The Mortification of Sin
Mortification is the theological term used to describe the call for those who are united to Christ and living in the power of the Spirit (i.e., Christians) to put to death (mortify) lingering sinful impulses that arise from within and resist temptations that surface from outside of the believer.
Mortification is the theological term used to describe the call for those who are united to Christ and living in the power of the Spirit (i.e., Christians) to put to death (mortify) lingering sinful impulses that arise from within and resist temptations that surface from outside of the believer. As new creatures in Christ, believers are free not simply to resist sin but also to partake in actively loving God and neighbor. Properly understood, therefore, mortification will also be linked with vivification, which highlights the call to live responsively to the Spirit’s ongoing work where he grows his fruit in us even as indwelling sin is acknowledged and opposed.
Life and Death
“for if you are living according to the flesh,
you must die;
but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body,
you will live,”
Like many other authors of the New Testament, Paul often presents an idea as a set of contrasting pairs such as light and darkness, acceptance and rejection, flesh and Spirit, or, in this case, life and death. Life, of course, is the stronger and more important of the two: the whole point of the death of Christ, for example, was to give us life (Rom. 6:10). The point of mortification, as discussed in Romans 8:13, is that it rejects everything that contradicts the new life that we have in Christ by his Holy Spirit.
Every living creature is given its life from the living God. Christians believe that this good God made a good world, a world he delighted in and was satisfied with, with special care given to his human creatures that were made in his image and likeness (Gen. 1-2). The intrusion of sin challenges and contradicts not just God, but also the basis and character of all creation, and that of humans in particular (Gen. 3). Sin tarnished all areas of the human life, affecting everything from our bodies to our psychology. Every sphere of human experience — from our relationship to God, one another, the earth, and even with ourselves — is negatively affected. All of this broken communion leads ultimately toward death — the opposite of life.
Appreciating this context is necessary for understanding the mortification that Paul commends to us, because otherwise we can too easily reduce mortification to moralistic attempts to avoid doing “bad” things. Rightly framed, however, mortification is not simply negative, but also a tool in the positive restoration and the positive of human flourishing. Sin is not lifegiving, but instead a virus that has infected and disordered our lives: there is no way back to true life except through sin’s death. This is what Christ has accomplished and the informs how he leads us.
Christ’s Life, Death, and Resurrection: The Ground of Mortification
Thanks be to God, the life, death, and resurrection (new life!) of Christ is the reality and therefore paradigm for understanding not just the Christian faith, but also the Christian life. Outside of faith in Christ we are described in very sober terms, even if sometimes the metaphors don’t easily work together: we are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), at enmity with Christ (Rom. 8:7), and a foolish people who are blind to truly spiritual things (1Cor. 2:14). However, the Gospel promises that the life and death of the Messiah ushers in a new creation, so that as the first born from the dead (1Pet. 3; Rev. 1:4), Jesus embodies and heralds the good news of new life. He alone restores our communion with the Creator and opens up a new love for our neighbors. But our old habits are at odds with this new life. Just as Jesus has given us new life, he also calls us to walk with him in it as a testimony to the world: Jesus has overcome death and all the sin that leads to it. Our hope for getting through each day lies in looking to him and following him, not as a kind of course of self-improvement (that would be mere selfish moralism), but as glad continuing fellowship with the living Lord who continues to shape us.
While the four Gospels record the historical event of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Apostle Paul explains the link between Jesus’ crucifixion and our daily lives. Boasting of the cross of Christ, Paul claims the “world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). Christ’s death on the cross has so utterly changed the nature and essence of who Paul is that he has to use the extreme language of “dead to the world” because he has, in the deepest reality “been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). That is, Jesus’ life does not merely serve as a model that Paul calls us to copy. His point here is that he, Paul, has in fact died, that he doesn’t even have the life he used to have any more — that is the usual result of dying, after all. The crucifixion of Christ brought about Paul’s death as well as Christ’s, and yet somehow Paul is alive. The Spirit has united Paul to Christ so that his reality is now Paul’s reality. Paul is alive because Christ lives not only in heaven above but also in Paul. The implication here is that this death-and-resurrection in Christ is also true of other believers. This is the framework for Paul’s admonition to believers to put to death their lingering sinful impulses.
