10 Steps to Holiness[1] – Seven: The Old Adam Must Die

Romans 8:12-13

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 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. [2]

If you have been following along with even some of the 10 Steps, you have heard this one basic point: our holiness is rooted in our faith-union with Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. In Christ, we have died to sin and been raised to newness of life. So, Paul asked us in Colossians who we are wearing. Are we wearing the torn and sewerage-spattered fig leaves of the Old Adam (our sin nature); or, are we wearing the new pure garments of Christ?

What excited the apostles was that new life in Christ not only meant freedom from their past enslavement to sin but that when Christ appeared they would see him in all his glory and become like him (1 Jn. 3:1-2). Yet, they also knew that those in Christ continue to be troubled by the presence of indwelling sin. Our new operating system runs on the old, corrupt hardware of our sin nature, our flesh, our Old Adam.

That is Paul’s point in these two verses in Romans 8 – to live by the Holy Spirit is life; to live perpetually by the desires and demands of our Old Adam is death. Since this is clearly basic to our holiness, we might think all of us can tell other believers how to put to death the works of the flesh. If we fail in doing this, Paul promises we will die. It’s possible to become frustrated with Paul at this point because he tells us to DO something but he doesn’t give us steps for HOW to do it.

Like the passage from Colossians we looked at for two weeks, we might find that if we chew on the scriptures like a dog with a bone we will see the “how to” embedded in the passage. It’s always good practice to ask prayerful questions of Scripture as if having a dialogue with God since God speaks to us through his Word. When we do that with Romans 8:12-13, we find three principles expressed: (1) develop a mindset; (2) discover the new motives; and, (3) dive into grace.


The first thing we find in these two verses of the Law of God is this: The Spirit of God is given us to enable us to put sin to death. The flesh doesn’t need to get better, it doesn’t need to be managed. The flesh, the Old Adam, our sin nature needs to die! Remember, holiness is not about ME becoming a happier, better ME. Holiness is about Jesus being glorified through all his brothers and sisters in the Church. If you are trusting into Christ you have been sealed with the indwelling Holy Spirit: “…Christ is all, and in all.[3]

The Spirit’s work in us and for us does not bypass our minds and go straight to our emotions or feelings. If that were the case, the Bible would be irrelevant. Reading it would be a waste of time and submitting ourselves to the Word preached would be pointless. The primary means through which the Holy Spirit works in our lives is through the Bible, the Word of God, because human beings were created as rational, thinking, reasoning creatures. How and what we think ALWAYS governs how we feel, what we desire, and how we act.

Paul gives us insight into this new mindset. First, he commands that we need to put sin to death in our lives. As an unbeliever, my mindset was, “It’s all about ME – what I think I must have to make me happy, to keep me from getting angry or depressed. It’s all about what I get and what you can do, or haven’t done, for me.” As a believer, my mindset is to be this:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.[4]

In other words, “Step One: It’s all about Jesus.”

Sometimes we hear someone’s testimony of a dramatic personal conversion who experiences deliverance not only from the burden of guilt but also from the bondage of some terrible sin or sins. We can mistake these kinds of testimonies as proof of a doctrine of complete deliverance from the presence of sin. We can come to expect a dramatic, immediate, and permanent experience of holiness in earthly life because we have experienced justification (being declared guiltless and right with God). Justification is an immediate declaration of rightness with God. Sanctification is a life-long work of the Holy Spirit.

Some preachers teach that when Paul writes in Romans 7 of doing what he hates and not doing what God’s law commands, Paul is merely giving an example of a “defeated” or “carnal” Christian who hasn’t fully submitted to the Holy Spirit and empowered God to bestow the “victorious Christian life.” But the Westminster Confession speaks of holiness this way:

This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.[5]

Two things are true of everyone who is trusting into Christ: (1) Jesus Christ dwells in them by means of the Holy Spirit; and, (2) sin dwells in them because of Adam’s rebellion. Both things are true for all believers while we live on this earth. So, believers must press on seeing the subtle, deep sins of our Old Adam’s mindset and putting sin to death by confession and repentance. Sin hides in the dark recesses of our ambitions, desires, hopes, and even (often especially) in our giftedness. It was precisely because of Isaiah’s giftedness as a poet and preacher that God convicted him of his unclean lips and seared them with a burning coal from the sacrificial altar. Isaiah was responsible to recognize his sin in the presence of Christ. Paul commands us directly to “by the Spirit … put to death the deeds of the body”.[6] In Phil. 2:12-13, Paul puts it this way:

…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. [7]

Because God dwells in me and is working in me, I have a duty to work out what he is working in. That duty includes putting the Old Adam to death wherever his mindset is found in my life. The fact the apostle commands this implies our union with Christ and our receipt of all his benefits through the Spirit enables us to do what is commanded. God enables what God commands.

