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.
In recent months, this verse has taken on a prominent place in my thinking about the Spirit-led life. One reason is that this verse cuts against the common idea that one has eternal life, as in the everlasting experiencing of the gift of life that God gives us, apart from the works one does. John 5.25-29 and Romans 2.6-11 strongly militate against this idea of a works-less eternal life. While the gift of life in Jesus Christ is free, God expects us to make use of this gift to experience a transformed life. Romans 8.13 gets to the heart of this, except looking at it from an opposite angle in terms of putting an end to sin in one’s life. How does this cohere with Paul’s larger statements about the Torah and what exactly does this putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit look like?
On the former, it is important to push back a little bit against the common Protestant dichotomy between faith and works. Certainly, it is by faith that we come to receive God’s gracious gift of Himself in Christ and the Holy Spirit; works do not obligate or force God to draw near to us. However, Paul’s main concern about works in letters like Romans and Galatians is about the specific system of works as derived from the Torah. The way the prevailing Jewish traditions sought to bring about obedience to the Torah was by building a system of principles and types of deeds that if one followed, one would be effective in following the commandments of the Torah. These principles were put into place because of the desire to put all of the commandments into the life of the faithful Jew. Consequently, the works of the Torah wasn’t referring to the commandments of the Torah, but the prescriptions teachers put forward in an attempt to try to obey the Torah. Undergirding this was often the assumption that if one simply did what the Jewish traditions taught, one would attain the righteousness that the Torah speaks to. Put simply, the assumption was that if one directly puts these traditions into practice, one would become faithful in one’s heart. This vision of righteousness may be referred to as a form of direct self-control in which the way one overcomes sin and does what God wants is to simply dedicate oneself to doing all the types of things the commandments of the Torah were understood to apply to. However, Jesus rejects this orientation towards righteousness, as if it proceeds from the outside-in, but instead, it is the heart that gives rise to good or evil from the inside-out. Paul similarly expresses a warning against the type of Jewish traditions that were about restricting consumption so as to directly control self-indulgence (Col 2.20-23).
So, when Paul calls for believers to put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, Paul is describing a different way of how one comes to live righteously before God. One does not directly self-control one’s sins by simply trying to obey a set of commands or principles that speak against them. Moral insight and personal will is not enough to overcome the power of sin in the flesh (cf. Rom. 7.7-25). The Spirit in some way is crucial to putting to death the deeds of the flesh. The concern here thus isn’t about “releasing the shackles of the stifling rules,” but rather recognizing that trying to obey the “law” doesn’t get you to where God is leading His people. There is something the Spirit must do that provides a way to overcome sin in one’s life.
So what exactly is the Spirit doing when it comes to putting to death the deeds of the body? The first clue is to look back at Romans 8.5-6. The work of the Spirit is somehow related to thinking and cognition that is opposed to the way that the flesh causes one to think. The second clue is in Romans 8.4 and 8.14, both of which use language related to the metaphor of a journey in walking and being lead by someone, which points towards discipleship like Jesus taught His disciples. Put these two hints together and we can see the beginnings of an image: there is something the Spirit teaches us to do. We see Paul say something similar in Galatians 5.25. Just as Jesus said in John 14.26, the Spirit works in the role of a teacher; Paul imagines believers being in a disciple-teacher relationship with the Holy Spirit.
At this point, it becomes important to remember something crucial: what we hear from and see in Jesus helps to make known the work of the Spirit. With that in mind, we can look to the Sermon on the Mount in giving a couple examples of what sort of teaching may be given that puts to death the deeds fo the body. In Matthew 5.17-48, Jesus endeavors to communicate the way stay faithful to the Torah but fulfill its true purpose in becoming complete as the Heavenly Father is complete, and in so doing, having a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees and the scribes. Whereas the Pharisees and scribes relied upon the interpretation of the Torah commandments and the oral traditions to provide the specific type of behaviors one should follow to seek righteousness, Jesus employs the Torah differently. For Jesus, the Torah may be better understood as a spotlight, shining into people’s lives areas where sin is present that leads people to obey from their hearts (see Psalm 119). So, when Jesus addresses the various commandments of the Torah and gives a deeper prescription, Jesus is helping people to see the deeper matters of the heart behind the commandments and provide a type of action that can help make people faithful to the commandments of the Torah. For instance, when it comes to not murdering, Jesus also warns against anger and suggests that one should actively seek to reconcile with those who one has offended; in acting in a reconciling manner, one acts against anger, which can itself cause harm and can even lead to murder. Similarily with adultery, Jesus warns against lusting after a married woman, calling for men to get rid of anything that might cause them to sin. When addressing one’s relationship to one’s neighbors and enemies, Jesus calls for people to love even their enemies and, in so doing, they will imitate God who gives sun and rain of the righteous and unrighteous alike. By loving and praying for those who persecute, one is actively working against hatred and actually working towards a way of peacemaking that will continue to treat enemies as one neighbor.
