"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.
MANY times have the children of the Lord read these words of the Apostle. Many times have His true saints pondered over their solemn import. Many times, too, have those less saintly read them, and instead of taking the lesson to themselves, have applied it to their worldly neighbors and allowed the lesson to lose its force upon themselves. But the most saintly of God's people need, as the Prophet declared of Israel of old, "precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little and there a little." (Isaiah 28:10, 13.) Our poor earthen vessels are very leaky and fragile, and need constant replenishment from the great Fountain of Truth and Life.
So let us again ponder over these gracious words of the Lord's mouthpiece and have their lesson impressed more deeply upon our minds. St. Paul is here addressing the Church of Christ only. He is not addressing the world. The Church have entered into a solemn Covenant with the Lord to lay down in sacrifice earthly things, the earthly nature. The Apostle assures us that if we succeed in faithfully laying down our earthly life with all its hopes and prospects, we shall live. It is not merely that we shall covenant at the beginning of our Christian course to do this, but we must carry out to its completion this mortification of our body—the deeds of the body.
The body with its deeds represents all the human interests—not merely the weaknesses and infirmities of our fallen condition, and our sinful tendencies. Those, of course, we are to mortify. We are to deaden these at once, as far as is possible. But we are also to sacrifice the earthly interests which are not sinful, but which would prevent our attainment of the glorious hope set before us, which would in any degree handicap us in the Heavenly race. Are we all doing this day by day? As we mingle with others and come into contact with the world and its influences, as we engage in the affairs of life, are we continually mortifying the deeds of the body? Are we crucifying the flesh? Are we dying daily to the things of earth? Are we living more and more fully each day as New Creatures in Christ?
IMPROPER MORTIFICATION OF THE FLESH
Day by day we shall find opportunities to mortify the deeds of our flesh; and this we must do, if we would live and grow as New Creatures. Some very mistaken notions are held by many in the world as to the proper mortification of the body. Some of our Catholic friends make a mistake in their zeal to do what they consider mortifying the flesh. For instance, many of them lie on a stone floor instead of on a bed; some will lie down to be walked upon and to be made a mat for others to wipe their feet upon; some will whip themselves until they have lacerated their flesh and then wear a hair jacket, with all the torture that means. These have certain sins in their minds of which they have been guilty, and for which they think they should do penance. With others this penance is not voluntary, but of compulsion by those who are in authority over them. The difficulty with these individuals is that their heads are wrong; they lack the spirit of a sound mind. They mean right; but they have been mistaught, and their consciences are perverted and falsely trained.
The heathen also practise such mortification of body. Some of the zealots among them will hold up their hands for hours at a time, or sit or lie down upon spikes to mortify their flesh. Some imprison themselves for years in a cramped position in a box, being fed through an aperture. This they do to show that they are very holy, and they think thus to appease their god, or to bring themselves into a condition where their individuality and sensibilities will become lost and that they may in this manner be absorbed into the Diety—a condition of Nirvana, as it is called. They want to be pleasing to their deities; but we know that the true God is not pleased with any such sufferings and tortures. He is not a God of that kind. What manner of God would it be who would delight in seeing His children lying upon spikes or doing any other such senseless thing? Such is not the God of the Bible. Such a disposition could belong only to a demon, and practises of this nature are actuated by demons or are the vagaries of a disordered, untutored or misdirected brain.
SELF DISCIPLINE FOR A PURPOSE
The God of the Bible has, during the Age now closing, been calling out of the world a very special class of mankind. We have faith in this God because the instructions of His Word are reasonable, and because the results of following these instructions are in every way most satisfactory and gratifying. The wonderful fulfilments of its prophecies in the past and in the present are most convincing. The manifestations of His providences and His guidance in the lives of those who have served Him—this God of the Bible—are likewise so marked as to be unassailable. He has given to these "exceeding great and precious promises," which relate to the life which now is and also to that which is to come, and which sustain and strengthen the children of God in all their pilgrimage through this vale of tears to the Heavenly City, "whose Builder and Maker is God."
