In asking the question, “How does a Christian fight sin?” I am assuming that the question makes sense to you. However, I don’t think there is any doubt that for a lot of people, this is not a relevant query. I think one of the reasons behind this seeming irrelevance is that we are constantly told today that the main thing is not to kill sin but to be faithful to yourself, to live out your desires, and to do whatever you want. Of course, there is the caveat, unless it harms someone else, but this is an exceedingly tenuous caveat, if it is one at all. What does it mean to harm someone else? Are we limited to refraining from physical harm, or can it extend to emotional and mental distress? It is not always obvious. And who gets to decide what constitutes mental or emotional distress and harm to someone else? Moreover, there are outcomes where someone is going to feel compromised or harmed, no matter what decision is made. In that case, who decides who or what is “right”? The problem with the morality of our culture is that there are no real boundaries, and people are bound to get hurt, no matter how often or how loudly you proclaim, “unless it harms someone else.” There are all sorts of problems with post-modern morality. And it all points to the fact that the morality of our day is no real morality at all, and hence the strangeness of this question to many: “How can you fight sin?”
But as a Christian, this is a most reasonable question. It is most reasonable because we know that we are created by a good and holy God. This means that the worst thing that can happen to anyone is to be separated from God, who is the fountain of all good. Giving into our own desires in everything – especially when they are opposed to God’s desires for us – may feel good at first, but ultimately it is self-destructive. On the other hand, living under the blessing of the God of the universe is ultimately life- and joy-giving. But what is it that separates us from God? It is sin, which is a refusal to live according to the standards of God’s law. As Romans 1-5 has reminded us, everything that is bad in this world is the result of sin. Why is there death? Because of sin, because of Adam’s sin and because of our sin: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Why is there hatred and enmity and murder? Because no one seeks after God (Rom. 3:9-20). Why are we separated from God and why do we therefore need to be reconciled to God? Because of sin (Rom. 1:18; 5:10).
This means that the most important question for us is how to deal with the sin that is in our lives and its consequences. So the main question should not be how I actualize my own dreams and desires, but rather how I can be forgiven and received back into fellowship with God. For if I am not in fellowship with God, then I am separated from him, at enmity with him, and justly exposed to his holy wrath. And unless something changes, I will go into eternal punishment, destroyed in both body and soul (Mat. 10:28; 25:46). I can actualize my own desires all day long, but what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? (Mk. 8:34-38). So the right and logical question to ask is: how can a person be right with God? The biblical answer to that question is that we are reinstated into the fellowship of God through Christ, and in union with him, so that through him and what he has accomplished as our redeemer, we can be justified and forgiven and adopted and sanctified and ultimately glorified. We saw last time that the whole sin problem is dealt with through the work of Jesus Christ the Son of God on our behalf.
But this also means that we should not only just be concerned about the consequences of sin in terms of guilt and hell, but of sin itself and of the remnants of its indwelling presence. As we noted last time, it is the purpose of God that the power of sin should be destroyed in your life. How then could we be okay with something so hateful to God? How could we live at cross-purposes with the redemption accomplished by Christ? How could we be okay with something opposed to our joy and glory? It is not just the guilt of sin over us that we should want to unburden ourselves of, but also of the grip of sin upon us. What Paul says at the beginning of this chapter ought to resonate with everyone who is a Christian: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2).
So how should we fight sin? This is the whole question of Christian sanctification. As opposed to justification, which is a once-for-all event that happens at the very beginning of the Christian life, sanctification is something that progressively unfolds throughout our lives until the very end. It is not until heaven when the saints are described as the “righteous made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). So until we die, we will be fighting sin, which means that this is not a question we can avoid.
So how should we fight sin? It’s important that we do this right, because if we don’t we are likely to fall and fall badly. You are not opposed by a lightweight. You are opposed by something which is described in terms of a king who has been dethroned and who is attempting to gain it back. Waterloo didn’t happen when Napoleon was at the height of his power, but after he had been exiled the first time. In the same way, indwelling sin is described as something which wants to “make you obey its passions” (12). Though sin really has been dethroned, though the Christian is truly dead to sin, yet sin remains to wage guerilla warfare against the believer.
Sadly there is a lot of advice out there on how to fight sin that is unbiblical and which will, in the long run, end up hurting rather than helping you. So before we proceed with the strategies that that apostle lays out here in the text, let’s consider a number of these false options which are out there.
First of all, there is the approach of the antinomian or fatalist. This is the approach of those who argue that any insistence upon the necessity of holiness for final salvation undermines the sovereignty of God’s grace. Though they will admit that there is value to holiness in this life, they strenuously insist that good works have no bearing upon the age to come. Of course they are right in that good works do not in any sense merit God’s favor. However, since the Scriptures everywhere insist that good works are the necessary evidence of future salvation, we cannot separate holiness from eternal life.
