Leaving My Sin at the Cross

Christians say that our sins are nailed to the cross, but what does that mean? This means that the cross of Jesus accomplished atonement for our sins. However, it also means that in our everyday lives, sin must be left to die on the cross with Christ. We call this repentance, or in days past, the “mortification of the flesh.” How is this accomplished? I’d like to offer six necessary components of personal sanctification and devotion that I have gleaned from Scripture and various authors who have touched on the topic through the years.

Before beginning, let me say that the answer is rarely, “Try harder.” Morality is not a sport where giving 110% gets you across the finish line. If you are running in the wrong direction, running faster is no help. We need change.

Let’s look to Romans 8:13 as our guide: “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.” Long ago in The Mortification of Sin, John Owen found the entire path of repentance in this simple verse, and so shall we.

‌Name your sin.

First, we must name “the deeds of the body” that have to die. Vague platitudes will undermine our repentance from the start. “I’m struggling a bit” or “I have my own issues” are just shields made of hazy, false confessions that serve sin rather than crucify it. Sins have names, and we must name them.

There is a reason Paul loves to make lists. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5) “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-20). We need to name our sins as well, and we can often find them in one of Paul’s lists.

Having done so, realize that your deeds are neither better nor worse than your neighbor’s. Paul does not list his sins in tiers. Rivalries are named with idolatry. For that matter, covetousness is said to be idolatry. You are not less in need of repentance for having more palatable sins, nor are you more condemned for sins that are less socially acceptable. A dead man is dead, whether it is by a thousand poisons or one.

‌Confess your nature.

Second, we must confess that our hearts and minds produced these sins. Our flesh is to blame. Yes, we know that there is evil in the world beyond ourselves. We are influenced by everything from childhood trauma to “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12). We are not the only people responsible for our sins, but we are still responsible.

Our deeds are the results of who we are. We are not great people with small flaws. We are sinners. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Why crucify our desires? Because we desire to sin. We want it.

Nor does it end with our desires, as if our minds were free from blame. “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7) I have spent a lot of my life trying to insulate my own mind from blame, hoping that “cannot” in this verse means something more like “will not” or “probably won’t.” The Greek text is unwaveringly blunt: οὐδὲ δύναται quite literally means “it is not able.” It can’t be done. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8). ‌Our minds led us to sin. Our minds lead nowhere else.

Accept our blame.

Third, we must accept that we are the problem, not the solution. This is the only possible conclusion of the preceding observations. The subject of our guiding passage in Romans 8:13 is “you.” Paul is not speaking of hypothetical reprobates. He is speaking of the reader and even of himself.

He’s transparent about his own struggle with sin when he writes, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15).‌ Such brutal honesty! Haven’t we all felt this way? Haven’t we felt that there is something we cannot overcome and that “something” is ourselves?

“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (7:18-19).

Warring desires! Contradictory nature! It is almost as if we are two people: the image bearer of God and the fallen rebel who fights against God. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) ‌We are sinners who love our sins. Our deliverance will not come from within.

Know His love.

It is at this point that many preachers begin to speak of hell and the fire that awaits such creatures as we are. But I think there is a better path to follow, though no less overwhelming.

Fourth, we must tremble before a God who loves us anyway. Yes, we do stand condemned. “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:2). But there is a far more moving force than hell. Hell is barely anything; it’s almost nothing. It is what is left over for a person who would rather exist in some way without God. Hell was never supposed to bring us to God because it is as far from God as anything can be.

What then could begin the reality of change in us? It is the promise “you shall live” that we read in Romans 8:13. It is the love of God that beckons us: “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). ‌We do not repent because of hell’s flame. We repent because of heaven’s love. We do not change so that he will love us. We change as a result of his love. God is utterly and completely repulsed by our sin, and yet he holds us and will not let us go. He saw every horror that we would work in our sinful flesh, and he decided before we did them that he would die on a cross rather than let us face what we deserve.

A condemned man has nothing to gain from change. If we are doomed, repentance is futile. But if there is a God of love so great as the gospel proclaims, how can we not be changed by being so loved?

Invite the Spirit.

Fifth, we must seek the help of the Spirit. This is where I will offer you the least help in this process. I do not have the slightest clue about how the Spirit changes a life. Nor should I. Paul compares it to the resurrection of Jesus. “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” (Romans 8:11).

Can you explain to me how the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead? Can you tell me how the extinguished synapses of the brain began to fire? Can you explain to me how a heart still for three days began to beat or how cold blood warmed a body? Can you tell me how the course of nature was reversed or what mechanism forced the grave itself to cough up one of its captives? 

I cannot explain the smallest part of it, but it is the truest fact I know.

Likewise, in the Christian life, I cannot even guess how the Spirit changes what I want and desire. I do not know how the Spirit helps my mind see what I could not see before. But I know only God raises the dead. And I know even while you work out your own salvation, that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). I simply affirm it as truth and invite him to do his work.

Do it daily.

Sixth and finally, we must make the death of sin our daily battle and grace our daily victory. One of Satan’s great deceits is reducing repentance to one grand experience or a moment’s resolution. Yes, salvation is complete. Yes, we are truly risen from the dead. Yes, we are saved to the uttermost degree. But the fallenness of this world lives alongside us until the last trump sounds, and so repentance must be our daily task. 

David understood it when he wrote, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). The psalmist understood he must not take a day off from warring against his sin. 

Paul knew it when he explained, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). We are resurrected saints, but the death to sin must be maintained.

The Protestant Reformation began when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to that door in Wittenburg. And the first line of the 95? “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Daily repentance is the founding principle of the entire Reformation.

Charles Spurgeon knew it as well: “Repentance is a continual life-long act.” Christ’s work at the cross is finished, but mine is not done until he takes me home.

Let us end where we began, with John Owen and his short work, The Mortification of Sin.

“Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

  1. Name your sin.

  2. Confess your nature.

  3. Accept your blame.

  4. Know His love.

  5. Invite the Spirit.

  6. Do it daily.

And pray a lot. It seems to help.

Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.

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