We are assured in the Holy Word that if we are faithful to our God under present unfavorable conditions and environments, if we are loyal to the principles of Truth and righteousness and to our Covenant of Sacrifice made with Him, we shall have quite a conflict with ourselves and with the sins that are entrenched in our mortal bodies. He tells us, too, that such loyalty to Him will bring persecution and misunderstanding, because of the condition of darkness which now envelops the world of mankind. Yes, we well know that our faithful endeavor to serve the Lord and His Truth will now bring opposition from the world, from our own flesh, and from the great Adversary and all his hosts of darkness; for all these are leagued against us as followers of Christ—our Savior, our leader, our Pattern.
We are to mortify the deeds of the body, but not the body itself without a purpose. There must be a reason, a Scriptural reason for so doing, a definite and worthy object before us in all our work of mortification. We might just as well go out and commit suicide at once, drink some poisonous acid, and think, "Now I have mortified my body," as to inflict torture upon ourselves, thinking through it to correct our sins or weaknesses. Only a greatly perverted mind and conscience could entertain such a wild idea. Whatever mortification is practised by the child of God should be actuated by the Spirit of God, the mind of God. "If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live."
There is today a meaning in the word mortification as ordinarily used, which is altogether different from the sense of the word as used by the Apostle. We sometimes say in speaking of a certain experience, "I was greatly mortified"; meaning that the experience produced humiliating or embarrassing results. But the deeds of the body are not thus dealt with. We are to mortify in the sense of putting to death the deeds of the flesh. This is the primary meaning of the word.
We are striving day by day to develop the fruits of the Holy Spirit—fortitude, meekness, gentleness, patience, self-control, long-suffering, brotherly-kindness, love. It is while endeavoring to put these qualities of character into practise, to increase this blessed fruitage in our hearts and lives, that the mortification, the killing, of the deeds of the body is accomplished; for all the conditions about us are unfavorable. If conditions were favorable, if every one about us should encourage us in the good way and commend us for our course, the mortification of our flesh could not so well be brought about. It is in struggling against adverse influences, in encountering opposition and by conquering its power over us, that we gain strength and development as New Creatures in Christ. There will be no mortification of the flesh in the Millennial Age. But there is now. And it is this mortification of the deeds of the body, the crucifying of the flesh with all its earthward tendencies, that will, if persevered in, bring us the eternal life—the glory, honor, immortality—promised to the overcoming saints of the Gospel Dispensation. But if we take any other course we shall not gain the prize which has been offered to us in this Age.
NO SECOND PROBATION FOR THE CHURCH
There is in our text no intimation of a second probation for any of those addressed. These words were spoken to those who in the present existence are on trial for life. The Apostle does not say, If ye live after the flesh ye will lose the prize now offered, but you will have another trial for life later on. Neither does he say, If ye live after the flesh ye shall suffer endless torment. But his words speak of a present probation, the issue of which will be life or death, an eternity of existence in bliss and happiness or an endless cessation of existence. Nor is the Apostle here discussing the terms of salvation by the exercise of faith in the atoning blood of Christ. All this is taken for granted. He is speaking here, not of what we believe, but solely of how we are to live.
Shall we, because of this, spring to the conclusion which many take, that it is immaterial what we believe, so long as we live well? By no means; and those who would so construe these words of the Apostle take but a very shallow view of his teachings, one which would rob them of all their import. But noticing that his words were addressed to those who have already exercised saving faith in Christ, and not to the world in any manner, we can get a proper understanding of what he meant. The heedless Christian who applies this warning to everybody, allows it to lose all its force upon himself. This is the very reverse of the Apostle's intention. He is talking to the saints, to consecrated believers in the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, those who have been begotten of the Holy Spirit of God to a new nature, even the Divine. It is for this reason that he says nothing here about the Ransom nor about the Millennial Age of trial for the world. Those who are addressed here are having their trial now, and the decision in their cases will be rendered before the world comes into judgment.
The Apostle's warning, therefore, is not at all applicable to the world, but is full of solemn import to the Church. These, having presented their bodies a living sacrifice with Christ, acceptable through Him, having made a sacred covenant with God to live henceforth after the Spirit and to seek those things which are Above, are not at liberty to annul or ignore that covenant. They can never again claim the human nature which they have laid down, for to this they have relinquished all claim and title. If they make any such endeavor, either by ignoring or despising their covenant with God, they forfeit all right and claim to the spiritual nature and reward, which can be attained only by faithfulness to our Covenant of Sacrifice even unto death.
