It may be, dear Christian, that you have not yet found it within yourself to believe that your old nature is dead—and so you dare not reckon it to be dead (see Romans 6:11).
So, you continue to live under the delusion that your old fallen, corrupt nature is you—and is still a controlling tyrant over you (for if you are a Christian, then it is a delusion to think that your are dominated by your corrupt natrure). Do you fear that you will never make any progress in bearing spiritual fruit?
But this does not change the fact: if you really are a Christian, then your “old man” has been crucified with Christ. When the Lord Jesus Christ sent the Holy Spirit to regenerate you, the domination of your old man was broken—crucified.
The apostle Paul is not overstating this truth when he expresses it as follows: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
You are “freed from sin” already, says the apostle (Romans 6:7). So, it is now possible for you to choose not to sin, and to successfully resist temptations to sin, and to break your sinful habits.
This is a true freedom of the will, that has been given to you at your conversion. And this ability to succeed in resisting sin, to succeed in walking in newness of life and to succeed in bearing spiritual fruit1 is all being continually enabled within you by the Holy Spirit who indwells you (Romans 7:4; see also Galatians 5:22: Ephesians 5:9).
But it is your responsibility to use your God-given ability.
All Christians down the centuries are commanded by the apostle Paul, who was moved to command us by the Holy Spirit: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure”2 (Philippians 2:12-13).
Work out your own salvation, Christian! Discover and prove that God really is at work within you, and that he has given you the power and the responsibility to live a new life in which you both will and do what is good and pleasing to him.
As you take definite steps in your new life in Christ, you are increasingly putting away your old life.
Although you will not reach a state of perfect sinlessness during the remainder of your life on earth—a state in which it is impossible to sin—yet you will indeed grow and mature in the Christian life, and you will increasingly “put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (Ephesians 4:22).
This is what we call mortification: reckoning yourself dead to your old way of life and putting your old ways out of your new life.
God is working in you, Christian! This is why true Christians persevere in the faith, living an increasingly sanctified life. They strive to live as Paul lived: “But I keep under my body3, and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
The ancient Greek ascetics and the Gnostics (who sought to make a hybrid of Christianity and Greek asceticism4) believed that the material world, including human bodies, is inherently evil. And therefore, much of their religion consisted in abstaining from the “physical realm”.
The truth is, however, that nowhere does the Bible teach that physical things—including human bodies, natural sexual desires or normal appetites for food and drink—are in themselves evil.
Ascetic practice “as an aid to the religious life” has continued in various forms to this day. But the truth is, in Paul’s teaching on the remaining indwelling sin in the Christian soul, when he spoke about the flesh, the body of death and the old man he did not mean our muscles, nerves, hormones, organs and bones.
The apostle was using an analogy to explain this sinful nature, where it remains in Christians but no longer dominates them. He described this sinfulness in a metaphor. In the same way as I should think of my body as not being me (for the actual conscious me is my spirit within my body), so true Christians come to understand that at their regeneration, the Holy Spirit has set them free from being under the control of their fallen sinfulness (see John 8:36; Romans 8:2, 10), so that their remaining sinfulness is not me any more (Romans 7:17).
Of course, the primary meaning of the word “flesh” does refer to physical bodies (the Bible often uses the word in that way too—e.g. Genesis 1:21, 23; Exodus 12:8; 1 Corinthians 15:39; 2 Corinthians 7:5). The original cause of death in this world is, according to the Bible, human sin. Death has come upon mankind, and upon all the earth, in consequence of the sin of our first father Adam (Genesis 2, 3; Romans 5:12). This is why we have mortal flesh—this is why we die physically5.
The false doctrine that matter and flesh are evil is clearly incompatible with Christianity. For if flesh is evil, then there could have been no incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ (see John 1:1-3, 14; Acts 20:28; Hebrews 1:1-3, 8; 1 Timothy 3:16).
Christ died to redeem his people—body and soul. And at the Resurrection at the end of the world he will raise us up with new glorified bodies (see 1 Corinthians 15:50-56; Romans 8:30; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Our Lord has promised this resurrection to his people since time immemorial, and so we can affirm with Job: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26).
This material universe too will be dissolved, and Christ will make all things new again—with no more curse and no more bondage of corruption. And in this new creation his people will dwell with him forever (Romans 8:19-22; 2 Peter 3:10-13; Revelation 21:1-5; 22:3).
Now consider this metaphor that the Lord Jesus Christ taught: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30; see also Matthew 18:8-9; Mark 9:43-48).
Our Lord’s doctrine here is simply this: that we must repent of our sins, and in this repentance, we must totally cease and desist6 from looking at anything and doing anything that would condemn our souls to Hell.
In Christ’s “if” argument above, he did not imply that he thought our eyes or hands actually entice us to sin! You will not find that doctrine taught anywhere in the Bible. Obviously, he was not speaking literally but metaphorically. No, of course Jesus was not teaching us to gouge out our eyes and dismember ourselves!
Paul understood his Lord correctly. The apostle says, “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Romans 8:13). Notice that he explains mortification as putting off sinful deeds—sinful actions. Not amputating or mutilating.
Elsewhere, Paul teaches, “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). Understand that these “members” are explained to be not physical body-parts but evil deeds such as those he mentions in his list. And again, it is our “former conversation”, our old sinful lifestyle, which we are to “put off” (see Ephesians 4:22).
Clearly, this is not referring to “salvation by works”—since Paul writes to the already-saved Christian. This work which we must do is our own real efforts to co-operate in the work of sanctification, having a holy fear lest we should fall back (see Hebrews 6:4-12). ↩︎
By “my body,” Paul is speaking metaphorically—he means his old fallen nature. This will be explained in the following section. ↩︎
Ascetic practice was brought into the Church in the early centuries AD after the apostles. The Gnostics, and those who inherited their errors, wrongly interpreted some things taught in the Bible in support of their false religion. ↩︎
To desist means to stop, and never start again. ↩︎