This is important in terms of fighting sin on a daily basis, because when I believe that I cannot go to heaven if I am not holy, it gives me a very important motivation for fighting sin, one that is completely lost in the antinomian scheme. They will argue that this makes the battle for righteousness a legalistic thing, and causes people to be motivated by fear instead of love. However, it is not legalistic as long as we recognize the crucial distinction between good works as evidence of salvation versus good works as the basis of our salvation. Moreover, we can see that even the apostle was motivated in this way, as he puts it to the Philippians. He tells them that he suffered the loss of all things to gain Christ, “that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8-11). Do we have this same sense of urgency to gain the resurrection from the dead?
Second, there is the approach of the mystic. This is the approach of those who decry the role of doctrine and thinking and doing in the fight for holiness. They will argue that making this too intellectual undermines rather than further our sanctification. Another way this is sometimes put is in the slogan, “Let go and let God.” In other words, you need to stop doing and thinking and planning and just let God do it for you.
Now there is some value to what they are getting at. This is because they value faith and reliance upon God, so far as they are talking about the God who is revealed in the Bible. This is where they are right. We cannot fight sin apart from faith. We cannot gain the victory over remaining corruption apart from reliance upon God and his grace. Nevertheless, ultimately theirs is a wrong view of faith because they tend to separate faith from its doctrinal contents. As we will see, this is not how the apostle Paul, or indeed any of the apostles, exhort us to fight the sin that remains. Though a bare intellectualism is dangerous and soul-killing, the Bible never encourages us to go over to the opposite extreme. There is nothing intrinsically valuable in religious sentiment separated from Biblical truth.
Third, there is the approach of the ascetic. The emphasis here is on our own will-power and what we can do for God. Whereas the first approach involved a wrong view of God’s grace, and the second a wrong view of faith, this view involves a wrong view of our responsibility. Though lip-service may be given to the grace of God, yet the burden falls upon our own will-power as the way to holiness. In contrast to the mystic, the ascetic is all about rules and regulations. This point of view is also sometimes coupled with a very negative view of the body, so that any physical satisfaction is viewed with suspicion. The apostle is almost certainly responding to this approach in Col. 2:20-23. There, he writes, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirit of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and ascetism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of flesh.” Note how Paul views the value of ascetism: it is of “no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
That’s not to say there is no place for self-control with respect to the physical appetites. That is part and parcel of the pursuit of holiness. The problem is in relying upon the ascetic lifestyle as the path to holiness. The problem is that it doesn’t reach down to the main problem, which is the heart and its desires. That is where is the battle is at (Rom. 6:12). The problem is that you can whip your flesh all day and never touch the idols of the heart.
So that brings us back to the main question: How does you fight sin? In the text before us , we see that there are three truths that we need to heed and put into practice if we are going to successfully put sin to death in us.
You must be a Christian
Verse 11 is the first exhortation in the book of Romans: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Think about what that implies. For over five chapters the apostle has been telling us what it means to be saved. In particular, he has been telling us how we are justified in the sight of God. The gospel is not about what we do but about what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Unless we grip that fact, we are inevitably going to go wrong in the pursuit of holiness. Holiness is not about what I do to gain God’s favor, but it is what I pursue because of what God has already done for me in Christ Jesus.
More than that, I cannot even begin to pursue holiness properly unless I am in Christ Jesus. This is not something that I can do in my own power. The foundation of the exhortations that follow in the book of Romans assume the union of the believer with Christ as the foundation of sanctification. You must be dead to sin to fight sin. But you can only be dead to sin by dying with Christ. You can only rise to newness of life by rising with Christ. This is why Paul says we are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” That is the only way it can happen.
My friend, are you a Christian? That is to say, have you a real relationship with the Christ of the Bible? Are you the recipient of his grace in your life? Is he your Lord and Savior? Has he changed your life? Do not think that cleaning up your life or avoiding the more gross sins means that you are saved. Being better than the next person does not mean you are saved. You are only saved if you are saved by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. You are saved by Christ when you entrust your entire life to him by faith as your Lord and Savior. Have you put your faith in him?
You must think Biblically
Note what else the apostle says here in verse 11: “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” We cannot emphasize enough the importance of right thinking when it comes to sanctification. If you want to become more like Christ, this not only means you must desire holiness, but that you must think Biblically about it. It means that doctrine plays an incredibly important role in becoming more Christlike in our daily walk. Good intentions are not enough. We must have right doctrine.
What are we to think about, what are we to consider? Well, what that apostle essentially is saying here is that we are to apply the truths that he has laid before us in the previous verses. That is the point of the word “so” at the beginning of verse 11. The cold intellectualist will just read the verses and talk about them, but he will never act upon them. But the Christian hears the truths that Paul has been setting forth here and puts them into practice.
