Something We Don’t Think About Often Enough
When we have family Bible studies, I often find that God is the one serving me as I attempt to serve my family. It has often been a great means of grace to me as God reminds me of the things I needed to hear. The other night was one such night as we came to James 1:14-15, which says,
“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
The text reminded me of volume 6 of the Works of John Owen—which is probably the greatest book outside of Scripture when it comes to the the believer’s fight against sin and temptation. So, as I explained the meaning of the text to my wife and children, I said something that was emphasized in Owen’s works, namely, that “We must kill sin at the root.” My 10-year-old promptly raised her hand to ask me what that means. She said, “How do you kill sin at the root?”
Honestly, I was taken back a little. I know what it means, but to my own shame, I must confess that it had been so long since I had given any serious thought to the subject that I fumbled over my words as I was trying to answer her question. Yet, it is something I ought to think about daily.
Why Don’t We Think About Killing Sin?
From my own observation, this does not seem to be something that most of us think about or discuss often enough as Christians. I think there are at least two reasons for this trend:
First, with all of the innumerable news, blogs, and social media outlets, we have all somehow become experts at knowing how to precisely analyze and criticize everyone’s faults, failures, and imperfections in severest possible tone. That is, we have all developed the ability to be keenly aware of everyone’s sins—that is, everyone’s sins except for our own. We seem completely oblivious to own daily sins without even giving them a second thought.
Second, to some degree we have all been exposed to the cold, unloving, hyper-critical, legalistic, Pharisaical kind of Christians who are supposedly “holy.” These self-righteousness hypocrites leave a sort of distaste in your soul for the whole subject, since it is often seen as the enemy of joy and happiness. However, nothing could be further from the truth. As J.C. Ryle said,
“Let us feel convinced, whatever others may say, that holiness is happiness, and that the man who gets through life most comfortably is the sanctified man. No doubt there are some true Christians who from ill-health, or family trials, or other secret causes, enjoy little sensible comfort, and go mourning all their days on the way to heaven. But these are exceptional cases. As a general rule, in the long run of life, it will be found true, that ‘sanctified’ people are the happiest people on earth. They have solid comforts which the world can neither give nor take away.”
So then, let us take a few minutes to carefully consider what it is to be killing our own sin at the root, and thus find our peace, joy, and happiness in a holy life lived before God.
The Seriousness of Sin
On laying a proper foundation for this discussion, J.C. Ryle writes,
“He that wishes to attain right views about Christian holiness, must begin by examining the vast and solemn subject of sin. He must dig down very low if he would build high.”
If we know nothing of the seriousness of sin—how awful a thing it is in and of itself, how destructive it is, how purely evil and heinous it is, and how infinitely offensive it is to the God of glory—then we will see little use of pursuing holiness in our daily lives. If we fail to see the sinfulness of sin, then being justified will be enough for us. However, if we see sin for what it truly is, then although we’re truly justified, we will also long to be further sanctified from such things which caused our precious Savior to bleed and die.
So what is sin? J.C. Ryle says that sin “consists in doing, saying, thinking, or imagining, anything that is not in perfect conformity with the mind and law of God.” He goes on to say, “The slightest outward or inward departure from absolute mathematical parallelism with God’s revealed will and character constitutes a sin, and at once makes us guilty in God’s sight.” That is a really good definition. However, John Piper probably states it most clearly when he says, sin is:
“The glory of God is not honored.
The holiness of God is not reverenced.
The greatness of God is not admired.
The power of God is not praised.
The truth of God is not sought.
The wisdom of God is not esteemed.
The beauty of God is not treasured.
The goodness of God is not savored.
The faithfulness of God is not trusted.
The promises of God are not relied upon.
The commandments of God are not obeyed.
The justice of God is not respected.
The wrath of God is not feared.
The grace of God is not cherished.
The presence of God is not prized.
The person of God is not loved.”
That is sin! It is an infinite world of evil committed expressly against every command of God, every promise of God, and every attribute of God. How can we who have been reconciled to God possibly so dishonor God in our daily lives? Let us therefore be killing sin at the root.
