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When Genevieve told Liz she was wearing her blouse inside-out, Liz was mortified. The verb mortify comes from a Latin word for death, so it fits Liz: she wanted to die. Nowadays we rarely use the word in any other sense than this common shame felt by teenagers. But, once upon a time, believers used “mortify” and its noun mortification to name our duty to put sin to death (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5). And if we sweep away the cobwebs, mortification turns out to be a refreshing perspective on the Christian life — a helpful angle on what it means to follow Jesus. In other words, you can think of any biblical duty or practice in terms of mortification. 

Let’s test my theory. Start at the top: What if we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? Surely the more we love God, the more sin shrinks. The second test is like the first: Love your neighbor as yourself and selfishness fades. Keep going: Honor your father and mother and you starve your hunger to rebel. Consider a sister’s needs before your own and your pride dies. Rejoice in the wife of your youth and dull the itch to rejoice in your neighbor’s wife. Share your wealth with a struggling friend and greed recedes. Because of this I can no more imagine a healthy Christian life without mortification than I can imagine a one-sided coin.

You might suggest, “If I can’t avoid mortifying the flesh when I live faithfully, then why not simply focus on faith, hope, and love, and let mortification happen — a more positive approach?” True, if we increase in faith, hope, and love, sin withers. Yet God says plainly that he wants us to put sin to death (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5) — a calling that requires focus (Rom. 8:5–8). The lens of mortification helps us target specific sins and more directly weaken, wound, and even slay them. Think of how you nurture your lawn: weed and feed. Feeding your lawn is cultivating faith, hope, and love; weeding it is finding a dandelion of sin and yanking it out by the taproot.

Even so, some think of mortification as elective surgery, as if the doctor said that you could go your whole life without it, though you might experience some discomfort. On this assumption some weigh the supposed benefits of mortifying sin against the obvious hard work it would be, and decide the payoff is too small. They might declare themselves “carnal Christians,” punch their tickets for heaven, and hurry on their eat-drink-and-be-merry ways.

But consider this: “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” (Rom. 8:13); “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself” (1 John 3:3); and “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (1 John 3:9). This operation is not elective; no one who hopes to live in God can decline it.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not making mortification a way to justify ourselves. I’d be a heretic if I did, and a fool to boot. What I have in mind is more like this: mortification is something the life of God does in us. Being born of God makes us new creatures living new lives in the Spirit — and an essential aspect of that new life is dealing deathblows to remaining sin. We don’t kill the flesh to win salvation; we must be born again before we can lift a finger against sin. “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body….”

Other articles this month will help sharpen our focus on mortification, but let’s start with some snapshots of our struggle against the flesh to begin to train our hands for war.

Mortification is exasperating. We learn this first, and it so baffles us that it can challenge the foundation of our hope. But listen to our kindred spirit Paul: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). Is Paul describing here his life in or out of Christ? I’m convinced he is bemoaning a thorn that pierced his Christian heart, not because he perfectly characterizes the confusion of my soul, or because every believer I’ve ever known has the same complaint, but because such vexation only makes sense for someone born of God. Paul told the Galatians that what kept them from doing the things they wanted to do was a war between their flesh and the Spirit within them (5:17). In fact, only slaves of sin are free from this struggle (Rom. 6:20).

We expect that because we have the Spirit living in us, sin should not so often get the upper hand. Confused and frustrated, we question God’s work in us. Our expectations need to be reset by Paul’s: yes, the flesh has no dominion over us (Rom. 6:14), and it will be completely driven from us (Rom. 7:24) — but not till we are glorified with Christ; so we must struggle to the end of our days to purify ourselves (1 John 3:2–3). Ironically, the struggle itself assures us we are born of God.

Mortification is premeditated. I started to say contemplative — that implies deep thought and sounds spiritual. But I wanted to suggest the idea of murder, as in “with malice aforethought.” Someone bent on killing his flesh must be thoughtful the way an assassin is thoughtful, studying the habits of the target to plot his destruction. Because our hearts are deceitful (Jer. 17:9), our only hope is to prepare our minds for action (1 Peter 1:13) and be as watchful against the wiles of the flesh as we are against Satan (1 Peter 5:8)

Just as we search the Scriptures to know God, we should meditate on ourselves to know our sin. We all have different chinks in our armor. For example, I’ve never been tempted to get drunk — my pleasure in wine extends only to communion and an occasional glass of tawny port with a friend. But I have learned over the years that when I’m drained or stressed, I’m a land mine — the least provocation can set me off, and I thunder at my wife and children. Knowing this, I can now cut the flesh off at the pass. When I snap at my beloved for no good reason, I check myself — am I tired? Am I stressed? And when I’m paying attention to the Spirit, I confess I’m edgy and need some rest before we talk. Such lessons aren’t learned without scars.

Mortification is radical. My team at work tests factory software before it goes into production. Factory failures are expensive, so when something slips past us we investigate in order to implement preventive actions — we can’t afford the same mess again. And we know that we have to find the root cause. If we don’t dig deep, we end up playing Whack-a-Mole, hammering one bug only to see three more pop up.

Such mortification may result from ignorance — not knowing how to look past symptoms to more profound sources of sin — or from spiritual laziness. When Paul says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10), he implies that there are other roots of evil, and that one root can produce different evils. For example, a boy’s lack of self-control in front of the cookie jar may grow into a man’s lack of self-control in front of his computer screen. If we don’t identify these roots, we can’t dig them up; and if we don’t get sin out by the root — well, I hope you have read The Little Prince, and you know about the baobab trees: “A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late.”

Mortification is collaborative. Private prayer and meditation are essential — but if they were our only weapons against the flesh, we would be outgunned. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him” (Gal. 6:1). Paul doesn’t mean “if anyone is caught red-handed” — he means “if anyone is trapped, mired in the quicksand of sin.” Sooner or later we all get entangled; sometimes we can’t get untangled unless we humbly confess our sin to a brother.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew the power of mutual confession and explored it in Life Together, building on James 5:16. He understood how a man alone with his sin could privately repent and confess his sins to God over and over, year after year, and never weaken its grip. But if he dared to drag his sin into the light before a trusted brother in Christ, it would shrivel and die. Hearing each other’s confession is one way we bear each other’s heaviest burdens (Gal. 6:2).

In the end God will deliver us from this exasperating “body of death” (Rom. 7:24–25). Till then, by the Spirit, let’s wage this war — this premeditated, radical, and collaborative holy war — with malice aforethought.  

Fire and Rain

The Practice of Mortification

Keep Reading The Mortification of Sin

From the January 2007 Issue
Jan 2007 Issue