Make War: The Pastor and His People in the Battle Against Sin

Plenary Session — 2015 Conference for Pastors

Where Sin Increased: The Rebellion of Man and the Abundance of Grace


Over the years, it has become plain to me that not everyone likes the idea that life is war. I remember a colleague almost forty years ago complaining that the warfare image of the Christian life was not helpful, and that what was needed was the family image. God is our Father, we are his children, Christians are brothers and sisters, and life is fellowship. And I recall about twenty years ago, during a crisis in our church, a whole group of my friends in the church criticizing me for putting too much emphasis on the Christian life as a fight — a fight of faith — and reminding me that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

We all need critics, because we are all prone to distort the truth by how we use the truth. We can get a hold on a biblical truth and put such an emphasis on it that it gets all out of proportion to the place it has in the Bible. And the Bible is our measure isn’t it? The pastor must ask, Will I speak what is in the Bible? Will I embrace and speak all of it? And will I put an emphasis where the Bible does?

And in the Bible, the Christian life is described sometimes as family life, sometimes as the life of a farmer, the life of an athlete, the life of an investor, the life of an apprentice, the life of a manager, the life of slave, and the life of a soldier — a warrior. All of them are important. All of them contribute something to a way of life that overcomes sin and lives a life of worship and holiness.

But when it comes to dealing directly with the remaining sin in our lives, the images of the Christian life become less pleasant and more severe. And the closer we get to dealing directly with our own sin, and with the devil, the more deadly the images become. And, of course, this is not in anyway stylistically motivated. This is because the very center of our deliverance from sin is the slaughter of the Son of God. If we had been saved from the penalty and the power of sin another way — a peaceful way, a pleasant way, a tender way — the Christian life might not be such a blood-earnest affair. But with a bloody crucifixion at the center of everything, we are not be surprised that in dealing with sin that Christ died to destroy, we are drawn into some very serious conflict. Warfare.

Here is one dominant New Testament pattern for how God saves us from the eternal penalty and the overwhelming power of sin. He was killed for your sin. You were killed in him and died to sin. Therefore, kill in yourself every quivering of that corpse of sin, lest you find him to be no corpse, but a captor, and yourself dead. He was killed for your sin. You were killed in him. Kill sin in yourself. * 1 Peter 2:24, “He bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). * Romans 6:6, 2, “We have been united with him in a death like his. . . . Our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing. . . . How can we who died to sin still live in it?” * Galatians 2:20; 5:24, “I have been crucified with Christ. . . . Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” * Colossians 3:3, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” * Romans 7:4, “You have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another.”

And if he was killed for us, and we have been killed in him, then — what? He doesn’t say, “Since Christ died for you, and you died to sin with him, therefore there’s no battle.” He says, “Therefore, kill sin!” Let us be killing in us what killed him — our sin. * Romans 8:13, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you kill the deeds of the body, you will live.” * Colossians 3:5, “Put to death what is earthly in you.” * 1 Corinthians 9: 27, “I pommel my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” * 1 Corinthians 15:31, I die every day!”

He was killed for your sin. You were killed in him. Kill sin in yourself.

It’s not a peaceful picture. It’s not a pretty picture. Because sin is not a pretty reality. All human suffering, especially the suffering of the Son of God, is meant by God to portray, for dull souls like ours, the unimaginable ugliness and offensiveness of sin — That’s why God subjected the world to this horrible futility (Romans 8:20) — to make plain how ugly and offensive sin is. * So ugly and so offensive the only remedy is the death of an infinitely worthy, divine substitute (Isaiah 53); * so ugly and so offensive that all human death—billions and billions of deaths—are owing to one sin (Romans 5:12); * so ugly and so offensive that everlasting conscious torment is a just and proper response to it (Revelation 20:10; 14:11); * so ugly and so offensive that it justifies the slaughter of the Canaanites, because finally the iniquity of generations was full (Genesis 15:16; Deut. 9:4-5); * so ugly and so offensive that Jesus describes it in a parable as an unpayable debt, 10,000 times 20 years’ wages (Matthew 18:24); * so ugly and offensive that God ordained 1,500 years of law-covenant so that every mouth would be stopped, and all would see that no human being will be justified by works of the law, because through the law comes only knowledge of sin, not deliverance from it (Romans 3:19–20).