Justification and Sanctification
At the outset, let us clearly reaffirm that justification is by faith alone, apart from works of the law. Every believer is counted as righteous the moment of their conversion. They are clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ, who is their righteousness. Charles Spurgeon wrote,
“The thief upon the cross was justified the moment that he turned the eye of faith to Jesus; and Paul, the aged, after years of service, was not more justified than was the thief with no service at all. We are to-day accepted in the Beloved, to-day absolved from sin, to-day acquitted at the bar of God. Oh! soul-transporting thought!”
It is critically important that we understand the differences between justification and sanctification if we are to grow in holiness. As John Piper has often said, “the only sin that you can defeat in daily life and replace with righteousness is a sin forgiven for Christ’s sake.” On the crucial differences between justification and sanctification, J.C. Ryle helpfully writes,
(a) Justification is the reckoning and counting a man to be righteous for the sake of another, even Jesus Christ the Lord. Sanctification is the actual making a man inwardly righteous, though it may be in a very feeble degree.
(b) The righteousness we have by our justification is not our own, but the everlasting perfect righteousness of our great Mediator Christ, imputed to us, and made our own by faith. The righteousness we have by sanctification is our own righteousness, imparted, inherent, and wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, but mingled with much infirmity and imperfection.
(c) In justification our own works have no place at all, and simple faith in Christ is the one thing needful. In sanctification our own works are of vast importance, and God bids us fight, and watch, and pray, and strive, and take pains, and labour.
(d) Justification is a finished and complete work, and a man is perfectly justified the moment he believes. Sanctification is an imperfect work, comparatively, and will never be perfected until we reach heaven.
(e) Justification admits of no growth or increase: a man is as much justified the hour he first comes to Christ by faith as he will be to all eternity. Sanctification is eminently a progressive work, and admits of continual growth and enlargement so long as a man lives.
(f) Justification has special reference to our persons, our standing in God’s sight, and our deliverance from guilt. Sanctification has special reference to our natures, and the moral renewal of our hearts.
(g) Justification gives us our title to heaven, and boldness to enter in. Sanctification gives us our meetness for heaven, and prepares us to enjoy it when we dwell there.
(h) Justification is the act of God about us, and is not easily discerned by others. Sanctification is the work of God within us, and cannot be hid in its outward manifestation from the eyes of men.
Now, with a firm foundation being briefly and necessarily laid, let us press on toward the present task at hand…
Be Killing Sin or Sin Will Be Killing You
Hebrews 12:14 commands us to strive for “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Sanctification is essential to our salvation, not as the basis of our salvation, but as the evidence that we have been born again and are indwelt by the Spirit of the living God.
Perhaps the most clear and direct verse in Scripture on this teaching is Romans 8:13. After Paul’s most rigorous defense of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, he boldly states,
“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.”
This is a conditional statement. “If” you don’t kill sin by the Spirit, then you will eternally perish under the wrath of God without any hope of redemption. Period. End of discussion. According to Scripture, it is the duty of every justified believer in Christ to kill sin. John Owen writes,
“That the choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin…Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you. Your being dead with Christ virtually, your being quickened with him, will not excuse you from this work.”
No one is exempt from this work. We all must do it. The question then is, how do we kill sin?