Sin always works in us by deceit. We believe a lie and we sin. Truth, on the other hand, sets us free. It exposes the lies that enslave us. The lie that the apostle wants to free us from is the lie that sin is so powerful that we can’t overcome it. If you are a Christian, there is no sin you cannot overcome. Not because you have the inherent power to overcome it, but because in Christ you are united to a power that created everything out of nothing. He can take your nothing and defeat the most ominous and powerful lust in your mind and heart.
Are you a believer and feel like you are trapped by a sin in your life? What about lust? Or pornography? Or drugs and alcohol? Or anger? Or anxiety and fear? If you are a believer and yet don’t think you can ever overcome these sins in your life, it is because you do not believe the truths that the apostle has been teaching in this chapter. If you are dead to sin with Christ then it is impossible that these sins could ever rule over you. That doesn’t mean you can’t let them. It doesn’t mean that they won’t try to rule over you. But it does mean that sin does not have the power to prevent you from overcoming them through Christ. Sin is no longer on the throne: Christ is. You need to consider yourselves to be what you are, namely dead to sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ on account of his work for you and in you.
You must yield to God
But we must not stop at right thinking, we must go onto right application. In particular, we must yield ourselves to God, which is the point of verses 12-13: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for unrighteousness.”
When we were looking at verse 6, we noted that the phrase “the body of sin” does not just refer to our physical body, but to indwelling sin which manifests itself through our bodies. Similarly, when Paul says that we are not to let sin use the members of our bodies as instruments (or weapons) for the purpose of sin, we are to understand that he is calling us to mortify the sin that is behind the misuse of our bodies. Note that there are only two options here: you will either yield yourself to God or you will yield yourself to sin. Like the German army in the Second World War that was trapped between the Russians on the east and the Americans and British on the west, so that they were going to have to surrender inevitably to one or the other, we are either going to surrender to the reign of sin over us, or we are going to surrender to God. You are trapped between them, and you will have to chose one or the other.
What are we to yield to God? Yield your tongue – that is the point of James 3. Don’t use your tongue to speak words that destroy others, that tear down. Don’t use it for slander, for lying, for gossip, for foul language, for conversations that make light of sin. Rather, “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).
Then yield your eyes to God. Godly Job said, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” Young men, have you made such a covenant with your eyes? Or think about what the psalmist prayed and let us pray with him to “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways” (Ps. 119:37). Or, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless” (Ps. 101:3). The eyes are an inlet into the heart, and the battle in the heart will either be easier or harder depending on how hard we are willing to work at what we look at. As long as the enemy’s supply line remains intact, it will be much more difficult to defeat him, but once his lines are cut, the battle will be more easily one. Guard your eyes, and cut the supply line of your enemy.
Further, yield your ears to God. What do you listen to? Hear Christ, listen to his word those who preach his word. As computer programmers often tell us, “Junk in, junk out.” You put junk into your ears and let it soak down into your heart, don’t be surprised when junk comes out in different areas of your life.
Then yield your feet to God. Where do you spend your time? One of the most disturbing passages in Scripture is the description in Proverbs 7 of the foolish young man who is the wrong place at the wrong time. But he is only in the wrong place at the wrong time because his feet took him there. Now this not only applies to the physical places our feet take us, but also to the places we go digitally on our smart phones and computers and tablets. Where are you going? Are they places where you can honestly say you can yield yourself to God there?
Most importantly, yield your heart to God. At the end of the day, yielding is a fight for the desires. What you desire most is what you will end up yielding yourself to. This is why the Proverb tells us, “Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).
What does this look like? What does it mean for me, practically? Well, it means that I am going to pray with all my might against sin. You will not long desire what you consistently pray against. Especially when you feel the tug of lust and sinful desire to be strong in your heart, pray against it. Ask the Lord to give you the grace to say no, and persist in it.
This means also that I am going to be constantly reminding myself of what ultimate reality is. Sinful desire always warps reality and makes ugly things look beautiful. We need to remember that as we pass through this life that heaven is real and hell is real and that we are all moving inevitably toward God’s judgment seat. If we can put ourselves before God’s throne in our minds and hearts, it will almost be impossible to sin there.
It means that I am not going to fill my mind so that there is no room or time for meditation on God’s word, and on his character and promise. Don’t be shallow when it comes to divine things. Be shallow when it comes to the fashions of this world, which will fade into meaninglessness sooner rather than later.
I want to come back next time to Romans 6:14, but let me close by seeking to frame an answer to the question that 6:14 begs, namely: Why are we told to let not sin reign over us (12) when Paul says that “sin will have no dominion over you”? The answer is that, as believers, we can never be the slaves of sin as we once were, and this is seen in that we can now successfully resist it. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t at times let sin gain the upper hand through spiritual negligence and slothfulness. So let us fight the good fight of faith, fight with all our might against sin, and never give up until we lift up our eyes in the presence of God, perfect and spotless and full of the joy of the Lord forever.