Life in the Spirit: By the Spirit Put it to Death

Sermon by David Strain on May 31

Romans 8:12-13

Well please turn back in your copies of God’s Word to Romans chapter 8 as we continue to work our way through this eighth chapter together. The apostle, remember, has been outlining the basic contrast between those who are according to the flesh and those who are according to the Spirit. Those in the flesh are dead in sin; those in the Spirit are life and peace. The vital, urgent need of every human heart then is for the Spirit of Christ to give us new life. We must be born again. What does that look like? What does it involve? In verses 9 through 11 that we considered together last time, Paul answers those questions in summary form which you may remember we reduced to a three-word outline. The three words that sum up the Spirit’s ministry within us. First, in verse 9, there is residence. The Spirit comes to dwell, to reside in our heart. Secondly, in verse 10, there is regeneration. The Spirit, when He comes in, makes us new creatures. He renovates us and gives us new life. Regeneration. And then thirdly, in verse 11, when the work is at last complete and Christ returns, the Spirit will give us resurrection and will raise our mortal bodies and make them like Christ’s glorious body.

And as we turn our attention this morning to verses 12 and 13, I want you to see that Paul is beginning now to draw some preliminary conclusions. He is applying at this point all that he’s been saying so far. Notice how verse 12 begins, “So then, brothers.” “So in view of everything I’ve been saying, given all of these glorious truths, brothers, here are the implications.” And he structures his encouragement and exhortations to us around two controlling metaphors. Do you see them in verses 12 and 13? First of all he says, “If everything I’ve been telling you is true, we need to understand that Christians are debtors.” That’s the first metaphor – Christians are debtors, verse 12, “So then, brothers, we are debtors.” Then secondly, the next metaphor he says, “If everything I’ve been saying is true, we need to understand Christians must not only be debtors, they must also be executioners.” Verse 13, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” So do you see those two metaphors? We’re going to simply use those to structure our message this morning. Christians are debtors and Christians must be executioners.

Before we read the passage and consider those two metaphors, we’re going quickly to pray again and ask for the help of the Lord. Let us pray.

O God, give us the Holy Spirit, the One who caused these words to be written, to illuminate our understanding and to generate faith that clings to Christ for the truths that we are being taught. For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Let’s back up and read from verse 6 of Romans chapter 8:

“For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

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.”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.

Christians Are Debtors 

Well, like many people, after graduating from college I began my working life with some student loan debt that had to be paid off. It didn’t matter where I lived. I’d moved first down to the city of London to begin ministry in London. Then, I moved across the Atlantic to the United States. But even with an ocean between me and Her Majesty's debt collectors, I still had to pay my debts. It didn’t matter my circumstances; I had to pay. It didn’t matter my location; I had to pay. I was under obligation, do you see, to the lender to repay with interest the loan I had contracted. And that is the first metaphor that Paul is using actually to describe the Christian life. Our situation now – we’ve become believers. Look at verse 9, “So then, brothers, we are debtors.” We are under a binding and ongoing obligation. Just like a person whose financial debts have been called in and now they have no choice but to repay, Christians likewise are bound by a kind of spiritual indebtedness. 

Well to what are we indebted? What is the nature of the indebtedness? Well, Paul is explicit, isn’t he, about what the debt is not, and he is implicit – though in my judgment he’s no less clear – about what that debt really is. Look at what he says the debt is not first of all. “We are debtors,” verse 12, “not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” So our debt is not to the flesh. The flesh, you will remember, is Paul’s theological shorthand for human nature enslaved to, governed by, sin and rebellion against God. And he’s telling us something vitally important about the Christian life here when he says that as believers we are no longer debtors to the flesh. That is, to our sinful natures, to live according to the flesh. You will remember that Paul has already told us back in verse 5 Christians are not according to the flesh. And in verse 9 he told the Romans, “You, however, are not in the flesh.” So here is your real condition. It’s vital that we understand this if you trust in Christ today. To be sure, you may not feel like it is so sometimes. Your remaining sin sometimes may flare up and overwhelm you even and you may feel as though you lived still under its boot heel and under the tyranny of the flesh. 

But however defeated you may feel at times, Paul says this is your real position now that you are in Christ. The flesh no longer rules. It no longer provides the governing context for our lives. We are no longer according to the flesh; we no longer live in the flesh, in the realm and under the regime of the flesh. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death,” remember. A decided and irreversible change has taken place. We are under new management, as it were. We have been granted citizenship in a new country brought under the rule of a new king. And since that is true, Paul is asking us in our text here in verse 12, in essence, “Brothers and sisters, since you are free from the dominion, the mastery of the flesh, why on earth do you still live as if you owed the flesh anything? It has no claim over you. It has no rights in your life. If is not entitled to your submission to its demands. It has no authority to direct your obedience. The flesh is lying to you when it says, with regards to this or that pattern of prevailing sin in your life, ‘You just can’t help yourself. You must give in. Face it, this is who you are; who you must always be.’ That’s a lie, you see.”

