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. —Romans 8:12-14
Every one of us has a reason for being here today. We know that something important is happening here, something we want in our lives. We want Christ, or we’re at least interested. We also know there’s something wrong with us. We’re sinners, we’re weak, we fall. We live in a world reaching for excellence at every level. If we don’t do well, we feel shamed. If we succeed, we feel proud. That’s who we are. And we’ve all come here today because we want something better.
Look what the Bible is saying here in these verses: “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.” That’s a strong statement. We need to face it. But we don’t face it alone. The key phrase is “by the Spirit.” Remember the question Paul is answering here in Romans chapter 8. After admitting his own failures in chapter 7 under the law, here’s the question he’s answering in chapter 8: What does God have for weak people who don’t live up to the ideals they know are right? What does God have for people like you and me, who want something better than our lives up to now? The answer is, God gives sinners the Holy Spirit. Romans 8 is all about the Holy Spirit for unholy people. God himself removed the barrier at the cross of Christ, so that he could give us himself full-strength without incinerating us. Newness of life, not a blast of holy judgment, is flowing out to sinners, who are no longer under condemnation (verse 1) but are in the Holy Spirit (verse 9). Let’s open our hearts to the power of grace for our weakness. Today I’ll explain how that can work for you.
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. —Romans 8:12
That’s a strange thing to say. Why does Paul insist that we’re not debtors to the flesh? Have you ever thought you were? Have you ever thought, “I am a debtor to the flesh”? So, what is Paul’s point? Well, what is the flesh? Let’s remember that “the flesh” is biblical shorthand for our natural selves, just the way we are without the Holy Spirit, including our good points. We can live a noble life, with a high moral code, in the power of the flesh. We only need our mamas to raise us right. So the flesh can be thanked for a lot of good in the world. Our city is better off for the virtues that come naturally to so many wonderful people. It’s called “common grace.” But there’s also a dark side to the flesh. Paul wants us to notice something about ourselves. The flesh makes screaming demands, to keep us in its debt and hold us back and diminish our freedom to live in the Spirit.
For example, have thoughts like this ever popped into your head? “If I don’t get my way in this situation, I’m so outta here.” “If I can never afford that longed-for thing, how can I be happy?” “If so-and-so doesn’t apologize to me, I know how to get even.” Those thoughts are the demandingness inside us the Bible calls the flesh. It’s the narrative of self-importance scrolling in our heads, telling us how much better our lives deserve to be. We feel obligated to the wrong things. We pay homage to the wrong god – that darling idol within. And Paul is urging us not to say to those thoughts, “You’re right. I give in. I accept your terms.” We are debtors, but not to the flesh.
Verse 12 matters to us today because of our devotion to self-esteem. We even have a duty-to-self ethic. “I owe it to myself to follow my dream, whatever the impact on my wife.” But if we are united with Christ, this life is not our only chance at happiness. Verse 12 is a flashing red alert, because, still for us, a self-centered way of thinking is as natural as the flesh on our bones. But does it work? The gospel shows us what God has done for us, what only God could do, in verses 1-11 of this chapter, so that we rebuild our lives on a new foundation. The gospel awakens us to realize, “My mentality of me-first only makes me sad. There is nothing divine about it. I renounce it. I have a new allegiance now. God has put me under no condemnation. God has turned my future away from what I deserve toward everything I don’t deserve. God has given me his very lifeblood through the Holy Spirit. God has given me his best, and he’ll never take it back. I’m rich. I owe it all to him. So I don’t want to listen to those old demanding thoughts any more. I want the Holy Spirit to keep leading me in this new direction.” When God gives us the Holy Spirit, the flesh with its tyrannical demandingness starts dying. Here’s the secret: new life comes out of death. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). That death-to-self deep inside is not easy, but it’s happy. Here’s how to give God that decisive Yes, and here’s why it matters:
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. —Romans 8:13
That is absolute. I don’t see any middle ground. And it’s life-and-death. This demands a response from every one of us today. Even unbelievers agree that something inside us needs to die. In his song “Cut It Away,” Jackson Browne sings,
Cut it away, somebody cut away this desperate heart
Cut it away, and help me find my way back to the start
Cut it away, I want to cut away this thing inside
Cut it away, this thing that hid from you and schemed and lied
Cut it away, before it tears my whole life apart
Every one of us needs radical surgery. We can’t just add Jesus to our unexamined lives. We also need to cut some things away. How? Not by our own willpower but by the Spirit. What does that mean?
