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New Horizons

Putting Sin to Death

J. Ligon Duncan III

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. — Colossians 3:5-11 NIV

"Suppose a man to be a true believer, and yet finds in himself a powerful indwelling sin, leading him captive to the law of it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing his thoughts, weakening his soul as to duties of communion with God, disquieting him as to peace, and perhaps defiling his conscience and exposing him to hardening through the deceitfulness of sin—what shall he do? What shall he take and insist on for the mortification of this sin, lust, distemper, or corruption?"

Thus wrote the Puritan, John Owen, in the middle of the seventeenth century. His audience consisted of fifteen-year-old boys who were away from home at Oxford University (where Owen was vice-chancellor). The book in which these words were written (now volume 6 of his collected writings) has justly remained a classic treatment of sin. I vividly recall reading it for the first time over twenty-five years ago. I have not found anything else that quite faces down the evil of indwelling sin with as much vigor as Owen does. Too many books and sermons (of the latter I include my own, of course) only touch the surface of the problem, failing to become too specific for a host of reasons. But conquering sinful habits (and habits are what they become) is a mark of spiritual maturity. There can be no growth without it. Dillydally here and the result will be something so fragile, so insipid, that ruin is bound to be the eventual result.

It is important to desire spiritual maturity. If we have no desire to grow, we will not grow! If the heart is wrong, everything else that proceeds from it will be wrong, as Jesus told the Pharisees again and again. In addition, it is important to think properly and accurately about what it means to become a Christian and be a Christian. Consider what Paul tells the Colossians in chapter 3. There he insists that there are two things about ourselves that we need to know and reckon with, if we are Christians: We died with Christ, and we have been raised with Christ. As a consequence, we are to seek the things that are above, where Christ sits at God's right hand. We are to live with our heads above the clouds, beholding something of the glory and majesty of Jesus. We are to know who we are and what is true of us. This is the positive aspect of sanctification's path that Paul would have us utilize.

But there is also a negative side. There is a power to negative thinking, Norman Vincent Peale notwithstanding! Paul wants us to appreciate that unless we know what not to do, there is no use in telling us what we should do! There is as much power in negative thinking as there is in positive thinking. The key word here is mortification. It's an old word, long known and loved by readers of the King James Version of the Bible, and it needs to be reintroduced into our vocabulary. It means "putting sin to death." Every Christian must be engaged in the duty (yes, it is a duty) of putting sin to death. "Kill a sin or a part of a sin every day" was Owen's advice. "Kill sin, or it will kill you," he added, indicating something of the seriousness of the issue. What is it that Paul tells us here in Colossians 3 that we need to do?

The Reality of What We Are

First, he exposes the reality of what we are. There is a general point that needs to be made if we are going to be serious about dealing with indwelling sin. We must say, "I need to face up to the reality of ongoing sin." We have been delivered from sin's reign, but we have not as yet been freed from the presence of sin. A constant struggle ensues within us as the flesh lusts (wages war) with the soul. There is a spiritual war that is going on in the innermost part of our being. We need, therefore, to look sin (personal and particular sin) in the eye.

We rush on in reading these verses, don't we? We note the "up close and personal" way in which Paul lists two sets of five sins, and we find ourselves asking what they mean. But we need to stop and reflect for a moment on the appropriateness of all this talk about sin. J. C. Ryle's justly famous volume, Holiness, begins with a statement to this effect: "He who would make great strides in holiness must first consider the greatness of sin." Ryle, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, was merely reflecting what Anselm of Canterbury had written in the Middle Ages. In a dialogue between himself and a character named Boso, Anselm was attempting to answer the question, Why did God become man (Cur Deus homo)? At one point in this work, Anselm utters the famous line, "You have not yet considered the gravity of sin." Because he was reluctant to recognize our need for salvation, Boso was unable to see why the Lord Jesus Christ had to become incarnate in order to save his people. Our problem is sin. It has been so since the Garden of Eden, and it remains so to this day.