Those who belong to Christ are called to fight sin, not in order that they might become acceptable to God, but because the old, sinful habits interfere with their experience of this new life they have in Christ. Paul claims that “you are slaves of the one whom you obey,” and the only two options he provides are sin and righteousness (Rom. 6:16). Though all of us were formerly slaves to sin (John 8:34), because of Christ’s person and work we have been set free from sin and Satan’s tyrannical bondage, and now our lives reflect this new freedom to love our heavenly Father (cf., John 8:36) and serve our neighbor (1Pet. 2:16). To revert to old sinful habits doesn’t mean that we lose that life, but it can cripple our walk in it.
Sadly, too often we act like we are still held in the locked prison of sin, but Paul wants us to realize this is not the case. Because we are united to Christ, his death means our we are dead to sin (Rom. 6:5, 7). He has destroyed its reign and dominion over us. Righteousness, not sin, should now mark our lives (Rom. 6:17-18). Paul is not preaching perfectionism, the kind of attitude that says perfection is attainable, and one must attain it in order to accomplish God’s approval of us. But he obviously considers the struggle of Christians against sin to be real and difficult (Rom. 6:1-14), so much so that it seems to want to be master of us again.
Having given us the Kingdom as a gift (Luke 12: 32), Christ both enables us to live according to the nature and values of his Kingdom even as he also teaches us their ways. Here we see and follow grace and truth, rather than the paths of darkness that breed hate and deception. Those in Christ begin to recognize that sin brings with it the stench of death rather than life, and so we also desire to avoid, resist, and even fight against that which leads down that path (2Cor 2:16). Putting sin to death (mortification) by turning from it, can be a battle; but that battle, too, is a participation in Christ’s own life and his defeat of sin. In his life, we, too, become conquerors.
Two Ways of Life: The Spirit as the Author of Mortification
According to the Apostle Paul, living “according to the flesh” opposes living “by the Spirit” (cf., Rom. 8:5). One is the path of life, the other is that of death. Although “flesh” in the New Testament sometimes simply refers to a physical body (e.g., 1Cor. 15:39), in other places (as in Rom. 8) it refers to our physical, animal nature as the arena where sin operates to oppose the Spirit. Flesh and Spirit, in this context, are also two different ways of existing. The first is the way of death (Rom 8:12), since life in the “flesh” represents rebellion against God, neglecting his will and ways. Thus, when Paul says the Son was sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” it does not mean Jesus was pretending to have a physical body. That would be a heresy called “Docetism.” Instead, Paul is highlighting that the eternal Son of God became incarnate, truly living and walking among us as one of us, like us in all ways (including having physical flesh) and yet he was without sin (Heb. 4:15). He always subordinated his physical nature to the Father by the power of the Spirit, thus having rightly ordered loves and actions.
Life in the Spirit includes our physical life, putting our flesh in its proper place of being guided by the Spirit instead of by its own disordered desires. “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8: 9). The New Testament also uses imagery of regeneration (Tit. 3:5), being born again by the Spirit (John 3: 3-8; 1Pet. 1:3), and being made new creations in Christ (2Cor. 5:17). Where the Spirit dwells there is Christ, and here is the very presence of the God who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 8:9-11). This same Spirit now dwells in us and gives us life, purpose, direction, and power. That power includes the ability to resist temptation and cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.
Mortification: Living in Light of the Cross
Drawing upon the Apostle Paul, the Christian tradition has often distinctly spoken of mortification in terms of putting the “old man” or “old self” to death. Believers must “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22). The purpose and possibility of mortifying the “flesh,” however, lies in the life provided by the Spirit: “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). We can use Galatians 5:14-26 as a framework for examining practices of mortification and vivification.
Paul calls the Church to “walk by the Spirit,” and the result will be that “you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). As before, his contrast of the “flesh” and “Spirit” does not refer to the material and non-material world, but to whether we are guided by our worldly impulses, and thus engage in the “deeds of the flesh” as he describes them (19-21), or are guided by the Spirit and produce the corresponding fruit (22-23). “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other” (Gal. 5: 17).
Paul names the deeds of the flesh (“Now the words of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these”; Gal. 5:19-21) not for us to judgmentally condemn others, but for our self-examination. The list mixes outward, noisy sins (like drunkenness and carousing) with inward, quieter sins (like jealousy and dissensions). Our culture easily condemns the more obvious, louder sins, but we must take the others quite as seriously. Drunkenness is no worse than undermining unity among the people of God. Whatever sins are ours, it’s easy to condemn whatever we see in other people. The breadth and variety of this list shows the reach of sin and the ways that ignoring the guidance of the Spirit can undermine the common good and concern for righteousness.
