“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.” Romans 8:13
Paul’s Letter to the Romans is quite possibly the most significant of the New Testament works outside of the Gospels. It is, undoubtedly, the most important of the epistles, and as such is the first epistle listed in the New Testament canon. The theological and doctrinal richness of this letter is such that one can study it time and time again, and after each reading come away with new insights.
In Romans, Paul spells out some great theological truths for the Roman Christians. He takes these concepts, many of which later church leaders would continue to wrestle with, and instructs the Romans on how to apply these truths to their lives. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in Romans 8, a chapter in which Paul tackles such topics like our debt to God, how Christ paid our sin-debt, and God’s eternal love for us.
While discussing these weighty topics, Paul addresses one of equal importance: How are the new Roman Christians—any Christians, for that matter—to live? Paul wastes no time in getting straight to the point on this issue. The Christian has two options: 1-to live according to the flesh, or 2- to live according to the Spirit. These two choices are mutually exclusive—one cannot do both; choosing one means going against the other.
Living for the flesh means just what one might assume it to mean—seeking after one’s sinful desires and fulfilling them. A flesh-driven lifestyle requires no work, for it is our natural state. There is no standard to uphold, for anything goes, and everything is permissible. A flesh-minded person does not concern themselves with God nor with the things that would be pleasing to Him. Quite simply, the flesh-driven lifestyle actively seeks everything that is not God; it actively seeks sin. Paul makes it clear for the Romans; those who live this way have only one final destination: death. This death is not merely of a physical nature, but also a spiritual death in which one suffers eternal separation from God and comes to the ultimate realization of the error of their ways. It is as Paul would say elsewhere in Romans, “the wages of sin are death,” (Romans 6:23).
Paul contrasts this flesh-driven lifestyle with that of the Spirit-filled lifestyle. In the latter, those who are filled with the Spirit –those are living according to Christ’s call—put to death the deeds of their body; they not only flee from sin and temptation, but they put their sin and sinful desires to death. This not accomplished by any deed of the individual person, Paul makes it clear that this is only possible through the power of the Spirit. Only through the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in His followers can this occur. When we seek Christ first and to live as He calls us to, we kill our sin. What Paul is saying is this: if we live according to our desires, we will fall into sin; but, when we live in the strength of the Spirit, it allows us to defeat those sins. In this sort of life, in which one wholly relies on Christ and is filled with the Spirit, there is life. David comes to a similar conclusion in the Psalms when he penned “A perverse heart shall be far away from me; I will know nothing of evil,” (Psalm 101:4) David knew, just as Paul was trying to teach the Romans, that the one living for God must live differently than everyone else.
This raises hard questions for us: do we hate our sin and do we try to kill it? Or do we try to push the envelope and get as close to sin as we can? We will never be free from sin in this world, so do we live in the power of the Spirit and trust in it to sustain and deliver us in times of temptation, or do we indulge and then attempt to justify and rationalize our choices and behaviors? To use Paul’s words, do we live according to the flesh, or do we live by the Spirit? Does it break our hearts when we sin or have we become like the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day who “no longer blush” at their sins? (Jeremiah 6:15). We must remember that living for the flesh leads to death, and sin will rob us of the joy of our salvation.
We must seek to kill our sin when it confronts us. Yes, Christ offers us forgiveness when we do sin, but He died so that we might live differently. Sin is like a fungus or cancer–small and unnoticed at first–but left unchecked, will devour an entire body from the inside out. That is what Paul was trying to get the Romans—and us—to understand. Sin is no laughing matter; it is life or death.
John Owen (1616-1683), an English Puritan minister, said it best: “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”
Art credit: “Dance of Death,” Michael Wolgemut, 1493.