We’ve begun considering words of the faith that have been discarded as passé (see here). We return to the verbal bone yard to scrounge about in the pile of discarded words that at one time were filled with meaning for previous generations of believers. The broom of trendy theology has swept some of these words under a rug of embarrassment or obsolescence. I am suggesting that in so doing we may have actually impoverished ourselves.
I want to bring before you the word mortification. Our English word came, through Old French, from a Latin compound word: mors (“death”) + the root of facere (“to make”). Thus the basic connotation of mortification is to make dead.
I reached to my bookshelves and laid hold of seven heavy systematic theology works which I’ve used often over the years. I found that not one of them listed mortification in their subject index. The word is not to be found in my newest Bible encyclopedia. I finally found a brief reference in the older, “dated” Bible encyclopedia that the publishers have since abandoned and entirely rewritten. Why has this word been ignored and what are we missing in its absence?
I realize the word is somewhat archaic, yet it represents clear teaching of Scripture. Paul wrote, “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). Similarly, he commanded, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). The Apostle told the Galatian believers, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).
Sadly, some have misused and abused this word in the Name of Christ. Some have taught that we must inflict our bodies with pain through abuse, hoping to break the power of “the flesh” and to put us in touch with our spirit. Wrong. That is pagan thinking, not Christian truth. Paul dealt with such folks and their thinking: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ [regulations and rules designed to inflict pain to make us “holy”]? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:20-23). Such rules know nothing of Biblical mortification. Indeed, Paul says it is precisely because “you died with Christ” (v.20) that you don’t have to resort to such tactics. Others use self-inflicted pain in an attempt to drown out a guilty or wounded conscience. Neither is this what God had in mind, for it is only the blood of Christ that can deliver from such a plague (Heb. 9:14).
The most concise way I know to explain mortification is this:
- You must KNOW a fact that is true: When Christ died, you [the old you, the unredeemed, sin-enslaved you] died as well. Read Romans 6:1-10 and note the word “know” (vv.3, 6, 9).
- You must COUNT this fact to be true for you personally (Romans 6:11).
- You must OFFER yourself entirely in submission to Jesus Christ (Romans 6:12-14, note the word “offer” 2x in v.13).
- You must now, as a slave of Christ, rise and OBEY God’s commands by faith. (Romans 6:15-23, note the words “obey” twice in v.16 and “obeyed” in v.17).
Romans 6 describes victory over sin’s power. But Romans 7 chronicles ongoing struggle with indwelling sin. How can we possibly obey, even in light of the steps of Romans 6? Romans 8 provides the answer. We obey through the provision of the Holy Spirit. Look carefully again at what Paul says: “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).
What is mortification? It is, by the strength God’s indwelling Spirit provides, counting as true for you what He says is true—the old unredeemed you has died with Christ and the power of your sinful nature has been broken (Rom. 6:6). It is, in light of this fact now reckoned to be true for you, offering yourself entirely to Jesus Christ as His slave and then rising, in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, and doing whatever it is you know to be the will of God. In this the Holy Spirit will enable you to “put to death” all that relates to your sinful nature. Now you will “make no provision for the flesh” (Rom. 13:14). Now you will “Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly” (Col. 3:16). Now you will have the power to say “No!” when temptation comes (1 Cor. 10:13).
It will not be easy, but it is now possible! It will not be immediate; it is a growth process. You won’t be instantly perfect. But as you, in this way, walk in faith, you mortify the power and works of your sinful nature. And in this way you will begin—one step at a time, day-by-day, moment-by-moment—to live a different quality of life.
If you’d like to consider the matter of mortification further, perhaps the most recognizable work on the subject is Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers by the Puritan John Owen (1616-1683). You may download the book in its entirety for free here.
You could do worse for some new reading material. After all, it won’t kill you.