This is the third and final sermon of three messages on how to kill sin. For the first part, see “How to Kill Sin.” For the second part, see “Kill Sin by the Spirit.”
By John Piper
Three weeks ago I promised a third message on verse 13 about how to kill sin. “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” I get the words “kill sin” from this verse: “If you put to death [kill] the deeds of the body. . . .” So this verse says: If you want to live, you must kill. Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.
A Violence Against Our Flesh
There is a mean streak in the Christian life. There is a violence. There is a militancy. But it is exactly the opposite of selfish violence against people. It is a violence against the “flesh” or against “the deeds of the body” — our flesh and our body. The Christian is not mean to others. He is mean to his own sinfulness — his own flesh.
We saw the meaning of “flesh” in Romans 8:7: “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” The flesh is what we are when rebellion against God and insubordination and hostility to God rule our bodies and our minds. So the way you put to death “the deeds of the body” is to strangle the air that sinful deeds breathe. Strangle the flesh. Cut the lifeline. Pinch the air pipe. Stop the blood flow. Sinful deeds must be killed before they happen — by severing the root of distrust and hostility and insubordination toward God.
“By the Spirit” and Through the “Things of the Spirit”
So we asked, How do you do that? Paul says it is “by the Spirit.” Verse 13b: “If by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Now, what does that mean? This is a key to the Christian life. Putting to death the deeds of the body “by the Spirit.” Killing sin “by the Spirit.”
Now, what is that? We argued that putting sin to death “by the Spirit” is probably related to what Romans 8:5 says about “setting the mind on the things of the Spirit.” “Those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.” In other words, one way to kill sin “by the Spirit” is to “set your mind on the things of the Spirit.”
So we asked, what are the “things of the Spirit.” We answered from 1 Corinthians 2:13–14 which says this: “We speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit. . . . But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him.” Here we have the very phrase of Romans 8:5, “things of the Spirit.” What are they? The words of God, spoken by the apostles, taught by the Spirit, not human wisdom.
So to put to death the deeds of the body (as Romans 8:13 says) “by the Spirit” we must set our minds on “the things of the Spirit,” which we now see means: set your mind on the word of God in Scripture. What makes this ring so true is the connection with Ephesians 6:17 where Paul says in our battle against evil we must “take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Among all the spiritual armor that we are to “put on” in our warfare there is only one offensive weapon that is used for killing. The sword. And what is it? It is described in two ways that link it with Romans 8:13. First, it’s the sword of the Spirit. So if we are to kill the deeds of the body “by the Spirit,” and the one killing weapon in our armor is the sword and it is called “the sword of the Spirit,” we have good reason to think that the agent for killing sin “by the Spirit” is this sword.
Second, what is this “sword of the Spirit”? Ephesians 6:17 says it is “the word of God,” which confirms our connection with 1 Corinthians 2:14. The sword that kills sin is the word of God. And the way we kill sin “by the Spirit” is to set our minds on “the things of the Spirit,” that is, the word of God in Scripture, which becomes then the sword of the Spirit.
The Paradox of Who Is Doing the Work
So the question we are asking and trying to answer is this: What can I do tonight to bring the power of the Holy Spirit into vigorous, sin-killing action in my life? Because you see the paradox in Romans 8:13, don’t you? On the one hand, killing sin is something Paul says you must do. You must do it. “[You] put to death the deeds of the body.” But on the other hand, it says, you do it “by the Spirit.” Now the Spirit is not a tool or a weapon. He is a person. He is God. Put to death the deeds of the body by means of God, the Spirit. So, evidently, the Spirit is the decisive killer. That’s the paradox: you do it; but you do it in such a way that it is he who does it. That is the difference between the Christian life and a moral self-help program.
This is what Paul was saying in Romans 15:18: “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me.” And what he was saying in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” I labored, but it was not I, but God’s grace — God’s Spirit — in me and with me.
“If we are going to live the Christian life, we must put sin to death.”
So it is absolutely right that we are asking. What can I do tonight to bring the power of the Spirit into vigorous, sin-killing action? If we are going to live the Christian life — not just an imitation of it — we must experience Romans 8:13: we must put sin to death in a way that it is decisively the Spirit which puts it to death. The glory of God is at stake here. Because the ultimate sin-killer will get the greatest badge of honor. You or God.
By Works of Law or by Hearing with Faith?
So we ended last time by looking at the key text in Galatians 3:5. Here Paul answers the question: How do you bring the Spirit into vigorous sin-killing action? He asks, “Does he who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” In other words, he is asking: How does the Holy Spirit flow with miracle-working power in our lives? How does He come into vigorous, sin-killing acting in our lives?
He mentions two options: by works of law or by hearing with faith. And the answer he expects is clearly not by works of law, but by hearing with faith. Now why does he say “by hearing with faith” instead of just “by faith”? The Spirit comes and works mightily in our lives, killing sin, not just “by faith” but by “hearing with faith.” Why does he say it that way? The answer is that the sword of the Spirit is the word of God, and it’s the word that you hear and believe. When the word of God — the Sword of the Spirit — is heard and believed, the Spirit is moving with vigorous, sin-killing action.
