Only a Christian Can Mortify Sin

Horatius Bonar (1808-1889)

“How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”—Romans 6:2.

Before I can live a Christian life, I must be a Christian. Am I such? I ought to know this. Do I know it, and in knowing it, know whose I am and whom I serve? Or is my title to the name still questionable, still a matter of anxious debate and search?

If I am to live as a son of God, I must be a son, and I must know it. Otherwise my life will be an artificial imitation, a piece of barren mechanism, performing certain excellent movements, but destitute of vital heat and force. Here many fail. They try to live like sons in order to make themselves sons, forgetting God’s simple plan for attaining sonship at once: “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God” (Joh 1:12). The faith of many among us is, after all, but an attempt to believe; their repentance but an attempt to repent; and in so doing they only use words that they have learned from others…God’s description of a Christian man is clear and welldefined. It has about it so little of the vague and wide that one wonders how any mistake should have arisen on this point, and so many dubious, so many false claims put in.

A Christian is one who “has tasted that the Lord is gracious” (1Pe 2:3); who has been “begotten again unto a lively hope” (1Pe 1:3); who has been “quickened together with Christ” (Eph 2:5); made a partaker of Christ (Heb 3:14); a partaker of the divine nature (2Pe 1:4); who “has been delivered from this present evil world” (Gal 1:4).

Such is God’s description of one who has found his way to the cross and is warranted in taking to himself the Antiochian name of “Christian,” or the apostolic name of “saint.” Of good about himself, previous to his receiving the record of the free forgiveness, he cannot speak. He remembers nothing lovable that could have recommended him to God, nothing fit that could have qualified him for the divine favor, save that he needed life. All that he can say for himself is that he has “known and believed the love that God hath to us” (1Jo 4:16), and in believing has found that which makes him not merely a happy, but a holy man. He has discovered the fountainhead of a holy life.

Have I then found my way to the cross? If so, I am safe. I have the everlasting life. The first true touch of that cross has secured for me the eternal blessing. I am in the hands of Christ, and none shall pluck me out (Joh 10:28). The cross makes us whole: Not all at once indeed, but it does the work effectually. Before we reached it, we were not “whole,” but broken and scattered, nay, without a center toward which to gravitate. The cross forms that center, and in doing so it draws together the disordered fragments of our being. It “unites our heart” (Psa 86:11), producing a wholeness or unity which no object of less powerful attractiveness could accomplish. It is a wholeness or unity that, beginning with the individual, reproduces itself on a larger scale, but with the same center of gravitation, in the church of God. Of spiritual health, the cross is the source: From it there goes forth the “virtue” (dunamis, the power, Luk 6:19) that
heals all maladies, be they slight or deadly. For “by his stripes we are healed” (Isa 53:5); and in Him we find “the tree of life” with its healing leaves (Rev 22:2). Golgotha has become Gilead, with its skillful Physician and its “bruised” balm (Jer 8:22; Isa 53:5). Old Latimer1 says well regarding the woman whom Christ cured: “She believed that Christ was such a healthful man that she should be sound as soon as she might touch Him.” The “whole head [was] sick, and the whole heart faint” (Isa 1:5); but now the sickness is gone, and the vigor comes again to the fainting heart. The look, or rather the Object looked at, has done its work (Isa 45:22); the serpent of brass has accomplished that which no earthly medicines could effect. Not to us can it now be said, “Thou hast no healing medicines” (Jer 30:13), for the word of the great Heal-er is, “Behold, I will bring it health and cure, and I will cure them, and will reveal unto them the abundance of peace and truth” (Jer 33:6). Thus, it is by the abundance of that peace and truth, revealed to us in the cross, that our
cure is wrought.

The cure is not perfected in an hour. But, as the sight of the cross begins it, so does it complete it at last. The pulses of new health now beat in all our veins. Our whole being recognizes the potency of the divine medicine, and our diseases yield to it.

Yes, the cross heals: It possesses the double virtue of healing sin and quickening holiness. It makes all the fruits of the flesh to wither, while it cherishes and ripens the fruit of the Spirit, which is “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal 5:22). By this, the hurt of the soul is not “healed slightly,” but truly and thoroughly. It acts like the fresh balm of southern air to one whose constitution the frost and damp of the far north had undermined. It gives new tone and energy to our faculties, a new bent and aim to all our purposes, and a new elevation to all our hopes and longings. It gives the deathblow to self; it mortifies our members that are upon the earth. It crucifies the flesh with its affections and lusts. Thus, looking continually to the cross, each day, as at the first, we are made sensible of the restoration of our soul’s health; evil loosens its hold, while good strengthens and ripens.

It is not merely that we “glory in the cross” (Gal 6:14), but we draw strength from it. It is the place of weakness, for there Christ “was crucified through weakness” (2Co 13:4); but it is, notwithstanding, the fountainhead of power to us. For as out of death came forth life, so out of weakness came forth strength. This is strength, not for one thing, but for everything. It is strength for activity or for endurance, for holiness as well as for work. He that would be holy or useful must keep near the cross. The cross is the secret of power and the pledge of victory. With it, we fight and overcome. No weapon can prosper against it, nor enemy prevail. With it, we meet the fightings without as well as the fears within. With it, we war the good warfare, we wrestle with principalities and powers, we “withstand” and we “stand” (Eph 6:11- 13); we fight the good fight, we finish the course, we keep the faith (2Ti 4:7).

