Hostile To God
Romans 8: 7 is simple and stark: “The sinful mind is hostile to God .” The mind is not neutral ground, and cannot love one preoccupation without rejecting the other. A mind “that is set on the flesh” (ESV translation) must also be treating God and the desires of his Spirit as an enemy. This is why our minds are, naturally, unable to deal with sin. We may realize that a particular impulse is unhelpful, or that a certain course of action is destructive. We may even decide to cut it out, and may do so successfully. But the root of sin is still implanted in the mind— hostility to God. So sin will still grow unchecked in our lives.
And that hostility makes us incapable of pleasing God. Verse 8 is an equally striking statement : “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” Left to ourselves, we are totally unable to live in a way that causes our Creator to approve of us. Why? Because the mind that drives the actions is acting out of hostility to him. The person controlled by their own flesh is able to have a thought that is good, or perform an action that is right. But it cannot please God, since it is thought or done in enmity toward him.
Here is a helpful illustration: a man in a rebel army may look after his comrades, may keep his uniform smart, and so on. Those are “good”— but they are done in hostility to the rightful ruler. You would never expect that ruler to hear of this rebel’s conscientiousness or generosity and be pleased by his conduct in rebellion!
But none of this needs to be, or ought to be, the way “you”— Christians— live (v 9). Every Christian is “controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit,” since the Spirit lives in anyone who belongs to Christ. When we received Christ and became righteous in God’s sight, the Holy Spirit came in and made us spiritually alive. The Christian has a body that is decaying (v 10), yet also enjoys a spirit, a mind, that is alive.
And, Paul says, not only must our spirits/ minds not follow our flesh now, but one day our flesh will follow our spirit. In Greek thought, the physical was bad, to be rejected and hopefully one day to be left behind; the spiritual was good, to be embraced. Verse 11 overturns all this: ”He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” Someday, even our bodies will be totally renewed and made eternally alive by the Spirit. There is no dualism (body bad, spirit good) here— one day, both will be perfected.
For now, though, there is still within us the remaining sinful nature, which is hostile and inimical to our growing spiritual life. And even as we look forward to our bodies being given life (v 11), we must “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (v 13—the end of this verse is best seen as the end of a sentence, unlike in the NIV). As John Stott argues, Paul is still likely referring to an experience of life, and death, now— not in the future. Paul says here: If you let the remaining sinful nature alone— if you allow it to prosper and grow— there will be terrible trouble. Instead, you must by the Spirit attack and put it to death. The more you put to death the sinful nature, the more you will enjoy the spiritual life that the Holy Spirit gives— life and peace (v 6).
This process of “putting to death” is what earlier theologians used to call “mortification.” They got it from the old King James Version translation of the verse: “If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (v 13).
So what do verses 12-13 tell us about what mortification is, and how we do it? First, it means a ruthless , full-hearted resistance to sinful practice. The very word translated as “put to death” (Greek word thanatoute) is violent and total. It means to reject totally everything we know to be wrong; to declare war on attitudes and behaviors that are wrong— give them no quarter, take no prisoners, pull out all the stops.
This means a Christian doesn’t play games with sin. You don’t aim to wean yourself off it, or say: I can keep it under control. You get as far away from it as possible. You don’t just avoid things you know are sin; you avoid the things that lead to it, and even things that are doubtful. This is war!
Second, it means changing one’s motivation to sin by remembering to apply the gospel . This process of “mortification” goes deeper than merely resisting sinful behavior. It looks at the motives of the heart. Verse 12 says: “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation— but it is not to the sinful nature.” This is a critical statement. “Therefore” refers to the statement before, in which Paul tells us we have been redeemed by Christ’s righteousness and will someday be totally delivered from all evil and pain in the bodily resurrection. Then Paul turns and says: “Therefore ... we have an obligation…” Some translations express it differently: “We are debtors, not to the flesh” (NRSV). Paul means that if we remember what Christ has done and will do for us, we will feel the obligations of love and gratitude to serve and know him.
Paul is saying that sin can only be cut off at the root if we expose ourselves constantly to the unimaginable love of Christ for us. That exposure stimulates a wave of gratitude and a feeling of indebtedness. Sin can only grow in the soil of self-pity and a feeling of “owed-ness.” I’m not getting a fair shake! I’m not getting my needs met! I’ve had a hard life! God owes me; people owe me; I owe me! That’s the heart attitude of “owed-ness” or entitlement. But, Paul says, you must remind yourself that you are a debtor. If you bathe yourself in the remembrance of the grace of God, that will loosen, weaken and kill sin at the motivational level.
Therefore, “put to death” (v 13) is just a sub-set under “mind the things of the Spirit” (v 5). Mortification withers sin’s power over you by focusing on Christ’s redemption in a way that softens your heart with gratitude and love; which brings you to hate the sin for itself, so it loses its power of attraction over you. In summary, then, we kill sin in the Spirit when we turn from sinful practices ruthlessly and turn our heart from sinful motivations with a sense of our debt to love and grace, by minding the things of the Spirit.
Tim Keller is senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, New York, and author of numerous books. He is also co-founder and vice president of The Gospel Coalition. For more resources by Tim Keller visit Gospel in Life. You can follow him on Twitter.
Timothy Keller, Romans 8-16 For You, The Good Book Company ©2015. Used by permission. http://www.thegoodbook.com/