“Every healthy tree bears good fruit” (Matt. 7:17, ESV)
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35, ESV)
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10, ESV)
“And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24, ESV)
The mark of a true disciple is not sinlessness, but a rather an increasing hatred of sin. This thought is a summary of the many distinctions laid out in Scripture for the follower of Christ. As we grow to hate sin more and more, we will bear good fruit (Matt. 7:17), we will love one another (John 13:35), we will acknowledge and confess our sin (1 John 1:8-10), and we will daily crucify our sinful desires (Gal. 5:24).
But what does it look like to hate sin? Does it look like the Ascetics who denied themselves physical pleasures? Does it look like the Flagellants who took Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:27 (“I beat my body”) literally? No! What it looks like is described in Romans 8, where Paul writes:
“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. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:12-17, ESV—emphasis mine)
Notice that little phrase, “by the Spirit”? That’s really good news. Not only do you not have to do it on your own, you couldn’t even if you tried! The Puritan John Owen wrote in his classic work The Mortification of Sin:
The Holy Spirit is our only sufficiency for the work of mortification. All ways and means apart from Him have no true effect. He only is the great power behind it, and He works in us as He pleases.
Let’s take another look at the familial language laced throughout the passage we quoted above from Romans 8: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God…you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’…we are children of God…heirs of God…fellow heirs with Christ.”
Again, this is really good news. We can put to death our sinful nature and desires, but not because of anything inherent within us. Rather it is because of what Christ has merited on our behalf by his atoning death on the Cross. I didn’t deserve that! On my own, I’m a sinful, selfish creature who has transgressed against an infinitely holy God. There was nothing I could have said or done to earn His favor. But for some reason He determined to redeem a particular people whom He had chosen before the foundations of the earth (Eph. 1:4).
When we, as the Apostle Paul said, “Put to death the deeds of the body,” we don’t do it to earn, or even to keep God’s favor. He chose us! He knew we would be rebels. But He chose us anyway. This is mysterious. And might I say again, really good news. Paul said earlier in his letter to the Romans, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8, ESV). If I’m being transparent, I honestly cannot wrap my mind around this wonderful truth. But suffice it to say, our putting to death of our selfish, sinful desires is an act of worship in response for what Christ has done for us, not works to receive anything from God.
If you’re a Christian, you’ve already received it. Let’s respond in worship!
May I never forget that thou hast my heart in thy hands.
Apply to it the merits of Christ’s atoning blood whenever I sin.
Let thy mercies draw me to thyself.
Wean me from all evil, mortify me to the world
(“Penitence,” The Valley of Vision, p. 90)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Galatians 1:3-5, ESV)