Kill Sin at the Root
Much of our problems arise from the fact that we attack certain habits or outward manifestations of sin, but we rarely set ourselves to putting sin to death at the root. We may break bad habits for a season, but they always come back because the root is still alive and well. This is why John the Baptist said,
“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9)
This follows his statement in verse 8 to, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” To lay the axe to the root of sin is how you bear fruit in keeping with repentance. If the axe is not laid to the root, then it will be impossible to bear good fruit. If we attack sin some other way, we might end up with an outward hypocritical form of repentance, but this will fall short of true evangelical repentance. Concerning this hypocritical repentance, Jesus said,
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Obviously this sort of outward repentance will not do. We need a deeper sort of healing. True sanctification goes beyond habits to the heart. In that text from our family Bible study, James 1:14-15, James said,
“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
There is a deadly progression in these two verses. We don’t attack sin at the final level of death. Nor do we attack it once it has already conceived and given birth to sinful habits. No. We must kill sin at the root level of our “own desire.” This is why Paul said in Colossians 3:5,
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Note that the things which must die include: “passion, evil desire, and covetousness.” These things are idolatry. That is to say, the corrupt passions, desires, and inclinations of our hearts toward sin are the inward manifestation of idolatry. Those desires reveal that we don’t desire God above his creation—even the good gifts he gives us in creation like food, sex, and leisure.
So then, to kill sin at the root level is to be battling sin at the level of our desires. This is heart work. We fight the sinful inclinations of our own hearts, even before they outwardly manifest themselves as sins or habits. Even when our lives may appear to be perfectly holy to others, there is still a real inward warfare being waged against every thought and affection which is not in perfect conformity to the nature and character of God.
Yet, if we are to make any real progress in sanctification, we must go even further than talking about killing sin at the root. We must also talk about universal mortification. John Owen says,
“Without sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained.”
He goes on to say,
“A man finds any lust to bring him into the condition formerly described; it is powerful, strong, tumultuating, leads captive, vexes, disquiets, takes away peace; he is not able to bear it; wherefore he sets himself against it, prays against it, groans under it, sighs to be delivered: but in the meantime, perhaps, in other duties,—in constant communion with God,—in reading, prayer, and meditation,—in other ways that are not of the same kind with the lust wherewith he is troubled,—he is loose and negligent. Let not that man think that ever he shall arrive to the mortification of the lust he is perplexed withal.”
The reason for this failure to arrive at the mortification of a particular sinful desire is that it arises from a sort of “self-love.” A fight only against the sins which bring us discomfort reveals nothing except a love for our own comfort. However, an all out war against sin universally arises from a love for God through the gospel. John Owen goes on to explain,
“Now, it is certain that that which I speak of proceeds from self-love. Thou settest thyself with all diligence and earnestness to mortify such a lust or sin; what is the reason of it? It disquiets thee, it hath taken away thy peace, it fills thy heart with sorrow, and trouble, and fear; thou hast no rest because of it. Yea; but, friend, thou hast neglected prayer or reading; thou hast been vain and loose in thy conversation in other things, that have not been of the same nature with that lust wherewith thou art perplexed. These are no less sins and evils than those under which thou groanest. Jesus Christ bled for them also. Why dost thou not set thyself against them also? If thou hatest sin as sin, every evil way, thou wouldst be no less watchful against every thing that grieves and disquiets the Spirit of God, than against that which grieves and disquiets thine own soul. It is evident that thou contendest against sin merely because of thy own trouble by it. Would thy conscience be quiet under it, thou wouldst let it alone. Did it not disquiet thee, it should not be disquieted by thee. Now, canst thou think that God will set in with such hypocritical endeavours,—that ever his Spirit will bear witness to the treachery and falsehood of thy spirit? Dost thou think he will ease thee of that which perplexeth thee, that thou mayst be at liberty to that which no less grieves him? No. Says God, ‘Here is one, if he could be rid of this lust I should never hear of him more; let him wrestle with this, or he is lost.’”
The painful truth is, sometimes we are beset by certain sins because if God let us successfully put that one besetting sin to death, we would never strive for that universal holiness that marks a life that is lived out of a true love and devotion to God. And neither would we pray to God earnestly, crying out for greater and greater degrees of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and repentance if we could rid ourselves of that one besetting sin. In short, our communion with God would be over, and our whole being would become corrupt with the pollution of sin and self-love. Even our most bitter tasting besetting sins may be ordained by God to this end, that we might learn to strive for universal holiness at the root level of our desires and affections.
So, what is the only pure and godly motive for killing sin? Owen says,
“Hatred of sin as sin, not only as galling or disquieting, a sense of the love of Christ in the cross, lie at the bottom of all true spiritual mortification.”
