Mortification (noun): The Spirit-powered process of killing all of our propensities for sinful, self-destructive pleasures that compete for superior pleasure in the all-satisfying God.
If we care about living then sin-killing (or the old school word “mortification”) is something we cannot afford to ignore: “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” (Rom. 8:13 cf. Gal. 5:16-25). Sin-killing in the believer’s life may be thought of along a 7-phase continuum that looks something like this (try to figure out where you sit along this continuum):
Phase 1—My sin is no big deal. I’m not at war against the sarx (Paul’s word for our “flesh” or “sin nature”). Life by the flesh doesn’t lead to death or rob me of superior pleasure in God.
Phase 2—The “flesh” (sarx) does lead to death, enjoying God really is superior to sin’s short-lived pleasures, and I need to do something about it. But the “flesh” is a general faceless problem. I’m not sure what specific shapes it takes in my own life.
Phase 3—Oh, those are specific outward manifestations of sarx in my life. I’ll focus on those behaviors—the gossip, the pornography addiction, the lying to paint myself in a better light, or whatever. All I need is a few me-powered self-help measures to kill those specific sinful behaviors.
Phase 4—Wait, there is something way deeper going on here. My behavior-correcting tactics are not actually killing my sin. These bad fruits must have bad roots. I can’t change the bad fruits—the behaviors—I need to get to the root of those behaviors, which is my messed up heart. I’ll try that on my own (rather than letting others see the gnarly sin skeletons living in my heart’s closet).
Phase 5—Ok, so my isolated, solo, self-help efforts aren’t getting me anywhere. I’ll take the sin in my heart’s closet out into the light of community. I’ll enlist trusted fellow Christians as allies in this battle, maybe join an accountability group. That should guarantee victory.
Phase 6—Knowing I’m at war against forces that destroy my joy in God, knowing what the specific tanks are in my life, knowing those tanks are not outward behaviors as much as they are in my heart, knowing my spit-shooter self-help techniques are no match for this internal enemy, inviting others to help me wage war—Check, check, check, and check. But I still haven’t made my sin die. I need supernatural sin-killing power here! I will pray persistently, calling in the divine air support of the Holy Spirit, like a supernatural F-16, to blast these internal evils to smithereens (and get my fellow Christian allies to pray the same).
Phase 7—I have been prayerfully relying on God’s power, the power of Christ’s cross, the power of the omnipotent Spirit as I strive to kill sin, and sin is actually being killed! Not ‘yay me!’ but all praise and thanks to the sovereign God who changed my heart!
At which phase of this continuum do you find yourself?
Wherever you are MOVE AHEAD! Why? Because as John Owen reminds us in his classic work, The Mortification of Sin, “Kill sin, or sin will be killing you!” Don’t let your sin drop bombs on your joy in God without relentlessly blasting back in the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.
John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, “The vigor, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh…All other ways of mortification are vain… it must be done by the Spirit… Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world… A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.”
Death to sin!
Joy to You!
Glory to God!
Dr. Thaddeus Williams is an author, a pastor, and professor in Southern California. He earned his Ph.D. in Theology at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam, and holds an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion from Talbot School of Theology. Dr. Williams has lectured in seminaries and churches throughout Nepal, Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri Fellowships in Holland and Switzerland, along with churches and conferences throughout the United States.