What Anselm, Owen, and Ryle are saying is that our hearts need to be exposed by God's Holy Spirit to reveal the extent of sin's ravages upon us. This is something like what happens when an MRI machine scans the inner organs and tissues of our body. It can show us not only what is healthy, but what is cancerous and unwanted. It can see what the eye alone cannot see.

If you get bitten by a snake, one of the best things you can do is to bring it with you to the doctor (you need to kill it first!), so that the poison can be recognized and the relevant antidote prescribed. It is the same with sin. Unless we can identify the sins, we will not know what the remedy should be. It is not enough to be vague and general about our sins. Sins have names, and we will do well to learn what they are. It will be a point of progress whenever we can identify what those sins are that prevail in our lives. And before we can do that, we will need to acknowledge that there is the need to do it. Sin has a hold on us in ways that we sometimes refuse to acknowledge. We may be in denial about it. We must begin by facing the fact of our sin—our specific sins.

Robert Murray McCheyne, the nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian minister whose life was extinguished before he reached thirty, wrote in his posthumously published Diary: "I have begun to realize that the seeds of every known sin still linger in my heart." This is a point of advance. When we know this, our eyes have been opened—just like when a doctor diagnoses our disease, and we come to understand what it is. Imagine a doctor saying to you, "Yes, there's something going on inside you, but we will not worry about that! Let's look on the bright side, shall we? Isn't it a beautiful day!" What would you think of that? Even if that satisfied your need for denial in the short term, I doubt that you would ever visit that doctor again. Most of us, when things get serious, want to know the truth, even if it hurts. And hurt it will, make no mistake about that.

What Needs to Be Dealt With

Second, Paul identifies for us in detail what needs to be dealt with. There is a translation issue in our text that needs to be looked at briefly. The New American Standard Version renders verse 5 this way: "Consider the members of your earthly body as dead to ..." That sounds like something Paul says in Romans 6. There is a time to "reckon ourselves to be dead to sin." In Christ, the great change has already taken place. But it is doubtful if that is Paul's message here. Hence the New International Version renders it this way: "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature." This is better, but it, too, disguises rather than clarifies what Paul intends here. Let me go back to the King James Version for a minute: "Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth." Probably the NIV translates it the way it does lest we think that Paul is suggesting some sort of self-mutilation. The Colossians were about to make that very mistake. But we do need to appreciate that the way sin operates in our lives is via the members of our body!

Your members! Christians need a physical holiness. New Testament holiness transforms what we do with our bodies. It has eyes and hands and feet.

The first list of five sins moves from external acts to internal motivations. It is staggering to think that the first thing Paul mentions is sexual immorality. The word he uses covers all forms of prostitution, every illegitimate sexual deviance—heterosexual, homosexual, or even bestial. He links with it the attitude of the heart: impurity. Paul wants us to consider that what the mind lingers on in secret, the body will do externally. Then comes lust, that is, passions that come and master us, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Desire is the next word, by which he means something that is out of control. And he ends the list by suggesting that all sexual deviance is a form of greed, which is a form of idolatry. These sins are selfish at their heart. They show, as Calvin wrote in the 1559 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion: "Man's mind is a perpetual factory of idols." You have lost your mind when you think that life is about satisfying your own personal desires, and yours alone! You have made yourself like God when you think that way. You are bowing down to the god of self.

Paul's day was remarkably like our own. It was a day when sexual immorality abounded. Homosexuality was as prevalent then as it is now. Paul's words here seem particularly pertinent for us today. Holiness, true holiness, demands total sexual purity. Sin has distorted what God intended to be a beautiful thing.

Perhaps this touches us very personally. Nobody else knows about it. Maybe, that's just as well. Affairs, business trips, magazines, Internet pornography—the list of possible areas that affect us is endless.

