As we have considered mortifying sin, or putting it to death, as taught by John Owen, we first looked at how the law awakens sin so we can address it in Christ and then clarified what is meant by killing sin by warning against mortification’s false forms. In this final post on this subject, I want to bring out another important aspect Owen treats regarding overcoming sin. Mortification is a hopeless business without the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, the pattern of gospel living Jesus and the apostles set before us is that we are not only to put sin to death but also live unto righteousness. Just as Christ died and then was raised, so we are daily to die to sin and live in obedience to Christ. As Paul told the Ephesians:
But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:20-24).
The putting off the old self is mortification; the putting on of the new self is know as vivification. You cannot do the one without the other, as they are two sides of the same gospel coin. For instance, as Paul further instructs in this fourth chapter of Ephesians, it is not suitable for a thief to simply stop stealing. He must also learn to work and provide for others (see Eph. 4:28). This dual-nature work of God in the life of the believer is known as sanctification, and in the catechism answer on what sanctification is we can see both mortification and vivification are present. “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC 36).
Both mortification and vivification are the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. As Paul states, “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13; see also Rom. 8:4; Gal. 5:16-25; II Thes. 2:13). So how does the Spirit of God work in vivification? Here are at least five ways.
The Holy Spirit regenerates and renews us. Titus 3:5-6 states, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” Only by the Spirit bringing to life our dead hearts and then renewing them each day is it possible for us to live the life to which God calls us.
The Holy Spirit convicts of sin. The third person of the Trinity hates sin. So when you sin, he groans within you. He convicts your conscience of your wrong doing. He can withdraw spiritual strength from you to grab your attention. He presses the word of God on you. If Christ could not stand idolatrous money changers in the temple, then know that the Spirit cannot stand idolatry in the sanctuary of your heart or the greater temple that is God’s church. He will bring us to see the truth of Paul’s declaration. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).
The Holy Spirit aids and comforts us. Jesus called the Holy Spirit our helper (John 14:16-17; 16:7-15). He shows us how to live in righteousness. He brings to mind eternity and the day of judgment. When the guilt and the shame of sin strike us, he reminds us of the provision of Christ at Calvary. As an illustration, in marriage the wife is called by God to be the helper to her husband (Gen. 2:18). How I am reminded everyday of how much help I need that my wife provides. For instance, if it were not for my wife, I’d never make it dressed in proper outfits to work or church and I would eat so very poorly. She encourages me and helps me in everything I do for the sake of my family and the kingdom, and lifts me up when I am down. In the same way, the Spirit of the Lord encourages us onward in the ways of the kingdom. He reminds us constantly that we are the beloved children of the Father who will inherit his kingdom (Rom. 8:15-17).
The Holy Spirit moves us to pray and even intercedes for us. Prayer is breathing out your requests to God. Just as before you breathe out from your lungs (or expire), you must first breathe in (or inspire), so every time we pray that is the Spirit prompting us and filling our souls with a sense of need from God. As the psalmist cries out to God, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, give ear to my supplications!” and “Answer me quickly, O Lord, my spirit fails; do not hide your face from me, or I will become like those who go down to the pit,” he also prays, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; let your good Spirit lead me on level ground” (Psa. 143:1,7,10). When we are so overwhelmed with the brokenness of this sin-cursed world that we do not even know how to pray, we are even assured that our groanings that are too deep for words are the Spirit’s work and intercession on our behalf (Rom. 8:26-27).
The Holy Spirit strengthens us to live in Christ’s righteousness. As Owen writes, “The actual aid, assistance and internal operation of the Spirit of God is necessary, required, and granted unto the producing of every holy act of our minds, wills and affection, in every duty whatsoever.” Recall that the righteous living described at the end of Galatians 5 – the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – are described as the fruit of the Spirit. Only he can produce this as the believer sets his mind on the things of the Spirit. Any act apart from the Spirit is a fleshly deed not worthy of Christ.
Without the Spirit of God, there would be neither mortification nor vivification in the life of the believer.