Holiness Means More Than Killing Sin

He was 31 years old. Born in modern Algeria, from all accounts he had an ambitious streak that could border on ruthlessness. But it was matched by a probing intellect and a thirst for reality that had the potential to unbalance him or even lead to perpetual disappointment. The combination had taken him to great cities and led him to inquire into world religions and philosophies. But now, barely into his thirties, he was on the verge of despair so extreme that one day, despite his pleasant surroundings, he could scarcely sit still or stem the flow of tears. And then he heard two Latin words — Tolle lege — that changed everything.

At first, he thought the words must be part of a child’s game. But he knew no game that included the mantra “Take it and read it.” But by what John Calvin would later call “a secret instinct of the Spirit,” he reached out for the copy of the Scriptures that lay beside him. Opening it randomly — as people in antiquity did, hoping for divine direction — he read the words that brought him to faith in Christ.

You likely have guessed his identity. Perhaps you recognized him from the first sentence: Aurelius Augustinus — Augustine. But do you know where the Scriptures “randomly” fell open, and the words that changed everything? Romans 13:14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Augustine would ponder and seek to apply these words for the rest of his life. For all the profundity of his grasp of God’s grace, he could doubtless say of them what he wrote of the mystery of God’s sovereignty: “I see the depths, I cannot reach the bottom” (Works of Saint Augustine, 3.2.108).

Gospel Grammar

Underlining the significance of Paul’s words from the vivid context of Augustine’s conversion hopefully serves to secure them in our minds and hearts — “like nails firmly fixed . . . given by one Shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:11). In fact, the words are so pointed that repeating them a couple of times may fix them permanently in your memory banks. And they need to be well secured there because they enshrine key biblical principles for living to the glory of God.

Paul’s words contain two imperatives. What is particularly striking about them is that they not only tell us what to do, but the first imperative contains within itself the indicative that makes possible the effecting of the second imperative. Their importance can be measured by the fact that the effect of Romans 13:14 on the history of the church through Augustine is rivaled only by the effect of Romans 1:16–17 on the church through Martin Luther.

“The biblical gospel has a grammar all its own.”

The biblical gospel has a grammar all its own. Just as failing to properly use the grammar of a language mars our ability to speak it, so an inadequate grasp of the grammar of the gospel mars what the older translations fittingly called the “conversation” of our lives. It results in lives that reflect Christ in a stilted manner.

So how are the substructures of gospel grammar illustrated in Romans 13:14?

The Balance

First, the emphasis on the positive (“put on”) is matched and balanced by an emphasis on the negative (“make no provision”). This is characteristic of Paul. Think of Galatians 5:24: “Those who belong to Christ [positive] have crucified the flesh [negative].” Or consider Ephesians 4:21–24: you were taught

as the truth is in Jesus . . . to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires [negative], and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness [positive].

Perhaps the clearest and fullest example is in Colossians 3:1–12. Those who have died and been raised with Christ, those whose lives are hidden with him and who will appear with him in glory, are to “put to death whatever is earthly [negative]” and to “put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience [positive].”

The grammar lesson? There is no growth in holiness unless both the negative and the positive elements are present.

More Than Mortification

None of us is by nature “normal” or “balanced.” We sinners are inherently lopsided. Each of us has a natural bias either to the negative or the positive. If we have not discovered that, we probably have not yet come to know ourselves adequately. Thus, some of us tend to think of sanctification largely, if not entirely, as a battle against sin. John Owen’s eighty pages on The Mortification of Sin is the book for us! (In the circles in which I moved as a teenager, not to have read Owen on mortification was tantamount to apostasy! And after all, the addresses that lay behind it were probably first preached to teenagers — students at Oxford University.)

The mortification of sin is indeed vital. Owen was right: if we are not killing sin, it will be killing us. His memorable one-liner comes as a shock to much modern Christianity: “Let not that man think he makes any progress in holiness who walks not over the bellies of his lusts” (Works of John Owen, 6:14).

But sin is never truly mortified by mortification alone. To borrow from our Lord’s parable, if we only empty the house (mortify sin) without filling it (putting on graces), the devils will simply return in greater force (Matthew 12:43–45). We need to furnish our lives with the fruit of the Spirit. Repentance involves conversion; conversion means a reversal. So, we need to put on as well as put off.

Making no provision for the flesh (mortifying sin) by the power of the Spirit is not an end in itself. It is not the Spirit’s ultimate goal; in fact, on its own, it is not sanctification. It is a vital means to a greater end — and that end is that we may live in unclouded fellowship with our holy Lord.

