Kill Your Sin
There is the kind of pain that comes to us without our permission—suffering, anguish, frustration, washing into our lives contrary to what we want or expect. But alongside this kind of pain in which we are passive is another kind of pain in which we are active. I refer to the age-old discipline that theologians call mortification.
Mortification is just a theological word for “putting to death.” It refers to the duty of every Christian to kill sin. As Owen put it in the most important work ever written on killing sin, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.”1 None of us is ever in neutral. Right now, every one of us who is in Christ is either killing sin or being killed by sin. Either getting stronger or getting weaker. If you think you’re coasting, you’re actually going backward. There’s no cruise-control spiritually. It may feel as if you’re currently in neutral, but our hearts are like gardens: if we aren’t proactively rooting out the weeds, the weeds are growing, even if we don’t notice.
The work of mortification is for every Christian. Theologians have long spoken of mortification as working in tandem with vivification—there’s putting to death, and there’s being made alive. At conversion we “die” once and for all and are made alive once and for all. But there is also the daily pattern of going down into death and up into life.
This teaching on mortification is the most active facet of our growing in Christ. Christian salvation and the growth that it ignites is fundamentally a matter of grace, rescue, help, deliverance—it is God invading our miserable little lives and triumphing gloriously and persistently over all the sin and self he finds there. But that does not mean we are robots. The verse on which John Owen based his book on mortification was Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death [i.e., mortify] the deeds of the body, you will live.” One of the key points Owen lingers over in his book is captured by the three words “by the Spirit.” We do not kill sin through the resources inherent to us. But we note that even the most active aspect of our sanctification, the facet where our own will is most thoroughly engaged, the mortification of our sin, is not something we tackle on our own. We do it “by the Spirit.”
As we find ourselves being pulled down by sin and temptation, we cry out to the Spirit for grace and help, and then we act in conscious dependence on that Spirit, taking it by faith that we are, thanks to the Spirit, able to kill that sin or resist that temptation. The devil wants us to think we are impotent. But if God the Spirit is within us, the very power that raised Jesus’s dead body to triumphant life is able to exert that same vital power in our little lives. As Paul said shortly before Romans 8:13: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).
Mortification versus Self-Flagellation
We need to get a possible misconception out onto the table before proceeding. In speaking of pain as a vital ingredient to our growth, and especially now as we speak of our self-inflicted “pain” of mortification, we must be ever vigilant not to view the pain of our lives as contributing in any way to Christ’s atoning work. That may sound obvious, but the temptation to do so is subtle and insidious. In the finished work of Christ on the cross we are completely liberated from the accusing powers of the devil and our own consciences. In killing sin we are not completing Christ’s finished work; we are responding to it. Christ was killed so that our own relative success or failure in killing sin is no part of the formula of our adoption into God’s family.
In Holy Week of 2009 the Boston Globe ran a story with images of various Christian communities around the world celebrating Maundy Thursday.2 One particularly arresting image was from the city of San Fernando in the Philippines, where several Roman Catholic penitents were photographed as they knelt before a church, shirts off and backs bloodied, flagellating themselves in an attempt to atone for their sins. We are rightly horrified by such an image, knowing that the need for this kind of self-inflicted pain has been wonderfully eradicated by Christ’s own suffering. It would be an odd response for a criminal, bailed out of prison, to promptly go down to county hall to pay the bail fee himself; he’s already been freed.
But I wonder if we really take to heart what is wrong about such a practice. Is it not a constant temptation for Western Christians to engage in such self-flagellation psychologically and emotionally, if not physically? What’s your response when you are aware of your sin? If you’re like me, you know Christ died for that, and you’re grateful. But just to show how grateful you are, or to seal the deal, you do a bit of psychological self-inflicted pain to top it off. Not, of course, to self-consciously add to Christ’s work. Heaven forbid. Just to let him know how much you care, to make it clear that you’re a serious Christian. Nothing physical. Just a bit of extra externalized obedience or formal service or sucking on the guilt.
Right now, every one of us who is in Christ is either killing sin or being killed by sin.
The trouble is that the whole message of the Bible is that if we’re going to add a cherry of self-contribution on top of Christ’s work to really be okay, we have to provide the whole sundae. All or nothing. And the tragedy is that though we assent theologically to the truth that we can’t add to Christ’s work, we try to put ourselves emotionally at ease by helping the Lord out a bit. Yet adding something to seal the deal is precisely what will create uneasiness about whether the deal ever really is sealed. What if we don’t seal the deal well enough?
That innate instinct to help out God’s opinion of us by self-medicated doses of humanly generated recompense seems so sensible. So reasonable. Intuitive. How else would we live? But the glory of the gospel is that this attempt to help God out is not only unnecessary but a rejection of God’s offer in Christ. It isn’t a strengthening of God’s opinion of me but a dilution of it. It doesn’t honor Christ’s sacrificial work on our behalf; it dishonors his work. And it will make us grouchy and tense instead of humble and free.
As we reflect on mortifying our sin, then, we do so mindful that we can never strengthen the objective declaration of “acquitted and righteous” that is ours by faith alone on the basis of the finished work of Christ alone.
- John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, ed. Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 50.
- “The Big Picture: News Stories in Photographs,” Boston.com, April 10, 2009, www.archive .boston.com/bigpicture/2009/04/holy_week.html.
This article is adapted from Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners by Dane C. Ortlund.
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