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.
The first thing to learn here is that when it comes to walking according to the flesh or walking according to the Spirit, it's one or the other. There is no middle ground. Just like there's no middle ground between life and death, there is no middle ground between living according to the flesh and living according to the Spirit. You are doing one or the other. It's an on-off switch, not a dimmer switch, when it comes to living a life that pleases God.
So what does it mean to live according to the flesh? That's quite simple: "the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these" (Galatians 5:19–21). Living according to the flesh means doing the deeds of the flesh.
So what does it mean to live according to the Spirit? Well, if the deeds of the flesh are all of the things listed above, and the people who do those things must die, we expect the Apostle Paul to say that everyone on the other side of the line—the one who will live--doesn't do those things. But that's not what Paul says. On the other side of doing the deeds of the flesh is putting to death the deeds of the flesh.
First, verb tense. When Paul says, "if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body," what is our verb tense? Anyone? That's right: present continuous: "are putting." This means you are engaged in a continuous act of putting sin to death. For reference, here are some ways Paul might have put it instead, but didn't:
"If you have put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." If Paul had said this, it would mean you must have finished and perfected the putting to death of sin before the promise of life is given to you. (That's called legalism.)
"If you were putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live." This would mean that if at any point in the past you were putting sin to death, then you have a promise of life.
"If you will put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." If Paul had said this, it would mean that if sometime in the future you put sin to death, then there's a promise of eternal life for you, but Scripture nowhere says this.
Paul says those who are putting to death the deeds of the body will live. We learn from this that what characterizes the man who walks by the Spirit is not that sin has been put to death. It's also not just that he intends to put it to death. Rather, the life of the Christian is characterized by an continuous engagement in the fight against sin. The Christian isn't someone who says they did kill sin, or they will kill sin. The Christian is someone who is currently killing sin. And the promise of life is given to every man, woman, and child who is actively engaged in the battle against sin. When we believe in Jesus and He grants us the power of His Holy Spirit, a battle is engaged inside of us between the Spirit and our sinful flesh. Our job is to fight on the side of the Spirit against the flesh. "If by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live."
Second grammar lesson: propositional relationships. What's the relationship between Paul's two propositions: first, that you are putting to death the deeds of the body; and second, that you will live?
The word if indicates that we're dealing with a conditional relationship. If the first thing is true, the second thing is necessarily true. Sometimes, this can indicate a relationship of cause and effect. In other words, the first thing actually causes the second thing to happen. Is that what Paul says here? Does he promise that you will live because you are putting to death the deeds of the body? Is your eternal life caused by you fighting sin? No: we know that can't be true because of what the Apostle says throughout the rest of the book of Romans. Namely, that "eternal life in Christ Jesus" is the "free gift of God" (Romans 6:23), for "a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" (Romans 3:28). God does not grant you eternal life in Christ Jesus because of anything good you've done, not even because you're putting sin to death.
So what does Paul mean when he says, "If by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live"? John Owen puts it well: it means "there is a certain infallible connection and coherence between true mortification [killing sin] and eternal life." In other words, you never get one without the other. If the first part is true, the second part is also true. Every person who is truly engaged in battle with their sin is on his way to eternal life. We could easily flip it around and say, "If you have eternal life, you by the Spirit are putting to death the deeds of the body." Everyone who trusts in Christ and really owns the promise of eternal life in Him is currently putting their sin to death.
Do you want to know if you're really a Christian? Ask yourself one question: Are you by the Spirit putting to death the deeds of the flesh? Don't ask yourself if you're sinless yet. That's the wrong criteria. What distinguishes believers from unbelievers is not sinlessness. Those heading toward death live according to the flesh, but those heading toward life are putting their sinful desires to death. The alive man is not perfect yet, but he is growing and gaining ground against sin.
Fighting Sin is Normal
I recently had a conversation with a college student who claims to be a Christian. However, he's completely given over to sin: immorality, drunkenness, lying—the deeds of the flesh. I began to ask him about when he became a Christian; his story sounded very familiar.
He got involved in a youth group of a large nondenominational church. He got saved after living a life of drunkenness, drug use, and hard partying. He first believed in Jesus at a youth group event. For a while, he was excited about spiritual things. All he wanted to do was read the Bible, tell people about Jesus, and hang out with Christian friends. But that quickly disappeared, and he fell back into sin. But when he'd go back to church, or attend some sort of youth retreat, he'd get another boost and turn away from sin…for a while.
He proceeded to tell me that this cycle has repeated itself several times over the past few years of being a Christian. Right now, he's off at college, partying most weekends and avoiding fellowship with God's people. Whenever he goes back home and attends church, he feels very spiritual and holy and motivated, but that quickly melts away when he returns to real life. He keeps giving into temptation, and he's baffled by the difficulty of fighting against sin, and the more he gives in to sin, the more distant he feels from God.