Paul is talking about “the deeds of the body.” We can’t always cut out the thoughts and feelings that pop up to the surface. Original sin runs deep and never rests. It’s that negative energy inside, demanding this, demanding that. But what will we do about it? That’s a life-and-death question. We either go to war against the flesh and fight for newness of life and live, or we make peace with the flesh and die. How do weak sinners fight and win and live?
Here’s one way not to fight that battle: control through self-punishment. Through the centuries Christians have tried this. It’s called asceticism, and it isn’t Christianity. For example, St. Jerome who lived around A.D. 400, wanted to get on top of his problems. So he moved out to the remote deserts of Syria and imposed on himself the ascetic life. Here’s how he described himself out there:
How often, when I was living in the desert, in that lonely waste, scorched by the burning sun, how often did I fancy myself among the pleasures of Rome! . . . Though in my fear of hell I had consigned myself to that prison where my only companions were scorpions and wild beasts, I often imagined myself surrounded by dancing girls. My face was pale with fasting. My limbs were cold as ice. But my mind was burning with desire, and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me while my body was as good as dead. Helpless, I cast myself at the feet of Jesus.
The Bible says, “Why do you take the slightest notice of these purely human prohibitions – “Don’t touch this,” “Don’t taste that”? . . . These regulations look wise with their self-inspired efforts at worship, their policy of self-humbling and their studied neglect of the body. But in actual practice they do honor not to God but to man’s own pride” (Colossians 2:20-23, Phillips). Self-punishment is really self-exaltation. It isn’t of the Holy Spirit. It’s of the flesh. It’s me saying, “I can do this on my own.” It doesn’t change me; it only reinforces what I already am.
The gospel takes us deeper. Here’s what the gospel teaches. The deepest part of us is not willpower but belief. So when I sin, rather than simply squelch it – sure, putting on the brakes is always a good idea – but when I sin I need to pay attention to that and drill down and ask why. At the moment I sinned, what was I believing? What false belief made the difference in my heart? Remember back in chapter 1 of Romans, Paul told us that our basic problem is idolatry, false belief. Romans 1:24 says, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator.” Where do dishonoring acts come from? Not from social miscalculations. Behavior that ends up dishonoring the body is a God-miscalculation. Exchanging the truth about God for a lie, not believing the truth about God – that’s why we find ourselves trying to squeeze life out of the creation rather than receive it from our Creator. You and I do bad things when we believe that God will not make us happy, so we have to turn anything in the creation and make-do. That’s when we start compromising – when God himself is not real and wonderful to our hearts. Our problem is not primarily behavior but false thoughts of God in our hearts. A. W. Tozer wrote, “The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of him.” That’s our problem! Every other sin is the merest fleabite in comparison.
Last month we were talking about enjoying God, for example. Some of us have been thinking, “I don’t get that. I don’t have the personality for it. I would feel phony doing that.” If that thought has entered your mind, pay attention to it. That is the flesh. And that is where God wants to do a new work in your life. Without the enjoyment of God, you are strengthening the sins in your life you wish would go away. They aren’t going away, except by the power of the Spirit renewing your heart toward God. If the Holy Spirit now indwells you with all the power of the creation and the resurrection, what right do you have to tell God what you’re incapable of?
