Romans viii. 12. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh; for if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die.
What does walking after the flesh mean? St. Paul tells us himself, in Gal. v., where he uses exactly the same form of words which he does here. 'The works of the flesh,' he says, 'are manifest.' When a man gives way to his passions and appetites--when he cares only about enjoying his own flesh, and the pleasures which he has in common with the brutes, then there is no mistake about the sort of life which he will lead--'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, revellings, and such like.' An ugly list, my friends; and God have mercy on the man who gives way to them. For disgraceful as they are to him, and tormenting also to him in this life, the worst is, that if he gives way to them, he will die.
I do not mean that he will bring his mortal body to an untimely end; that he will ruin his own health; or that he will get himself hanged, though that is likely enough--common enough. I think St. Paul means something even worse than that. The man himself will die. Not his body merely: but his soul, his character, will die. All in him that God made, all that God intended him to be, will die. All that his father and mother loved in him, all that they watched over, and hoped and prayed that it might grow up into life, in order that he might become the man God meant him to be, all that will die. His soul and character will become one mass of disease. He will think wrong, feel wrong, about everything of which he does think and feel: while, about the higher matters, of which every man ought to know something, he will not think or feel at all. Love to his country, love to his own kinsfolk even; above all, love to God, will die in him, and he will care for nothing but himself, and how to get a little more foul pleasure before he goes out of this world, he dare not think whither. All power of being useful will die in him. Honour and justice will die in him. He will be shut up in himself, in the ugly prison-house of his own lusts and passions, parted from his fellow-men, caring nothing for them, knowing that they care nothing for him. He will have no faith in man or God. He will believe no good, he will have no hope, either for himself or for the world.
This, this is death, indeed; the death of sin; the death in which human beings may go on for years, walking, eating, and drinking; worse than those who walk in their sleep, and see nothing, though their eyes are staring wide.
Oh pitiable sight! The most pitiable sight in the whole world, a human soul dead and rotten in sin! It is a pitiable sight enough, to see a human body decayed by disease, to see a poor creature dying, even quietly and without pain. Pitiable, but not half so pitiable as the death of a human soul by sin. For the death of the body is not a man's own fault. But that death in life of sin, is a man's own fault. In a Christian country, at least, it is a man's own fault, if he goes about the world, as I have seen many a one go, having a name to live, and yet dead in trespasses and sins, while his soul only serves to keep his body alive and moving. How shall we escape this death in life? St. Paul tells us, 'If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.'
Through the Spirit. The Spirit of God and of Christ. Keep that in mind, for that is the only way, the right way, to mortify and kill in us these vices and passions, which, unless we kill them, will kill us. The only way. For men have tried other ways in old times, do try other ways now: but they fail. I could mention many plans which they have tried. But I will only mention the one which you and I are likely to try.
A young man runs wild for a few years, as young men are too apt to do: but at last he finds that ill-living does not pay. It hurts his health, his pocket, his character. He makes himself ill; he cannot get employed; he has ruin staring him in the face, from his wild living. He must mend. If he intends to keep out of the workhouse, the gaol, the grave, he must mortify the deeds of the body. He must bridle his passions, give up lying about, drinking, swearing, cheating, running after bad women: and if he has a strong will, he does it from mere selfish prudence. But is he safe? I think not, as long as he loves still the bad ways he has given up. He has given them up, not because he hates them, because he is ashamed of them, because he knows them to be hateful to God, and ruinous to his own soul: but because they do not pay. The man himself is not changed. His heart within is not converted. The outside of his life is whitewashed; but his heart may be as foul as ever; as full as ever of selfishness, greediness, meanness. And what happens to him? Too often, what happened to the man in the parable, when the unclean spirit went out of him, and came back again. The unclean spirit found his home swept and garnished: but empty. All very neat and respectable: but empty. There was no other spirit dwelling there. No good spirit, who could fight the unclean spirit and keep him out. So he took to himself seven other spirits worse than himself--hypocrisy, cant, cunning, covetousness, and all the smooth-shaven sins which beset middle-aged and elderly men; and they dwell there, and so does the unclean spirit of youth too.
Alas! How often have I seen men whom that description would fit but too well--men who have kept themselves respectable till they have got back their character in the world's eyes: and when they get into years, and have risen perhaps in life, and made money, are looked up to by their fellows: but what are they at heart? As great scoundrels as they were thirty years before--cunning, false, covetous, and hypocritical--and indulging, perhaps, the unclean spirit of youth, as much as they dare without being found out. God help them! for their last state is worse than their first. But that is the fruit of trying to mortify and kill their own vices by mere worldly prudence, and not by the Spirit of God, which alone can cleanse the heart of any man, or make him strong enough really to conquer and kill his sins.
And what is this spirit of God? We may know in this way. What says our Lord in the Gospel? 'The tree is known by its fruits.' Then if we know the fruits of the Spirit, we shall surely know something at least of what the Spirit is like. What then says St. Paul, 'The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.' Therefore the Spirit is a loving spirit--a peaceable, a gentle, a good, a faithful, a sober and temperate spirit. And if you follow it, you will live. If you give yourselves up honestly, frankly, and fully, to be led by that good spirit, and obey it when it prompts you with right feelings, you, your very self, will live. You will be what God intended you to be; you will grow as God intended you to grow; grow as Christ did, in grace; in all which is graceful, amiable, worthy of respect and love; and therefore in favour with God and man. Your character will improve and strengthen day by day; and rise day by day to fuller, stronger, healthier spiritual life. You will be able more and more to keep down low passions, evil tempers, and all the works of the flesh, when they tempt you; you will despise and hate them more and more; for having seen the beauty of goodness, you will see the ugliness of sin. So the bad passions and tempers, instead of being merely put to sleep for a while to wake up all the stronger for their rest, will be really mortified and killed in you. They will die out of you; and you, the real you whom God made, will live and grow continually. And, instead of having your character dragged down, diseased, and at last ruined, it will rise and progress, as you grow older, in the sure and safe road of eternal life. To which God bring us all in his mercy! Amen.