The decisive victory over sin and death has already been won. Christ’s death and resurrection have freed believers from their slavery to sin. We are involved in the mopping-up operations. This section of Romans, chapters 5-8, is Paul’s teaching on our confidence, our assurance of salvation in Christ. He has been writing about the believer’s transfer from one realm (kingdom, power, master) into another.

The Christian is dead to the ruling power of sin as a slave master. Paul told us in Romans 6 what to do about it: Be reckoning [accounting, trusting] yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11). The Law no longer enslaves us to a system of “do good to earn good.” But, in 7:13-24, he showed that the Law is the mirror reflecting my sin nature back at me. It shows me the zombie inside that wants to eat my brains.

My old sin nature, what Paul calls the flesh, my Old Adam 1.0 hardware, is constantly struggling with the new Adam 2.0 operating system, the Holy Spirit: Christ in me, the hope of glory. In the meantime, as we struggle and suffer (8:17), he emphatically assures us: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). And he commands us to keep on killing off the mindset of the Old Adam by means of the Spirit (Christ in me) at work in us to will and do God’s Law.


New Testament writers frequently blend the new mindset the Holy Spirit creates with the new motives the gospel provides. Paul gives us both a mindset and a motive when he writes in Romans 8:13, “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.”[8] Our motive for living out of the new mindset of “It’s all about Jesus” is that living in the new mindset is true life as God created it to be. Living according to the Old Adam’s mindset of “It’s all about ME” is existing as one of the walking dead (Gen. 2:17).

Christ’s perfect law-keeping life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection have put all who trust into him on a sure and certain path to eternal life. In Rom. 8:11 Paul writes:

 “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.

This is the final answer to Paul’s question in 7:24 who will deliver him from a body of sin and death. The presence of the Spirit of God in our mortal bodies is the guarantee of our bodily resurrection into perfect life as God originally designed it.[9]

The Spirit is also the guarantee of our ability (though always imperfect in this life) to live now as we shall live in the new heavens and new earth. Theologians speak of this as “eschatological” reality – a big word referring to God’s future plan for all things. It’s the dynamic of eternal life. There is an already and a not yet aspect. Already you have new life in Christ. But it is not yet fully consummated. It is illogical and harmful for believers to choose to live as spiritual zombies when we have already been delivered into life abundant in Christ.

What we know or reckon through the testimony of the Spirit in and through God’s Word, we trust by the power of the Spirit. We act according to what we trust. When I trust that life in Christ is better than whatever sin of the moment is luring me, I will deny the fleeting satisfaction that leads to anger, bitterness, and disappointment and seek the peace of God which surpasses all understanding because the Spirit motivates me toward the new and true life in the Last Adam.

That is the only-and-always way believers put to death the deeds of the body. It is not a “New Year’s Resolution” to try harder and do more; it is the power of the Spirit’s revelation that what you are and have in Christ is infinitely better than what your Old Adam craves! Therefore, Paul speaks of what you know, of your mind, of your reckoning, of your trust (or faith). You act according to what you trust. In Gal. 5:24 Paul refers to the Spirit’s destruction of the sin principle as a position.  In Col. 3:5, he calls it an activity and a process – the already and the not yet.

Paul weaves more motivation into Rom. 8:15-17:

15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ….[10]

Why does the Spirit work within us to kill off the sin principle of the flesh? Because we are sons of God (14) and heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ (17). You have the status to address the Holy God of the universe, who is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; 9:3; Isa. 33:144; Heb. 12:29), as Father.

The consuming holy fire that is God, who had a perfect right to destroy Adam, Eve and all their children who have ever or will ever live, instead slew his unique Son so that you who trust into Christ Jesus can call him Father. Not everyone is in God’s family. If you are not trusting into the perfect, law-keeping life and sacrificial death of the risen Jesus this morning, then you are of your Father Adam and his adopted father, the devil. In fact, Jesus told the very outwardly moral Pharisees like Saul of Tarsus:

If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (Jn. 8:42, 44, 47).

Paul gives us multiple motivators in 8:12-17. We are motivated in our membership in God’s family. The Father loves us enough that we can call him “Father.” The Son loves us so much we are called his brothers and sisters. The Spirit loves us enough that lives in us to keep us and lead us. Changing our mindset back to the Old Adam is forgetting who we really are in Christ – children of the living God.

We are God’s children only because he chose to put his love on open display at Calvary. The Father, in his one-way love for us, has given us his Son and his Holy Spirit – the two most precious gifts. EVERYTHING God possessed before his first act of creation – his own love, his beloved Son, and his Holy Spirit – he gives to us. Why then would we say to our Father, “Despite your very best gifts, I choose to keep my love of sin and to live like the Old Adam”?


