“…as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5.21).
Christians use the stock language of “hating sin” and “killing sin.” Those wanting to sound especially holy and smart speak of “mortifying sin.” Sin is indeed an interloper in the Christian soul, a squatter in the Spirit-indwelled heart. Because of Christ sin has no rights, privileges or legal claim on the Christian. Therefore, it must be rooted out and put to death. We are strengthened by the Holy Spirit to make progress against particular sins and toward Christlikeness. Though a lifelong process, the mortification of sin is a hopeful process because Jesus has removed its sting (1 Cor 15.55-57). I’m far more empowered to kill something that cannot kill me back!
As pious as “killing” sin sounds how exactly do we go about it? Is it enough to merely say we categorically hate sin really, really bad? Is our hatred of sin to be measured by how bad we feel after committing it? Does killing sin mean spending our livelong days not sinning in certain ways? Are we to wake up each day trying not to sin as a means of mortifying it?
Jesus taught us to be violently aggressive against sin. We’re to cut out the wandering eye and cut off the offending hand, as it were (Mt 18.8-9). Guerrilla warfare has no rules and sin is our fiercest guerrillero; therefore, killing sin is rarely easy and often messy. We’re not merely to hate the category of sin, but to kill “the deeds of the body” in the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8.13). It’s one thing to hate weeds in my yard while staring at them from the kitchen window, but quite another to get dirty pulling up the particular weeds. We’re called to hate and mortify sin by being done with, or at least making steady progress against, certain sins.
That said, the gospel provides a metric to measure hatred for sin and a corresponding tactic for killing it. Sin reigns in death, grace reigns through righteousness (Rom 5.21). The grace that saves is the grace that demonstrates its power (or, reign) in sin-killing righteousness. In other words, saving grace is not only measured by how much sin we get away with while still remaining God’s children. Grace is measured also by the amount of righteousness that replaces sin. Grace doesn’t reign through licentiousness but through righteousness.
How can my hatred of sin be measured? By the amount of righteousness that demonstrably opposes it in my life. For example, we show how much we hate greed or theft by how generous we are with our stuff (Eph 4.28). We show how much we hate sarcasm, gossip and slander by how much of an encouragement we are in everyday conversation (Eph 4.29). We demonstrate how much we hate bitterness, wrath and anger by how kind, tender-hearted and forgiving we are to others (Eph 4.30; Col 2.8, 12). We demonstrate how much we hate selfishness and conceit by the amount of humble service we offer (Phil 4.3-4).
The tactic, therefore, for killing sin is not simply not sinning. That’s like trying to overcome the fear of pink elephants by not thinking of pink elephants. Strangely (or pathologically), in trying so hard to avoid thinking about them you actually cannot help thinking about them. Trying so hard to not sin actually can actually focus undue attention on the sin. Laying aside entangling sin doesn’t mean focusing on its double knots, but fixing our eyes on Jesus (Heb 12.1-2). Sin is best defeated by grace-reigning righteousness. Sin must be evicted by the soul’s rightful resident: the Spirit of Christ putting Christ’s righteousness on display through us (Rom 6.12-19).
Killing sin is also not waiting for God to “zap” the sinful desires out of you. If I had nickel for every time I’ve prayed, “God, just take the desires away so I can’t be rid of this sin!”? Not wanting to want is not enough to kill sin. God typically doesn’t mysteriously take sin out of us while we sleep like he did with Adam’s rib. God has rung sin’s death knell: grace. And grace reigns through righteousness.
Therefore, if I want to kill anger it will be futile to spend every hour trying not to get angry. That will lead to a lonely life and shallow love. And trying to avoid anger will probably only make me angrier! I kill anger with tender-hearted compassion. Instead of trying not to be angry I’m better suited to exercise compassion and my anger will starve to death.
I don’t kill greed by merely avoiding shopping and cutting up credit cards. That only suspends greed until it finds seven more greedy friends to provoke a spending spree (Mt 12.43-45). I kill greed by being generous. Instead of trying hard not to be greedy, I should give myself away and my greed will slowly shrivel.
Killing gossip will take more than lip-zipping and deactivating a Facebook account. That only suspends gossip until I boil over in some Godless rant. Gossip must be evicted by Christ-centered encouragement of others. Rather than trying hard not to gossip, I must work hard to encourage and gossip will become far less gratifying to my selfish soul.
Grace is freedom. Liberty. We don’t wake up each day burdened with killing sin by sneaking around it or ignoring it or “speaking” to it. That’s like trying to evict a squatter by acting like he’s not there or really, really, really not wanting him to be there. No squatter has left by professing to others how much we hate him. We cannot shame a squatter into leaving. He must be evicted and replaced. We kill sin by replacing it as Christ has already “taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2.15).
We wake up each day in the power of God’s grace to pursue righteousness. Christ’s righteousness. Sin-haters are righteousness-lovers. We will enjoy far more freedom from sin by pursuing in the power of the Spirit those things that evict sin than we will trying not to sin by our own power. Let’s stop trying so hard not to sin against Christ that we don’t actually live for him. Don’t just stop sinning. Start living.