Conflict with ugly and offensive reality is not a peaceful or pleasant affair, neither on Golgotha, nor in your bedroom or kitchen or TV room. If we are faithful, every time we meet the quivering power of sin, we meet it with a sword. No truce, no compromise, no prisoners. Fight to the death.

So, it is entirely possible that I have overemphasized that life is war, that we may never sue for peace with sin, or aim at peaceful coexistence. That our enemy is never sleeping. That we must be ever vigilant and never careless. If I have struck this note too often, others will judge. My sense is: If anything, I have struck it too little, not too much. “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you,” is not just good John Owen (Mortification of Sin in Believers in The Works of John Owen, Vol. 6, 9), but good St. Paul.

How Dangerous Is Sin?

Which brings me now to the questions: How dangerous is sin to you? And how shall we put it to death? That is, how shall we successfully make war? And I am aware that the title of this message is: “. . . The Pastor and His People in the Battle Against Sin.” Virtually everything I am saying is intended to help pastors answer the question: How do I help my people defeat sin in their lives? How do I help them successfully make war on their sin.

Our people need to know how dangerous sin is in order to face this enemy the way they should. I think one of the reasons so many worship services in America are so playful and amusing and entertaining and casual and flippant and jokey and trifling and downright silly is that there is so little sense that anything ominous is really at stake in this service. This service is for secure believers to have fun and for unbelievers to see them have fun; so they will know Christianity is fun. And “fun” has become the most common word among pastors to describe their happiness in ministry. It’s very telling.

I was changed forever in a course on Romans 1–8 with Dan Fuller in Seminary 45 years ago. I recall the shattering discussion we had over Romans 8:13. I would never think about worship or small groups or counseling or personal devotions ever the same again. “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.”

This means: If you live according to the flesh, you will perish in the eternal wrath of God. And if, by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will at last possess eternal life. And Paul does not pause to say, “Now, I’m not talking to those I’ve been talking to so far, the “saints” at Rome (Romans 1:7). I’m only talking to the non-elect, who may happen to be listening, because really you non-elect are the only ones who will die like that. The rest are secure. So I’m not talking to them.” That’s not the way Paul talks to the churches.

And that’s not the way we should talk to our churches. He spoke to them as professing believers. And he could say in verse 15, “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons.” I speak to you as Christians. True children of God.

But he could say to the Roman church in verse 10, “If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” And then in verse 13 he says, “If you live according to the flesh you will die.” You will perish.

How could he talk that way to the “saints” at Rome? Thousands of pastors today would never talk that way to their people. Which is one reason why people don’t feel anything huge, eternal, life-shaking, awesome is at stake in this service or this message. Paul could talk that way because his understanding was that the way people receive and respond to the word of God confirms what kind of person they are: truly born of God, or not (cf. 1 John 4:6).

The child of God, moved by the Holy Spirit hears the words, “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,” and says in his soul, “This is God’s gracious warning to me to lead me safely to eternal life. This is God’s mercy to me to help me take up the sword of the Spirit and trust the promise of his grace, and make war on the sin remaining in my life. God is my Captain leading me safely home through the battle field.” And in that path of obedience the Christian enjoys the assurance and the security that there is no condemnation.

But the worldly person says to himself when he hears Romans 8:13, “I don’t need that kind of warning. I’m a Christian. I’m secure. I’m saved by grace, for goodness sake. I don’t need threatening words like, ‘If you live according to the flesh you will die.’ That’s for somebody else. Of course, fighting temptation is good. But don’t make it sound like such a big deal. I don’t think my eternal life hangs on killing sin. I have eternal life.” That’s the way a worldly Christian thinks, and his quiet rebellion against God’s word reveals his true colors.

Forty-five years ago I sat there amazed at Romans 8:13, and from then on I thought: I grew up distinguishing between salvation sermons and edification sermons. And now I see that every edification sermon is a salvation sermon. Every sermon is a salvation sermon. Eternal life is found only on the path of truth-loving, Christ-trusting, God-enjoying, Spirit-dependent sin-killing; and that’s what all preaching is about, not some of it — helping our people stand in the biblical patterns: Christ died for my sin; I died with Christ to my sin; I now make war on my sin and put it to death. The saints are being kept by the Spirit, through the word, every Sunday. Every sermon is a saving sermons for God’s people. By it they are being kept. Which means Sunday morning is serious. Really serious. Eternally serious. And, as we will see, the most joyful hour of the week.

