Mortification of Sin

This article is a guest contribution by Peter Kemeny, pastor of Good News Presbyterian Church (A.R.P.) of Frederick, Maryland. It was released in the April 2012 congregational newsletter and is republished here with the kind permission of the author.

Many of us, behind our apparent mastery of life, despair of the small degree of progress we have made in the school of holiness. We groan, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). Why has our growth in Christ-like character been so negligible?

Some attribute our lack of spiritual progress to a failure to believe God’s promises and to abide in Christ (John 15:5). When we “let go and let God,” they say, the Holy Spirit will be unleashed to mature us spiritually. But the Bible teaches that while we should trust Christ to change us, we must not be passive. We must actively “strive” for holiness (Hebrews 12:14), deny ourselves, and seek, by the Spirit of God, to kill the sin that remains in us.

Spiritual growth requires trust in Christ and personal exertion. This is why the apostle Paul, who assures us that God ”works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13) also exhorts, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

Positively, we must use God’s appointed means for spiritual growth (the Word, the sacraments, and prayer). Negatively, we must mortify sin, putting it to death. Sinclair Ferguson describes the mortification of sin as “the constant battle against sin which we fight daily – the refusal to allow the eye to wander, the mind to contemplate, the affections to run after anything that would draw us from Christ. It is the deliberate rejection of any sinful thought, suggestion, desire, aspiration, deed, circumstance or provocation at the moment we become conscious of its existence” (Know Your Christian Life, 143).

Notice how much responsibility Scripture puts on us to resist and fight against sinful desires: “Abstain from the passions of the flesh” (I Peter 2:11). “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Colossians 3:5). “Flee from sexual immorality (I Corinthians 6:18). “By the Spirit…put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13). The revivalist preacher Billy Sunday put it colorfully: “I’m against sin. I’ll kick it as long as I’ve got a foot, and I’ll fight it as long as I’ve got a fist. I’ll butt it as long as I’ve got a head. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. When I’m old and fistless and footless and toothless, I’ll gum it till I go home to glory and it goes home to perdition!” This language of personal exertion and self-denial is not popular in an evangelical culture that promises spiritual growth through three-step fixes and euphoric worship experiences, but it is the only way to true godliness.

Our striving for holiness should include the following practices:

(1) Avoid those situations where you are likely to fall into temptation. If you are tempted to look at pornographic internet sites, then don’t surf the web in solitude. If you are tempted to gorge yourself at the Golden Corral buffet, then go to Panera. If you are inclined to become too physically intimate with your girlfriend or boyfriend, then don’t be alone in their company. Charles Bridges, the nineteenth century English pastor, advised, “It is far more easy to shun the occasion of sin than to shun the sin when the occasion presents it” (Commentary on Proverbs).

(2) When you fall, be quick to confess your sin and receive God’s forgiveness. When you sin, don’t do penance by thinking that you should remain miserable for a certain period of time before confessing it. When overcome by guilt don’t avoid public worship and the fellowship of God’s people. Rather, quickly run to Christ, acknowledging your sin and need of forgiveness. Believe the promise of I John 1:9 that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The nineteenth century Scottish pastor, Robert Murray McCheyne advised, “For every one look at sin take ten looks at Christ.” Rejoice in God’s grace and forgiveness.

(3) Replace your sinful habits with godly habits. In Ephesians 4:22-32 Paul advises Christians not merely to “put off” their sinful behaviors but to replace them with (“put on”) God-honoring behaviors. Paul tells liars not merely to stop lying, but to speak the truth (4:25). He commands thieves not merely to quit stealing, but to work hard and to share generously with others (4:28). He calls those with foul mouths to speak words that are edifying (4:29). He exhorts those who are angry to be kind and forgiving (4:31-32).

(4) Battle against sin with never-ending vigilance. Joel Beeke of Puritan Reformed Seminary tells of a missionary who had a shrub in his garden that bore poisonous leaves. Because he was concerned that his young child might eat one of the leaves, he dug the shrub out of the ground and threw it away. But the roots of the shrub went deep, so in time the shrub would again sprout up through the ground. Repeatedly the missionary had to dig out the sprouting shrub. The only way he could deal with this pesky plant was to inspect the ground and to kill it every time it surfaced. The sin that dwells within us is like that shrub. We must be continually vigilant and ready to uproot it. The Puritan pastor John Owen advised, “We must be exercising [mortification] every day, and in every duty. Sin will not die, unless it be constantly weakened. Spare it, and it will heal its wounds, and recover its strength” (Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 420).

Are you content with an outwardly respectable Christian life, or do you truly desire to reflect the holiness of Christ? Resolve to pursue holiness. During World War II Winston Churchill was asked to explain his strategy against the Nazis. He answered, “You ask what our strategy is. Our strategy is to wage war with all the strength that God gives us.” That should be our strategy as we battle the desires that wage war against our souls.