It is therefore logically manifest, even if the Apostle had not so declared, that if we, consecrated believers, turn back again to live after the flesh, we shall die; that for us to be carnally minded is death, while to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Our Master's words in Matthew 16:24, 25 are to the same effect—"Whosoever [of My disciples] will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it."
THE WORKS OF THE FLESH
An important question then is, What is it to live after the flesh? Our reply is, to live after the flesh is to live in gratification of even the legitimate cravings of the human mind and the human body, when such gratification will prevent our necessary progress in the narrow way and take time which we should use in our development as New Creatures or in the laying down of our lives for the brethren. And this is a very easy thing to do. Let us just cease our efforts to crucify the flesh, to mortify the deeds of the body, and listlessly abandon ourselves to the natural inclinations of the flesh; and at once we begin to gravitate downward, and soon we find resistance more and more difficult, and the path more and more slippery. Then, unless we make heroic and prayerful efforts to regain our lost position, we shall continue to go downward; and the end will be death.
St. Paul defines the works of the flesh thus: "Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings and such like." (Galatians 5:19-21.) What moral filth and pollution this describes! But such is the tendency of fallen human nature. Just cease to strive against the old nature, and presently some of these noxious weeds will be flourishing and crowding out the good that remains.
"Ah, well," says one, "I have not all those mean qualities." Well, we are very glad you have not; very few have them all. But, beware, you may not know what manner of spirit you are of, naturally. Be sure that your old nature is not free from inherited, and perhaps a formerly cultivated, tendency in some of these directions. The only safe way is to watch and pray against them, to fill the mind with the things of the Spirit of God, lest ye enter into temptation.
Consider the blessed fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, long-suffering, meekness, gentleness, goodness, faith, self-control. "Against such there is no law." To live in the cultivation of these fruits and graces is to "live in the Spirit," and to "walk in the Spirit." Thus do we not only possess our souls in safety, but we constantly progress in the development of the character of Christ. Indeed, we are only safe while we are growing; there is no safety in standing still. If we cease to grow, we begin at once to retrograde.
THE USES OF DISCIPLINE
We see, therefore, that the Christian life is of necessity a warfare, a battle, between our new nature and the tendencies of the flesh, supplemented by the attacks from the outside, from the world and the Adversary with his hosts. It is a conflict which we dare not relinquish; for not only is the prize of our High Calling dependent upon it, but also the issues of life and of death are in it. How solemn a thing it is, therefore, to live under these circumstances; for daily and hourly we are standing before the bar of judgment! "If we live after the flesh, we shall die; but if we through the Spirit, do mortify [put to death, refuse to gratify] the deeds of the body, we shall live." All true sons of God will so live; for, says the Apostle Paul, "As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God."—Romans 8:14.
If we wilfully refuse the leading of God's Holy Spirit, we forfeit the blessed relationship of sons. If we listlessly disregard this leading, we greatly endanger that relationship; and as surely as we are sons we shall receive chastisement for our correction and discipline. But while we should be grateful for such a restraining hand, for this rod of correction, if we need it, yet we should be very careful to require as little of it as possible. "If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged" of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11:31.) However, with the most careful and prayerful watching against the uprisings of the old will and of the flesh, we will doubtless make many mistakes and need some chastening experience from the Lord; "for what son is he whom the Father chasteneth not?"—Hebrews 12:5-12.
Let us, then, remember the exhortation, "My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him. For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth." (Hebrews 12:5, 6.) In the difficult course before us, and in view of all the dangers that beset us, the pitfalls laid for our feet, the weakness of our own unaided efforts, how blessed is the promise of our Father in Heaven to give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him; how precious the assurance that if we are filled with the Spirit we shall not fulfil the desires of the flesh, but shall be enabled to mortify the deeds of the body that we may live! How necessary it is to live very near to the Fountain of all grace, to pray without ceasing and to watch with perseverance!
If at times we know not whether to turn to the right or to the left, know not wherein to walk, let us lift our hearts to the Lord, and wait before Him, remembering the Divine assurance, "Delight thyself in the Lord; and He shall give thee the desires of thine heart. Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him; and He shall bring it to pass." "In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths." (Psalm 37:4, 5; Proverbs 3:6.) Thus His dear voice brings comfort, strength, rest, in the midst of all the cares and perplexities of the way. "As many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God!"—Galatians 6:16.