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The Mortification of Sin (Part 6 of 15)

Last Updated: June 12, 2014

Luke Gilkerson
Luke Gilkerson

Luke Gilkerson has a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MA in Religion. He is the author of Your Brain on Porn and The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality. Luke and his wife Trisha blog at IntoxicatedOnLife.com

“I chose the better part, and was found wanting in the strength to keep to it.”
– Dr. Henry Jekyll

Dr. Jekyll was a benevolent, respectable scientist who learned from a young age to present his best side to the world while repressing his darker impulses. Deeply troubled by his duplicity and wanting some outlet for his sin, he resorted to the field of science to solve his problem. The good doctor created an experimental potion that he hoped would divide the two sides of his personality.

Taking the potion, Dr. Jekyll was transfigured both physically and emotionally. Inside he felt lighter, younger, unencumbered by conscience with no regard for morality. Outwardly his face looked sickly and deformed, colored with evil. This wicked persona he named Edward Hyde.

What started as a bizarre experiment turned into a double life. As Dr. Jekyll he carried on his respectable public life. As Mr. Hyde he indulged in every lustful wish. The potion could change him back and forth, and for a while Jekyll enjoyed the sort of freedom this afforded him. “I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil,” Jekyll wrote, “and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.”

Sadly, over time Hyde began to emerge as the dominant personality, surfacing more and more without use of the potion. As Hyde became more reckless and less discreet with his evil, Jekyll felt he must prevent Hyde from rearing his ugly face. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not control the demon caged within him.

As Hyde became more difficult to conceal, and as his sins became more sinister and harmful, Jekyll was dismayed when he discovered his potion no longer had the original potency to keep his evil persona under control. Jekyll hated the monster he had become. In his final account he wrote,

I could have screamed aloud; I sought with tears and prayers to smother down the crowd of hideous images and sounds with which my memory swarmed against me; and still, between the petitions, the ugly face of my iniquity stared into my soul.

In complete despair, and fearful of the punishment that awaited Hyde for his crimes, Jekyll took the only course he felt left to him and committed suicide.

A Tale of Two Sinners

In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson uses science fiction to paint a vivid picture of duality: the battleground in the soul between good and evil. Jekyll foolishly believes the best way for him to deal with the evil within is to manage it, quarantine it, hide it, hoping Jekyll and Hyde could peacefully co-exist.

The book accurately portrays the nature of human evil in the character of Edward Hyde. He is what we all might be if unencumbered by social restraints and conscience. The book also accurately portrays the losing battle we all have with evil. Despite Jekyll’s hatred of Hyde’s ways, he cannot seem to be rid of him. As soon Jekyll’s guard is down, Hyde comes back with a vengeance.

The good news for Christians is there is a way to be rid of Hyde: he must be killed.

Putting Sin to Death

Over the last several weeks we have been looking at John Owen’s classic work, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. Throughout the book, Owen explains Paul’s words, “For 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” (Romans 8:13).

  • In the first chapter of Owen’s book, he explains that true believers must put to death the inward inclinations to sin, knowing that God promises fullness of life.
  • In chapter two, Owen stresses the volatile and harmful nature of sin itself, showing that indwelling sin is an active force and is always working to achieve maximum evil in our lives.
  • In chapter three, Owen teaches the only way to mortify sin is by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by human willpower or behavioral modification.
  • In chapter four, Owen shows how a lack of mortification of sin robs the soul of spiritual vigor, comfort, and peace.

What Mortification Is Not

In chapter five, Owen seeks to answer this critical question:

Suppose a man be a true believer, and yet finds in himself a powerful indwelling sin, leading him captive to the law of it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing his thoughts, weakening his souls as to duties of communion, and exposing him to hardening through the deceitfulness of sin, what shall he do?

In order to slay sin, we first must be clear on what killing sin is not.

1. Mortification is not the utter destruction of sin.

Whatever we might say about a Christian’s freedom from sin in this life, we can confidently affirm that nothing parallels the freedom we will experience in the age to come. When the final age dawns the devil will be cast away forever, our earthly bodies will be renewed, and the world will be full of the glory of God. Until that day, we wage a constant war with sin.

The apostle Paul defined for us the essence of Christian maturity (Philippians 3:15): knowing we are not yet perfect (v.12), and longing for complete transformation (v.21), we nonetheless press on to become just like Christ (v.12). This is the holy tension of the Christian life: we aim for that which we know we will not attain in this life.