Holiness Is Christlikeness

So, Paul always balances his emphases. We need to put on as well as put off. The works of the flesh need to be superseded by the fruit of the Spirit. This is the point of Thomas Chalmers’s famous sermon on 1 John 2:15, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.”

“Sanctification is not merely the process of overcoming our sin; it is, ultimately, becoming like the Lord Jesus.”

Sanctification is not merely the process of overcoming our sin; it is, ultimately, becoming like the Lord Jesus. For this is the goal of the Father who has “predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). He will be content with nothing less. This is also the passion of the Holy Spirit, by whom we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). For it is this — Christlikeness — that constitutes the “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). A staggering thought, but a wonderful motivation: nothing in us that is un-Christlike will be able to last in the presence of God!

Therefore, any less goal than pursuing the knowledge of Christ and growing into his likeness is not worth living for. Only that in you that reflects him will last forever. But it will last forever.

The Order

In addition to balance in Paul’s words — negative and positive — there is also order in his gospel grammar. It is not always the order of his words, but it is always the order of his logic. For gospel logic, and therefore gospel grammar, never changes. It has a fixed order. And as it happens, Augustine’s text is particularly helpful here because the order of the literary grammar is identical with the logic of the gospel’s grammar. Not only are putting on and putting off balanced, but putting on the Lord Jesus Christ is primary and foundational. It is always the first principle in Paul’s theological grammar when he writes about our sanctification.

But why? The answer is embossed on the pages of Scripture. Our fundamental need is not for “mortification” or even for “sanctification.” It is for the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Mortification and sanctification are but the pathway to “Christification”! And as Abraham Kuyper shrewdly put it, there are no other resources in heaven or on earth for the Holy Spirit to employ to make us Christlike outside of Christ himself. Only in him are there resources appropriate and adequate to transform sinful humans into Christlike ones. Sanctification is not deification, but it is transformation into the likeness of the holy humanity of our Lord Jesus, and glorification is the end of the process. For then “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Only when we are “in Christ,” only when we have “put on Christ” — “who became to us . . . sanctification” (1 Corinthians 1:30) — and have taken him as ours, receiving him as our clothing, wrapping ourselves in him, does becoming like him begin. Otherwise, we are merely seeking to remake ourselves according to the pattern of moral ideals (even if they are those of the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount). We are missing the point. For our chief need is to “be found in Christ” and to “know him and the power of his resurrection, and . . . share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible [we] may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:9–10).

So, all we need is found in Christ. Everything you need is found in Christ. Mortification, sanctification, and glorification all begin and end in Christ alone. When he fills our horizon, all the other elements in sanctification make grammatical sense: mortification and vivification are balanced in our “conversation”; sanctification develops like a well-crafted sentence. Yes, there will be punctuation marks, and perhaps even unfinished sentences (Paul knew all about that). But if we look elsewhere, our lives will not speak clearly of our Savior and Lord.

Give Me Christ

This was what Augustine saw — the very man who once prayed, “Give me continence, but not yet.” He had things the wrong way around. He needed first to say, “Give me Christ.”

This has perhaps never been better expressed than by the Reformer who wrote (albeit not completely accurately!) that Augustine was “totally ours” — namely, John Calvin. His words make a fitting closing meditation for us:

When we see salvation whole — and every single part — is found in Christ, we must beware lest we derive the smallest drop from somewhere else.

If we seek salvation, the very name of Jesus teaches us that he possesses it.

If other Spirit-given gifts are sought — in his anointing they are found.

If strength — in his reign; purity — in his conception; tenderness — expressed in his nativity, when he was made like us in all respects, that he might learn to feel our pain.

Redemption when we seek it, is in his passion found; acquittal — in his condemnation lies; and freedom from the curse — in his cross is known.

If satisfaction for our sins we seek — we’ll find it in his sacrifice; and cleansing in his blood.

If reconciliation now we need, for this he entered Hades; if mortification of our flesh — then in his tomb it’s laid; and newness of our life — his resurrection brings; and immortality as well comes also with that gift.

And if we also long to find heaven’s kingdom our inheritance, his entry there secures it now with our protection, safety too, and blessings that abound — all flowing from his kingly reign.

The sum of all for those who seek such treasure-trove of blessings, these blessings of all kinds, from nowhere else can now be drawn than him; they’re found in Christ alone. (Institutes 2.16.19)

So, let us “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.