How do you deal with plaguing sins that all of us have, none of us wants, and all of us regret?
John Owen, in his great work, Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers, wrote, “The vigour, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.” Our spiritual strength and our comfort depend, Owen shows, on mortifying sin in our lives. But what in the world does “mortify” mean?
Mortify is not a word that modern Christians hear much. (Other than when asked to share their most embarrassing moment.) “Vexing embarrassment” is the most common usage of the word today but that is not what Owen had in mind. (But embarrassment over sin, for some, might be a good start!)
Owen used mortify in the now “obsolete” sense of destroying the strength, vitality or functioning of someone or something. (Merriam-Webster’s 11th ed.) This is a very biblical work. The author of Hebrews exhorted his readers to, “…lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Heb. 12:1). Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13). He exhorted the Colossian Christians, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (Col 3:5)
One way that doesn’t work ~ Mere Moralistic Mortification
Moralistic mortification works on the principle of outside in. Just say no! Gut it up and don’t just do it! It is an attempt to shrink sin by pushing back against the behaviors. To encourage this work, the danger, folly, and sinfulness of the behavior is hammered into the sinner along with energized exhortations or tangible rewards. Pharisees were great at this. Abstinence programs are great at this. But they are not great at actually shrinking sin, (88% of kids who sign abstinence pledges end up having sex), or growing the life of Christ in a person. Thomas Chalmers explains why, “…the grasping tendency of the human heart, [is] that it must have a something to lay hold of—and which, if wrested away without the substitution of another something in its place, would leave a void and a vacancy as painful to the mind as hunger is to the natural system.” (The Expulsive Power of a New Affection) In other words, outside-in moralistic mortification leaves the heart empty and still thirsty. The human heart (or soul) will not and cannot remain empty. Emptying the satisfaction of the bad behavior without filling the heart with something else will leave the person just as hungry and therefore subject to return or to finding new loves. Chalmers puts it this way:
A sensitive being suffers, and is in violence, if, after having thoroughly rested from his fatigue, or been relieved from his pain, he continue in possession of powers without any excitement to these powers; if he possess a capacity of desire without having an object of desire; or if he have a spare energy upon his person, without a counterpart, and without a stimulus to call it into operation.
The Way That Works – Gospel Mortification
The black circle represents the sin in the believer’s life that needs to be mortified or “shrunk” for our vigour and comfort. Gospel mortification takes part of the mere moralistic mortification – noting the danger, folly and sinfulness of sins – but uses them with a different focus and agenda. The picture to the right illustrates that anotherway to “shrink” sin in our life is to expand the life of Christ in us. In the opening heading of his sermon, Chalmers wrote:
A Moralist Will be Unsuccessful in Trying to Displace His Love of the World by Reviewing the Ills of the World. Misplaced Affections Need to be Replaced by the Far Greater Power of the Affection of the Gospel.
He goes on to explain, “…what cannot be thus destroyed, may be dispossest—and one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind.” The author of Hebrews didn’t stop with the exhortations of laying aside weight and sin…he continued, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Lay aside the sin that you love and look to the greater love of Jesus. The principle of gospel mortification would be, give your heart a greater object to love while you are also seeing sin as sin and folly. The heart has to have something to cling to. “Fix your eyes on Jesus…” reads one translation.
Preachers and teachers, please understand that your hearers will love and be devoted to something. If you strip away sins without presenting a greater Object for their hearts, you may have swept the room of one spirit for 7 more to enter a well arranged room (Matthew 12:43-45). As Chalmers explains:
You must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influence, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest and hope and congenial activity as the former.
We must address the eyes of their minds with the glories of Christ. Oh God, grant that we might know the surpassing greatness of the beauty of Christ in our struggle to shrink sin. Grant that we may share Him while we strip sin bare, exposing its folly and danger. Lead us in gospel mortification and help us to serve the Risen King is extolling the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness and into light.