Just think about it with me for a moment. Hasn’t it been your experience? You’ve set out to follow Jesus, but the flesh will immediately try to persuade you that whatever your brighter aspirations after holiness might be, you simply cannot help but feed your base instincts in the end. “There’s no escaping my demands,” the flesh says. “You need this. You can’t be happy without this. This will make you feel better, at least for a little while. Eat more. Drink more. Let rip with your indignation. Allow your laziness to run amuck. After all, you’ve put in the hours elsewhere. Haven’t you? You’ve earned a little indulgence, surely. You’re entitled. You deserve it. You should have it. You must have it. Why resist? You’ve never managed to resist before. And remember, resistance is sore. It hurts to deny yourself. Following me is the path of least resistance.” That’s what the flesh says. That’s how it works. Hasn’t that been your experience? It makes you feel we’ve got no choice in the matter. “That all attempts to live differently must inevitably end in failure, that change is a futile dream, that holiness, well, it might suit some people but I’ve failed so often, so comprehensively, surely I must be temperamentally, constitutionally incapable of making much progress in the Christian life.” And so we give up. We’re living as though we owed the flesh something, as though we were indebted to the flesh. 

But it’s all a lie, you see. You owe the flesh no allegiance. You have no debt to the flesh to pay off. It has no claim on you, no rights over you. You are not in the flesh anymore. You are free from all obligation to the old life so stop living as if you did. That’s Paul’s point. You’re not a debtor to the flesh to live according to the flesh. And so when the flesh comes pressing its trumped up claims over us, we need to say to ourselves, “Flesh, you have no right to suggest this to me! You have no claim on my soul, no standing in the court of my conscience. I am utterly free from your lordship. I reject you and I resist you with everything that I have.” 

And we mustn’t stop there. It’s not enough to be free of the mastery of sin. Our resistance to the flesh would always fail entirely were we left to our own strength to fight it. So praise God that we’re not left to ourselves! Look at what Paul says again in verse 12. He frames the issue positively, remember. “So then, brothers, we are debtors.” And so our question needs to be, “Well if that’s what we’re not debtors to, we’re not debtors to the flesh – what are we debtors to? To what or to whom are we indebted?” Well, the words at the beginning of verse 12, I think, give us a clue. They’re translated in our version, “So then.” Do you see them in verse 12? “So then, brothers, we are debtors.” They are telling us Paul is drawing a conclusion in light of everything that’s gone before as we said at the beginning of the message. He is applying to us what he has been saying up to this point. And the basic structure of his teaching, remember, has had to do with this contrast between the flesh and the Spirit. When we became Christians, not only has the mastery and the dominion of the flesh been overthrown, but the Spirit has come to preside over our hearts. He’s come to dwell within us, verse 9. He’s begun a mighty regenerating and renovating work in our hearts, verse 10. We’ve been born again, and so now we are indeed under obligation. We are indeed debtors. Not to the flesh to live according to the flesh but the implication is we are debtors to the Spirit who’s come to rule in our hearts at last, to live according to the Holy Spirit. 

Christians Are Executioners

And understanding what that means – what does it mean to be a debtor to live according to the Spirit? That brings us to the second metaphor that Paul uses in these two verses to describe how we are to make progress and to grow in holiness. First he says Christians are debtors, but not to the flesh but to the Spirit, and now he says in verse 13 Christians are executioners. We must be executioners. Look at verse 13 with me. “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.” You may remember last week I quoted words from J.I. Packer who says somewhere that “The mark of authentic Christianity is not a conversion experience so much as it is present convertedness.” He was calling us not to put too much store in dramatic experiences in our past and to put the focus where Paul puts it, that is on whether today I am believing the Gospel and trusting in Jesus alone for salvation; whether today I’m living for Christ by His grace enabling me, learning to love what He loves and hate what He hates. If you say you are a Christian based on some dramatic experience when you were twelve but you never pray, you never read the Scriptures, you have no desire for the worship of God, for the fellowship of His people, you have no real hatred of sin in your own heart as primarily an offense to God, no recoil at your own failings and falling short of His standards, no aspirations and longings to please Him, whatever profession of Christian faith you might be making, your life right now betrays you. Past experiences are not a safe basis for present assurance before God. 