This is the only acceptable principal for true mortification of sin.
Finally, we come to the thing itself. What does it mean to put sin to death? How do we actually kill sin “by the Spirit” as it says in Romans 8:13? John Owen says,
“the ‘axe is to be laid to the root of the tree,’—the deeds of the flesh are to be mortified in their causes, from whence they spring.”
“To kill a man, or any other living thing, is to take away the principle of all his strength, vigour, and power, so that he cannot act or exert, or put forth any proper actings of his own; so it is in this case. Indwelling sin is compared to a person, a living person, called ‘the old man,’ with his faculties, and properties, his wisdom, craft, subtlety, strength; this, says the apostle, must be killed, put to death, mortified, that is, have its power, life, vigour, and strength, to produce its effects, taken away by the Spirit.”
What man of God is there among us who does not understand all too well the meaning of these words, that sin has a power, life, vigor, and strength of its own? This principal of sin, these actings of ‘the old man’ must be buried in the grave. How do we do that? Faith in Christ.
As complicated as the whole issue of sanctification might seem, the complexity is really due to the deceitfulness of sin and the hardness of our own hearts. However, putting sin to death by the Spirit is not at all complex. John Owen gives us these two basic directions for killing sin.
“Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin. His blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this, and thou wilt die a conqueror; yea, thou wilt, through the good providence of God, live to see thy lust dead at thy feet.”
“In one word: This whole work, which I have described as our duty, is effected, carried on, and accomplished by the power of the Spirit, in all the parts and degrees of it.”
We are to live every moment by faith, with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit will be at work within us, sanctifying us from every evil desire. Read again those words which Paul spoke to the churches in Galatian in Galatians 3:1-5,
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 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?”
What is the means by which the Holy Spirit works in us and among us? The Holy Spirit works among us through faith as we behold the glory of Christ and him crucified. Consider also 2 Corinthians 3:18,
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
This is the exact same principal as in Galatians 3. We are inwardly transformed (putting off our ‘old self’ and putting on our ‘new self’) as we behold the glory of Christ through the written Word of God, and as the Holy Spirit works within us, purifying our souls, as we become more like our infinitely glorious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the “yes” and “Amen” of God,
“For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” (2 Corinthians 1:20)
We live by faith in the promises of God. The law of God exposes the breadth and depth of our sinful corruption, but the gospel has the power to sanctify us through faith as we diligently seek to obey all of the commands of God. Jesus assuredly died as a penal substitutionary atoning sacrifice, but he also
“gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:14)
In short, Jesus died for our justification as well as our sanctification. Just as the cross effectually saves all for whom it was intended, the cross also effectual sanctifies all of God’s elect. In justification this is monergistic, God giving life to the dead and irresistibly drawing us to Christ by his sovereign grace. In sanctification this is synergistic, us working out our “own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13) God works in us, and as those who have been made alive in Christ, we now work together with him through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Let us therefore “take every thought captive to obey Christ,” (2 Corinthians 10:5) striving against every corrupt thought and affection with all of our might by faith through the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, and then we shall be killing sin at the root.
A Life Long War
There is, however, one more thing that must be said. Note that the title of this article is, “Killing Sin at the Root.” It does not say “kill,” implying that we do it once and it is over. It says “killing,” implying that this will be a life long war. John Owen writes,
“…sin is always acting, always conceiving, always seducing and tempting. Who can say that he had ever any thing to do with God or for God, that indwelling sin had not a hand in the corrupting of what he did? And this trade will it drive more or less all our days. If, then, sin will be always acting, if we be not always mortifying, we are lost creatures. He that stands still and suffers his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance, will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue. If sin be subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of killing our souls, and we be slothful, negligent, foolish, in proceeding to the ruin thereof, can we expect a comfortable event? There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on; and it will be so whilst we live in this world.”
May we earnestly set ourselves toward this work daily, as we look forward to that final day,
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
Amen! Hasten the day!