by Charles Williams

The true believer’s response to the gospel of Jesus Christ is to pursue a radical transformation of the heart and mind in order to be conformed to the image of God in Christ (Col. 3:10).1 The central endeavor of this response is repentance. Repentance is the necessary response to the gospel through faith, as both faith and repentance are mutually congruent and inseparable.2 Repentance necessarily entails the pursuit to arrest and vanquish our innate corruption while intentionally pursuing a newness of life in the likeness of Christ. The former is what the Scriptures call mortification, and the latter, vivification.3 Johannes Wollebius refers to these two acts as the “turning away from evil and turning toward good.”4

The impetus behind this article concerns whether our present notions and efforts of mortification have become too cursory. Today, there is a trend to view mortification as nothing more than the self-discipline not to act on one’s sinful desires but also embracing them as a matter of identity of one’s “brokenness.” But this is not biblical repentance, as unbelievers also advocate such things. True mortification of sin involves much more than this, and its importance and practice cannot be neglected. Mortification is an essential part of biblical repentance and will ultimately serve as a reflection of whether we have truly been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Any enduring repudiation of the work of mortification could mark one’s profession of regeneration and faith as dubious. So the question is, What is mortification?

THE ESSENCE OF MORTIFICATION

To mortify means to put to death. There are two words in the New Testament Greek which reveal the nature of mortification. They are thanatoute and nekrōsate from Romans 8:13 and Colossians 3:5, respectively. The essence of what it means to mortify one’s sinfulness is the intentional effort to strike down and put to death our corrupt sinful nature and its desires. Puritan author John Owen, in his classic work On the Mortification of Sin, expounded on these scriptural commands to put to death the deeds of the body. According to Owen, mortifymeans not the mere cessation of external sinful deeds but “the deeds of the flesh in their causes from whence they spring.”5 This is where the ax of mortification is to be employed—at the root of our sin. Just as a firefighter quenches a fire by aiming their extinguisher not at the tips of the flames but rather at the base of the fire.

This is a radically different view from merely restraining one’s sinful desires in an attempt to keep them from becoming actions. This latter view only advocates the suppression of sinful impulses. Biblical mortification calls for a spiritually lethal effort. And the target is our corrupt and depraved nature and its desires. For this to take place, a change must be wrought in us.

In regeneration, our souls are renewed from death to life by the power of Holy Spirit. This is where the Scriptures speak of our being “made alive,” “quickened,” “having our eyes opened,” and “given the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him to lead to us walk in His statutes.”6 In regeneration, we are made aware of our corruption and sinfulness before God and its consequences concerning divine judgment. And with this understanding also comes a deep contrition of the heart, sorrow for the sins in one’s soul, and an increasing hatred and abhorrence for them. This serves as the basis for the Holy Spirit’s continual work of mortification in the lives of each person who is truly born again. 

THE NECESSITY OF MORTIFICATION

Jesus clearly emphasizes the necessity of mortification when He says: “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). This command from our Lord needs to be heeded with all seriousness. Without genuine repentance, any profession or devotion to Christ and His gospel or the Christian life, however auspicious, will not result in the eternal salvation of one’s soul. The entire Christian life is marked by an enduring conflict between our new Spirit-granted hearts that want to do good and the remaining presence of sin that wars against them (Rom. 7:14–25). In Romans 8:13, we are told, “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.” The structure of this verse is to convey two points which are mutually exclusive, and each point is conditional in form. In the first condition, if people are still living according to the flesh—as unbelievers do—they will die. There is no possibility that they will live unless they are born again and cease living according to the flesh. The second condition shows that if people endeavor by the Spirit to mortify their sinful natures and their evil desires throughout their lives, then they will live.In regeneration, our souls are renewed from death to life by the power of Holy Spirit.SHARE

