CultureWatch

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Let’s Talk About Death For a While

May 31, 2010

I was mortified recently to read a book which actually had an entire chapter dealing with mortification (pun intended). When is the last time you have heard the word ‘mortify’? Mortification is a term which has pretty much landed on the theological ash heap lately.

The term simply means to put to death. It is a fully biblical term, but churches today do not want to discuss such matters. They are much more interested in telling people what they want to hear, like how to prosper and succeed, or how to lose weight for Jesus.

But reminding people that a major feature of the Christian life is putting self to death, and dying to our sin, is not quite what most believers want to hear nowadays. No wonder that the biggest churches today tend to be those which seldom talk about denying self, crucifying self, and saying no to self.

The book I just referred to is J. I. Packer’s God’s Words (IVP, 1981) which has been recently re-issued as 18 Words (Christian Focus, 2007). In this helpful volume the veteran theologian looks at 18 key theological terms. One of them is mortification.

He says this about the term: “More Christlikeness of character is the only sure sign of spiritual progress, and without mortification that can hardly be. Mortifying sin is one of the first things that we must learn to put first in our life with God.”

The Bible has plenty to say about this topic. Consider just one passage, which ties in the twin truths that mortification is something that God does, but it is also something that we must do. Col. 3:1-6 puts it this way:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.”

As Marianne Meye Thompson reminds us, “the imperative ‘put to death’ is a violent image. . . . What is called for here is nothing less than death; death to one way of living and being in the world in order to live by a new power and for a new master.”

Any true Christian should know what all this is referring to. The New Testament speaks plenty about death, and how newness of life only comes as we die to self. But sadly much of Western Christianity today wants nothing to do with such talk, and everything to do with pleasing self, gratifying self, and indulging self.

But all the great saints, beginning with Jesus and the disciples, knew about the vital importance of mortification, of putting to death the self with all its carnal ambitions. Jesus made this quite clear when he said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

Paul could also put it this way, “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13). Or as he says in Gal 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

All the great saints knew of and gloried in the blessed truths of mortification and the cruciform life. In his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer made this renowned remark: “The cross is laid on every Christian. . . . When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Of course another great saint of God who knew much about the urgent need to proclaim death to self and the cross of Christ was A.W. Tozer. A few quotes from him can never go astray:

The cross “was an instrument of death. Slaying men was its only function.”

“The cross is rough, and it is deadly, but it is effective.”

“We must do something about the cross, and one of two things only we can do – flee it or die upon it.”

“It is never fun to die. To rip through the dear and tender stuff of which life is made can never be anything but deeply painful. Yet that is what the cross did to Jesus and it is what the cross would do to every man to set him free.”

“Millions take for granted that it is possible to live for Christ without first having died with Christ. This is a serious error and we dare not leave it unchallenged.”

“You knew one thing about a man who was carrying a cross out of the city… you knew he wasn’t coming back.”

“In every Christian’s heart there is a cross and a throne, and the Christian is on the throne till he puts himself on the cross; if he refuses the cross he remains on the throne. Perhaps this is at the bottom of the backsliding and worldliness among gospel believers today. We want to be saved but we insist that Christ do all the dying. No cross for us, no dethronement, no dying. We remain king within the little kingdom of Mansoul and wear our tinsel crown with all the pride of a Caesar; but we doom ourselves to shadows and weakness and spiritual sterility.”

Today many churches are telling believers that it is OK to coddle self, pamper self, promote self and satiate self. The biblical message has always been just the opposite: ‘die to self’ is the command we hear over and over. The Christian life is always and only the crucified life.

Until we learn to say no to self and yes to God, we will never know spiritual breakthroughs. Indeed, until we agree with God that the best thing we can do is put self to death, we will never properly begin on the Christian journey which God intends for us.

Above all else, we must get back to the cross. As D.A. Carson says in his new book Scandalous, “Everything that we know and appreciate and praise God for in all Christian experience both in this life and in the life to come springs from this bloody cross”.

Yes the cross is all about death. But the only way to life is through death. It is time we reminded ourselves of this most important of Christian truths. As Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).

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5 Responses to Let’s Talk About Death For a While

  • Dear Bill, thank you for deeper life teaching. Why is it reserved for annual conventions, when needed urgently?
    I clambered up an Egyptian pyramid in WW11 to discover handfuls of wheat alongside the mummy. If planted, even at 60% result 60 grains would produce 1.2 trillion grains wheat in 6 years. Wasted potential. So with believers.
    If crucified with Christ, our resentment, self-love, recognition seeking, bitterness would dissolve in His all-conquering death. Our excuses, lack of vision, limited trust would be resolved in His resurrection life. Galatians 2;20, as you gave, is the theme of my study this Lord’s Day. It will appear in MP3 form on website.
    http://www.biblestories.stellaris.com.au
    Where are our bible colleges and theological schools with these mighty truths? Persecution, economic trembling needed?
    Harrold Steward

  • John Owen is the real man on Mortification – he has an entire book on it (introduction by Packer)
    http://www.booko.com.au/books/isbn/9781857921076

    Great stuff, keep it up.
    We just had some “kick-butt” sermons on Col 2 and 3 recently.

    Malcolm Davey

  • Thanks Malcolm

    Yes you are certainly right about John Owen.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I think to be fair that the reason many Christians in recent times have stressed fulfillment and joy in this life is that they are reacting against accusations that Christianity is anti-life, anti-body, and all about being grim, and that it might be dualist. Thus many bishops and suchlike have been keen to stress, for example, that sex is a wonderful thing, which God created (not a product of the Fall/sin). In the not-so-distant past, Church leaders were a bit negative and prudish. But, absolutely right, Bill, in what you say about mortification, and we certainly have to get well away from a concept of churchianity which makes the faith into (as I put it, on my website) “Something Nice for Me”.
    John Thomas, UK

  • Bill, I suppose the comment – “Millions take for granted that it is possible to live for Christ without first having died with Christ.” is mutually exclusive, you really cannot live for Christ unless you have died with Christ because living for him essentially means that you have to put to death your way and live to his way. Also to Harold Steward – you might have known my father as he did exactly the same thing at the same time. 6th Division AIF.
    Steve Davis

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