Romans 8:13. 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.
The Christian life is a great paradox. God does it all, but we do it too. God’s will is being carried out in your life, but you must choose to obey God’s will.
Romans 8 is all about what God has done FOR and IN us by the Spirit of Christ:
- No condemnation
- Set free from the law of sin and death
- Sin condemned in the flesh
- The righteous requirement of the law fulfilled in us
- A new mind set upon the Spirit
- The Spirit of God dwells in us, we are in the Spirit
- The Spirit is life because of righteousness
- Life is given to our mortal bodies
- We live according to the Spirit as debtors to the Spirit and grace
But here in verse 13 we get a warning. Now that we know what God has done, here’s what YOU need to do – put to death the deeds of the body.
Our Puritan friends called this the “mortification of sin” or the “mortification of the flesh.”
“Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” – John Owen (dead Puritan).
“[Rom. 6:12] Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” – Paul (dead Apostle).
Without the controlling influence of the indwelling life of Christ, by the Spirit, the desires, passions, and even needs of the body will dominate and ultimately destroy us. C.S. Lewis, in a letter written to a friend, called this the prison of the self. Speaking of the imagination, he saw it driving us in one of two ways. Either it keeps us from others or it drives us toward others in healthy, loving, kind relationships. The imagination can keep us locked up in a false reality away from the real world. For example, Lewis says that the lustful imagination keeps us from “uniting with a real woman.”
So this is fun (or awkward)… a little bit of Screwtape.
But Lewis’ letter falls a bit short. If my only reason to control my imagination and thus mortify the flesh, by not lusting, is so that one day I will want to get married and “unite with a real woman,” then is that not also self-serving? Mustn’t we go further than this? Doesn’t lust harm all of my relationships? Even friendships? Yes, as Lewis said, there is a prison of the self, but my motivation for escape must be bigger than me. It must be God himself, not marriage, or any other self-promotion.
This may be why mortification is so hard. God is trying to eradicate sin from our lives. He wants to destroy the flesh. We are not IN the flesh, but the flesh is in us. Why did God leave us this way? Why does the flesh still plague us so much? Why the hard work of mortification? Why the battle of Romans 7? Why the threat of death in Romans 8:13?
The answer is two words: Grace and Faith.
To obey Romans 8:13 you desperately need GRACE. You cannot mortify sin and the flesh on your own. Apart from Christ, and his love, you can do nothing. And to obey Romans 8:13 you desperately need FAITH. If the life of love and holiness, the life of the Spirit, is to be lived, you must do it by faith. Self control (faith) comes from the Spirit (grace). God has given us everything we need for life and godliness by the Spirit, by our union with Christ. But we must appropriate it by faith.
Why the need for mortification? Because God wants us to experience grace and faith. Experiencing God’s grace by faith IS what changes our hearts. It changes our imaginations. It motivates the mortification of our flesh. Nothing else will. Without a faith in the goodness of God and a reception of the grace of God, we will not fight this battle.
And the battle must be fought. Life in the Spirit is not the end of moral judgments. It’s the beginning. The indwelling life of Christ has given us the knowledge of good and evil. We have, through grace, what we tried in the Garden to obtain through effort.
We are now responsible for what we will do with this knowledge. “To live is Christ” demands surrender. And this surrender will actually bring with it a greater knowledge of good and evil. A greater freedom to respond in love by faith. This surrender will change the heart and transform the desires. It will place in check the desires of the body – those, that left unchecked, would have killed us.