to live and walk by the Spirit through prayer and fasting. It became my ultimate desire to know who the Holy Spirit was and experience his awesome power in my life. Today, I am pornography and masturbation free by the act of the Holy Spirit putting the desire of the sin to death in my body. And, since the Spirit literally put it to death, it no longer surfaces to tempt me!

I also have been given a much more clear understanding of Scripture through the guidance of the Holy spirit. May this small testimony encourage those who live in bondage of sin so that you can experience the power, freedom and truth of the verses found in Romans and Galatians.