In other words, the connection between the Holy Spirit and you is the word of God and faith. They are like a socket and plug. When the plug of your faith goes in the socket of God’s Word, the Spirit is flowing. And when he flows, he kills sin.
Before I give you some practical illustrations on how this works there are two important things to say.
We Kill Sin the Same Way We Get Saved
One is that you can see that we kill sin the same way we get saved. Ephesians 2:8–9 says, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Faith, not works, is the way we are made right with God; and faith, not works, is the way we engage the Holy Spirit to kill sin. So if you are here this morning and you are not a Christian, what you are hearing in this sermon is not some remote advanced form of Christian living way down the line of Christian maturity. This is how you become a Christian. And this is how you grow as a Christian.
To become a Christian you believe the promises of God, like, for example, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:12). And to fight sin as a Christian, you believe the promises of God, like, for example, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). When Christ died for us, he bought with his blood both justification and sanctification. And both are obtained by faith. That’s one thing that needs to be said. You never outgrow your need to live by faith. We begin and end by trusting the gift of imputed righteousness and the power of God’s grace to kill sin and impart practical righteousness.
The Glory of Christ Is at Stake in Living This Way
The second thing that needs to be said is that the glory of Christ is at stake in living this way. All of life is meant to make much of Jesus Christ. Everything we do should magnify his greatness. Now ask yourself: Why isn’t the way to bring the power of the Spirit into vigorous, sin-killing action simply to pray for it to happen? Why not just ask God to kill the sin in your life? “Ask and you will receive” (Luke 11:9, 13).
Well, we should indeed ask. Prayer is crucial. But that is not the sum total of what “put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit” means. Paul says the one who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you does so by hearing with faith. Not just asking, but hearing. And not just hearing, but hearing with faith. Now, why does God design his triumphs in this way?
For this reason: if God simply killed sin when we ask him to without making our hearing and believing a part of the process, Jesus Christ would not get the glory for our holiness. Jesus said, “When the Spirit of Truth comes . . . he will glorify me” (John 16:13–14). The work of the Spirit, in killing our sin, is to do it in a way that gives glory to Jesus Christ. Now how can that happen? It happens because the Spirit only flows through “hearing with faith.” And what we hear is, at root, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Every promise that you hear and believe, gives glory to Jesus Christ.”
Yes, it includes all the promises of God. Because, as 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “All the promises of God find their Yes in him.” In other words, Jesus paid for every promise for those who trust him. So every promise that you hear and believe, gives glory to Jesus Christ. If we merely pray and ask God to kill our sin, without hearing the gospel of Christ or any of its promises, Christ would not be honored by our holiness. And God means for his Son to be magnified in justification and in sanctification. So he does not design sanctification to happen by prayer alone, but by hearing the Christ-exalting, blood-bought promises of God and believing them as we ask God to kill our sin.
That’s the second thing that needs to be said. Killing sin in our lives must glorify Jesus. And Jesus is glorified when we kill sin by the Spirit, that is, by hearing and believing the promises that he bought and secured by his own blood.
Killing Sin in Action
Now let me close with some illustrations. Right now three of our missionary families are being forced out of Tanzania within thirty days. One of the missionary wives compared their situation to the disciples after the death of Jesus and before the resurrection: “They are sitting quietly and numbly at someone’s house . . . and they don’t know about the resurrection that is to come. That’s what this time feels like to us in many ways: darkness, and an unknown future. Out of the blue, we’re packing up and leaving the country, our home for the last seven years, the only home our children have known.”
Now, what are the dangers of sin here? What are the sins that need to be killed before they get the upper hand? Anger. Despair. Self-pity. Fear. Impatience and irritability. So how do you put to death those sins and the deeds of the body that might come from them? Here is the answer from that same email from the missionary wife:
We are clinging to these truths: God is good, he is in control, he loves us more than we can comprehend, and he has plans to give us hope and future, plans to prosper us (Jeremiah 29:11). Our spirits are understandably low, we are emotionally and physically exhausted. but . . . “because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22–23).
In other words, they are putting to death the deeds of the body — they are killing sin — by the Spirit. They are hearing the promises of God and believing them. And by that means the Holy Spirit is flowing and sustaining and sanctifying.
Here’s another illustration. A missionary couple was with us ministering among refugees here in the cities until last year. Now they are headed with three small children to a country in Africa, which is so sensitive they can’t name it. Their February prayer letter was one of the clearest examples of how to put sin to death by the Spirit that I have ever seen.
They listed the sins that were threatening them and then gave the promises of God that they were using to put the sins to death. “Whereas the Constitution of [this country] may state one thing, the word of God says, ‘the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world’” (1 John 4:4).
Where fear says, “what if . . . happens?” faith says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
When worry surfaces, faith responds, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
When doubt and frustration scoff, “They’ll never change, this is a waste of time!” Jesus looks us in the eye and responds, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).
Learn from our missionaries. Learn from the apostle Paul. Put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit. Not by the works of the law. Kill sin by the Spirit. Not by works of the law. Glorify Jesus Christ by taking the sword of the Spirit, the promises of God, purchased by his blood, and set your mind on them. Bank on them. Be satisfied by them. The power of sin will be broken. Sin will not have dominion over you. Jesus Christ will be magnified in your body!