Tests of Assurance: The Spirit Within and Killing Sin
A sermon on Romans 8:9-13 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC 4/27/03
Can a Christian lose his salvation?
We can point to many Scriptures which show that the answer to that question must be, “No!” Several are in this very chapter of Romans 8:
We could spend many hours looking at these and other Scriptures outside of Romans, and we could carefully examine the context of each, but our conclusion wouldn’t change: No one whom God has chosen – no one who is a true believer – will ever be lost.
But now consider a different question, a question we began to look at last week:
Is there ever a point at which sin should cause a professing believer to question whether or not he is saved?
We’re going to continue answering that question today, but first I want to be sure you see the difference between this question and the first one I raised.
Think of it this way: Suppose in a 100 meter dash, the fastest man always wins. (In fact that’s not the case; lots of little things can go wrong, allowing someone other than the fastest man to win.)
Now, with that assumption, consider this question:
Will the fastest man in the world win every race he runs?
The answer must be, “Yes.”
But what about this question?
Will any person who THINKS HE IS the fastest man in the world win every race he runs?
Clearly there is a difference between THINKING you are the fastest man in the world and BEING that fastest man. I can do all the positive thinking in the world and convince myself I AM THE FASTEST – but when the gun sounds and I’m lined up against Maurice Greene and Tim Montgomery, everyone in the stands will know real quick that I am NOT the fastest man in the world.
Simply THINKING you are the fastest man does not MAKE YOU the fastest man.
Just so, THINKING you are a Christian does not MAKE YOU one. THINKING you are eternally secure does not MAKE YOU eternally secure. We can be wrong in what we think about ourselves.
This is important for our understanding of Romans 8. Christians who find themselves sinning can fall into two errors – and Paul combats them both in the first half of this chapter. Last week we gave people representing these two errors the John-Bunyan-like names of “Not-Worry” and “Guilt-Ridden.”
Not-Worry say, “Oh, I’m a believer. I prayed the prayer, I walked the aisle, I was baptized, my name is on the church role. I even go to church.”
To Not-worry, Paul says, “If you are living according to the flesh, you will die.”
On the other hand, every time Guilt-Ridden becomes aware of any sin, he thinks, “Oh, I’m not saved!”
To Guilt-ridden, Paul says, “If by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
So our question: Is there ever a point at which sin should cause a professing believer to question whether or not he is saved?
Biblical answer: Yes! But full assurance is nevertheless available to us. And true believers should be fully assured of their salvation.
Let’s see how Paul works this out.
Recall what we’ve seen so far in this chapter. Paul begins in verses 1-4a with a great statement of justification apart from any good works. Then he makes a jarring statement at the end of verse 4: those in whom the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled, those who are in Christ, are identical with those who “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” In other words, those who are in Christ live a changed life. This statement is jarring, for to the professing believer involved in sin, this can seem to take away all hope of assurance.
In verses 4-13, however, Paul carefully distinguishes between the true believer who should have assurance in spite of his sin and the self-deceived “believer” who is not walking in the Spirit. He does this by having us ask three questions of ourselves in order to know whether or not we are in Christ:
We looked at first question last week: If your mind is set on the things of this world, then Christ is not in the first place in your heart. And if He is not in the first place, then you are belittling Him, failing to glorify Him – failing in the very purpose for which you were made. You are finding your satisfaction in something other than God. In effect, this is despising God, hating Him. So the person whose mind is set on the things of this world is the enemy of God.
On the other hand, the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace. All of us find our focus wandering, but when that happens, what do you do? Do you repent and refocus on God? Do you seek out the help of your fellow believers in the church to get your focus back in the right place? Do you go back to Scripture? This is the character of the one who belongs to God.
Today, we examine the last two questions:
And as we will see, these two questions are interrelated
Let’s reread verses 9-11. As we read, take note of the four conditional statements that make up this section – particularly the three conditional statements concerning those who are believers:
9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. 10 If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
(As an aside, notice the different names for the Spirit in these four sentences: “Spirit of God”, “Spirit of Christ”, “Christ” “Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead”. Since all these refer to the same Spirit, the clear implication is that Jesus is God, and that the Spirit is Christ. These verses are important for our understanding of the unity within the trinity.)
Did you catch all four conditional statements? In Greek, there are several different ways to make conditional statements that grammarians have identified as different classes. Paul uses this particular type here to draw the believers among his readers into true assurance. We can paraphrase these three verses as a dialogue in order to capture the connotation of this particular conditional form. (Paul’s statements are in bold):
(9a) Doesn’t the Spirit of God live in you?
(9b) Then you are in the Spirit, not the flesh! (But if anyone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ).
(10a) Isn’t Christ in you?
(10b) Then, although your body is as good as dead because of sin, your spirit is alive because of Jesus’ righteousness (as I said in verse 6). He is in you, and His righteousness is credited to your account.
