Violence. What comes to mind when you hear that word? Nothing too good comes to mind for most of us I’m sure. Perhaps it’s a person with a fierce strength coming against another with the intent to overpower or destroy that comes to mind. That’s violent. Or maybe it’s a group of people that comes to mind, bent on rioting or wreaking havoc on unsuspecting people. That’s also violent. Perhaps it’s war that comes to mind and the horrible devices man has invented to end the lives of large numbers of people at once. That’s very violent. Perhaps what comes to mind is images of news footage covering devastation after the fact, like we’ve seen this very week in the footage from the middle east. This also is a kind of violence.
While these images (and many more) are understandable given the world we live in today, they’re all very alarming and negative. Would it surprise you to hear that there is a positive kind of violence? And would it further surprise you to hear that the Bible calls us as Christians to not only embrace but grow in this certain kind of violence? I’m not referring to violence against flesh and blood, no. I’m referring to violence against our sin. A fierce and strong violence against all that would rob us of our delight in Christ. This is the kind of violence God desires of us and calls us to. This is the kind of violence put before us in our text today.
Romans 8:12-13 is before today, but before we get to it remember where we are. We’ve just begun Paul’s rich and robust middle portion of Romans 8 where he unfolds the nature and work of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:5-17. The foundations were laid in v5-11. There Christians are defined as those who are not of the flesh. Meaning, we do not live according to the flesh, we do not set our minds on the flesh, and we are no longer ruled by the things of the flesh. No, we’re those who are “in the Spirit”, who set our minds on and live according to the Spirit. The Spirit who comes forth from both the Father and the Son, who has filled us, who is nurturing and growing us in His resurrection life and might, and who will keep us to the end. And on that final day the Spirit’s work within us will be complete and the result will be nothing short of total transformation. All of us, soul and body, will be made new. That’s the foundation laid in v5-11.
Allow me to ask a question at this point: how does this great work of the Spirit change my day to day life? What would you say? ‘That we can experience or feel the power of God?’ Out of the many places Paul could have gone in applying and expanding these things to us, do you see where he goes in v12-13? Because the Spirit is doing this great work in you, you then, put sin to death! That’s where he goes. So, let’s follow his lead and explore this violence of putting sin to death.
Here’s what I want to do in our time together today. First I want to walk through v12-13 and just get at the meaning in view to understand what Paul is saying, and to get a grasp of what God is calling us to in this passage. Second, I want to explore what it actually looks like to do the hard work of putting sin to death.
The Meaning of v12-13
“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.”
v12 begins with a transition. Like we’ve already seen, Paul laid the firm foundation of the Spirit’s work in us and with us in v5-11. As v12 begins we find the phrase “So then…” which is another way of saying “Therefore…” which remember, is the clue that Paul is once again drawing conclusions. It’s like he’s telling us ‘Because all of this is true, gloriously and absolutely true, about the Holy Spirit and His work in us, this then is how you live.’ Notice then where he goes. “We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” We’ve heard this word ‘debtors’ before in Romans. Back in Romans 1:14 Paul said because God saved him and called him as an apostle he was a debtor, or under obligation, to all people. To do what? To give them the gospel! The same word is present here in v12 to show us that because the Father and the Son sent the Spirit to so powerfully work within us, we are debtors, or, we are under obligation. To do what? To not live any longer according to the flesh.
We’ve heard this before in Romans as well. God didn’t save us so that we’d be at peace with our sin, or to welcome us into His family as we are to leave us as we are. He saved us so that by His Spirit we’d no longer live in sin or according to sin. Sin is no longer our master. And because sin is no longer our master we’re to no longer to obey the flesh, make room for the flesh, and give in to the flesh. Instead we’re to turn our backs on the flesh and run in the other direction. We have a new Master, the Lord Jesus, and rather than following our old sinful ways it is now Him we follow. If the Spirit is in us, if the Spirit works in us, it is inconsistent to disregard Christ’s leading into holiness by remaining in sin. Or as Matthew Henry says, “Being delivered from so great a death, by so great a ransom, we are greatly indebted to our Deliverer.”
