What Does It Mean to ‘Kill Sin by the Spirit’?
A podcast listener named Mapalo writes in to ask, “This is a follow up to episode 345 in which you asked, ‘Are you killing sin by the Spirit?’ Pastor John, what does this mean? How do I kill sin by the Spirit?”
All my thinking and praying and practicing on this point of killing sin begins with Romans 8:13: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body” — there it is: by the Spirit, kill, put to death the deeds of the body — “you will live.” So, there it is from the very mouth of God. Put to death, kill, slay, murder the deeds of the body — meaning the sinful ones.
Kill the Deeds of the Body
And, of course, it doesn’t mean just make sure your body doesn’t do bad things, and it doesn’t matter what your heart does. Of course that is not what Paul means. He knows that bodily deeds that are wrong are rooted in hearts that are wrong, and so the killing must begin at the root — or at least it must go to the root, not just to the fruit in the body. So, to kill the deeds of the body means kill the root of temptation — the root of sin — in your heart.
“To kill the deeds of the body means kill the root of temptation — the root of sin — in your heart.”
The old word for “put to death” was “mortify.” But it has become so weak in our day because a lot of people think it means, be embarrassed: “I was just so mortified.” Well, that is not what John Owen meant when he wrote The Mortification of Sin, which is a book I would highly recommend. I just got it out again this morning. It is 85 pages in the collected works, written 350 years ago — probably the best thing that has been written on Romans 8:13. It is 85 pages all on one verse, and it has that famous line in it: “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” Mortification of sin meant kill it, slay it, put it to death.
Three Steps to Kill Sin
Here is my answer to the how question and I take it straight out of the verse. There is one clue for the how in Romans 8:13. It says, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body.” So how do you do it? You do it by the Spirit. You act in such a way that the Spirit is happy. You kill in such a way that it is the Spirit killing. Now what is that? And that is not a marginal question, out here on the periphery, with “central things” in the Christian life as something else. This is as central as it gets in living the Christian life, because, for Paul, this was the Christian life. You could call it walking by the Spirit or bearing the fruit of the Spirit or being led by the Spirit. He uses all those terms to answer the question, “How do you act toward holiness and sinfulness in such a way that the Spirit himself is acting in and through you?” Here is my answer in three steps of how you do this:
1. Take up the sword of the Spirit.
Ephesians 6:17 says that the weapon that the Spirit uses to kill sin is the word of God. It says to take “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The one piece of armor in Ephesians 6 that is used for killing is the sword, and it happens to be the sword of the Spirit. And that happens to be the word of God.
I don’t think it is any accident when Romans 8:13 says, “By the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body.” The Spirit has a sword, and it is used for killing — and it is the word of God. So, my first clue is, killing by the Spirit means by the word.
2. Hear with faith.
What does that mean? What do you do with the word in order for the Spirit to be active like that in killing sin? And there, the clue is Galatians 3:5: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?”
So the answer is, by hearing with faith, the Spirit works miracles among you. By hearing with faith, the Spirit is supplied to you in your sin-killing work. How do you put yourself in a position that the Spirit wielding his sword of the word will kill sin in your life? You do it by hearing that word and trusting what you hear.
3. Preach specific promises to kill specific sins.
Now very practically, what word should we trust? And here, I think it is absolutely crucial to say more than, “trust the gospel.” That is common today — real common. I think it is crucial to say more than, “trust in your forgiveness” or “trust in your justification.” That’s essential, because everything is based on that. But that is not the way the New Testament talks about this. The reason that we must hear and trust more is because the New Testament illustrates sin-killing over and over by telling us more than, “you are forgiven,” or “you are accepted,” or “you are righteous,” because forgiveness and justification are the foundation, and then the New Testament says, “All the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ]” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Because we are forgiven, because we are justified, all the promises of God — hundreds of promises that are concrete and practical and relate to specific situations — are true for you. So we never leave the gospel. We are standing on the gospel all the time, but we are preaching specific promises to ourselves in order to destroy specific sins.
Hear, Call, and Believe
Let’s just end this with one example: let’s take the sin of greed or covetousness, because here is a verse that shows what the paradigm is for how the New Testament says to fight the sin in the power of the Holy Spirit. Here is Hebrews 13:5–6: “Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have” — and here comes the dagger with which you are going to kill the love of money, and you are going to kill greed in your life — “for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”
So how do we put to death the sin of greed when the love of money starts to raise its ugly head and all the fear and the pride that goes with it comes? We hear a word. Well, what word do we hear? We hear the word: I will never leave you. I will never forsake you. I will be your sufficient helper. Man cannot destroy you. He cannot ruin you. I am for you. We hear those words about this afternoon, or the rent that can’t be paid, or the mortgage that is overdue — that specific promise. We hear it. We believe it, and God the Spirit Almighty, with his sword, kills greed and fear and pride and possessions. Killing sin means daily calling to mind and trusting blood-bought, specific promises of God.