Overcoming Sin

By Sinclair Ferguson   •   December 1, 2006

Our forefathers used to speak of mortifying sin. That may conjure up ideas of men of reclusive instincts flaying their bodies in the hope of avoiding sin. We know better from Scripture—the body may be the instrument of sin, but it is not its source, and therefore to deal harshly with it is no solution to the problem.  ”The flesh” is not merely flesh and blood. But these medieval associations have tended to persuade Christians that the whole idea of putting sin to death is somehow related to legalism and the righteousness of the law.

Crucifying sin is a central issue in Christian experience. In fact in the New Testament this very practical question of how to put sin to death was being discussed, and false teaching was already being propounded. The Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Colossians in particular is to be read against this background. Some false teachers were enforcing special regulations in the church. Certain things were not to be eaten, other items were taboo, and this was the way to deal with sin and go on to a life of holiness. Paul cuts through this humbug in devastating fashion: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Colossians 2:23, NIV).

The Foundation
The Colossians were being urged to crucify sin on an entirely mistaken basis. Paul speaks of them being taken captive “through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8, NIV).

John Owen put his finger on the issue when he wrote, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.” If we build our righteousness on man-made rules (don’t do this, don’t go to that, don’t touch this, keep away from that), we live under the delusion that we are truly dealing with indwelling sin when in fact we are merely altering our outward habits. This is no lasting foundation, and when the crisis of the day of evil comes (Ephesians 6:13), we will find ourselves on sinking sand.

The true foundation for dealing with sin is union with Christ. We have died with Him (Colossians 2:20, 3:3); we have been raised with Him (3:1); we have our present lives hidden with Him in His heavenly reign (3:3); and we will be inseparably united with Him in His coming (3:4). This is the basis for slaying sin. Paul’s argument is that since these things are true, therefore we are to mortify whatever belongs to our earthly nature (Colossians 3:1, 5).

Our union with Christ gives us a new identity in which our relationship to sin is radically altered. Since we are thus united to Him, the foundation has been laid for an entirely different way of life. Just as a newly married bride is given a new name and a new identity, that new identity is the incentive she needs to live a life in which her affections are entirely set upon her husband. Before, she may have felt varying degrees of affection toward others. Now her husband must have a unique affection, and anything that would tend to mar, distort or destroy that affection must be rigorously and consistently refused. So it is with those who are married to Christ by grace and faith (Romans 7:4).

Put Sin to Death
Up until now we have used Paul’s expression “put to death” without defining it. But what exactly does it mean?

It is in some ways easier to say what it is not. It is not the eradication of sin. No Christian ever comes to the place in this life where he has so completely destroyed indwelling sin that it no longer exists (1 John 1:8). Nor is putting sin to death the same thing as diverting it. Sometimes when people grow older the external circumstances and pattern of their lives may change to such an extent that the “old” sins no longer trouble them. But this is not putting sin to death.

What then is this killing of sin? It is the constant battle against sin which we fight daily–the refusal to allow the eye to wander, the mind to contemplate, the affections to run after anything which will draw us from Christ. It is the deliberate rejection of any sinful thought, suggestion, desire, aspiration, deed, circumstance or provocation at the moment we become conscious of its existence.

It is not accomplished only by saying “no” to what is wrong, but by a determined acceptance of all the good and spiritually nourishing disciplines of the Gospel.

How?
In Colossians 3 we see that Paul indicates some practical steps we can take in order to put sin to death. We might draw five principles from what he says:

Recognize sin for what it is. We have all encountered Satan’s accusation, “How can you be a Christian with such thoughts as these passing through your mind?” How easily, just then, we lose our grasp of the fact that salvation is by grace and not by works, and justification is by faith and not by personal righteousness, and that it is Christ, not ourselves, who saves us. But only as we face up to our sins and see them in their full ugliness will we recognize that crucifixion must be their fate (Colossians 3:5, 8).

Bring your sin into the light of God’s presence. To see my sin clearly, to motivate my heart to be done with it, I must take it to where I see it in the light of God’s wrath against all unrighteousness. That place is the cross. In my mind’s eye, let me take my sin there, and in the darkness of that afternoon outside the gate of the city of Jerusalem, let me witness the reproach of Christ. Let me see the sun darken for shame, the onlookers leave wailing and beating their breasts (Luke 23:48), and let me hear the cry of the Wrath-Bearer: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Let me look at my sin and penitently respond to His question: “Lord Jesus, the answer lies here, in this sin that caused You such pain.” We cannot go that far and not want to put sin to death.

Recall the shame of past sin. “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?” asks Paul (Romans 6:21, NIV). It is the same principle here. Why return to the old manner of life when you have entered into the joys of eternal life? Why live as the “old self” when in Christ the old has passed away?

Remember you are united to Christ. The “old self” is what we were by nature in union with Adam. The “new self” is what we have become in Christ by virtue of our union with Him. “Remember who you are in Christ,” Paul is saying, “and let that knowledge do its powerful work throughout your lives” (Colossians 3:1-4, 9-10).

Prayerfully seek the fruit of the Spirit. “Grace is to corruption as water is to fire,” wrote Puritan John Flavel. If we sow to the Spirit, we will reap from the Spirit. If through the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the sinful flesh, there is a promise given that we shall live (Romans 8:13). Our great need, therefore, is for perseverance.

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