Dying, Yet We Live: How Mortification Is The Way Of Life In The Spirit

Squatters are notoriously difficult to evict. They may disappear for a while, making you think they are gone, yet they always find a way back and may even bring a few friends along. Indwelling sin is not so easy to evict either, but it is a necessary duty of the Christian life. We are Christ’s temple, therefore all squatters must go. In Romans 8:12–13, Paul teaches us that mortification is not only necessary but possible. Putting sin to death is necessary because Christ has delivered us from this sinful age and possible because the Spirit of Christ leads us in holiness. This means that we are no longer debtors to live according to the flesh; rather, we are indebted and enabled to live according to the Spirit.

No Longer Debtors

Paul concludes the first eleven verses with a negative implication: “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” (Rom 8:12). You are no longer a debtor to the powers of this present, evil age because the Spirit of life has set you free from the condemnation of the moral law (v. 1) and the law of sin and death (v. 2). When the Holy Spirit takes up residence in your heart, he changes the direction of your life, the object of your mind, and your covenant with God.

Prior to regeneration, you were a debtor to the flesh. You walked according to the flesh (v. 4), set your mind on the things of the flesh (v. 5), and lived at enmity with God (v. 7). Outside of Christ you were spiritually dead, but you were by no means static or lifeless. To the contrary, you walked in the same direction as the world and followed the powers of this present age (Eph 2:1–2). Like those floating down the lazy river in an amusement park, so you were floating along in the same direction as this rebellious age. Furthermore, you set your mind on the things of the flesh. Your thinking was restricted to this sinful age, not the spiritual age of Christ. This means that you gave little thought to the divine, heavenly realm, to Christ and his gospel, or to God and his Word. Perhaps you did think about heaven–a life of eternal bliss and freedom from pain–but you did not think about Christ, your Savior and Lord. You were captivated and lured by the sins of the age. Finally, verse 7 teaches that you not only walked with the world, thought with the world, but you were at enmity with God. Before the Spirit of life united you to Christ you were in Adam, your federal head, and related to God through a broken covenant of works.

Now that you are indwelt by the Spirit of life, you are no longer a debtor to this age. You do not have to live for the flesh. This is the emphasis of Paul’s “therefore” in verse 12. Since you are united to Christ and indwelt by the Spirit, you are no longer a debtor to this world; rather, you are a son of God and heir with Christ (v. 15–17). When the world demands your allegiance or worship, you are free to refuse because you belong to another master. You were delivered from this world and bought by the Son. While we live in this world, we do not live for this world. We walk in this world, but we do not walk in sync with this world. Since we are sons of God, and no longer debtors to this age, we walk upstream in a downstream world, set our minds on the permanent age of the future, not the transient age of the present, and relate to God in a fulfilled covenant of grace, not a broken covenant of works.

Now, Paul is not just saying you do not have to live according to the flesh. In verse 13, he emphasizes that you ought not to do so. The transition from v. 12 to v. 13 is a shift from deliverance to warning. In verse 12, Paul emphasizes that you do not have to live for this world because you have been delivered from its grip. In verse 13, Paul shifts to a warning, saying that you ought not to live according to the flesh because those who do will surely die.

Verse 13 “If you live according to the flesh, you will die.” The first thing to note about this conditional warning is what it is not saying. It is not saying that those who have been delivered from this present age can lose their salvation. Rather this is a warning to the unrepentant, those who hold Christ in one hand and their sin in the other. Death is the eternal punishment for those who willfully persist in unrepentant sin, who obstinately refuse to part with their beloved sins, and who claim God as their Savior but deny him as their Lord. Death is the just punishment for those who walk according to the flesh, set their minds on the things of the flesh, and live according to the flesh. The inevitable, unavoidable, and inescapable punishment for living according to the flesh is death, eternal separation from God without parole. There is forceful certainty behind these words because God is just and will not be mocked (Gal 6:7).

While it is certainly true that those who live according to the flesh will die, the emphasis in verse 12 falls on who you are not. You are no longer a debtor to this age because you have been delivered. Alternatively, you are indebted and enabled to put to death the deeds of the body.

Indebted And Enabled

The Christian life does not mean that all obligations are terminated; rather, our obligations are reoriented. We are indebted and enabled live according to the Spirit. But what does this look like? Verse 13, “But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Therefore, we express our indebtedness to God by putting sin to death, and we are enabled to do so by the Spirit.   