This is common. In American evangelicalism, we've created a culture of "spiritual" highs and emotional excitement. And these emotional high points are primarily what drives our obedience to Jesus, which means when we no longer feel the same strong feelings, our obedience quickly vanishes. We are surprised by temptation when it comes, and we think, "Wait, I thought I was a Christian!" We wallow in sin for a while until we go to another exciting youth retreat or Christian rock concert where we "rededicate" our lives to Jesus and maybe even get re-baptized. This excitement motivates us to be "holy" and "spiritual" for about a week or so—then we fall back into sin and again cry out: "What happened?!"
We have two problems: 1) a deficient view of sin and 2) a wrong view of our need to fight.
1. A Deficient View of Sin
In our hearts, we know this to be true about sin, and this knowledge is betrayed in the movies we make and watch. How many films can you think of where the bad guy pretends to be defeated, only to unexpectedly lash out at the final second to destroy his enemy the hero? It's true with kids' movies (e.g., Scar), adventure movies (e.g., the Balrog in LOTR), and most certainly in our horror movies (e.g., Jaws, any slasher film).
Until you die, your indwelling sin is not yet dead. You must always be on your guard. When you think sin is weak, subdued, and unthreatening (i.e., when you're on a "spiritual high"), that's when you must be most wary. Satan is the father of lies, he disguises himself as an angel of light, and he has no problem lulling you to sleep with what you perceive to be righteous spiritual feelings.
2. The Need to Fight
Problems arise when we think we no longer need to fight against sin. When we forget that the Christian is putting to death the deeds of the body, sin wins. When we expect the war against our flesh to be light and easy, we will only be surprised, and our efforts thwarted. Don't be surprised when temptation comes at you! It's normal. That's why the Holy Spirit calls it the "fight of faith" (1 Timothy 6:12) and commands us to "labor and strive" (1 Timothy 4:10).
Most of Life Life Is Maintenance
Most of your life is mundane everyday tasks, too. You wake up, you brush your teeth, you shower, you get dressed, you eat breakfast, you wash dishes, you commute, you study, you pay bills, you make dinner, you do laundry, you get ready for bed, you go to sleep, and then you do it all over again.
Most of life is maintenance, and your spiritual life is no different. The fight against sin rarely consists of glamorous demonstrations of spiritual strength.
Think of your life as a car. How do you preserve the life of your car? Is it through heroic feats of mechanical skill and repair? Sometimes, but not usually. Most of taking care of your car is everyday maintenance. You fill up with gas, you change the oil, you rotate the tires--yawn…
I replaced the starter in my little Kia Rio last summer. It took about 2 hours longer than it should have, but I felt accomplished and manly when I finished. I'm pretty proud of that, and I like to tell people I did it. But I don't go around bragging about my great auto-care skills after I fill up at the gas station. That's not manly or special; anyone can do that!
In many ways, our spiritual life is like this. Much of walking in faith is maintenance. Fighting against sin and walking in holiness typically aren't glorious or glamorous. The everyday work of growing in grace is not something that will get oohs and ahs from people as they admire our great spiritual acumen. When we read the Bible, it's like putting gas in our tank. Not really impressive or boastworthy, but necessary. But think back to when your dad first let you pump gas into his car. Or think back to when you first put gas into or changed the oil in your own car. It was a small thing, but you felt on top of the world!
In our spiritual life, we must continue in faith, doing the normal everyday work of devoting ourselves to the Bible, to fellowship with other Christians, to praying, and to worship with God's people. You won't get great accolades, and you may have no amazing stories to tell, but you will begin to bear real lasting fruit as you steadily grow in grace. And if you're faithful in these little things, then God may see fit to give you bigger responsibilities that are more noticeable.
If you neglect everyday maintenance on your car, your car suffers. If you don't change the oil, don't rotate your tires, don't maintain your brakes, you'll end up with a crisis on your hands when you finally get around to doing something. Similarly, f we don't fight against sin every day and labor to put even our "small" sins to death, we will suffer spiritually. You will have unfruitful relationships with others, you will feel distant from God, and you will be useless to building the kingdom of Christ. The health of your spiritual life depends on killing sin:
We often tolerate anger, avarice, and anxiety in our hearts because we don't see them the way Jesus does. We claim to believe that sin is an awful thing—after all, we're good Christians, aren't we?—yet we conveniently assume that in our special case our transgressions are really nothing more than minor offenses against overly rigid rules, like driving 5 mph over the speed limit. We treat sins like annoying warts—unpleasant, perhaps, but not threatening to a robust spiritual life. Christ, in contrast, considers them cancerous. (Brian Hedges, Licensed to Kill)
Comfort and Peace
Were any of us asked seriously what it is that troubles us, it's probably one of these two things—either we lack strength or power, vigor and life, in our obedience, in our walking with God; or we lack peace, comfort, and consolation in our walking with God.
Owen points out that one single unmortified sin, whether it be lust, anxiety, jealousy, discontentment, or greed, can sap our spiritual strength, draw our love away from God and His Word, fill our minds with wicked and distracting thoughts, and hinder us from accomplishing our God-given duties.
So if you're feeling distant from God. If you feel as though you're lacking spiritual strength or comfort, the first question you should ask yourself is this: What sin am I not putting to death?
And remember, don't be discouraged. This is the everyday work of a Christian. Temptation and a fierce battle with sin are not strange things, even to the godliest of men.
Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13)