Clarification on Mortification

Last week I treated a short section of John Owen’s work The Mortification of Sin. Without seeking to go through the entire work, I wanted to follow it up with another post or two on other portions that I have especially found helpful.

I, as others, have found Owen’s treatment deeply insightful and purifying with respect to my own heart motivations. Here are two recommendations from influential authors.

John Owen’s treatises on Indwelling Sin in Believers and The Mortification of Sin are, in my opinion, the most helpful writings on personal holiness ever written.” —Jerry Bridges, author of The Pursuit of Holiness

I owe more to John Owen than to any other theologian, ancient or modern; and I owe more to [The Mortification of Sin] than to anything else he wrote.” —J.I. Packer

In speaking of this subject, it is important to review the meaning of mortification.  Mortify means to put to death.  Our calling as believers is to put to death our sin.  In Romans 6:13, Paul  commands, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts.”  So we must be crucifying the flesh or be engaged in the work of mortification as Christians. Yet, as Owen points out, there is a difficulty in this. We can think we are mortifying our sin when we are not.  So we need to clarify what we do not mean about mortifying sin.  In the next article, I will summarize some more of what Owen teaches about the proper means of mortifying sin.

Avoid False Forms of Mortification

Sin is deceitful, and like a camouflaged enemy it can sneak around disguised as godliness.  True believers can deceive themselves into thinking they have mortified sin when in reality they are encouraging its further development.  Owen points this out masterfully, and I have sought to boil his thoughts down under five headings of false forms of mortification.

Complete deliverance. Some believe that we can achieve total sanctification this side of heaven. Often this is called the “second blessing” or the “doctrine of perfection.”  Often accompanying explanations of this teaching are descriptions of wrongdoings as “mistakes” or “misunderstandings” rather than sin. The translation of Galatians 5:24, which says “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires,” have led some to that understanding with its perfect tense.  Yet instead the tense of this verse refers to a definitive act begun at salvation that will have a definite conclusion.  Mortification has begun but it has not ended in the life of the believer. The Bible is clear when we will become pure.  It will be when we see Christ (I John 3:2-3).  If somehow we think the root of sin is completely removed in us in our salvation, or if we pride ourselves in the progression of holiness we make, then we have already been overcome by sin again.

Masking sin’s presence. It is not mortifying sin or crucifying the flesh to hide sin from others’ view. We can seek to encourage ourselves that we are being godly merely because others do not see our lustful longings, our greedy ways, or our prayerless lives.  Then we can come into the house of God and speak of the evil out in the world or pray with great passion in the hearing of others, like the parable of the pharisee and tax collector Jesus told (Luke 18:9-14).  This is not godliness or mortification, but hypocrisy.

Improving your temperament. Christians are supposed to be peaceful. Further, men are to be gentle; women are to be quiet; children are to be respectful.  Some in the church become quite practiced and adept at having a temperament befitting a Christian around other believers. They become quite pleased at how well they can get along with other Christians; how agreeable they can be in the presence of others.  Yet inwardly their hearts rage with anger, or envy, or lust. Do not let outer peace with others or comments about your pleasant manner deceive you into thinking you do not have to fight this battle within.  Being nice outwardly does not win ugly wars inwardly.

Replacing a vice. I recall on one occasion years ago in going door-to-door in evangelism that I came upon a group of folks on a front porch. I soon found out it was an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) group.  As I sought to share the gospel, they all began to tout how long it had been since they had last been drunk (which in most of their cases had not been all that long), and they were cursing and smoking and touting other exploits as they did.  They thought overcoming the vice of drunkenness for a time excused these other vices, and they would have nothing to do with the Christ who could deliver them from all sins.

We can do the same in a thousand, more subtle ways.  We can speak so well of one brother then turn and skewer him in a moment of time.  We can feel good in avoiding gluttony by pushing away the extra doughnut then fill our minds with the trash of a movie.  As Owen offers, “Simon Magnus left his sorcery, but he still practiced covetousness and ambition.”  That is not mortification.  It has more to do with shaky accounting – trying to cover one debt with another asset – than with holiness.  In God’s economy, none of our debts can be covered by a good work.

Occasional conquest. When our sins erupt, and we see the brother or sister hurt by them, or experience an unpleasant consequence as a result, the pain our sin has caused or the fear of judgment we have received will cause us to use our natural powers to contain it for a time. We do not want the scandal of the sin upon our reputation. So we employ natural abilities to overcome some of the effects of sin for a time.  For a while we make sin shrink in its head like a turtle in a shell, waiting for a safer time to re-emerge.  When we forget the dread, that same sin pops out once again. We can have chopped off  the bad fruit of our sin for a time, but we have not gotten down to the hard business of cutting out the root of the tree. I once saw a power shovel push over an unwanted tree, then scoop it out by the roots underneath.  So we must seek the Lord’s help to tear out sin by its roots.

These tendencies to employ false mortification remind us that we must avoid the mistake of Israel in the wilderness as recorded in Psalm 78:34-37:

When He killed them, then they sought Him, and returned and searched diligently for God; and they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer.  But they deceived Him with their mouth and lied to Him with their tongue.  For their heart was not steadfast toward Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant.”

Next time we’ll look at how to be more faithful in our mortification.

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