Knowing this guards us against a false sense of failure in the task of mortifying sin. In this life we aim for the total destruction of sin, but when sin still calls to us or stirs in us, we remember the final consummation of the kingdom is yet to come. The continued presence of temptation and our attraction to it does not mean we are failing in our mortification. Owen positively states, “Now, though doubtless there may, by the Spirit and the grace of Christ, a wonderful success and eminency of victory against any sin be attained, so that a man may have almost constant triumph over it, yet an utter killing and destruction of it, that it should not be, is not in this life to be expected.”

2. Mortification is not merely outward behavioral change.

There are many who seek only external changes in their lives. This is not putting sin to death. The root of sin is in the heart, and mortification seeks at nothing less than a heart-change. When we seek to change only our outward behavior, we are being cunning, not holy. “When a man on some outward respects forsakes the practice of any sin,” Owen warns, “men perhaps may look on him as a changed man. God knows that to his former iniquity he has added cursed hypocrisy, and is now on a safer path to hell than he was before.”

3. Mortification is not having a quiet and sedate personality.

Some people are simply more even-tempered than others: they are not known for great impatience or having a short wick. Owen warns, people with this natural temperament may seem to be mortifying sin, “when, perhaps, their hearts are a standing sink of all abominations.” It is quite possible to be “nice” and still be filled with unbelief, envy, or some other socially respectable or easily hidden sins. The improvement of one’s naturally kind personality is not mortification.

4. Mortification is not the diversion of sin.

It is possible for someone to become convicted about a particular sin in his life and guard against it, keeping it from ever rising again. But because the heart is still unchanged, the same lust will erupt through some other vent. Sin is not killed when it is merely diverted in a new direction.

Owen calls this the “bartering of lusts,” leaving one sin to serve another. He likens this to the healing of a sore, assuming the infection is gone because the skin has healed, only to have the infection resurface somewhere else. “He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others, let him not think that he has mortified the sin that he seems to have left. He has changed his master, but is a servant still.”

5. Mortification is not occasional and superficial conquests over sin.

When sin rises up in us, one of two things typically drive us to fight it: (1) the sin itself disturbs our quiet conscience, or (2) some consequence or temporal judgment from God makes us realize the seriousness of our sin. Owen describes how we typically react in the face of these stark reminders:

This awakens and stirs up all that is in the man, and amazes him, fills him with all abhorrency of sin and himself for it; sends him to God, makes him cry out as for life, to abhor his lust as hell and to set himself against it. The whole man, spiritual and natural, being now awakened, sin shrinks in its head, appears not, and lies as dead before him.

But, as Owen explains it, sin is like a sniper who strikes at opportune moments. After he attacks, our consciences awaken like guards roused from their slumber after an assassination. We believe the assassin has been scared away because of the tumult in our souls. But he is only hiding. Sin is content to hide for a day that he might strike again. Sin has not been mortified when it merely plays dead.

Dr. Henry Jekyll would have resonated with these ideas. Even in his best moments and in times of most sincere repentance, he had in himself an “unconscious reservation.” After months of sobriety, Jekyll’s resolve would erode. He writes,

But time began at last to obliterate the freshness of my alarm; the praises of conscience began to grow into a thing of course; I began to be tortured with throes and longings, as of Hyde struggling after freedom; and at last, in an hour of moral weakness, I once again compounded and swallowed the transforming draught.

The Israelites are a perfect example of this seemingly serious yet superficial killing of sin:

In spite of all this, they still sinned;
despite his wonders, they did not believe.
So he made their days vanish like a breath,
and their years in terror.
When he killed them, they sought him;
they repented and sought God earnestly.
They remembered that God was their rock,
the Most High God their redeemer.
But they flattered him with their mouths;
they lied to him with their tongues.
Their heart was not steadfast toward him;
they were not faithful to his covenant.
(Psalm 78:32-37)

True mortification is not marked merely by moments of repentance, earnest prayer, or seasons of revival. There is something more that is needed.

Questions for Personal or Group Reflection:

1. Have you ever felt a sense of guilt based on an expectation of sinless perfection in yourself?

2. Have you ever “repented” of a sin only later to find out that your repentance was superficial?

3. Have you ever “bartered” your lusts? Have you extinguished one particular sin only to later find that the root of it was never dealt with? How did that root resurface in your life?

. . . .

Read all the posts in this series:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, and Part 15

  • Comments on: The Mortification of Sin (Part 6 of 15)
    1. You are so right when you say that the hart must change or the lust will return and the satisfaction of that lust will over-rule any superficial desires of the heart. God truly can lead us to a consistent position of seeking and celebrating His will.

      God Bless,


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