Everyone who believes in the person of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and places his faith in His vicarious work on the cross as an atonement for his sins receives not only the divine mandate to repent but also the desire and ability to live by the Spirit in putting to death the deeds of the body and so live. And whoever denies the necessity of repentance in the Christian’s life is not speaking of or trusting in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Puritan Thomas Watson once stated concerning the distinction between the disposition of the unregenerate person and the Christian: “Sin in a wicked man is delightful, being in its natural place, but sin in a child of God is burdensome and he uses all means to expel it.”7 The unregenerate person, though willing to acknowledge God’s existence and perhaps His demands of external holiness, will yet petition for the inclusion of their beloved sinfulness. But it is only the true Christian who will daily pursue the death of their sinful natures and its desires because they stand in direct opposition to the world and its sinfulness. This work of mortification is not a meritorious work but a gracious work of the Spirit in us to grow in holiness (Eph. 2:8).

PASTORAL REFLECTIONS

Any shepherd of Christ’s people will have two principal joys in his ministry. The first is watching God’s people increase in their knowledge and understanding of our triune God through His Word and prayer. Second, he will rejoice to see them mature in their walk toward holiness while turning away from their sins and evil. Conversely, ministers will be most burdened when they see God’s people lacking in both, resulting in spiritual languishing or struggling with besetting sins. This latter reality will unquestionably expose the absence of an abiding work of mortification. Consequentially, they are weakened in their pursuit of the new self who is being renewed according to the image of the One who created them (Col. 3:10). In James 1:14–15, we find what the lack of mortification does in the life of any believer: “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” Therefore, the people of God must be encouraged on two points. 

First, without mortification, our sinful desires will always be increasing in their power to deceive and entice us to sin further. Our souls will find only weakness and be deprived of the godly comfort, joy, peace, humility, gentleness, and patience that should mark them. The Scriptures are very clear that the sinful nature, though it no longer rules the heart, yet remains a potent enemy. There is no self-therapy for it. There is no middle ground, no truce to be negotiated. There is one and only one course of action—it must be put to death. John Owen stated it succinctly: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”8

The difference between the worldly view of mortification and the biblical view could not be more paradoxical; nor could the consequences be more terminal. Therefore, it is vital for pastors to rightly and faithfully preach and teach the biblical doctrine of sin, repentance, and mortification. Yet, they must also remind their people that mortification is an evangelical grace. The ability to fight against their sin is a gift from God. Its power is sufficient because of the Spirit and its outcome assured because they have a new heart and spirit in them.

Second, all believers must understand that mortification is a long haul. We will find no sinless perfectionism in this life. But what we will find, if we are faithful to exercise mortification daily, is an increasing desire for holiness and a strengthening in all spiritual graces and fruits of the spirit. At the same time, we will see a marked weakening of the power of sin in our lives, resulting in greater realities of hope, encouragement, and joy in our walk with Christ.

NOTES:

  1. All Scriptural references are from the New American Standard Bible. ↩︎
  2. See Sinclair Ferguson, “Faith and Repentance,” Tabletalk, June 2013, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/faith-and-repentance/. ↩︎
  3. This is what is meant and outlined in chapter 13 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. titled “Of Repentance unto Life.” ↩︎
  4. Johannes Wollebius, “Compendium Theologiae Christianae,” in Reformed Dogmatics, trans. and ed. by John W. Beardslee III (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1965), 173. ↩︎
  5. John Owen. “On the Mortification of Sin,” in The Works of John Owen, vol. 6, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 6–7; emphasis added. ↩︎
  6. Eph. 2:5Rom. 8:10–11John 6:63Acts 26:18Eph. 1:17–18, and Eze. 36:27. Also see Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 10, “On Effectual Calling.” ↩︎
  7. Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 146. ↩︎
  8. John Owen, “On the Mortification of Sin,” in The Works of John Owen, vol. 6, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 9. ↩︎

Rev. Charles Williams is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at The University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland, and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article appeared in TABLETALK MAGAZINE.

Covering topics including Faith and RepentanceRegeneration, & Sin.