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In short, now that sin’s reign over us has been broken, we are to give ourselves up to God and set ourselves to obeying the word and will of God from the heart (Rom. 6:17). We have been set free; now we must walk in the freedom we have been given. This is a matter of our will, of choosing to put off the attitudes and behaviors of our old self and put on those of the new self. However, our willing/choosing, while necessary, is not sufficient for victory; we must act in the power of the Holy Spirit, as we will see ahead.
We might think of this as a process of reversing and rooting out our practice of the sinful attitudes and behaviors that have characterized our past life (old self). We must cast off, our old sinful ways and embrace their godly opposites. This is easier and quicker with some sins than others. Depending on how deeply rooted a given sin is, it may take considerable time and effort to eradicate it and cultivate its opposite. Most people, for example, would find it easier to stop lying than to root out sexual lust or greed. Paul is very realistic about the challenge we face:
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom. 8:12–14)
We must put sin to death, says Paul. And this can be hard business. Just as a large thorn bush with a deep root takes much effort to uproot and destroy, some sins are more difficult than others to root out. But as we work determinedly with the Spirit’s help, the weeds and thorn bushes in the gardens of our hearts are progressively eradicated and replaced with the beautiful, fragrant flowers and fruit of Christlikeness. As we live in this way, motivated not by law but by a grateful, self-giving love for God, the flesh has no dominion over us and gets weaker, while the new self becomes stronger.
Contrary to what many people seem to think today, this earnest pursuit of freedom from the flesh and sin is not optional for those who have been made alive in Christ. It is simply another way of talking about the pursuit of “the holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14; see also 1 Pet. 1:13–19). Thus it is a matter of life and death. As John Owen said, “We must be killing sin or it will be killing us.” The flesh is always ready to reassert itself in our lives, and the world is a playground full of temptations and snares to entice us. The tragic downfall of David and Bathsheba shows that even a godly psalmist is not immune to the temptation to sin. The price of freedom in the spiritual life, as in political life, is “eternal vigilance.” The devil, who sees us as prisoners who have escaped from his jail and seeks to recapture us, skillfully uses the world and its sinful enticements as bait to ensnare our flesh. But as we have seen above, we can escape capture. It is a law of life that what we starve dies; as we starve and put to death the flesh and its sinful thoughts and deeds, we deny the devil access to our moral lives. As an old Puritan once said, “If we would deal with the flesh, it would put the devil out of business over night.”
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