Firstly, you are obligated to put to death the deeds of the body because you are indebted to God for your deliverance. All of our sins are pardoned but not eradicated. You are delivered from the reigning power of sin, but you are not yet liberated from the presence of sin. Sin does not reign, but it does remain. We all have remaining, residual sin, like subtle, clever spies in a foreign country. Now, while sin remains in the heart, it is not passively lounging around in the heart. Sin is extremely discontent. It will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay. John Owen puts it this way: “Sin always aims at the utmost. Every glance of lust would be adultery if it could; every burst of anger would be murder if it could”1. Sin is your enemy, and if left unrestrained it will ruin your never dying soul. Therefore, since sin remains and continually acts, it must be continually put to death. This is life and death language. This is more than avoiding sin. The text does not sell it short saying, ‘ignore the deeds of the body’ but states further, ‘put to death the deeds of the body’ (Col 3:5).

But how? Let me suggest a method that aims to debilitate sin. Declare a full-hearted warfare against every sinful thought, desire, and action. Think of the military tactic known as siege warfare. As an army surrounds a city and cuts off all supplies, resources, and reinforcements, so you must weaken the power of sin, wither the vigor of sin, and starve the appetite of sin. This means that you should not make any peace-treaties with your sin, like Saul did with the Amalekites (1 Sam 15). You ought not minimize sin by thinking, ‘Oh it is not that big of a deal, everyone is doing it.’ J. C. Ryle said, “A small leak will sink a great ship, a small spark will kindle a great fire, and a little allowed sin will ruin a never dying soul.”2 Mortification means you cannot justify your sin saying, “I had to do it. This is how I was made. This is who I am.” No, if you are in Christ, you are no longer identified by your sin but by your Savior (Rom 6).

Secondly, you are enabled to put sin to death by the Spirit. After you are regenerated and justified, God gives you the Spirit of holiness, the indispensable instrument in our sanctification. All other means of mortification are in vain if they are attempted without the power of the Spirit. Without the Spirit, you may improve and make progress but not for long. Asceticism, exercise, vows, penance, human mediators and accountability partners will all be in vain without the Spirit. Exercise may help. Accountability partners are not to be neglected. It is commendable to speak to your pastors or elders about fighting sin. Yes, these have their place, but they must not replace the work of the Spirit. Your pastors cannot do what the only Spirit can do. Your diet or exercise program can only take you so far. These are helpful but they cannot accomplish what only the Spirit can accomplish (Col 2:20). 

Now the Spirit is the instrument of mortification, but the responsibility is yours. The text does not say, “the Holy Spirit will mortify,” but you must mortify. The balance here is key. The work of mortification is not a solo task. On the one hand, God does not leave you to your own strength, saying, “I did my part, now you do yours.” He does not throw you back on your own resources, expecting you to accomplish mortification unaided. On the other hand, neither does he overpower your volitional or cognitive faculties and do all the work for you. Neither can you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, nor can you kick your feet up and say, “let go and let God.” This was Paul’s charge to the church in Philippi when he said, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12–13). This balance between our work and the work of the Spirit is captured best by the prince of preachers, Charles Spurgeon: “we must move, but He must move us.” The point of emphasis here is simply this: you are not alone. You labor is not unaided. God has given his powerful Spirit to strengthen and enable you to mortify the deeds of the body.

While the responsibility to mortify is ours, let us consider who the Spirit of our holiness is. Think of Jesus’ words to his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane, “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41).  You are a weak creature, prone to wander and grow weary. The Spirit, however, is powerful, able, and strong; He neither slumbers nor sleeps (Ps 121:4). He sustained Jesus in the wilderness, strengthened Him in garden, and succored Him on the cross. This Spirit who dwelt with the Lord Jesus throughout his life, ministry, and death is the same Spirit who lives within you. He is willing, and He will surely do it (1 Thess 5:23).

Notice, finally, those who mortify the deeds of the body are assured by the promise of life. Verse 13, “you will live.” To be clear, Paul is not saying that you will enter into heaven if you mortify. The inheritance of eternal life is a free gift (Rom 6:23) and not according to your works (Eph 2:6; Titus 3:5). Rather, any growth in sanctification, no matter how imperfect your efforts may be, strengthens your assurance of eternal life with Christ.


Evicting squatters is a difficult task. Once they make themselves at home, rarely do they pick up and leave. Putting sin to death, likewise, is a difficult duty for the Christian, but Paul teaches us that it is necessary and possible. Romans 8:12–13 states that life in the Spirit includes liberation and mortification. We are no longer debtors to this present, evil age, so we walk in a different direction, think after the realm of Christ, and relate to God in a covenant of grace. Since God has delivered us, we are indebted and enabled to walk according to the Spirit, and we express our indebtedness by putting sin to death in the power of the Spirit. To borrow Paul’s phrase, we are “dying, and behold, we live” (2 Cor 6:8).

© Wright Draper. All Rights Reserved.


1. John Owen, “The Necessity of Mortification.” In Overcoming Sin and Temptation, edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2006) 45–66.

2. J. C. Ryle, Thoughts for Young Men (East Peoria: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2015).


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