A podcast listener named Louis writes in to say, “Hello, Pastor John. In Romans 8:13, Paul tells believers that “if [they] live according to the flesh [they] will die.” What does Paul mean by saying to believers that they will die if they continue living according to the flesh after having been sealed by the Spirit?”
Louis and I agree that when a person is born again and receives eternal life — sealed by the Spirit, united to Christ, adopted into God’s family, justified — this person will never perish. I think he is assuming that. I am assuming that. He will be kept by God. He is eternally secure. He will never be lost. He may backslide, but not indefinitely and forever. God will hold onto him and cause him to return.
Kept to the End
And we believe it because of Romans 8:30: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” There are no dropouts between predestination and glorification.
Or take Philippians 1:6: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion,” or 1 Corinthians 1:8: “[He] will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So yes, we are on the same page when it comes to the perseverance of the saints or eternal security. Here is the question, then: What do the warnings of the New Testament mean when believers are addressed with threats that say they could perish? What in the world does that mean?
“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. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:12–14).
Believers War Against Sin
Now that last phrase is crucial. What he is saying is this: The reason you will live if you put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit is that you will show yourself to be led by God and, thus, a son of God. Those who are led by the Spirit, to put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, are the sons of God, and the sons of God cannot die. But if you are not a son of God, you will die. And so, I think the warning there is not that believers can perish, but that so-called believers can show that they are not sons of God. They may not be what they say or think they are.
Here it is again in Galatians 5:18: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.” And then comes this warning after a list of the works of the flesh: “I warn you” — he is talking to the church — “as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21). And so the point is the same as Romans 8:13 — If you are led by the Spirit to make war on the works of the flesh, or if you surrender to the work of the flesh, you are going to go in opposite directions.
“If you surrender to God and make war on the works of the flesh by the power of the Spirit, you won’t perish.”
If you surrender to God and make war on the works of the flesh by the power of the Spirit, you won’t perish. You will go into the kingdom of heaven. But if you surrender to the works of the flesh, don’t make war on them, but make peace with sin, you will show that you are not born of God, and you will be destroyed. You will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Paul says the same thing again in 1 Corinthians 6:8–9: “You yourselves wrong and defraud — even your brothers!” So he is pointing to a real problem in the church, and then he says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” And he lists a whole bunch of unrighteous people including thieves and the greedy and drunkards, and he says: They will not inherit the kingdom of God. So he is saying to the Corinthians, Look, you are starting to act like people who won’t inherit the kingdom. If you go on in this way, you will prove yourself to be false to the faith.
Believers Heed God’s Warnings
Now the reason I feel free to draw out that kind of interpretation is because 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” — In other words, if you are truly a Christian, you persevere — “But they went out, that it might become plain that all are not of us.” So the warnings are given to the whole church as a church with the assumption that those who are truly born of God will take heed to the warnings, apply them to their lives, and prove that they are part of Christ rather than part of the world.
And here is one last confirmation of this in Hebrews 3:12–14: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” So he is addressing the whole church as a body saying, Watch out! You can be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, and you can drift and fall away from God. Now does that mean believers can lose their salvation?
Take Up Your Sword
Here is what verse 14 says — it’s so crucial, it’s one of the most important verses in Hebrews, maybe in the New Testament — “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” We have come to share in Christ if we hold fast — that is, if we fight sin, if we resist hardening. It does not say we will come to share in Christ if we hold fast. It says your holding fast to the end, your fighting the fight of faith, your putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, all of them show that you have come to share in Christ, not that you will.
So all of our labors and works in the Christian life are evidences that we are real. And when they are missing, it is not that we cease to become born again, but that when we end this life in that condition — having turned on God and having not fought the fight of faith — we will be shown not to be part of Christ.
So my word is, Take up the sword of the Spirit and put to death the sinful deeds of the body with the confidence that Christ is in you and will fight for you and will never, ever let you go.