In the first article of this two-part blog, we looked at how serious the sin of Adam is, and how we continue to enact sin in our lives. We also argued that because of this, humanity has long lost its freedom to choose God, but rather became slaves to sin. We ended by looking at Exodus 34.6-7, where God has revealed his character and his bestowing of forgiveness on us. Yet in the same passage, we see God maintaining his justice by punishing the guilty. How can God both be forgiving and just?
The passage had a great declaration of who God is. Who wouldn’t want to hear a God who is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, even forgiving all types of sin? But then this same God will by no means clear the guilty. How can he forgive and not clear the guilty? Aren’t that diametrically opposed to each other?
Now, this is where the gospel comes—the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. We already know this: Christ died for our sins. And that was the way God can maintain his justice and righteousness by crediting our sin to the innocent God-Man Jesus Christ thereby punishing the guilty, but counting his righteousness on us, and therefore forgiving us from all types of sin. This is only possible by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus. If we try to earn our salvation, we will only fall short of God’s standards. But if we rely in the blood of the Lord Jesus, then his promise for us is “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”1
Identity in Christ
We who have trusted Jesus Christ for our salvation know that we are already justified by faith alone. That is, we have been made right or declared righteous before God. But the next question is, how does this truth affect my life? Shall I go on sinning because Christ already paid the penalty for my sins? This question has been addressed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 6.1-11:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
What the apostle is saying here is that we already have a new identity in Christ. And what identity is this? Just like the Lord died, we also died to our sin. Just as he was raised to life, we also have been raised to a new life when we started to put our faith in him. Remember the picture of baptism? In our dipping in the water, we identify with the death and burial of Christ. In our raising up, we identify with his resurrection. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come.”2 Your life was not just improved upon, you are a totally new person! Have you seen a dead person? What are the things that a dead can do? Nothing. That was us before we met Christ. We cannot do good. We are morally dead, even spiritually dead. But when the Lord saved us, we became alive. No wonder we are a totally new person: from dead we became alive.
Moreover, we are not enslaved to sin anymore. We have been given a new desire and that desire is to love Christ, to obey and honor him. Without the saving work of Christ in us, we do not have even a least bit of desire to please God. But now, God himself wrote the law in our hearts3 that we gained the ability to say “No” to sin.4 In fact, our master has been changed. Before, our master is sin, but now if you are in Christ, the Bible says you are a slave of righteousness. Just as you cannot say “No” to sin before, you cannot say “No” to righteousness now. The Lord is your Master; the Holy Spirit enables you to live for him.
But I know what you’re thinking. This seems to be far from our own experience, wouldn’t you agree? In our experience, it feels like sin is ever before us. We feel enslaved by sin. Now, I want you to pay attention to verse 11: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Wait. Paul, didn’t you just say that we are already dead to sin? What is there to consider if we already are?
I’d like you to listen very closely. This tension is written all over the New Testament. You shouldn’t miss this. This is what theologians call ‘Already-Not Yet’ theology. You are already a new creation. But you are not yet totally sanctified. The experience is yet to catch up on the truth of the identity. One illustration is when we remind our niece when he does something bad that he is not a bad kid. ‘You shouldn’t be doing that. That’s not who you are. You are a good kid.’5 In our case though, it is more than a psychological manipulation. We really are a new creation, and that is why sin is not proper for us. We ought to live a holy life, because we are holy. We ought to forsake sexual immorality, idolatry and gossip because that’s not who we are anymore, if we are in Christ. We ought to live a life worthy of the manner to which we have been called.6
“Being is basic to doing.”7 And true enough, the Bible says that we are transformed from one degree of glory to another.8 We are being sanctified; we grow in holiness. Now this sanctified life, this life of transformation is lifetime. And you can see that very clearly in Romans 7, as the Apostle Paul himself recounts his struggle in sin even after his conversion. And the promise is that the consummation of this sanctification will occur after our death or when Christ returns. There the Lord promised that those whom he justified he will also glorify. We are already a new creation, but we will be perfected in eternity.
Holy Spirit and Sanctification
So far I have said that the Lord did not just declare us righteous, we also obtained a new identity in him. So we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. The next question though is how do I put this in practice? How can this affect the way I live as a Christian?
For this, let me turn you to Romans 8.9-14:
“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. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
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.”
