“Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”John Owen
“In Between a Rock and a Hard Place” is the fitting title of a book by a mountain climber named Aron Ralston. In May 2003, while hiking in Utah, he was pinned between the canyon wall and an 800 pound boulder which crushed his right forearm. After five days of dehydration, delirium and a desperate attempt to dislodge the boulder, he used a dull utility knife to actually cut off his arm. Amputation was a drastic measure in order for Ralston to survive.
This story eerily captures the powerful words of Jesus in Mark 9:43 where he says, “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Jesus sounds very violent in this passage! How are we to take His emphatic words that command us to be brutal with our sin? While Jesus uses exaggeration and hyperbole here to show us the severity of sin, in the words of John Owen we must be killing sin or it will be killing us. We must deal forcefully with our sin because it is such a powerful force with which we must reckon.
Flesh for Fantasy
Up to this point we have given a thoroughly Biblical definition of the true nature of sin, but we have not answered the ten million dollar question. How do we actually kill sin? How do we put this ruthless enemy to death?
Romans 8:13 stands as the classic passage of Scripture which answers this question. Paul writes, “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.” As we explore this text, certain key questions emerge that we will attempt to answer. First of all, what does it mean to live according to the flesh? Secondly, what are the deeds of the body? Thirdly, what does it actually look like to kill sin? Fourthly, what role do we actually play in killing sin and what role does the Holy Spirit play?
Let us answer the first question. Paul tells us that if we live according to the flesh we will die. A spiritual death occurs when a person lives ultimately to feed the flesh. The key to understanding what it means to live according to the flesh comes in the tense of the verb. Paul uses the present active indicative which denotes continuous action. In other words, if a person’s habitual lifestyle is marked by constantly giving in to sinful desires, the end result will be spiritual death. I believe Paul is describing an unregenerate person who has never been made alive in Christ and given a new nature.
John Owen gives this illustration which I think poignantly describes what it means to live according to the flesh. Living according to the flesh is like a man who sets out on a journey determined to reach his destination. All of his thoughts are obsessed on getting there as fast as he can. On his way, he gets caught in a menacing thunderstorm and tries to find immediate shelter. He goes into a house and temporarily waits for the storm to pass. He is impatient because this storm has ruined his plans but he also knows that standing out in the pouring rain would not only be miserable but could result in being struck by lightning. Once the storm has passed, he immediately gets right back out on the road to continue his journey. This attitude characterizes people who are in bondage to sin and live according to the flesh. They are on this path of pursuing their lusts and enjoying sin and then when they hear the gospel or they hear about hell or the “thunder and lightning” of the reality of eternal judgment, they get fox hole religion for a season out of fear. They turn temporarily for shelter from the horrors of their sin, but nothing has truly changed. Once the storm passes, they are right back out on the path to sin again. There has been no true transformation. Their entire course in life fixates on pursuing the path of sin by living according to the flesh.
If a person is truly born again, he or she has new desires and affections that deeply long to worship, obey, and follow Jesus. Because of this new nature, the entire course of a believer’s life is one of actively pursuing holiness. On the other hand, evidence that a person has not experienced the miracle of the new birth most poignantly shows itself in a lifestyle of slavery to sin and an ongoing pursuit of fleshly desires.
For the believer who has been soundly saved by grace, he or she does not live according to the flesh. Paul argues this case earlier in Chapter 8:5-9 when he writes,
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
Paul clearly asserts that those who have received the indwelling Spirit of Christ through the new birth do not live according to the flesh. That is no longer our nature. Our nature before salvation was enslavement to our flesh whereby our minds were hostile to God and we lacked the ability to submit to His law. Now that we have been liberated from this bondage to sin, we can freely submit to God’s law through the ministry of the Holy Spirit who has been poured out richly into our hearts.
But there is a clear warning here. Just because we are no longer enslaved to sin does not mean that sin is no longer an active influence in our lives. We still retain the vestiges of our flesh and will never be completely sin free until the day we step foot into heaven. Only in our final glorification will we be free of the remnants of sin once and for all. For the believer, sin as a power and dominion no longer has its grip on us and thus we are no longer under its rule. In our new found freedom as God’s regenerated and justified children, we can resist this insidious enemy.
 John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Heritage, 2002), 28
 John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, 16 vols. (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965-68) 6:317-18