“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12.) Paul expands this proverb in Romans 8:13: “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.” A Christian is called to be a sin slayer.
The Bible is not ashamed of binaries. Life and death. Light and darkness. The Spirit and the flesh. There is no neutral or fluid space in between. We either follow the Father of lights and the source of life and peace (James 1:17; Mal 2:5; Rom 8:6). Or we serve Satan, the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). We either live as children of the day or the night (1 Thess 5:5). For the apostle John, obedience to God is the first proof that we are born of God. Obeying God is key to sanctification, which is defined by the Westminster Shorter Catechism as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.” During the lifelong process of sanctification we are freed from sinful habits and take on Christlike desires and character traits. Sanctification is real transformation from the inside out, not just a superficial change of behaviour. Although we are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, there is something active and ruthless about dying to sin and living to righteousness. Whether we like it or not, we are in a war with Satan, the enemy of God and of any person who bears God’s name. We need to kill sin before it kills us.
1 John 1:5-7: 5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
1 John 3:4-10: 4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
Sin is the ultimate wrecking ball
As children of a fluid, shifting culture, we tend to put sins into boxes labeled “Excusable”, “Serious”, “Naughty but nice.” But the unchanging God has no such categories. According to the apostle John, all sin originates with Satan, who makes it his business to lead us away from our Creator and onto a path of sin and rebellion against Him. That path may look innocuous and fun, but all sin is “lawlessness” and ultimately leads to death (1 John 3:4; James 1:15). If you are a Christian, sin will always torpedo the joy Christ gives you (John 15:11). It will grieve God’s ‘seed,’ the Holy Spirit who lives in you (1 John 3:9; Eph 4:30), and it displeases the Father who purchased you at a great price (1 Thess 4:1).
Just as darkness and light have nothing in common, God’s Spirit doesn’t mix with sin in our lives (1 John 3:7;9). When we ‘practice sin’, we are rebels against God and cannot have fellowship or peace with Him or others. We are even at odds with ourselves (1 John 1:6,7). Since sin is essentially placing ourselves on the throne instead of God, it is the ultimate wrecking ball. There is no unhappier person than a Christian chasing treasure and pleasure apart from God.
Burn the ships
When the infamous Spanish explorer Cortez arrived in the New World in 1519 with 600 men, he ordered them to burn all the ships. His message was clear, “There’s no turning back.” Two years later he conquered the Aztec empire. Likewise, every Christian must die to self before following Jesus and taking our place in God’s family (Mark 8:34-35; Luke 14:27). This means turning our back on sin and those thought patterns which go against God’s commands and character. In the blink of an eye, the cozy familiar ships can take us back to our old habits and the old self which used to rule us. The byproducts of sin are dire, and that’s why we cannot play or flirt with it.
We are called first to own and then disown our sin. That means to confess our sin to God and then turn against it so that it loses its grip on us, to stop excuses and blame, to leave ourselves no option but to trust and obey God going forward. It means hating not just the effects of sin, but the sin itself. It can be like a painful amputation or a violent struggle, but the alternative is even more painful: If you are a true child of God, sin steals your peace, it gives you a heavy heart, and you will have no rest while you are still serving it. That’s why burning the ships is not optional!
If ‘burning the ships’ is too dramatic an image for you, let me give you a more concrete example from my own life: One of the joys of writing The God Walk is that the Holy Spirit is first tattooing on my own heart what I pass on in my devotions. (Tattoos are painful but hopefully the effects are permanent!) Yesterday as I was writing this, I was feeling aggrieved by something and it made me too agitated to write, so I got on my knees and asked the Lord to show me why my response was so disproportionate to the offence. The Spirit showed me that the root of my heaviness was a false treasure, something I cared about too much, a source of satisfaction I was seeking and serving. So, as I confessed this particular idol, I asked the Lord to help me ‘burn the ships’ so I could not return to it. I asked him to change my heart so that I would despise it and throw it in the fire. It was a struggle that went on all day each time my mind raced back its stupid destructive obsession. I realized that deep down I didn’t really want to burn that ship completely and confessed that too. There is perverse pleasure in holding onto sinful thoughts and I am a chief self-saboteur! But I have learned the war language of 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” It is the internal battle of every believer, as Paul describes in Romans 7.