(11a) Isn’t this same Spirit of God who lives in you the very Spirit who raised Christ Jesus from the dead?
Yes – but what does that have to do with anything?
(11b) This is what I said in verse 2 and in chapter 6: the indwelling Spirit is a life-giving Spirit! He raised Jesus from the dead, when Jesus was dead because of your sins, and now this same Spirit is in you. So this life-giving Spirit gives life to your body, even though it is as good as dead.
So Paul here gives his readers assurance IF they are confident of the presence of the Spirit. The idea is similar to that found in Ephesians 1:13-14: The Spirit is a downpayment, a guarantee of our complete future redemption.
So the very phrase that worried his readers – as they wondered if, while sinning, they are really walking according to the Spirit – Paul turns back to its center:
“If you have the Spirit, your sin will not overwhelm you, it will not control you. Your mindset will not become set on the flesh. The Spirit produces life from death – and if you have Him, He will produce life!
“Well, Paul,” you might answer, “I sure thought I had the Spirit within me. But the fact is, I do find myself sinning. Should I go back and question even my confidence that the Spirit is within me?”
Verses 13 to 17 answer that question. We’ll look today only at verse 13, where Paul talks about sin. In the next few verses, he discusses other ways the Spirit works to give us assurance; we’ll look at those next week.
So this brings us to our second question:
Verse 13 is tremendous summary statement of this entire problem
If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Paul draws a stark contrast. There are only two possibilities, and the first one is horrible: If you are living according to flesh, you will die spiritually.
The thought here is similar to what John writes in his first letter:
God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. (1 John 1:5-6)
The one who is living according to the flesh is walking in darkness. Such a person has no fellowship with God, who is pure and holy.
But praise God, there is a second possibility. But it is not the possibility we might expect. Given Paul’s discussion so far, you might expect the second half of verse 13 to read, “but if you are living according to the Spirit, you will live.” That statement is true – clearly it is implied by verses 5 and 6, since those who walk according to the Spirit are identical with those whose minds are set on the Spirit, and this latter is indeed life. But now Paul helps those of us who find ourselves sinning by giving his most explicit description of what “walking according to Spirit” means for a sinner. What does he say?
Note that he does NOT say, “If you never sin, you will live.” If that is what he said, we would be without hope. 1 John 1 is once again helpful here – this time verse 8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” John here is talking about true believers – all of us still sin.
Instead of perfection, Paul says that “walking according to Spirit” MEANS “by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body.”
Understanding this statement is absolutely vital for assurance – absolutely vital for our friends Not-Worry and Guilt-Ridden, and all those like them. So let’s analyze this statement with four simple questions:
First, WHO is putting to death the deeds of the body?
YOU are! Paul says, “If YOU are putting to death the deeds of the body.”
In other words, we are not to say, “Lord, I keep sinning by stealing cars. Lord, please stop me from stealing cars.” The next night, you go out and steal another car. Then before you go to sleep, you cry out, “Lord, you let me down! You didn’t stop me!”
No. YOU are the one who puts to death the deeds of the body. You are responsible for your actions.
Second, What is he putting to death?
“The deeds of the body.” Don’t be misled by word “body”. Paul is NOT talking only about illicit sex, gluttony, and other sins that we think of as bodily.
We can see this in Ephesians 2:3:
We all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind
Here, Paul breaks down the one category, “passions of the flesh,” into two sub-categories: “the desires of the body” and “the desires of the mind.” Both are “fleshly”; both are sinful. Just so, in today’s verse Paul includes in “the deeds of the body” all sins.
Indeed, The New Testament everywhere combines what we think of as bodily, fleshly sins with what we think of as sins of thought. You can see this in virtually every time an author gives a list of sins. For example, consider Jesus’ list in Mark 7:21-22:
For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.
“Evil thoughts, greed, arrogance, envy” – these are all sins of thought, sins of the mind. Yet they are interspersed with “adultery, sexual immorality, murder, theft” – which are all outward sins, sins of the flesh or body.
So “the deeds of the body” include all outworkings of what Paul calls “the old man” or “old self” in Ephesians 4. We are to put all such things to death.
Question 3: What instrument is he using?
We are told to put to death the deeds of the body “by the Spirit,” “by means of the Spirit.” The Spirit is the instrument we use to put these deeds to death.
What does this mean?
Paul here draws our attention back to the thoughts of verses 9 to 11. “Doesn’t the Spirit of God live in you? Then you have power to deal with sin! Indeed, you have the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead! Use it!”
How do we wield this weapon? Earlier in our service we read Ephesians 6:10-18 concerning the armor of God. What does that passage say about the Spirit?
Take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.
We fight sin with the Spirit, in part through the use of the Word, through knowing, reading, memorizing, and remembering the great promises that God has given us.