If we are in Christ, then the Holy Spirit dwells in us. Think about that deeply. The Holy Spirit is God; God himself is dwelling in you. No wonder we are a new creation. No wonder our life is changed. Naturally, or supernaturally rather, our desires are not anymore according to the flesh. It is now according to the desires of the Spirit. No matter how you struggle with sin, this must be present in your life. This isn’t something that we can manufacture. If you really are in Christ, then you will desire the things of the Spirit. When we sin, our heart is broken. We understand that we are grieving God the Holy Spirit. We feel the fellowship with God being damaged. Moreover, it is also by the Spirit that we will be sanctified. “Nothing good dwells in my flesh”, says the apostle.9 So we rely in the Holy Spirit, in his working in our lives. Because if we are sons and daughters of God, we are led by the Spirit.
Look at verse 13: “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.” It was not just a mere comparison of living to the flesh and living by the Spirit. It was not just said, ‘For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if you live according to the Spirit, you will live.’ There is something inserted here. What is that? ‘We put to death the deeds of the body.’ It is not in the future tense. It is in the present, almost as if an imperative. And I really love the KJV rendition: ‘if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.’ Mortify the deeds of the flesh. I can almost imagine a violent image in my mind, like Counter-Strike or something. But the idea is we take an active role in putting to death, in killing, in mortifying the deeds of the flesh.
But ultimately, the ability does not come from us. Anything good in us is by God; any sin is by us. Therefore, we only yield to the Holy Spirit, let him do the work and watch that work unfold in our lives. “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Only then can we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”10
May I suggest some practical steps to mortify sin?
1. Find your delight in God.
As Adam and Eve looked for delight in the wrong places, we should find our delight in God. A delight in sin can only be replaced by delight in God. You cannot forsake sin without turning to God. That is the very essence of repentance.
“You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
As John Piper famously said, “Sin is what you do when your heart is not satisfied with God. No one sins out of duty. We sin because it holds out some promise of happiness. That promise enslaves us until we believe that God is more to be desired than life itself.”11
2. Recognize your bankruptcy.
No matter how highly we think of ourselves, before the holy God we are but beggars in need of God’s grace. It is ironic though that these very beggars are the ones who will inherit the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
3. Put your faith in the promises of God.
Well, this presupposes that we know the promises of God in the first place. Putting faith in God does not stop at salvation. Every day, we need to trust God at his Word. It is not just written, ‘The righteous shall be saved by faith’; but rather, “The righteous shall live by faith.”12 We live by faith and not by sight.13
4. Build accountability with your leader/s.
God designed the Christian walk to be lived in the context of godly relationships, and we are to bear each other’s burdens.14 It is important to find a leader who will faithfully shepherd you into godliness and who will labor in prayer that you may be sanctified.
5. Develop a rich prayer life.
Prayer is a foundational discipline, but something that is not easily practiced by our generation due to the fact that we are used to distractions. Nevertheless, there is great value in having a vibrant prayer life. After all, it is a great privilege that as Christians we can draw near to the presence of God any time, something the Israelites of old did not freely enjoy.
Let me also say in passing that we have the Lord’s prayer as a pattern of our prayer life. Study why each phrase was uttered by our Lord. We also have the Psalms, which is the prayer book of the Bible. Meditate on them. And finally, as what my GLC teacher always said, whenever we find it hard to obey God, we ask him for the grace to obey him.15 This means that prayer is a consequence of recognizing our bankruptcy before the Lord.
The Christian walk is far from easy. Some sins we easily stop doing at the point of conversion. Some we struggle for many years. But sanctification, which has been always our purpose is for our own sake. There is no greater joy than being with the Lord and pleasing him and enjoying his work in our lives. Let me end by this powerful quote from the great theologian, John Owen:
“Be killing sin or it be killing you.”
This two-part blog is a fruit of a message shared in B1G Alabang Singles’ Lounge Online with the series on Respectable Sins. I am indebted to three John’s of the faith for having a better understanding of sin and sanctification. I find their thoughts systematic but more importantly pastoral, as the Lord used their resources for my own sanctification. Listed below are the books I consulted in order of influence, from greatest to least:
John Piper: Future Grace
John Owen: The Holy Spirit
John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion
Romans 8.1 ↩
2 Corinthians 5.17 NIV84 ↩
Jeremiah 31.33 ↩
Titus 2.11-12 NIV ↩
Ephesians 4.1 ↩
2 Corinthians 3.18 ↩
Romans 7.18 ↩
Philippians 2.12-13 ↩
Piper, J. (2019). Future Grace. New York: Multnomah. ↩
Romans 1.17 ↩
2 Corinthians 5.7 ↩
Galatians 6.2 ↩
James 1.5 ↩