In each of those three instances, Jesus doesn’t just simply give a command to follow in addition to the Torah. Rather, he gives a specific prescriptions for actions to take. In doing these things, one will begin to reflect God’s righteousness in one’s life in a purity of heart instead of trying to achieve righteousness and purity through limiting one’s obedience to the commandments of the Torah and the oral traditions that applied those commandments. Jesus’ teaching provides an alternative set of teachings, which if put into practice, can help to root out the sin that lies in the heart. This form of wisdom is very different in that it doesn’t seek to stop sin by directly stopping the sinful behaviors that the Torah warns against, but rather Jesus’ wisdom targets the deeper dynamics of the human heart that will target the root of sin that the Torah regulates and, in so doing, bring forth the fruit of righteousness and holiness in one’s life. Whether it be overcoming specific sins choosing to the good that is the opposite of sin or preventing sin by taking away from yourself the things that can cause you to sin, Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount provide wisdom about indirect self-control that doesn’t target specific sins directly as much as it gets to behaviors that target the root of the problem.
In a similar way, we can look to the Holy Spirit as the teacher of our hearts, leading us to type actions that when put into action help to put to death the deeds of body. The Spirit does not simply enable us to do the things we know we are supposed to do, but the Spirit gives us insight to target the root of sin in our lives. As the desires of the Spirit become deepened in our life, the antithesis with the desires of the flesh will become increasingly salient. It will go beyond simply a knowledge about the things God speaks against, but it will go deeper into a spiritual awareness about the stirrings in one’s heart. In this place, the Spirit will bring forth insight that calls us to act in a certain way that targets the deeper causes of sin, the desires of the flesh, in a way that direct self-control can not do. Elsewhere, Paul calls this sowing by the Spirit (compare Gal. 6.8 with Romans 8.13), with the agricultural metaphor conveying an image that one creates the fruit of righteousness (and thus by implication gets rid of the deeds of the flesh) by what the Spirit directs one to plant in the ground, an image of transformation through indirect self-control. Ultimately, all that the Spirit points to in the believer’s life can be seen to be reflected and imitating in various ways in the cross of Jesus Christ, by a person having to face their own crosses in their lives in order to put to death the deeds of the flesh.
To that end, it isn’t that much different from how therapists will go beyond the presenting problem that causes distress for their clients and try to address deeper realities of the heart. The biggest difference between the Gospel way of righteousness and therapy is the methods employed and the telos one works towards. In traditional therapy, one usually relies on some combination of talk therapy, introspection, and maybe pharmacological treatment, to get at the deeper places in a person’s life they can target to achieve the telos that is working towards being determined by the wishes and the goals of the client. While this may have many benefits to bear for many problems we face in life, the Gospel way of righteousness is a bit different in that it is through continuing in Jesus’ words and seeking to live out the life the Spirit has given us that we discover the ways to target our struggles with sin with the telos directing us towards gradually embodying God’s righteousness in our lives more and more as we are transformed over time. The differences don’t set them against each other as a faithful Christian may also need traditional therapy, but I highlight the similarities to suggest there is much in common between the two, even as instruction of Jesus and the work of the Spirit are more unique and bit more distinct from traditional therapy. In this way, the taught wisdom from Jesus Christ and the writings of Paul on the Spirit may be considered to reflect a therapeutic-like practice in seeking to set people free from sin and the fear and oppression that has bound people and bring them to a place realizing and living out the gift of life that God has given to us in Jesus and by the Spirit.