We put to death the Old Adam by developing a new mindset. Our minds, renewed by God’s Word, discover the new motives of the gospel. Finally, we dive into grace. When we begin to digest God’s one-way love for us as sinners – when we realize he has adopted us into a new family so that we no longer need to think and live like orphans – adding detailed instructions about what we are to do seems almost unnecessary. The motivations carry with them the means to live for Christ. Yet Paul does sprinkle on some practical directive for dealing with sin.

Notice in our text that Paul doesn’t define particular actions as “sin.” He doesn’t tell us to kill “some sins” or “embarrassing sins.” When he uses the phrase “deeds of the body” [or, “flesh”], he is writing of the total mindset of the Old Adam, the indwelling evil nature of the man who lives according to the flesh.[11] There is a difference between putting sin to death and merely diverting sin so that it lives on in a different but less obvious form.

We are all experts at managing the Old Adam. Social norms in church cause us to divert obvious sin to less obvious areas. We don’t kill the Old Adam so much as we keep our sin chained up in a closet where we feed it in private. I can have a nice “church face” and still go home and terrorize my spouse and children with my outbursts and actions. I can divert my idol of adultery by feeding my Old Adam pornography in the privacy of my home. I can divert my idol of getting my own way by not screaming at you in church while still feeding my flesh by gossiping and complaining about you behind your back.

The deeds of the Old Adam will always break out of the closet and appear in some area of my life because SIN IS A HEART CONDITION, a mindset of “It’s all about ME.” Can I ask you some questions? What do you think about when you have nothing special to think about? Towards what does your mind wander? What conversations do you have with yourself? When you’re alone, who do you feed? Do you crack open the closet and toss your precious Old Adam a meal or two or do you crack open God’s Word and put on Christ?

When we sneak the Old Adam the food it craves, Satan blackmails us. He whispers to us that we are unworthy failures but he will keep our secret so long as we keep it secret too. No one else must EVER be told. We’re ashamed and fearful of what others will say. So, we isolate and compartmentalize our lives; we don’t even admit our sin to God. The enemy continues to feed our guilt and shame. We are spiritually dehydrated, parched, beaten down. We believe grace is not great enough to unshackle us from our hidden lives. It’s too weak to overcome our sin. It’s not amazing enough to change our mindset.

May I tell you an amazing truth? God has long known your secret sins. He knew them uncountable ages before you were conceived – even before the universe was spoken into existence. Nothing you do and nothing you have ever done can shock him. Jesus knows your secret sin more intimately than you because he suffered for every law-breaking thought, word, and deed you have ever done (or have yet to do). His grace – his one-way love – really IS that amazing. It truly IS that freeing.

The unconditional one-way loyalty love of God in Christ Jesus allows us to share our failure, our sense of guilt and bondage with fellow Christians we trust, ones to whom we can open the closet of our hearts. Then we break the enemy’s power of blackmail and gain the power of the Body of Christ. We can pray together with honesty. Forgiveness flows. The Old Adam starts to starve as the cross of Jesus grows larger. We begin to trade our shame, sorrow, and tears for pardon, forgiveness, and stronger bonds of fellowship in the gospel community.

The Old Adam begins to die when we 1) develop a mindset that our Old Adam must and shall die; (2) when we discover the new motives that being a child of God (rather than an orphan) brings with it; and, (3) when we dive into the clear, cleansing, refreshing, unconditional grace of God in Christ Jesus. That’s how we learn to live out the Lord’s Prayer: lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Let me ask you this final question: ARE YOU STILL ONLY A CHILD OF ADAM, OR ARE YOU A CHILD OF GOD? Are you eternally secure? Is the Holy Spirit testifying to you that you are, by means of your trusting into Christ, a child of God? If so, then you are IN CHRIST and the Spirit of Christ is IN YOU.

If not, then perhaps he is calling you this morning to turn from trusting into your own resources, your own works, your own reputation – all of which lead only to death because “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:3). We invite you this morning to give up trying to find life in your own resources and to flee to Christ, whom to know is life and peace eternal.


[1] This series, with otherwise-noted sources, is a condensed version of Devoted to God: Blueprints For Sanctification by Sinclair Ferguson. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust (2016).

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Rom. 8:12–13.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 3:11.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Lk 10:27.

[5] Morton H. Smith, Westminster Confession of Faith, electronic ed. (Greenville SC: Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Press, 1996), 2.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 8:13.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Php 2:12–13.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 8:13.

[9] Boice, Romans, 816.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 8:15–17.

[11] “Thus in R. 8:13 one is not to think of deeds done by the body but of the indwelling evil nature of the man who lives κατὰ σάρκα” [according to the flesh]. Christian Maurer, “Πράσσω, Πρᾶγμα, Πραγματεία, Πραγματεύομαι, Διαπραγματεύομαι, Πράκτωρ, Πρᾶξις,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 643–644.