And so Paul puts it quite starkly in the first part of verse 13, doesn’t he? Look at the first part of verse 13. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die.” You see what he’s saying? If you live like an unbeliever, don’t be surprised if God treats you like an unbeliever on the day when you can’t come to stand before Him. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die.” 

You know, as an expat Brit, I’m still learning about the United States. I must say, one of the things I enjoy about this country are some of the mottos of the various states. Mississippi’s is “Virtute et armis” – “By valor and arms.” California’s mottos is fun. I think it’s quite appropriate. Don’t you agree? It’s just simply, “Eureka!” That somehow seems to fit, somehow in my mind at least. The one that came to my remembrance, though, as I was reading and thinking about verses 12 and 13 is the motto of New Hampshire. Do you know the motto of New Hampshire? What is it? “Live free or die.” That’s really what Paul is saying is a principle for the Christian life, for the spiritual reality of the heart. Don’t live in the flesh. Live free from the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die. “Live free or die.”

It’s a sober warning, really. If you live like an unbeliever, do not be surprised if God treats you like an unbeliever on the day you come to stand before Him. Just because you went forward one night at a rally, just because you prayed a prayer all those years ago, just because you were swept along by the music and the emotion of the moment perhaps, it does not mean that today you have any right to confidence before God. What matters is not dramatic conversion experiences in your past. What matters is present convertedness; that today, right now, you are a child of God trusting in Jesus Christ. 

So what does present convertedness involve? Or to put it in Paul’s terms from our text, “What does it mean to be a debtor to the Spirit, to live according to the Spirit?” It means, he says, becoming an executioner. Do you see that in the second half of verse 13? It means by the Spirit, putting to death the deeds done in the body that we might live. The path to life forever, Paul is saying, is walked by those who kill sin. The verb there that’s used for “putting to death” is present continuous. That means Paul isn’t thinking about a single action like there’s some sort of spiritual silver bullet that we can fire at the flesh and then be free from its interference or be untroubled by it forever. This is not a once for all action. This is something we must do and continue to do till at last the work is done and we die and go to be with the Savior or He comes to take us home to be with Him forever. We must be killing sin, killing the deeds done in the body.

And those of us who have walked with the Lord for any length of time have come to discover what the Scriptures plainly teach us. We’ve come to discover it by our own experience. Sin dies, typically, very slowly. The flesh, the deeds done in the body, die under the constant application of the executioner’s trade. Kill and keep on killing. Put to death the deeds done in the body. Don’t ever stop. Root it out. That is our duty, our calling. Don’t fall into the trap some have fallen into of speaking as if even Christians can do nothing about their sin. You are no longer in the condition you were in back in verse 8, before you were converted. Then, Paul said, you could not please God. You were totally unable. But that’s not true anymore. Paul says you must put sin to death. You must and you can, believer in Jesus. 

And it’s important that we notice the marvelous balance of Paul’s teaching. You must do it, for sure, but you can only do it by the Spirit, he says. “By the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the body.” Here's the dynamic at work in the Christian life. Yes, you are alive now, personally active, able more and more to say “No” to sin and “Yes” to God, but at every step of the way, your growing obedience is enabled and empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit who has given you new life. Upon whom we must all now learn to rely as we set about this painful work of what John Owen called “the mortification of sin.” He was expounding Romans 13 in his now famous book in volume six of his works of “The Mortification of Sin in Believers:  The Necessity, Nature and Means of It.” That’s what we have to do. We have to mortify it; put it to death. “Kill sin,” he said, “or sin will be killing you.”

Well if that’s the duty, if that’s what it means to be a debtor to the Spirit, to live according to the Spirit, that is, by the Spirit put sin to death that you might live, how do we do that exactly? Let me just offer a few practical directions on how to kill sin by the Spirit and then we’re done. So Christians are debtors not to the flesh to live according to the flesh. You’re free from that. Stop living that way. You’re a debtor now to the Spirit to live according to the Spirit. That means by the Spirit putting the deeds of the body to death, how do you do that? 

Understand That It Is a Matter of the Heart 

Well first, we need to recognize that sin is more than just a matter of mere behavior and mortifying sin, killing sin, is about more than stopping one behavior and starting another behavior. It is about the heart. Though the flesh is no longer our master, it seeks to still build a stronghold there in your heart, in your fears, in your longings, in your appetites, in your addictions. And the combat in which we are to be engaged as believers involves, therefore, searching the heart, dealing with our hearts, with our deepest motivations and desires. Romans 8:27 speaks about “God who searches the heart knowing the mind of the Spirit.” That is to say, the Spirit is deeply involved in the hard heart-work of rooting out sin at the most basic layers of our lives. If we try to keep things at the superficial level of outward behavioral change only, we will never make any real progress in killing sin. 

