By: Howard Cole
John Owen, the English church leader who worked at the University of Oxford once asked this provocative question in his book “The Mortification of Sin”: “Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
The words “sin” and “mortification” are words that we seldom hear in the conversations of our common culture. One might say “I was ‘mortified’” when he went the wrong way down a one-way street and was honked at. But that use of the word means that they were simply embarrassed. When Own used the word mortify he was referring to killing disordered desires that still reside in a regenerated Christian. Instead of the word mortify we hear words like “therapy” and “counseling” and “self-help.” All men, including unbelievers, want to experience change and growth and “prosperity” and the motives for self-growth are mixed and manifold. Can one find the words “mortification of sin” in the common conversation of the Christian community? Owen’s book will help us as we attempt to answer many crucial questions concerning sanctification (the process of progressive change) in the life of the believer. Where do we find the concept of the mortification of sin in Scripture? What is it? How do mortification of sin and “indwelling sin” relate to one another? How is mortification to be practiced personally and practically? Is the mortification of sin “legalistic?” What is the relationship of mortification to the law of God? Why is so little heard of it currently in the preaching and teaching of the evangelical church? How can this be taught and implemented in a congregation? By answering these questions, we will be better equipped to battle sin in our lives and grow into more fruitful followers of Christ.
The doctrine of mortification is mined from Romans 8:13b which reads, “…If you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live.” The first half of the verse says, “If you live after the flesh, you shall die” (Rom 8:13a). According to Paul, the doctrine of mortification is a “life and death” issue. It is not a peripheral, optional nugget of truth for the Christian. Instead, Paul is expressing life-giving instructions on how to live and grow in the Christian life.
But what exactly is mortification? Literally, it means to “put to death.” It is not a positive command, but conversely it is a strong negative command to kill the sin that is within you. Paul uses other terms for this sin lodged deep in the core of believers like “old man” and “flesh” in his other epistles. Owen heightens the specificity of the killing by saying that the “faculties, properties, wisdom, craft, subtlety, and strength” of sin must be ruthlessly destroyed and slain.
Often, when giving good directions for driving toward a destination one tells a person where “not” to turn so that the true destination is reached. Likewise, to better clarify the exact meaning of mortification, we find help in defining what mortification is “not.” First, mortification is not the death and final elimination of sin. Paul taught the Philippians this clarification when he admitted “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect” (Philip 3:12). Only Christ accomplishes the final change (cf. Philip 3:21; Col 2:10). Second, mortification is not a hypocritical faking that pretends sin is removed. Paul does not want us to live in a make-believe world with a make-believe sanctification. Third, mortification is not the improvement of a quiet, controlled, even-keeled temperament. Owen says it best when he remarks that we can look as though we have developed self-control and yet still be plagued by hearts that “still stink like a cesspool of corruption.” We are not mortifying sin when we refine a temperament that comes naturally to us. Fourth, a sin is not put to death when it is diverted by another sin. We are still in the same old state. Fifth, episodic conquests of sin don’t count as true mortification. When an episode of supposed success settles down, the latent lust will rear its head again.
Now that we know what mortification is not, we can attend to what it is. Owen helps us here by stating its composition in three ways. First, it is the habitual weakening of sin. Owen paints a gruesome word-picture to illustrate this. He reminds us that Paul speaks of crucifying the world and the flesh and he then paints the picture of a man who is nailed to a cross first struggling and crying out with his strength. As the writhing man bleeds to death he weakens. Second, mortification is a constant fight against sin. We need to take sin seriously and spend time learning the schemes of the devil. We need to examine our usual excuses, pleas and pretenses as we stay on guard and then attack the sin with fresh wounds daily. We are to “mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth” (Col 3:5). Third, mortification is evidenced by frequent success against indwelling sin. As mentioned earlier, it is not a total success. But one does find a decrease in obstacles to obedience and greater peace.