But now we’re ready to come back to chapter 8, verse 13. What does it mean for us, by the Spirit, to put to death the deeds of the body so that we experience fullness of life in Christ? Paul doesn’t tell us how. He doesn’t give us a technique. There is no technique. He wants us to figure it out, before the Lord, how it works for us. But here’s one way it can work. Think of the Ten Commandments. The sixth commandment is “You shall not murder.” It’s far-reaching. It forbids not only the act of murder but even a tense, unsafe social environment. And it requires meekness, compassion, patience, forgiveness, and so forth – the kind of environment where people can thrive. But most deeply, “You shall not murder” isn’t about how we treat each other. It’s about God and how our hearts think of God and treat God. So let’s say, you have sharp words with your spouse. I know that never happens, so it’s a hypothetical question, but the sixth commandment is all about relationships. So, if you ever did feel like unleashing some harsh words at home, how might you, by the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the tongue?
One, ask yourself why you don’t feel more loved by God. When your heart feels loved by God, it’s harder to mouth off. So, what’s going on deep inside? What is it your heart is believing about God when your tongue is blurting out the wrong things? Do you think God has forgotten you? That’s a lie. Do you think he’s not protecting you and you’re on your own? That’s a lie. If your heart is exchanging the truth about God for a lie, the bad behavior is no surprise. There’s an idol in your heart – either a substitute for God or a distortion of God. That’s a false god making a false claim on you. Name it for what it is. Call it out. Challenge your own unfairness to the glory of your God. I’m not saying this is easy, because it’s a deep death to self. It’s a slaughtering of some darling part of us inside. Self-love goes deep. But self-love will be the death of us. So first, find out how your heart is floating away from God in the current of false thought and feeling.
Two, after challenging yourself, preach the gospel to yourself. Announce to yourself who God really is. The truth is, he is the Friend of sinners. Take Romans 8:1-11 for starters. Who is God in these verses? He is the Judge who doesn’t condemn you. He is the Spirit of life who has redefined your future as freedom from everything dragging you down. He is the God who humbled himself and became just like you, to die on the cross for your sins so that you wouldn’t have to die. He is the God who has located the Holy Spirit within you, and he will never ever leave you. That’s who God is. And that’s just eleven verses out of the whole Bible. Stare at the glory of God, until you see it. So the second step is to preach to yourself the good news of God’s grace to you.
Three, lean hard on the Holy Spirit for his help. You can’t win this war alone. But you’re not alone. It says here, “By the Spirit.” When you are weak, you have a mighty Friend. So let’s say you start feeling the anger and frustration. You turn to your wife in the car and you feel like saying, “What do you mean you forgot the tickets? Now we have to go back. Do you realize how late we’re going to be?” At that moment of temptation and weakness and demandingness, you turn to the Lord and say, “Lord, here I go again. I’m so sorry. Please help me right now to reconnect with who you really are. My flesh is ready to say something murderous at my wife. But you love me. How can I not love her? You don’t condemn me. How can I condemn her? You’ve given me your Spirit of life. How can I rob her of life by my words? Help me right now to love her.” And then, trusting in the Lord, you speak to her with kindness. You create a life-giving social environment in the car right then and there because of who God is. It’s not about your wife and the tickets. It’s about God. Your life is always about God.
So, I’ve been describing one way of putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit. What are you tolerating in your life that needs to die that happy kind of death? Have a funeral, and God will give you a resurrection. Ask yourself who God is, and you’ll know what to do next.
Here’s what we’re learning: The key to warfare is worship. Keep your heart warm to Christ. Find your own way to do it, but do it. Who Christ really is for you is your life! One thing I personally do is listen to music while I drive around town. These days I’m listening to a CD of the old hymn “My song is love unknown.” I listen to it over and over again:
My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love to me
Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be
But who am I, that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die?
He came from his blest throne salvation to bestow
But men made strange, and none the longed-for Christ would know
But O my Friend, my Friend indeed, who at my need his life did spend.
Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine
Never was love, dear King, never was grief like thine
This is my Friend, in whose sweet praise, I all my days could gladly spend.
The Bible calls the apostle John “the one whom Jesus loved.” He leaned back on Jesus at the Last Supper (John 21:20). The Holy Spirit is able to give you that nearness to Jesus today. Will you receive it? Are you open to it? The Bible says, “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21). Where else would you want to be?
When we weak sinners feel loved by God, we become mighty in putting to death the deeds of the body.