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A Righteousness by Faith #37: Kill what’s killing you

Therefore, siblings, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. Romans 8:12-14 (NIV)

I read the laundry list again. While researching on the subject of righteousness by faith—and this verse in particular—I came across one of those articles that explain how to kill sin in your life biblically. It includes recognizing sin in yourself, having a heart set on God, meditating on biblical truth, prayer, and obedience.

I check all of them off as good things. Self-awareness of how I am prone to wander? Check. And who couldn’t use more prayer? Check. And Jesus himself said man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word out of God’s mouth. Check.

But I noticed that this teacher never mentioned the Spirit. I am not saying he did this deliberately, but I wonder what Paul would have said to the list. The writer said nothing with which the former Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, would not have agreed. I am pretty sure that these five things could have been the practices that Saul had depended on to live a righteous life—as far as he was able. His resume claimed he was blameless (Philippians 3:6). His flesh could do them in his sleep.

But Saul, who was by now known to his friends as Paul, wants what he saw in Jesus—a righteousness by faith. Not because Jesus had a higher degree of righteousness. Paul was not drawn to Jesus like a Tae Kwon Do 1st Dan Black Belt wishing he could follow in the steps of a 9th Dan Black Belt holder. Jesus’ righteousness was not of a different degree, but a different quality. Jesus did not achieve a higher rank of righteousness. He reflected the genuine character of the Father. Jesus was righteous in a way that was empowered by the Spirit. His whole life exuded the work of the Spirit.

Where can you find this? In John 3, John the Baptizer explains to his disciples how Jesus was the bridegroom. Jesus had to become greater and John had to become less. Jesus was sent from God to share the truth about God with the world… Then John says, “For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.”

Did you catch that? Jesus was totally empowered by the Spirit. This was the human aspect of Jesus being in the world. He did not operate like Superman, faking that he was a human when really he was just God hiding behind a pair of glasses. What Jesus displayed in ministry—and in righteousness—is what any of us who follow him could become when empowered by the Spirit. Because this is what the new covenant is all about—restoring us by conforming us into the likeness of Jesus.

So how do you kill the misdeeds of the body by the Spirit? —Simply surrender to his work. This is not a fancy or complex answer, but it is the answer. You have no power to overcome your addictive sin. You have no power to heal the deep wounds in your heart. You have no power to become righteous. So you need to say out loud to the Spirit, “I give up. I cannot fix myself. I surrender to whatever you will do.” You can say this out of desperation or with deep humility—it doesn’t matter which. When you come to the point of knowing your best efforts will not kill sin in you, you will find grace, which is the empowering work of the Spirit within you.

You and I need to do this every day. As John Owen said in the 17th century, “Do you mortify (i.e. kill); do you make it your daily work; be always at it while you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

And even if you struggle at doing this, remember that God, out of his glorious riches, will strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” (Ephesians 3:16-17a)

What I am telling you probably differs with what you’ve heard from other Bible teachers. While I admire many of them, I find they miss Paul’s underlying theme contrasting the two covenants. They wrongly hold to the idea that Paul’s use of the word ‘flesh’ is about the failure of believers to live out their faith instead of actually referring to unbelievers. This faulty thinking comes up over and over again in a lot of teachings on Romans.

I also am concerned that you understand the central nature of the power of the Spirit. No one lives out a righteousness by faith without him, which is why Paul makes him the personal representative of the new covenant in this passage. Take this in, for it will change not only how you read Romans, but how you see God transform your life.

-Steve Smith