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The Nature of Mortification

Last week we began a look at what it means to mortify one’s sin. Borrowing heavily from John Owen’s writings on the mortification of sin, I tried to highlight the necessity of it. In the words of Owen, if we are not actively killing sin, sin will be killing us.

So what is the nature of mortification or this work we are to be about? A helpful way to go about answering this question is to be clear about what mortification of sin is not. Once again, we will let Owen do much of the speaking.

First of all, mortification of sin is not the utter destruction of sin. We aim at this and one day, when we are glorified will experience it, but it is not an expected end in this life. In thinking about his future resurrection and glorification, Paul says, “not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil. 3:12)

Mortification is also not the dissimulation (or becoming unlike) of a sin. Hypocrites are like whitewashed tombs, nice looking on the outside, but inside are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness (Matthew 23:27).

“When a man on some outward respects forsakes the practice of any sin, men may look on him as a changed man. God knows that to his former iniquity he has added cursed hypocrisy, and is now on a safer path to hell than he was before.” (p.70)

Mortification is not the cultivation of a quiet, sedate nature. Many who are quiet and not overly excitable may appear to have great control over their actions. This does not necessarily equate to great control over sin.

“Let now these men cultivate and improve their natural frame and temper* by discipline, consideration, and prudence, and they may seem to themselves and others very mortified men, when, perhaps, their hearts are a standing sink of all abominations.” (p.70) * disposition

Many who seek to be rid of sin, do not actually deal with it, but divert themselves in various ways from it. Seeking relief in diversion is not the mortification of sin, but very often the exchange of one sin for another.

“He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others, let him not think that he has mortified the sin that he seems to have left. He has changed his master, but is a servant still.” (p. 71)

It is wonderfully true that we can make headway against our sin. Real headway is not found, however, in pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and through diligence and determination entering into sin less often. Mortification is not found in the occasional conquest over sin.

[In response to…] some eruption of actual sin – carefulness, indignation, desire, fear, revenge, are all set on work about it and against it, and lust is quiet for a season, being run down before them; but when the hurry is over and the inquest past, the thief appears again alive, and is as busy as ever at his work.” (p.72)

So, then, what is the nature of this mortification of sin? Having looked at what it is not, we are in a better frame of mind to understand what it is. First, it is a habitual weakening of sin. It is sin that is losing its appeal. In trying to determine if sin is being weakened, it is not helpful to compare yourself with others. What may be a struggle for one may not be a struggle for another. Also, just because another may not struggle with objective, easily seen sin, he may struggle with a wealth of more hidden sins. Look to your own self to see if your sin is being habitually weakened.

Also, mortification consists in a constant fighting and contending against sin. The first thing to realize is that we have an enemy that will seek to destroy us. Our sin, with or without the machinations of Satan, will seek to bring us down. So we need to consider the ways our sins have prevailed in the past so as to work at preventing them in the future. Readiness has to be the continual stance of our warfare. Let us not be caught off guard and be surprised when we sin as if it wasn’t expected to rear its ugly head.

Finally, mortification of sin consists in frequent success. Owen says that when a man has brought sin to such a place of death, in both the root and the fruit, and he can with a calm attitude seek out sin and defeat it, he will experience peace all the days of his life and in him is sin truly mortified. Note that he isn’t saying that all instances of the sin is gone, but that it is easy to resist. It is brought to such a place of death that any remaining instances can be defeated.

Are you ready for the work? If you have been coasting or taking a break from the fight, you are being called back into battle. If you are tired of the fight, that is to be expected. How wonderful it would be to put our weapons down and be in glory. If you are discouraged, perhaps you need some more training in how to fight effectively. By what means do we fight? More next week.

* Quotes referenced from: Kapic, K., & Taylor, J. (Eds.). (2006). Overcoming Sin and Temptation. Three Classic Works by John Owen. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.