“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
– Jerry Seinfeld –
According to historian Philippe Aries, Western culture is in the age of “forbidden death.” Unlike previous centuries, the subject of death in our culture is generally avoided, something seen as morbid, something that interrupts our otherwise happy lives. Death is something we prefer to leave up to the experts. People don’t die at home among friends and family, but in hospital beds. Doctors, when they are not healers, are “masters of death,” special practitioners who give dying some level of dignity. Funeral directors are “doctors of grief,” helping the survivors return to normalcy in the shortest possible time. In the 20th century, death replaced sex as the truly taboo and forbidden subject.
But when it comes to sin, we must become comfortable with the language of death—seeing sin as something we need to kill, not pacify. We cannot show sin an ounce of mercy. And like any living organism, sin does not die without a fight. It longs to live, and will not go to the grave quietly.
What Mortification Is
1. True mortification is the weakening of sinful habits.
As we learned last week, true mortification of sin is not merely outward behavioral change. Owen believed mortification was something we do to the very root of sin in us.
This is the folly of some men; they set themselves with all earnestness and diligence against the appearing eruption of lust, but leaving the principle and root untouched, perhaps unsearched out, they make little or no progress in this work of mortification.
Owen understands lust manifests itself as “a strong, deeply-rooted, habitual inclination and bent of the will and affections unto some actual sin.” Lust is a depraved habit or disposition in the heart. It is unlike other natural habits or routines in our life, which over time seem natural or gentle expressions of our personality. Depraved habits impel us with “violence and impetuousness” in a way that darkens the mind, fights against our convictions, and moves against reason. This is the force and nature of sin.
True mortification is therefore the weakening of this disposition so that it does not as naturally rise up with such frequency and power. This is what Paul means by “crucifying” the flesh (Galatians 5:24). Owen draws on crucifixion imagery, likening the killing of the flesh to the draining of its lifeblood and the sapping of its strength, day by day, little by little.
As a man nailed to the cross he first struggles and strives and cries out with great strength and might, but, as his blood and spirits waste, his strivings are faint and seldom, his cries low and hoarse, scarce to be heard; when a man first sets on a lust or distemper, to deal with it, it struggles with great violence to break loose; it cries with earnestness and impatience to be satisfied and relieved; but when by mortification the blood and spirits of it are let out, it moves seldom and faintly, cries sparingly, and is scarce heard in the heart; it may have sometimes a dying pang, that makes an appearance of great vigor and strength, but it is quickly over, especially if it be kept from considerable success.
Paul writes in Romans 6:6, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” God’s purpose in uniting us with the crucified and risen Christ is that we might not serve sin—that the very root of sin in us might come to nothing.
2. True mortification is the constant strategic warfare against sin.
As we mentioned in last week’s post, true mortification is not about having occasional victory over sin. It is not just about fighting sin in the moments when it seems to rear its ugly head. It is something we constantly do.
Mortification is as much a mindset as it is a process. Owen says Christians are required to know they have a strong, mortal enemy who must be destroyed. He warns, “the contest is vigorous and hazardous—it is about things of eternity. When, therefore, men have slight and transient thoughts of their lusts, it is no great sign that they are mortified, or that they are in a way for their mortification.”
Mortification is therefore a mindset of strategic warfare. At a bare minimum, we must be “acquainted with the ways, wiles, methods, advantages, and occasions” of our enemy. Like David before us we say, “my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3), and we take note how sin has formerly prevailed over us, resolving to prevent it from happening again. This means mortification is a constant thing: not just at the moments when sin is vexing and seducing us.
Owen calls sin’s warfare “the craft of the old man.” Real mortification will “trace this serpent in all its turnings and windings.” Someone who is mortifying sin will study sin’s subtleties, the occasions in his life of which sin takes advantage, the ways it embellishes to conceal the truth, and the ways it tries to reason with us, its pretenses and strategies.
3. True mortification is progressive victory over sin.
This strategic warfare with sin should end in complete conquest. Owen states,
Now, I say, when a man comes to this state and condition, that lust is weakened in the root and principle, that its motions and actions are fewer and weaker that formerly, so that they are not able to hinder his duty nor interrupt his peace—when he can, in a quiet, sedate frame of spirit, find out and fight against sin, and have success against it—then sin is mortified in some considerable measure, and, notwithstanding all its opposition, a man may have peace with God all his days.
Owen describes how we gain victory over sin. As he stated in chapter three of his book, the Spirit is the one that empowers this process. He implants in our spirits gracious inclinations that oppose the power of sin. For instance, to fight lust, the Spirit implants purity of mind and conscience. In turn, we fight sin by cherishing these principles. To fight pride we must cherish humility. To fight evil passion we must cherish patience. To fight love of this world we must cherish heavenly-mindedness.
Over time, the heart learns to apprehend the strategies of sin and “follows it with execution to the uttermost.”
Questions for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. Have you ever studied your sin in the manner Owen counsels? Have you ever scrutinized the way sin seduces you, the lies your sinful nature tells you to lead you into temptation, the occasions sin sin rears its head, the way sin captures your thoughts and emotions?
2. Have you ever known someone in the church who, based on Owen’s descriptions of what mortification is and is not, is a true warrior against his or her sinful nature? Have you ever met a mature believer who has ruthlessly fought against his or her sinful impulses and gained great victory over them?
3. Have you made peace with sins in your life? Or do you seek to truly slay them?
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