Much of what has been said rests on the reality of indwelling sin. Paul expressed, “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me” (Rom 7:21). The reason we are to mortifiy sin is based on the admission that sin is still part of the regenerated son or daughter of Christ and actively opposed to the new life of the Spirit within. This indwelling sin seeks to drain the believer of vigor and joy and fruit for the glory of God. Like a thief or a fire within our home, indwelling sin resides and desires to control the life of the believer. Because of this indicative of our nature we must mortify our sin with resolve.
So how exactly can we practice mortification? Owen prescribes two directions for the practice of mortification. First, we are to live wholly and solely in trust of Christ. We need to fix our gaze on the provisions that are ours in Christ. The treasures and strength of Christ must be our focus if we are to fight the sin within. We can do nothing without Christ (John 15:5). By prayer and meditation, we must expectantly wait upon the ready help of Christ. We must also focus on the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. He died so that he might “redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit 2:14). The death of Christ is a power that will help you practice mortification. Second, mortification can only be accomplished through the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit of the living God can break through the deceptive heart and convince a person of actual sin and guilt (cf. John 16:8). The Spirit is the author and finisher of our progressive sanctification as He provides the rich resources of grace.
But have we placed the noose of legalism (the false belief that our behavior can be the basis of our acceptance by the Holy God) around our necks at this juncture? No. Owen spends considerable time explaining that sin often diverts the mind by emphasizing cheap grace. In other words, the good news of Christ is never divorced from ethics. When one starts to say, “I don’t need to live so strictly since God loves me and will forgive me,” then a carelessness concerning sin begins to take root. Owen explains that the doctrine of grace must be connected to its purpose. Paul said that we are not to continue in sin so that grace may abound (Rom 6:1-2). Instead, we are to live with hearts humbled by undeserved mercy and grace as we live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world (cf. Titus 2:11-12). Our fight against sin does not save us but our fight against sin evidences the reality of our regeneration and our gratitude for positional righteousness. The law reveals our sin and our
guilt but does not have the power to change us. Christ kept the law for His elect and took the penalty for the transgression of the law for His people. The people of God now love the law of God and live joyfully in God’s design and holiness. Holiness is possible! It happens when we reject our lifestyle of sin, and root ourselves into the life of Christ. As Jerry Bridges succinctly put it, it is not what we are against (sin), but what we are for (God) that counts. Because sin drives a wedge between us and God, we want to kill it to draw closer to Him.
If one were to analyze the content of the thousands of sermons that are preached each Sunday, why is it that so few would contain the doctrine of mortification? Primarily, our culture does not like the idea of sin and guilt. Our culture views man’s nature as basically good. Fish rarely consider the water that envelops them, and many churches fail to discern the worldly error that has darkened the clear light of Scripture with regards to man’s indwelling sin, guilt and need of saving grace.
But a more covert reason for the famine of familiarity with mortification is because of an “over-realized” sanctification. Many think they can achieve complete sanctification by disciplined acts of their will. They sincerely love God, so they pray more, sing more, fast more, evangelize more, give up this and sacrifice that. A subversive self-righteousness deceives them, and the killing of sin gets replaced by a false sense of achieving total holiness in their lifetime. This inflicts churches with elite classes of Christians and the more honest guilt-ridden underclass. A fresh submission to the word of God (i.e. Philippians 3:12) and the need for mortification will reverse this tragic trend.
Here are some tangible suggestions for the implementation of mortification in the life of a congregation. First, indwelling sin must be asserted as real before it is attacked. Second, we must explain the nature of mortification along with its practice. Third, we need to explicitly express mortification in our public worship during the time of confession and integrate its practice in our sermon applications. Fourth, our elders and deacons need to be trained in this important element of their devotional walk with God since they will be models to our people. May we be a people that grow in the mortification of our sin as we experience newfound vigor in our walk with God. Is there a specific sin that you can start killing today? Walk by the power of the Spirit and enjoy life that is found on the path of mortification.