By the time the sun set, I received that wonderful gift that only the Spirit can give. John calls it a “heart at rest” (1 John 3:19), an assurance that we belong to the truth. Those destructive feelings abated and I was released from their tyranny. John says we can have confidence before God and know our prayers are heard “because we keep his commands and do what pleases him”, starting with believing in his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 3:22, 23). We do what is right and then our feelings will follow. Keeping God’s commands is a daily struggle of confessing, believing Jesus and actively ‘burning the ships’ of our sinful desires, regardless of our feelings. Remember that John is not saying a Christian will stop sinning completely, but that we will not “keep on sinning” without a care.
John Owen (a Puritan) wrote a famous series of sermons titled “The Mortification of Sin in Believers” which he first preached to a youth group in 1656. Imagine the shock and horror of doing that to a group of millennials today! (You can read it here.) Owen’s plea inspired the title of this devotion:
“Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
If we are tempted to think John Owen was a little extreme, we must hear the words of our Saviour, who died to take away our sin and save us from death and judgment:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matt 5:43-48)
There is nothing meek and mild about this command to kill sin! It’s like slaying a dragon and may cause some injury along the way. You have to get out of your hammock to do it. But there is one thing you can be sure of:
Sin leads to sorrow and death, but holiness leads to happiness and life.
Sin in disguise: Live it out!
What complicates matters is that Satan masquerades as an angel of light and sin does not always look like death and darkness (2 Cor 11:14): ‘Self esteem’ may be a handy disguise for pride. Gossip and slander may be dressed up as ‘sharing prayer needs’. Greed and envy may masquerade as ‘ambition’. Cheating often hides behind ‘competition’; boastfulness behind ‘assertiveness’; manipulation behind ‘victimhood’. Bitterness and unforgiveness can lurk behind a legitimate ‘grievance’. Rudeness may be labelled ‘task driven’. Unfaithfulness or unkindness can be justified as ‘authentic’ and ‘being true to self’. If denying ourselves and taking up our cross is Christ’s command to every believer, we can be sure that burning our ships means killing every sneaky version of self promotion—self righteousness, self pity, self absorption, selfishness, self protection and narcissism….That’s the flesh. Pride may seem like a protective shell, but it makes us hellbent on destruction. Pride does not mix with God’s Spirit inside us. Pride blinds us to Satan’s schemes to destroy our faith, our relationships and our witness to the world.
Destroying the destroyer
If Satan has evil schemes, Jesus has a good mission— to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Satan’s name means ‘accuser’ and his modus operandi from the beginning has been to accuse, deceive and deface the image of God in us. Satan delights in leading humans into sin so that he can accuse us before God and demand judgment. But the gospel writes a different script for Christians: Sin is so serious that God’s own innocent Son had to come to earth as a man to die in our place, to take our sin away, so that we would not face the judgment of God (1 John 3:5). That’s how Jesus destroys Satan’s works on the cross. But whenever we tolerate sin patterns in our lives, we collude with Satan. Sin is treason against God, a foothold for the enemy to deface God’s image and glory in us. But when we live lives of holiness and obedience, we live under the blessing and protection of our heavenly Father. That is pure joy.
Joy in Jesus
No matter how hard our struggle is, there is incredible happiness for a Christian who walks in holiness, abiding daily in Christ (1 John 3:6). Sanctification is like the process of a worm transforming into a butterfly. It means dying to the old self and coming alive as a beautiful new creation. It is the only route to wholeness.
A third John– John Piper– concludes, “There is a preaching that almost never highlights the truth that Christ died not only to secure our forgiveness but to secure our sin-killing obedience to the commandments of the New Testament. [Christ] bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. (1 Peter 2:24) The beauty and power of the cross of Christ is seen and enjoyed in the blood-bought experience of obedience to Christ’s commands. Experiencing this is a dimension of joy that can be had no other way. A Christian Hedonist won’t be satisfied without it.”
Live it out:
- Meditate on these commandments of God: 1 Cor 6:9-11; 2 Cor 6:14; Titus 2:12; Eph 5:3-5; Gal 5:19-21; Col 3. Which of God’s commands has the Holy Spirit convicted you of lately?
- What sin are you slaying in your life right now?
- Pray for the Spirit’s power to deal with the most insidious sin that underlies all other sin: Pride.
Worship with music:
Burn the Ships (For King and Country–Click and listen here.) Download the whole album on Itunes. There is a personal story of sin-killing behind the song– a great reminder to step into a new day and kill sin… or it will kill you.
Next week we will explore God’s great command to love (and not to love). Love is the second mark of being born of God. We will continue in John’s first letter as we dig deeper into the doctrine of Sanctification.