Our opponent always argues, “There is greater joy in following me than in following Jesus!” So fight to believe the opposite! Call to mind Scriptures that fight your particular temptation. Lean back on Psalm 16:11:
In YOUR PRESENCE is fullness of joy, at your rightt hand are pleasures forevermore.
As many of you know, Linda received test results this week that indicated here chemo drug was no longer working well. This means she will have to switch to another drug, with much worse side effects. That night she sent out an email to her prayer partners, which is a wonderful example of putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit – making full use of the Word of God. The email begins with a series of quotations from Psalms 29 to 31, such as:
weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning . . . My times are in your hands . . .How great is Your goodness, Which You have stored up for those who fear You, Which You have wrought for those who take refuge in You.
That is what each of us must do. Use the sword of the Spirit! Depend on the promises of God! Fight that fight to believe God and to prove Satan a liar! This is putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit.
Our last question: What is he doing to the deeds of the body?
Not pampering them. Not reprimanding them. Not limiting them: “OK, I will allow three lustful thoughts each day, but I’m telling you, that will be it!”
No. Paul tells us to kill them!
In John Owen’s masterful book on this verse – that’s right, a book-length exposition of this one verse entitled The Mortification of Sin, he writes:
Rise mightily against the first actings of thy distemper, its first conceptions; suffer it not to get the least ground. Do not say, “Thus far it shall go, and no farther.” If it have allowance for one step, it will take another. It is impossible to fix bounds to sin.
Just so. We do not pamper or limit sin. We must put it to death.
This is serious business. Jesus says,
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. (Matthew 5:29)
We must deal with sin as a life-threatening attacker. For our lives are indeed at stake. Not because you are justified by the life you live, but because the proof of your justification is in how you live.
John Piper says:
If you are living according to the flesh – if you are not making war on the flesh, and not making a practice out of killing sin in your life, then there is no compelling reason for thinking that you are united to Christ by faith or that you are therefore justified. In other words, putting to death the deeds of the body is not the way we get justified, it's one of the ways God shows that we are justified. And so Paul commands us to do it – be killing sin – because if we don't – if we don't make war on the flesh and put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit – if growth in grace and holiness mean nothing to us – then we show that we are probably false in our profession of faith, and that our church membership is a sham and our baptism is a fraud, and we are probably not Christians after all and never were.
Consider this analogy: You are in an army unit in hostile country. The enemy forces are defeated. Their command has disintegrated, and our country’s forces occupy the country.
But while the enemy is defeated, they have not surrendered. They have lost - there is no hope for them to reassert control of the country - but they are desperate and fight on. Snipers abound. It is possible that you will be subject to attack by organized units.
The danger thus is great – not to war effort, for the decisive battle has been won – but the danger to you and your buddies individually is great. Furthermore (and the reason I’m not saying using Iraq as the country name) “collateral damage” is not an issue.
How do you act in that situation?
NO! You stay on the alert. You know you are in a life and death situation. If you here some rustling in the bushes, you call out a challenge. If there is no answer, you shoot. And you shoot to kill. At the first indication of enemy presence, you deal with it. You show no mercy; you have no tolerance.
That is how we should act with sin. Do not let it get a foothold. Put it to death by the Spirit through the Word.
So can a Christian lose his salvation? No.
But can someone who thinks he is a Christian be deceived? Millions are in that situation.
Might you be there? Might some of those close to you be there? You know, this is the most dangerous spot of all. An unbeliever hearing the gospel can recognize the danger he is in and respond. But a deceived believer can acknowledge the dangerous position of unbelievers and never recognize that the danger applies to him.
Remember, the question is not, “Did I walk the aisle?”
The question is not even what many make it out to be: “Did I really mean it when I prayed that prayer?” (That question just leads to endless introspection.)
And, thank God, the question is not, “Am I perfect? Am I free from all traces of sin?”
The key question is this: “Am I fighting the fight of faith by the Spirit?”
Ask yourself these questions that Paul poses:
I challenge you to examine yourself – and to be willing to challenge others to examine themselves.
If you pass the exam – Rejoice! And keep fighting the fight of faith with diligence.
What if you fail the exam?
The answer is the same: Rejoice! For you are no longer in the most dangerous situation. Throw yourself on the mercy of God. Admit, “Lord, my mindset has been on the things of the flesh; I have been tolerating sin in my life. I repent, Lord Jesus. By the Blood of Jesus, cleanse me, and make me yours, for the sake of your own Name!”
David assures us that God will never despise a broken and contrite heart (Ps 51:17).
So believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Fight the fight to believe His promises. And you will be saved.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 4/27/03. In paraphrasing the conditional statements in verses 9-11, I leaned heavily on the discussion of 1st class conditions in Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Zondervan, 1996. The quote from John Piper is taken from his sermon of February 3, 2002 on Romans 8:10-17.
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