Put these sins to death! If you don't, they will destroy you. "Because of these, the wrath of God is coming," Paul warns. Frightening, isn't it? Do you notice that Paul has several motives for ethical living, and not just positive ones! In verses 1-4, the motive is positive. It is because of who we are, of what we have become in Christ. We have died and have been raised with Christ. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God. But here, the motive is altogether negative. The wrath of God is coming on those who do not repent. Turn or burn, is what Paul is suggesting, blunt and harsh as that may sound.

Sin also has a potential to destroy others. In verse 8, in another list of five sins, Paul moves from internal emotions to external actions, doing the opposite (or mirror image) of what he did in verses 5-7. The five sins mentioned are: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. He begins with anger: that spirit of being opposed in a hostile way to things that God desires for our lives. There is a righteous anger that is perfectly proper and in accord with the highest reaches of holiness. But that is not what Paul has in mind here.

To help us understand what he means, he adds rage. We hear of road rage, or the rage that can arise in a family—a seething cauldron of rage. One commentator suggests that the word can be translated as "exasperation." We sometimes regard exasperation as a virtue! We say, "I don't suffer fools gladly."

Then comes malice, a refusal to forgive, and allied to cynicism. Then comes slander: defaming someone's character, or character assassination. It would be wonderful to say that the church is free from this kind of thing, but it is not. Paul is calling on Christians to be different from the world—not to wag their tongues. If you cannot think of something good to say about others, then say nothing at all!

Jonathan Edwards had a daughter with an ungovernable temper. A young man asked Edwards if he could marry her. "No!" he replied. Upon asking for the reason, Edwards went on: "Because she is not worthy of you!" He explained, "The grace of God can live with some people with whom no one else can live!"

Sex and speech are the features of life that are most out of control. You will never grow until you bring the surgeon's knife of God's Word to these points in your life. Maybe you are where Augustine was, praying: "Give me chastity, but not yet!" But God is saying to you: "I want it now!"

There is one more thing that Paul seems eager to say. Sin cannot always be dealt with privately. In verse 9, he urges the Colossians not to lie. He is not simply calling for truthfulness, but rather for honesty and accountability. "Don't pretend," he seems to be saying. If I am going to be able to function in this fellowship, then I had better stop pretending that I am better than I am. We need to be able to say to each other: "I need your help, counsel, wisdom. I am struggling to Zion, rather than marching to it."

The way of pretense is a way that leads to failure in fellowship and Christian living.

How Are We to Do This?

Third, Paul gives practical indications as to how we go about this. There are two verbs that he employs in the passage that need to be engraved on our hearts: "put to death" (vs. 5) and "rid yourselves" (vs. 8). They bring to mind the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that urge us to pluck out our right eyes and sever our right hands.

"Let not that Christian think that he makes any progress in true holiness who is not prepared to walk over the bellies of his lusts," wrote Owen in his uncompromising way.

It may sound to you like legalism. That is a convenient word which some Christians employ to shirk the task of painful self-examination and change. They use this when some application sounds as though it will hurt. But it is not legalism to want to be as holy as Jesus. It is the only sensible thing to desire. Anything less is compromise and unworthy.

Without getting too technical, the tense of the verb (aorist imperative) has in mind the whole action. Paul is concerned not simply with the resolve to mortify sin, but with the desire to be rid of it altogether. It is as if he were saying, "Lay your hands on this sin's throat, and don't release the pressure until it stops breathing."

What will that mean? It will begin with an honest owning up to the gravity of our condition. It will mean facing sin down and pursuing its destruction at whatever cost to ourselves. It will mean going before the Lord and saying, "Lord, I have this besetting sin. And I am so sorry. I fly off the handle, or I trash people, or I gossip all the time. I rejoice when others fall because it makes me feel better about myself." It will mean changing habits and lifestyle, determined that our members be used for that which is holy and not for self-gratification at the expense of God's Word and God's ways.

Will you pursue this task? Without it, you will always be less than what God wants you to be.

The author is senior minister of First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Jackson, Miss. He uses the NIV. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2003.

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