All of v12 is then driven home to us in v13 in yet another contrast. The first part of v13 is near identical to what Paul has stated before in chapter 8, “…if you live according to the flesh you will die.” Standing against that see what we’re called to in the rest of v13, “…but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” What does this mean? There are deeds we do in the body that are sinful. True, sin is always deeper than deeds. And true, our bodies aren’t sinful. But the sin within us can cause us to use our bodies in sinful ways. These are the “deeds of the body” mentioned in v13. So, just as we would not allow poison in the food we give to our children, so too we’re called here to not just let these sinful deeds of the body linger or exist undealt with. No, the call is to put them to death, to slay them, to kill them. How? Not by our own power but “by the Spirit.” Church, do you believe that our sins will one day just be gone? Do we think holy living just happens by us desiring it? It is not so. We must put sin to death! There is no neutrality here, either we’re making war on sin or losing ground in our war on sin.
This contrast in v12-13 needs to be felt and heard, as it is, with no softening. If you’re living according to the flesh, if you’re not making war on your sin or not putting it to death by the Spirit, and if growing in grace and maturing in holiness and living in the power of the Spirit means nothing to you…then you’re likely showing that you’re false in your profession of faith. Death will rule you now, and death will be your end. But, if you’ve got a violent streak in you, against the flesh, causing you to hate your sin, turn from your sin, leading you to make war on your sin, and putting your sin to death by the Spirit…then you’re likely showing that you truly are united to Christ and true in faith. Life will rule you now, and life will be your end.
In other words, v12-13 teach us that putting sin to death is not the way we get saved, it’s the evidence, or the result, that we are saved. This is what v12-13 means, and this war against our sin is what God is calling us to in v12-13.
I think we’ve got a grasp on that and see the clear call before us. Now, let’s move on to ask a further question. What does the hard work of putting sin to death actually look like?
The Application of v12-13
When it comes to answering the question of what putting sin to death looks like, there are many answers that could be given. John Owen, an English Puritan, wrote a whole book on v13 called The Mortification of Sin (‘mortification’ being the KJV word for ‘putting to death’). I commend the work to you, you’ll benefit from it greatly. For us here this morning, I’ll just commend a few general principles to you about what killing sin looks like. We definitely won’t know everything about killing sin, but Lord willing, we’ll be well on our way down the right path.
What does putting sin to death look like? First, it looks violent. We’ve talked about this some, but let’s expand it further. There’s a bent to Christians today that gives the impression that we think the greatest commandment is not to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind…but that the greatest commandment is simply to be nice. That being agreeable and kind to one another is the virtue above all else. While a large part of this bent is good, nice…kind…agreeable is something we can never be toward sin. Ed Welch says it well when he says, “…there is a mean streak to authentic self-control…self-control is not for the timid. When we want to grow in it, not only do we nurture an exuberance for Jesus Christ, we also demand of ourselves a hatred for sin…the only possible attitude toward out-of-control desire is a declaration of all-out war…there is something about war that sharpens the senses…you hear a twig snap or the rustling of leaves and you are in attack mode. Someone coughs and you are ready to pull the trigger. Even after days of little of no sleep, war keeps us vigilant.” This is the violence, the war, the fight God calls us to in v13. Not violence against others, but against our own sin. Violence against all that would enslave us to ungodliness. Violence against all that would make us at peace with our sin. Violence against anything that makes righteousness seem strange and worldliness seem normal.
Jesus taught this. In Matthew 11:12 He says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Or hear Matthew 18:8, “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.” This figurative language shows us the seriousness and gravity of sin. Christianity is not a settle down and get comfortable in this world as you are type of religion. Christ’s kind of Christianity, calls us to an all-out assault on our sin.
But wait, didn’t Paul already tell us that our sin has been dealt with in Christ on the cross? Yes, he has. He told us this in Romans 3, Romans 5, and Romans 6 already. Well, why then the call to kill the sin that’s already dead? Because, even though sin’s penalty has been removed, and sin’s power has been poured out on Christ, sin’s presence still plagues us, and so we fight it. This is why the hymn O For a Thousand Tongues includes the line in it, “He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoner free. His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me.” Even cancelled sin still has power over us. But rejoice! The only sin we fight is cancelled sin. Doesn’t that encourage you all the more to fight it?! All of this means Christians are those who don’t play games with sin, or those who try to keep sin under control, or those who slowly try to wean themselves off of sin. Christians are not those who psychologize sin away, defining it as merely symptoms of our brokenness or woundedness. Christians are those who get as far away from sin as possible, turning away from the things that are sin and things that lead to sin.