Pray for the Holy Spirit’s Power and Help

Secondly, we need to pray explicitly and persistently for the help of the Spirit as we wage war against the flesh. The Spirit helps us, no doubt in many ways, quietly, subtly, often even unnoticed, sustaining us, strengthening us without our ever asking for His help so that we find ourselves wondering, “Wow! How did I make it? I was upheld marvelously in ways I did not expect.” Praise God that the Spirit loves us and is committed to our welfare. But we mustn’t allow ourselves to presume upon those often unasked for, quiet, secret works that He is pleased to perform. We need to cling consciously to Him and plead for His help. Luke 11:13, Jesus told us, He promised us “the Father is eager, willing, ready to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.” In Ephesians 1:17, Paul does precisely that. He prays for the believers that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ.” Ephesians 3:16, he prayed similarly that they “may be strengthened with power through the Spirit.” When last did you pray for the help of the Holy Spirit in your day to day life and routine? When last did you cry to God, “O God, fill me with Your Spirit! Enlighten my understanding by Your Spirit! Give me the power of Your Spirit to live for Your glory!” If we kill sin by the Spirit, we need to start. If we are to kill sin by the Spirit we need to start by pleading for more and more of the Spirit’s power and grace in our lives.

Be Much in the Scriptures

Thirdly, we must be much in the Scriptures. The Bible, remember, is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. We can’t hope to slay sin unless we wield the sword of the Spirit often and diligently. The Holy Spirit makes the Scripture, the Bible, sharp and piercing in our hearts. If your Bible sits closed all week long until next Sunday, there’s no wonder at all that your sin is strong and that the flesh is apparently mighty in your life, not easily killed. Slay sin by the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. Get yourself into the Scriptures.

Get Under the Sound of Faithful Preaching 

Fourthly, do not neglect the preaching of the Word in particular. The New Testament especially connects preaching with the Spirit’s mighty work. Paul reminded the Corinthians, “My speech and my message were not implausible words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and power.” He told the Thessalonians, “Our Gospel came to you not only in word but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” When God works by His Spirit for our comfort, for our instruction, for our rebuke, for our growth in grace, He does it most often by the preaching of the Word of God, so give yourself attentively to the ministry of preaching. 

Turn Your Eyes to Christ and Rest Wholly on Him

And finally and fifthly, the Spirit’s great work is to get us to Christ. Sin withers and dies under the shadow of the cross. When Paul prayed for God to give the Holy Spirit to the Ephesians, he prayed that they might be granted power by the Spirit to grasp the wonder of the love of Christ that surpasses understanding. When he prayed that the spirit of wisdom and revelation might be given it was wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ. What is the Spirit’s great ministry? It’s to take you to Christ, to His cross, to His throne. It is to remind you of Him, to call you back to Him, to teach you to love Him, to rest all your weight upon Him. He is the one who is full of the Spirit without measure. If you are to take hold of the Spirit and by the Spirit kill the deeds of the body, it will be because you have received the Spirit from the nail-pierced hands of your Savior. Get yourself to Christ. There, in His presence, sin cannot hope to triumph. So fill your eyes with Jesus.

Christian, you are a debtor. You are under a binding, persistent obligation, but not to the flesh to live according to the flesh as though you owed the flesh anything. Stop living that way. Instead, you are a debtor to God, to Christ, to the Holy Spirit who dwells in you to live according to the Spirit. This you must do by killing the flesh that you might live for His glory. Understand, that’s a matter of the heart. Pray for the Holy Spirit’s power and help. Be much in the Scriptures. Get under the sound of faithful preaching and turn your eyes to Christ and rest wholly on Him. 

Let’s pray together.

God our Father, we praise You for the Lord Jesus Christ who died that we might live and in whose death the power of sin was broken and the gift of the Spirit purchased that we may die to sin and live to God. Help us, O God, by Your Spirit’s enabling then, no longer to live as though we were debtors, under obligation to serve the demands and dictates of our sinful nature, the flesh, but instead to live joyfully under obligation for the glory of God by the Spirit’s power. Help us ruthlessly, persistently, unflinchingly to be killing sin lest sin might be killing us. Help us to turn our eyes, O Lord Jesus, upon Your lovely face and there resting on You, looking to You, to receive the power and grace we need. For this we pray in Your name, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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