Our temptation to these deeds is real, but Jesus is more real. He has not left us alone, nor has he left us alone with a guidebook: He himself is with us by his Spirit, strengthening us and reassuring us.
Practically speaking, you will make mistakes, some of them pretty big. This doesn’t mean that Jesus has given up on you. You will find yourself committing the same stupid sin for the thousandth time and not even liking it. Learn to hate the sin and not yourself. Learn to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit that most directly opposes whatever trap you characteristically fall into. Listing practical methods of growing away from sin and toward hearing Jesus more clearly would take more space than is allowed for this essay, but remember that Jesus wants your well-being even more than you do.
Vivification: Living in the Power of the Spirit
Sometimes in traditions such as my own (the Reformed), we often sound more confident of the reality of sin than of the Spirit’s presence and power. That tone is contrary to Paul’s teaching: although he is anything but naïve regarding our struggles with temptation and the power of sin, he is even more emphatic regarding the power of Jesus who has overcome sin on our behalf and who supplies his own life to us. Because we are, in fact, dead to sin and alive in him, sin is no longer our master but our enemy in the battlefield of life. Sin doesn’t fit who we are now. (Rom. 6:1-23; Gal. 5:13).
The tradition also speaks of “vivification”: to vivify is to give life, to animate, or to make alive. This is exactly what the Spirit does with God’s people. The life that we now have is Christ’s own life coursing through us. As those who have received life through the Spirit, we “were called to freedom,” a freedom that does not become an excuse to sin, but rather a freedom from sin, for life, for serving one another (Gal. 5:13). Sin opposes life and all the goodness of creation; living in Christ means that we join him in putting it to death because it destroys the shalom God intended. Righteousness means trusting and following Christ, listening to the guidance of the Spirit, and serving our neighbors.
The Spirit has always been the vehicle of our life and opposed to death. When the Spirit of God is withdrawn we see the cessation of life (cf., Job 33:4; 34:14-15; Psa. 104:29). Thus the fruit of the Spirit is life-giving: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). These traits strengthen us, clarify our vision, deepen our trust in God, enable us to distinguish eternal treasure from passing fads. They enable us to connect with others, to build them up, to be built up by them. They enable us to hear God more clearly, to love him more thoroughly, to follow him more faithfully. The deeds of the flesh isolate us and lead to death. The fruit of the Spirit connects us with God and our neighbors, and it leads to life.
Believers have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom God’s own Son (Col. 1:13). Continuing to walk in darkness is, therefore, insane and self-destructive. We have been engrafted into the life and love of God. We may respond well or badly to that situation, but that is where we are. Paul proclaims the gospel that Jesus has grabbed hold of us completely, that we are in fact dead-and-risen-again with him, so now — what? Here we are in this beautiful, damaged, tumultuous world, living beautiful, damaged, tumultuous lives, but not on our own. Never on our own, because God himself in the flesh has gone before us on this very path, challenging and destroying sin. In our lives, Jesus vivifies us and we mortify ourselves to follow him. Whoever wants to gain life must lose it for his sake (Matt. 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; John 12:25). In order to have our hands free to grasp eternal treasure, we have to drop the trash that glitters so falsely. Jesus will not let us go. The challenge to us within that security is how to fight the next battle.
- Sinclair Ferguson, “The Practice of Mortification”
- Randall C. Gleason, John Calvin and John Owen on Mortification: A comparative Study in Reformed Spirituality (New York: Peter Lang, 1995).
- John D. Hannah, “John Owen and the ‘Normal’ Christian Life: Or Sanctification in an Era of Confusion”
- Christopher Love, “The Mortification of Sin”
- John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006). This volume includes three of Owen’s classic works: 1) Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, 2) Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It, and 3) Indwelling Sin. This publication includes detailed outlines of each of the works, introductory essays, and other features aimed to make Owen’s work more accessible.
- Samuel Rutherford, “Mortification of Sin”
- Gerald Schlabach, For the Joy Set before Us: Augustine and Self-Defying Love (Notre Dame, Ind., 2001).
- John Webster, “Communion with Christ: Mortification and vivification” in Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel, ed., Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2014), 121-138.
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