Last week I published a blog post about the great reward of putting off sin, dying to self, killing sin—whatever you want to call it. I wrote about the blessing of being able to see and enjoy Jesus more fully as we push sin out of the way. Today I want to talk about how we actually do that. It may be encouraging to hear a pastor, Bible teacher, or even a measly blogger glory in the benefits of putting sin to death—or to phrase it in a positive sense, living in faithful obedience—but that encouragement can fade pretty quickly when you go home and realize you don’t actually know how to do it effectively.
Some people believe (as evidenced in the comments section of last week’s blog) that there is no sin-killing to be done on our part because Christ has already died to free us from the power of sin. Though I wholeheartedly agree that freedom from sin can only happen in and through Jesus Christ, I don’t believe it is quite as passive or mystical as some folks describe it. When addressing sin-killing, the Bible not only gives us facts about what Christ has already done, but urges us to take action based up on those facts. We’re told that since Christ died and has been raised, we must also consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God through him (Romans 6:11). And since we really are alive to God in Christ, we must not present our members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present our members to God as instruments for righteousness (Romans 6: 13). Because our life is now hidden with Christ in God, we are commanded to put to death what is sinful in us (Colossians 3:5) and put on the new self (Colossians 3:10). All of these responses to Jesus’ work on our behalf require us actually doing something.
But before we go any further, let’s chat a second about a horribly incompetent fuel for our “doing”: fear. I think some Christians live in perpetual anxiety that one day God is going to snap on them. Doubting the sureness of his love, they live trepidatious lives—striving to avoid sin lest they awaken his hot wrath. Personally, this is the mindset that I am inclined to. I tend to have heavy doubts about God’s love for me and feel like his wrath is lurking just around the corner of my life, waiting to sweep me up the next time I sin. But friends, this is not the gospel! If we have entrusted ourselves to Jesus, God doesn’t sit as a wrathful judge over us. His anger for our criminal behaviors has been extinguished once and for all upon the head of Jesus. God is now our Father, and as any father would, he rejoices over us with gladness, quiets us by his love, and exults over us with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17). He isn’t sitting on the edge of his seat, anxiously waiting to kick us out of the realm of grace. We are tightly secure in his love.
The fear—reverence, awe, and respect—of the Lord is a good and necessary thing for us to possess. But when we, who are in Christ, begin to fear that God does not love us and isn’t committed to us as a father, we’ve crossed into a kind of fear that is anti-gospel. If you’re like me, and your efforts to obey are too often birthed out of and sustained by this anti-gospel type of fear, you know that victory over temptation is never long lasting. Fear is an inefficient motivator.
I believe the Bible actually gives us a joy-based, faith-driven, Spirit-empowered process by which to fight the flesh. I know that sounds super spiritual, but I hope that in the next few paragraphs, I can lay it out clearly and understandably.
1. We need the power and joy of the Holy Spirit to slay sin.
In John 6:63, Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” Romans 8:12 tell us that we put sin to death by the Spirit. Likewise, Galatians 5:18 teaches that we will not gratify the desires of the flesh if we walk by the Spirit. John Piper has said a million and one times that the key to conquering the joy we find in sin is to have a bigger and better joy in God. I believe he is right, and that it is the Spirit who gives us this bigger and better joy. But how does the Spirit with all of his joy-producing, obedience-fueling power become manifest in our lives? I believe the Bible would answer: by faith.
2. The Spirit fills our lives through our faith.
“Faith” is an overused term in our culture that carries all sorts of meanings. But biblically, I believe faith is best defined as trusting in Christ and really believing his promises are for you. Galatians 3:2-5 teaches that we first received the Spirit through faith, and that God continues to supply the Spirit to us through faith. I take this to mean that faith is the conduit for Holy Spirit power. Therefore as our faith increases, so does the manifestation of the Spirit in our lives. I think most of us who are struggling to walk in obedience would admit that our faith is weak and trembling. So it seems the next logical question is: “How is our faith strengthened?”
3. Faith is strengthened by exposure to the Word.
In Romans 10:17, Paul writes, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” I believe this means that exposure to the gospel is the means by which faith is ignited and strengthened. I have always been taught by my pastors and other teachers that if your faith is weak, get yourself face to face with the gospel. Read the Bible. Listen to sermons. Read theological works. Meet with other believers and discuss the things of Christ. Every time I’ve run to others for help because I felt my faith was fading, I have been instructed to feast on the truth I am struggling so hard to believe until I start to believe it. And lo and behold, it actually works. As my mind becomes fixed upon Jesus, my heart becomes increasingly assured that he is who the Bible says he is and that all of God’s promises in him are for me, personally.
You’ll notice that I didn’t include “prayer” as a step in this process. That’s because I think prayer should permeate every step of the process! We should constantly be praying for God to give us ears to hear and a heart to understand as we saturate ourselves in his word. We should constantly be praying for God to strengthen our faith as we process the message of Christ. We should constantly be praying for the Spirit to fill our lives with his power. I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in Luke chapter 11:11-13: “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
I believe the Bible teaches that as we prayerfully fill our eyes and ears and thoughts with the gospel, our faith is strengthened; as our faith is strengthened, the power of the Holy Spirit flows more freely in our lives; as the Spirit becomes more manifest in our lives, our joy in God increases; as our joy in God increases, our joy in sin decreases—thus giving us the power we need to live lives of faithful obedience to Jesus. This, I think, is the gospel-way of fighting the flesh. It isn’t rooted in fear. It isn’t rooted in a works-based mentality. It isn’t rooted in mere human willpower. It is rooted in faith in Christ, and empowered by nothing less than the Holy Spirit.
However, things in a fallen world are rarely black and white. As we pursue having our faith strengthened and the joy of the Holy Spirit driving our lives, it’s not like we instantaneously stop desiring sin. Can our fight against sin be joy-based, faith-driven, and Spirit-empowered even in moments that our joy is nearly nonexistent, our faith is weak, and the Spirit feels a million miles away? Is there a sense in which joy in the gospel can motivate our obedience even when we aren’t feeling it in that very moment? These are questions I will do my best to answer in part 2 of this blog post, later this week.