Romans 8:13 “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” KJV
The conditional assertion from the Apostle Paul could not be more clear, living in the flesh results in death while mortifying, or killing, the deeds of the body through the Spirit results in life. But what inferences are there for us to make here and how can we apply this mortification to our lives? Sometimes, we Christians know just enough to be dangerous. Give us one grain of truth and we’ll take it, expand it, and offer up overgeneralizations for any and every situation that arises. Perhaps this is never more evident than the passivity with which we treat the presence of indwelling sin in our lives. We read verses like Romans 3:10 ESV “None is righteous, no, not one,” or we see Paul’s discourse on the presence of sin in his own life, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18 ESV) and we apply them outside of their contextual meaning and assert that these, and similar verses on the nature of sinful man, must mean that there is nothing to be done regarding sin in our lives. We instead hang our hat on our “decision” made to “receive” Christ as Savior, simply stopping there and neglecting the main purpose for our salvation, “to be conformed to the image of Christ” through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
Far too quick are we to presume that since sin is ever-existent on the earth and that our past, present, and future sins are forgiven by the blood of Christ, then it really doesn’t matter if we sin or not, it’s covered and we’re still on our way to heaven. Nothing could be further from the truth that God’s Word teaches. Salvation is not the end in and of itself; it’s the means to the end of glorification with Jesus Christ in heaven for all eternity. Paul affirms this later in the same chapter of our subject passage, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Romans 8:29-30 ESV
“Predestined to be conformed to the image of his son,” in other words, holy. While we know holiness is impossible as long as we remain in our fleshly bodies, it still remains the goal of every person that professes Christ as Savior, the duty to obey out of love His command to “be holy as I am holy.” It is with this perspective we can view Romans 8:13 and realize our duty as believers is to not be satisfied with the presence of sin in our lives, but to kill it, to mortify it through the power of Holy Spirit. The Puritan great, John Owen, in his monumental work The Mortification of Sin, describes the role of believers as follows, “The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.”
If Owen and the Puritans recognized this nearly 400 years ago, why then have we become so desensitized toward sin these days? The answer is likely due to multiple reasons, not the least of which include a lack of reverence for God, failure to recognize His holiness, lack of fear of God, and a lack of love for Him. Nevertheless it is the role of those who follow Christ to put to death the deeds of the flesh, to make it our “business…to mortify the indwelling power of sin,” that we may be vessels “for honorable use.”
Owen continues, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world. The principle efficient cause of the performance of this duty is the Spirit – ‘If by the Spirit.’ All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leaves us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit.” Christianity is not a will power religion, as one pastor states, it’s a supernatural one and as such, we must constantly be looking to God for our daily bread and this is especially true in regards to our war with sin. The key clause in this assertion from Paul is, “through the Spirit” and is a necessary statement because it removes any works-based sanctification from our own power, the self-strength that John Owen made reference, but instead instructs us to rely on the divine power of God.
What then is our role in this matter? We must ask if it is the Spirit that mortifies sin, why then does Paul exhort us to do this, just as he did in Romans 6:12 “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body.” We can conclude from Owen 4 principles that defines our role, 1) “It is no otherwise the work of the Spirit, but as all graces and good works which are in us are His.” 2)”He doth not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience” 3) “The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience.” 4)”He works upon our understanding, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that His assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself” 1
Every good we do is by the power of God’s grace and this includes the good works that He has prepared us to do (Ephesians 2:10), while our mortification of sin through the Spirit is a direct result obedience to God. The power and presence of the Holy Spirit working in our lives sanctifies us while retaining our innate gift of liberty and freedom for obedience such that the blame of not mortifying sin, i.e. disobedience, falls squarely on our own shoulders leaving us without excuse. Finally we see that the Holy Spirit works in us and with us, encouraging us all the while to fight the presence of sin in our lives, perhaps similar to the effect of a young child riding a bike all the while their father is holding onto the seat helping them to balance and maintain forward progress, only in this instance He will never let go but instead will guide us all the way.
We may conclude with one final thought from John Owen, “Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Christian be not satisfied and complacent with the presence of sin in your life, you were called to holiness, therefore by all means strive by the Spirit to kill indwelling sin.
1 Owen, John. Volume 6 Temptation and Sin from The Works of John Owen, ed. William Goold. 24 vols. Edinburgh and London: Johnstone and Hunter, 1850-53; vols. 1-16 reprint ed., London: Banner of Truth, 1965.