How dangerous is sin? It is so powerful and so deceptive and so pervasive that if it is not killed, it will kill. Another way to say it is that killing our own sin is a negative way of describing our pursuit of holiness. And Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” In other words, there is a sin-killing, there is a holiness without which there is no eternal life. That’s how dangerous sin is. That’s how crucial pursuing holiness is.

Jesus put it like this: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). In other words if you make peace with your sin—if during your life, you develop a pattern of worldliness that does not make war on your sin—you will go to hell.

How serious is sin? Infinitely serious. How serious is the fight against sin? Infinitely serious. Your eternal destiny is at stake. That’s what I mean by infinitely serious.

Is this warning because, our justification — God being 100 percent for us, and not against us — is no longer on the basis of grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone? No. * It’s because the grace that justifies also, on that basis, also sanctifies. * It’s because the Christ who forgives us, on that basis, also fights for us. * It’s because the faith that connects us with his God’s propitiation of his wrath, on that basis, also connects us with his power.

This is the way God saves. His grace justifies and sanctifies. His Son is our perfection and our purifier. His gift of faith unites us with the pardon of Christ and the power of the Spirit. That is the way he saves. If we try to pull those pieces apart and say, “I only want the justification given and the perfection imputed and the pardon granted; I don’t want the sanctification and the purification and the power,” what you will have, is not biblical salvation. God doesn’t save like that.

If you want to be saved you welcome grace — active in justification and sanctification. You welcome Christ — for perfection imputed and purification imparted. And you have faith — the channel of pardon for sin and the channel of power for holiness. That’s the way you receive them. That’s the way you have them. That’s the way they do their saving work. * Jude says grace without power is licentiousness (Jude 1:4). * And Hebrews says that a Christ who does help us do the will of God is no great shepherd (Hebrews 13:20–21). * James says faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

So yes, dangerous. Deadly dangerous. And sin-killing is the only path of life. But no, this is not because grace has been replaced by merit. It’s not because Christ has been replaced by self. And it’s not because faith is replaced by works, but because grace and Christ and faith are channels of imparted power and holiness as well as imputed pardon and perfection.

How Shall We Put Sin to Death?

Since, then, sin is mortally dangerous, and sin-killing is necessary for eternal life, and since that life is a free gift by grace, on the basis of Christ, and through faith, how shall we put it to death? How will you pastors help your people put their soul-destroying sin to death?

The basic answer to this question grows out of our answer to last night’s question: what is the basic nature of sin? If you aim to kill sin at the root, you need to know what sin is at the root. And this is what pastors and people should care about most: killing it at the root, not the flower. When Paul says in Romans 8:13, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live,” there is no reason to think he means: Kill those deeds by last-minute acts of will power, and leave the entire sin-producing root system undisturbed. And there is every reason to believe he meant: Slay the deed by starving the root. Or better, tear it out, throw it away, and plant a new shoot.

Jesus said, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33). “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17). There is no eternal point in nipping bad fruit in the bud and leaving tree bad. There is social benefit from that kind of outward moral improvement: people won’t kill each other or steal or perjure as often if you provide some hindrances to bad fruit on bad trees. But at the last day, that kind of external restraint will be of no value for eternal life. And Paul is talking here about eternal life: “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” This is not outward moral improvement. This is inward root replacement.

So I say again, if we pastors aim to help our people kill sin at the root, they need to know what sin is at the root. And last night I argued from Romans 1–3 that at the root — at the bottom — sin is a preference for anything above God. Sin is treasuring anything or anyone more than it treasures God. And so the branches or the fruit that we call sins or sinning are any feelings or thoughts or speech or actions rooted in this devaluing of God.

Or we saw another way of saying it, in the words of Romans 3:23: “All have sinned, that is, all come short of the glory of God.” How? Our minds come short of knowing God truly, because sin suppresses the truth (Romans 1:18). And our hearts come short of treasuring God duly, because sin exchanges the glory of God for images (Romans 1:23). Which means that our whole soul comes short of seeing him in his all-illuminating truth, and savoring him in his all-satisfying glory.

So, pastors, I think our calling is clear. It is also humanly impossible. The human heart is blind to the surpassing beauties of God, and we are not victims of this blindness, but lovers of it (John 3:19). When Jesus saw the rich man prefer his riches to God, he said it was humanly impossible for him to do otherwise. But then he added, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

Our calling is to open the eyes of the blind, and to portray the all-satisfying glories of God himself in all his words and all his works and all his ways, to the end that our people would be broken hearted that they have preferred anything to him, and would henceforth see and savor God over all things. Wherever this happens it is the end of the dominion of sin.