Standing by the cross, we become imitators of the crucified One. We seek to be like Him, men who please not themselves (Rom 15:3), who do the Father’s will, counting not our life dear to us, who love our neighbors as ourselves and the brethren as He loved us; who pray for our enemies; who revile not again when reviled; who threaten not when we suffer, but commit ourselves to Him that judgeth righteously; who live not to ourselves and who die not to ourselves; who are willing to be of “no reputation,” but to “suffer shame for His name,” to take the place and name of “servant,” nay, to count “the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt” (Heb 11:26). “Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin (has died to sin as in Rom 6:10); That he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the
lusts of men, but to the will of God” (1Pe 4:1, 2).

Standing by the cross, we realize the meaning of such a text as this: “Knowing this, that our old man [was] crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (Rom 6:6). The crucifixion of our old man, the destruction of the body of sin, and deliverance from the bondage of sin are strikingly linked to one another and linked, all of them, to the cross of Christ. Or we read the meaning of another: “I [have been] crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Here the one Paul—not two Pauls or two person - speaks throughout as completely identified with Christ and His cross. It is not one part of Paul in this clause and another in that. It is the one whole Paul throughout, who is crucified, dies, lives!

Like Isaac, he has been “received from the dead in a figure”; and as Abraham would, after the strange Moriah transaction, look on Isaac as given back from the dead, so would Jehovah reckon and treat this Paul as a risen man! Isaac would be the same Isaac, and yet not the same; so Paul is the same Paul, and yet not the same! He has passed through something which alters his state legally and his character morally; he is new. Instead of the first Adam, who was of the earth, earthy (1Co 15:47), he has the last Adam, Who is the Lord from heav-en, for his Guest: “Christ liveth in him”; “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (just as he says, “yet not I, but the grace of God in me”); and so he lives the rest of his life on earth, holding fast his connection with the crucified Son of God and His love. Or again, we gather light upon that text: “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Gal 5:24); and that: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal 6:14).

Standing by the cross, we realize the death of the Surety, and discover more truly the meaning of passages such as these: “Ye are dead [ye died], and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). Ye died with Christ from “the rudiments of the world” (Col 2:20). His death (and yours with Him) dissolved your connection with these. “If one died for all, then [all died]: And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2Co 5:14b-15). “For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living” (Rom 14:9).

Romans 6:7-12, “He that [has died] is freed [justified] from sin [i.e., He has paid the penalty]. Now if we be dead with Christ [or since we died with Christ], we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ [having been] raised from the dead dieth no more [He has no second penalty to pay, no second death to undergo—Heb 9:27-28]; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once [His death finished His sin-bearing work once for all]: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body [even in your body—Rom 12:1], that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.”

There is something peculiarly solemn about these passages. They are very unlike, both in tone and words, the light speech which some indulge in when speaking of the Gospel and its forgiveness. Ah, this is the language of one who has in him the profound consciousness that severance from sin is one of the mightiest, as well as most blessed, things in the universe. He has learned how deliverance from condemnation may be found and all legal claims against him met. But, more than this, he has learned how the grasp of sin can be unclasped, how its serpent-folds can be unwound, how its impurities can be erased, how he can defy its wiles and defeat its strength, how he can be holy! This is, to him, of discoveries one of the greatest and most gladdening. Forgiveness itself is precious, chiefly as a step to holiness. How any one, after reading statements such as those of the Apostle, can speak of sin, pardon, or holiness without awe seems difficult to understand. Or how anyone can [think] that the forgiveness which the believing man finds at the cross of Christ is a release from the obligation to live a holy life is no less incomprehensible.

It is true that sin remains in the saint, and it is equally true that this sin does not bring condemnation back to him. But there is a way of stating this that would almost lead to the inference that watchfulness has thus been rendered less necessary; that holiness is not now so great an urgency; that sin is not so terrible as formerly. To tell a sinning saint that no amount of sin can alter the perfect standing before God, into which the blood of Christ brings us, may not be technically or theologically incorrect; but this mode of putting the truth is not that of the epistle to the Romans or Ephesians. It sounds almost like, “Continue in sin because grace abounds,” and it is not Scriptural language. The apostolic way of putting the point is that of 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins...If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1Jo 2:1).

Thus, then, that which cancels the curse provides the purity. The cross not only pardons, but it purifies. From it there gushes out the double fountain of peace and holiness. It heals, unites, strengthens, quickens, blesses…But we have our cross to bear, and our whole life is to be a bearing of it. It is not Christ’s cross that we are to carry: that is too heavy for us. Besides, it has been done once for all. But our cross remains; and much of a Christian life consists in a true, honest, decided bearing of it…The cross on which we are crucified with Christ, and the cross which we carry are different things, yet they both point in one direction and lead us along one way. They both protest against sin and summon to holiness. They both “condemn the world” and demand separation from it. They set us upon ground so high and so unearthly that the questions which some raise as to the expediency of conformity to the world’s ways are answered as soon as they are put; and the sophistries of the flesh, pleading in behalf of gaiety and revel-ry, never for a moment perplex us. The kingdom is in view, the way is plain, the cross is on our shoulders; and shall we turn aside after fash-ions, frivolities, pleasures, and unreal beauties, even were they all as harmless as men say they are?

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