Sunday, April 8, 2018

Putting Sin to Death

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul wrote a lot about sin. And that makes sense. Sin is the problem that we all face, a problem that must be dealt with if we are going to be restored to our Creator. And Jesus has come to deal with that problem. Paul also wrote about how Christians are no longer in the Adam group which is under the curse of sin and death. We are now in Christ, freed from the power of sin, freed to obey God’s Law, freed to live well. And yet, as you know, it is still the case that, all too often, we, like Paul, do not do what we want but do the very thing we hate. We still sin. That is something that we need to acknowledge. But the Gospel tells us that we’re not stuck there. We can, bit by bit, get rid of our sins.

And that brings us to what we’re going to look at this morning. How do we get rid of our sins? Listen to what Paul taught.

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. Romans 8:12-13

There are many things going on here. Let’s work through some of them.

First, it’s important for you to see that you have a choice. You can live according to the flesh, that is, according to the sin that remains, or you can live according to the Spirit. This is very encouraging. Those who are without Jesus, those who are still in Adam, don’t have that choice. Oh sure, they still have choices to make. They’re not robots. But all of the options that they will consider are sinful in one way or another. But that’s not true of you. You can choose to reject your sin and to live in a way that is holy. You can choose to put your sins to death.

There is, though, the flip side to that. And you need to take this seriously. You also can choose not to put your sins to death. You can choose to live according to the flesh. It really is a choice.

But please notice Paul’s warning.

…if you live according to the flesh you will die…

It’s important that you appreciate Paul’s teaching here. He is writing to those saints that they just might die. And he means that in the fullest sense of death. They can choose wisely and live - with all that that means. Or they can choose foolishly and die - with all that that means. And yes, he writes this to Christians.

Now, what are good Calvinists like us supposed to do with this? And the answer, of course, is obvious. We are to believe it.

…if you live according to the flesh you will die…

The Spirit is using Paul’s words to speak to us.

I’m guessing that some of you are thinking, ‘But what about all those verses about our security as believers?’ Well, what about them? I’m sure that they are true. But at the same time, I’m also sure that this verse is true. Trying to understand how they all go together would be a very interesting study. It’s the kind of thing that I really enjoy. But we’re not going to do that. We know that all the verses are true. They all fit together since they’re all in the Bible. But what we don’t need to do now is figure out how they fit together. What we need to do now is believe what this Apostle of Jesus wrote to those Christians back then and what the Spirit is saying to us now.

…if you live according to the flesh you will die…

It is so important that you take this seriously. Don’t try to avoid it or soften it.  How you choose has life and death consequences, eternal life and eternal death consequences. Accepting that as God’s truth clarifies life tremendously. And it highlights our enormous need of God’s kind grace. So, make it a habit to pray that, by the grace of God, you will choose wisely. So much hangs on that.

Now, why did Paul write this? What’s it doing here? It is here so that Paul could stress the importance of the alternative to living according to the flesh.

…but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Putting your sins to death is not something optional, reserved for those Christians who are especially motivated. No. It is for all Christians. Is doing that hard? Yes. Will it take effort and diligence? Absolutely. Is there an alternative to living this way? Obviously. But that alternative will lead to death.

To quote an old Puritan: ‘Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.’ That is reality.

Would it be fair to say that Paul is offering his readers, and the Spirit is offering you, a warning? I think it is actually better to say that this is a threat. Paul is teaching that this is what God will do to those who ignore these words of His.

…if you live according to the flesh you will die…

Now, with that established, you’re ready for the practical question. How do you put your sins to death? 

First, please understand that this is not something that you can do on your own. Think about it. Do you actually think that you could get rid of even one sin all on your own? Oh, it’s not hard to stop how some sin might show itself. In fact, there are things that happen that make that easy.

Consider the sins of a young man. I pursued plenty of them in the days of my youth. But I don’t pursue them anymore. Does that mean that I put those sins to death? No. They are still very alive and reside quite comfortably in my heart. It’s just that they show differently. They now show in ways that fit the life of an older man. Same root sins, different manifestations. That sort of change isn’t what Paul is talking about. That’s not putting sin to death, though there are those who think that it is.

It doesn’t have to be a matter of getting older. It just might be that you are no longer in situations that would prompt some particular sin. So, for example, there would be no angry outbursts if everyone always agrees with you. But that isn’t putting sin to death, though there are those who think that it is.

And then, there are those times when you no longer find yourself sinning by worshiping the idol of food. But the reason for that is that you are now busy worshiping the idol of approval and working hard to get an attractive body. But, again, that’s not putting sin to death, though there are those who think that it is.

Putting your sin to death, really putting it to death, is something that you need the Spirit to do. Listen to Paul.

…but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body…

Killing sin requires the work of the Spirit. And your need of the Spirit will become obvious once you get a clear sense of what sin actually is.

So, here’s a definition of sin. You are sinning whenever you fail to respond to a situation in the way that Jesus would. That includes your actions in the situation, your thoughts about the situation and your desires that motivate you in the situation. Any failure to respond exactly like Jesus would is sin.

Now, someone might think, ‘But He was perfect! Do you expect us to be perfect?’ Well, yes, I do. Or better, yes, God does. He requires perfection in actions, thoughts, desires or it’s sin. 