Church, putting sin to death looks violent.
What does putting sin to death look like? Second, it looks spiritual. By saying it looks spiritual I mean putting sin to death is done “by the Spirit.” That’s what Paul says in v13. But, what does it mean to put sin to death by the Spirit? Thankfully Paul has already told us. Back in v5-6, remember? “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” So how do we “by the Spirit” put sin to death? We don’t just turn away from sin. We do that (!) but then we turn toward the things of the Spirit. Where do we find the things of the Spirit? In the Spirit inspired deposit of truth, the Scripture. And when we turn to Scripture we find all we need for life and godliness. It’s not called ‘the sword of the Spirit’ in Ephesians 6 for no reason. Swords are used to kill. So…use it! Read it! Pray with it! Linger over it! Marinate your heart in it! Live in line with it! When the Spirit inspired Scripture rules your life and you live in submission to it, you’ll find yourself living according to the Spirit, setting your mind on the things of the Spirit, walking in the step with the Spirit, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, and slaying your sin by the Spirit. We’re to be so full of the Spirit that we’ve simply got no room left for the things of the world.
Church, in this regard, putting sin to death looks spiritual.
What does putting sin to death look like? Third and lastly, it looks glad-hearted. When we think about putting sin to death, our go to thought is ‘just stop doing this and start doing that.’ That might help you for a time but eventually it will fail as a strategy to put sin to death. Why? Because we need to aim deeper. We need to aim at the heart. You see, no one sins out of duty. We sin because want to. We think, in the moment we give in to sin, that sin will be more pleasurable and more satisfying, than obedience to God. And so we don’t fall into it, we jump into it. What does this mean for putting sin to death? Again, we aim at the heart. Meaning, we kill sinful delights with higher delights. We kill sinful pleasure with greater pleasures. We kill sinful loves with grander loves. Question: in whom is the highest delight, pleasure, and love? Or: in whom can the human heart find all that it’s ever longed for? There’s only one answer: in Jesus Christ. He is better than sin, He is higher than sin, He is greater than sin, He is fairer than sin. Thomas Chalmers put it like this long ago, “…the only way to dispossess an old affection is by the expulsive power of a superior affection.” You hear that? The way to expel old sinful affections lingering around in our hearts is to go after a superior affection. When that superior affection comes into the heart it expels lesser affections and lesser loves. So, how do we fight sin and put it to death? Set our sights on Christ. There’s no death of sin without the death of Christ! Only a love for Christ will sever the root of sin and expel it out of our hearts. So, the deepest and most lasting way to put sin to death is to turn our eyes on Jesus and love Him with all our might.
Church, putting sin to death looks glad-hearted.
In the Harry Potter series, at the end of the 4th book called The Goblet of Fire the character Dumbledore says something to Harry that is very relevant to this text. The big villain has just returned and is busy working to bring all the good guys down, yet, the majority of folks don’t want to believe it. They stick their heads in the sand and pretend like nothing has changed. Dumbledore comes to Harry and says, “The choice before us is now between what is easy and what is right.”
Church, I’d say the same thing to you now. The world, the flesh, and the devil are seeking to devour us. The easy thing to do is deny it and stick your head in the sand. The right thing to do, is to stand bravely, and put it to death!
John Piper, “Until you believe that life is war – that the stakes are your soul – you will probably just play at Christianity with no bloodearnestness and no vigilance and no passion and no wartime mindset. If that is where you are this morning, your position is very precarious. The enemy has lulled you into sleep or into a peacetime mentality, as if nothing serious is at stake. And God, in His mercy, has you here this morning, and had this sermon appointed to wake you up, and put you on a wartime footing.”
John Owen, in his famous work said, “Christ’s blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this and you will die a conqueror, yes! Through the good providence of God, live so to see your lusts dead at your feet!”
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Commentary (accessed via Accordance Bible Software, 5.13.21) note on Rom. 8:12-13.
 John Piper, How to Kill Sin, part 1 ((accessed via Accordance Bible Software, 5.13.21).
 Timothy Keller, Romans 8-16 For You, God’s Word For You (The Good Book Company, 2015), 22.
 John Piper, How to Kill Sin, part 2 ((accessed via Accordance Bible Software, 5.13.21).