I would suggest that most believers today would have no clue as to what my title refers to, and if they did, they would be mortified to see me writing about it! But I better begin in the beginning. What do words like mortuary, mortal, post-mortem and mortify share in common? They all come from the Latin root word mort, meaning death.
Theologically speaking, mortification has to do with putting to death sin in the believer’s life. Christians of all people should not be ignorant of this term, even though admittedly newer Bible translations do not use such terminology very much anymore.
Consider a key use of the word (as a verb) in the KJV: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” Romans 8:13. The NIV puts it this way: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
Another use of the older term in the KJV can be found in Colossians 3:4-6: “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience.”
The NIV translates it this way: “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.”
The idea is clear: to put to death sin as we seek to grow in holiness and sanctification. And like sanctification, it is a cooperative effort between the believer and God. One of our great contemporary theologians, J. I. Packer has written on these themes often.
Plenty of his books could be cited here, but an earlier volume of his is well worth noting. I refer to his 18 Words (Christian Focus, 1981, 2008). As the title implies, this brief (200 page) volume examines 18 key theological terms which every believer needs to know and understand.
Thus he discusses terms like ‘revelation,’ ‘sin,’ ‘grace,’ ‘faith,’ and ‘justification’. He has a chapter each on ‘sanctification’ and ‘mortification’. Let me quote from a bit of each, especially emphasising the cooperative nature of these aspects of the Christian life.
As to sanctification and holiness, he notes how these are on the one hand, gifts given to us by God, but on the other, things we are called upon to grow in and exercise. He says this in his chapter on sanctification:
Augustine’s famous prayer, ‘Give what you command, and command what you will,’ expressed a profound insight into biblical theology. God does indeed give what He commands; the holiness which He required of His people is also His gift to them. God Himself sanctifies sinners….
The New Testament makes it clear that this gift has two aspects. The first aspect is relational and positional. In this sense, God sanctifies the sinner once and for ever when He brings them to Himself, separating them from the world, delivering them from sin and Satan, and welcoming them into His fellowship. In this sense, therefore, the meaning of sanctification approximates to that of justification, adoption, and new birth….
The second aspect of the gift is recreative and progressive. In this sense, sanctification is the gracious work of the holy Spirit in the believer throughout his earthly life whereby he grows in grace (1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18; Eph. 4:14f.)….
In this sanctifying work, God calls for our cooperation, as He ‘works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose’ (Phil. 2:13)….
Certainly, holiness is by faith in Jesus – all our strength for holiness must be drawn from Him by faith and prayer, for without him we can do nothing (1 John 15:5ff.) But equally holiness is by effort; for when we have knelt to acknowledge our weakness and ask for help, we are then to stand on our own feet and strive against sin (Heb. 12:4), resist the devil (Jam. 4:7), and fight the good fight of faith (1 Tim. 6:12; cf. Eph. 6:10-18). Holiness is no more by faith without effort than it is by effort without faith. It is important to keep the balance here; it has not always been kept.
And in his chapter on mortification he also writes about this dual action: “It is true that we could not mortify sin by our own unaided efforts; but it is no less true that the Spirit will not mortify sin in us without our co-operation. He will prosper our striving, but He will not bless our sloth. We ourselves, then, must attack sin; and the outcome of the conflict will depend on whether we fight wisely and make good use of our available strength.”
Says Packer “Mortification is war,” His whole chapter on this is well worth reading. And if you do, you will see just how much he is indebted to the Puritans in general, and John Owen in particular. Let me speak briefly about Owen (1616–1683), one of our greatest Puritan theologians.
Carl Trueman said that Owen “was without doubt not only the greatest theologian of the English Puritan movement but also one of the greatest European Reformed theologians of his day, and quite possibly possessed the finest theological mind that England ever produced.”
John Owen spoke much on mortification. One set of his sermons on the topic was published as The Mortification of Sin in 1656. Packer says this about him and the book: “I owe more, I think, to John Owen than to any other theologian, ancient or modern, and I am sure I owe more to his little book on mortification than to anything else he wrote.”
There would be various editions of this great work available. If you have the Christian Focus publication, you will get a terrific 12-page introduction by Packer. Let me quote parts of this for you (although Packer would insist I quote Owen instead!). Packer offers four reasons why today’s Christians seem so oblivious to and uninterested in such things as the mortification of sin:
First, the holiness of God is insufficiently emphasized. In Scripture, and in Owen, the holiness of ‘the holy One’ is constantly underlined…
Second, the significance of motivating desire is in sufficiently emphasized. In Scripture, and in Owen, desire is the index of one’s heart, and the motivation is the decisive test of whether actions are good or bad…
Third, the need for self-scrutiny is insufficiently emphasized. In Scripture, and in Owen, much stress is laid on the deceitfulness of the fallen human heart, and the danger of self-ignorance, with the result that one thinks well of one’s heart and life when God, the Searcher of hearts, is displeased with both…
Fourth, the life-changing power of God is insufficiently emphasized. In Scripture, and in Owen, subjective salvation means in the most literal sense a change of heart: a moral change that is rooted in a sustained exercise of faith, hope and love, whereby the power of Christ’s death to deliver from the domination by sinful desire, and the power of the Holy Spirit to induced Christ-like attitudes and actions are constantly proved.
Mortification may be a forgotten Christian teaching today for most believers, but it is thoroughly biblical and one which we must resurrect if we ever hope to see the church of Jesus Christ become all it is meant to be. Let me conclude with the words of Owen:
“Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”