Now, we don’t have to wonder how we should respond to some situation. That’s what the Law of God is for. There’s no need to wonder, ‘What would Jesus do?’ The Bible teaches how Jesus responded, and how we are to respond, to any kind of situation. It teaches what our actions, our thoughts and our desires are to be.

So, Jesus is our example, our standard. It’s perfection, like Him, or it’s sin. If you don’t get that, nothing else will make sense. It’s a key to understanding the Gospel.

But remember that Jesus is also your Savior. He has come to rescue you from these sins of yours. And He rescues you not just from the penalty of your sins. He also rescues you from their presence in your life. You do not save yourself. You know that. We have a label for that: salvation by works. And you know that never works. Jesus must save you, and He alone. And that is why when it comes to putting your sins to death, it is something Jesus needs to do. And He does it by His Spirit. That explains why Paul wrote,

…but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body…

However, be careful. That doesn’t mean that you just sit back and let the Spirit do whatever He does. No. Listen again.

…if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body…  

There is work for you to do. But please keep in mind that the only reason that the work that you do will actually put your sins to death is that the Spirit also does His work.

That was all preliminary. Now for the nitty gritty. What exactly are you to do to put your sins to death? It’s not complicated. Three steps will cover the basics.

The first step is prayer. And what you pray goes something like this. ‘Father, please show me my sin.’ Now, there are different ways to offer up a prayer. You can do it as if it were just another thing on your list. ‘Get up and take a shower. Check. Have breakfast. Check. Pray. Check.’ The goal isn’t to be able to satisfy your conscience that you prayed today. The goal is to connect with the Father.

The kind of prayer that I am talking about is motivated by this fact: if you choose to live according to the flesh you will die. When that fact is embraced by the heart there will be a certain seriousness when you ask the Father, ‘Please show me my sin’. And you will get even more serious about that prayer when you come to see that you have no idea what most of your sins are. Over and over again, you are choosing poorly.

As I was considering this part of the sermon, the thought occurred to me that it makes no sense for me to tell you to pray this kind of prayer if I don’t make it my own habit. So, just to be sure, I added this to the prayers that I offer up each day.

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! Psalms 139:23-24 [ASV]

You don’t have to use those words, but you do need to pray that kind of prayer.

Prayer is the first step. Now for the second step. Meditation on the Scriptures. Don’t make that more complicated than it actually is. Meditation is simply considering a bit of Scripture, asking it questions so that you can understand what it’s about. What does that word mean? Why is this sentence even here? What did the writer want his readers to think when he wrote that? In all of this, meditation always ends up with this question: ‘What is God saying to me from this part of the Bible?’ You pray that the Spirit will give you an answer to that question. And don’t worry. He will. Not necessarily immediately, but He will.

Bear in mind that the goal is not quantity but quality. It just might be that you will meditate, with great benefit, on one short verse for a whole week, five minutes and one question at a clip. The goal isn’t to get a lot done. The goal is to hear from the Spirit of God.

Now, as you pray - first step - and meditate - second step - the Spirit will show you things. One thing He will show you will be your sin. He will point out some particular sin, some action, thought or desire that doesn’t match how Jesus acted, thought or desired. He will reveal your sin to you.

And that leads to the third step, something that should be obvious. You need to repent of that sin. But, just as with prayer and meditation, there is the right way to repent and all the wrong ways. Paul is, again, quite helpful here. Listen to how he described the repentance of the saints in Corinth.

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! 2 Corinthians 7:9-11

There is a counterfeit repentance. It is rooted in a worldly grief. The repentance that comes from a worldly grief is just a matter of saying something like, ‘Oops. Sorry about that God’, and then moving on to the next thing on your to do list. That doesn’t result in forgiveness. It results in death. Worldly grief produces death.

The repentance of those saints was rooted in a godly grief. And it showed: earnestness, eagerness, indignation, fear, longing, zeal. That’s quite a list. My point is not that you have to evidence all of those qualities in your repentance. My point is simply this. When the Spirit points out some particular sin, take that seriously and repent seriously. That means admitting the sin and asking for forgiveness. But it also means looking for ways not to sin like that again.

Sometimes that means looking at the dynamics of your heart, looking for the sin behind the sin. I’ve mentioned before my sin of anger. That changed, was put to death, once I could see that behind it was my pride, wanting my way. The Spirit showed me that. So, along with repenting of the anger, I worked on repenting of the pride that gave rise to it. Do not settle for a superficial repentance. Pray to be able to repent of the sins of the heart.

I hope that it’s obvious that these three steps are beyond what you are able to do. Only the Spirit can make them happen. And He will. Just ask Him to do it. None of this will be easy. But there is grace for you to work at it and to make progress.

Last thought. It’s important that you see that along with the command there is a promise here.

…if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

There is more of the life of eternity, the life of God, for you to enjoy. As you work at obeying this command - putting your sin to death by the Spirit - you will experience more of that life. Obeying this command is not just about what you will avoid. It’s also about what you will get to enjoy. So, obey what the Spirit says to you so that you will be changed to enjoy a life that is more and more like Jesus’ life. And as you do that you will be an encouragement to other Christians and those who are without Jesus will come and ask you how you do it.