Of course, if we are faithful to the Scriptures, we will always be mingling warnings with wonders. Warnings and threatenings by themselves cannot make anyone delight in God. God must be portrayed as all-satisfyingly glorious if people are to be wakened to see him and savor him as glorious. But the Bible is pervaded by warnings and threatenings for those who prefer anything above God. Why? Because, even though they can’t make us see, they can inform us that we are blind.

It would have been helpful if someone had hollered, annoyingly late at night, “Jacob, that’s not Rachel you are about to have sex with! That’s Leah! It’s going to mean trouble!” (Genesis 9:23–25). The warning doesn’t make Jacob love Rachel. Warnings don’t make you love God. But they are really helpful, when our minds are enveloped in so much darkness that we are about to go to bed with the wrong woman.

So, yes, pastors, there will be suitable, biblically balanced warnings for our people. But the lion’s share of our preaching, our teaching, our counseling, will be the portrayal of God in Christ, in every text, as more desirable than anything.

That’s my answer to the question: How will you pastors help your people put their soul-destroying sin to death? Week in and week out, in season and out of season, by word and example, you will show them the folly of treasuring anything above God, and the glory of seeing him and savoring him for who he really is.

If sin at root is preferring anything over God, then showing people the beauties of God in Christ is the path to holiness and life.

We kill the compelling attractiveness of God-substitutes with Spirit-anointed, Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting portrayal of the superior attractiveness of God.

Consider, as just one example of how this works, the way Paul combats the sin of sexual immorality in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 — the way he helps them put this sin to death.

This is the will of God, your sanctification [holiness, sin-killing]: that you abstain from sexual immorality [that you kill that sin]; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.

He didn’t just throw in the words “who do not know God” so we would know which Gentiles he is talking about. He put it in there to show the root reason for why they are in bondage to the passions of their lust. They don’t know God. God is a little comet making his dim way through the sky of their soul, and sex is the blazing sun pulling all their passions and into its orbit.

This is Romans 1:28 all over again: “They do not approve to have God in their knowledge, so God gives them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” They don’t know him and they don’t want to know him. And therefore it is not his beauty and brightness at the center of the solar system of their souls holding everything in holy harmony.

Look around you. How many Christians do you see bent with all their powers to know God more and more. More truly, more clearly, more sweetly? And how many do you see fighting graduate school sins with grammar school knowledge of God?

And if you say to me, “Oh, I think the percentage of people with Ph.D.’s in theology who commit adultery is just as high as it is among less educated people,” I would say, I don’t doubt it at all. And it’s because they don’t know God. It is possible to read about God for ten hours a day for forty years and not know God as beautiful and desirable and personal and more precious and more satisfying than anything.

Our calling is to open the eyes of the blind that they might know God as the supreme treasure of the universe — to see and savor God above all things. Here’s the way Jesus commissioned Paul for this task in Acts 26:17-18. And I speak it to you pastors:

I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified (holy, sin-killing) by faith in me.

People attain holiness and are empowered to kill sin when their eyes are opened to the supreme beauty and glory and all-satisfying worth of God. And of course only God can make this happen. Nobody just decides to see God as supremely beautiful. It’s a gift of sight (2 Corinthians 4:6).

After you have loved your people well and preached and taught them with skill, Paul doesn’t say it’s automatic that people will see and savor the truth of God. He says in 2 Timothy 2:25, “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil.”

God opens the eyes of the blind to see and repent and know the truth and beauty of God. Which is why, pastors, we weave into and under all our ministry the constant prayer to God,

Open my eyes that we may see wondrous things out of your word (Psalm 119:18). And after you have opened mine, give my people a Spirit of revelation in the knowledge of yourself. Open the eyes of their hearts that they may know what is the hope to which he has called them, what are the riches of your glorious inheritance (Ephesians 1:17–18). And so sever the root of preferring anything to you.

That’s the way we pray. And that’s the way we preach.

So, in the end, the warfare doesn’t sound so bleak. It is serious. Every Sunday. Everyday. But it is a profoundly happy business, because our main work is, by the Spirit of God, with the word of God, to portray the glories of God as more beautiful and more satisfying than anything in the world. We pastors, we people, are a seriously happy band because we aim to kill sin that kills joy in God.