A Primer on Mortification of Sin

Mortification comes from the Latin mors (death) and facere (to do)

We are reminded in Scripture that the Holy Spirit is the means by which sin is to be put to death. John Owen, in his helpful treatment on the mortification of sin, writes, “A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.” Therefore, it follows that the work of mortification is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian believer.

 

Over the years I have written and talked a lot about mortification of sin. In that time I have received occasional questions about the topic. However, in recent months it seems that I have been asked about the subject with a bit more frequency. In fact, I’ve promised a few people that I would write a brief introduction to mortification. Since we are dealing with two older words, let’s call it a primer.

What is mortification?

As I indicated, mortification is not a common word today. And if someone might use it in a sentence they probably are referring to being “mortified” by which they mean that they are embarrassed. When we talk about mortifying sin we are speaking about the original sense of the word. Mortification comes from the Latin mors (death) and facere (to do). In this sense it has to do with putting something to death. Perhaps more literally it is “to make dead.”

What is to be mortified?

In general, sin is to be mortified. In particular, all of the lusts of the flesh that rage against who we as Christians are to be and what we are to do. A couple of Scriptures come to mind (note: the KJV of Romans 8 uses the word “mortify” for “put to death”).

“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 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 8:12–13)

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” (Colossians 3:5–8)

How do you do it?

We are reminded in Scripture that the Holy Spirit is the means by which sin is to be put to death. John Owen, in his helpful treatment on the mortification of sin, writes, “A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.” Therefore, it follows that the work of mortification is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian believer.

A lot of people ask, “But how do I mortify?” I want to quote John Owen here and interact with him a bit as I go because his writing can be a bit dense to some. But, it is so, so good.

To kill a man, or any other living thing, is to take away the principle of all his strength, vigor, and power, so that he cannot act or exert, or put forth any prop actions of his own.

We understand what it means to kill something or someone—it ultimately means to take away its strength and power. We are reminded that indwelling sin is compared to a person, even a living person “the old self” or “old man.”

When we are mortifying sin we are aiming kill all that “inclines, entices, impels to evil, rebels, opposes, fights against God.”

In other words, when we are mortifying sin we are going after all that is evil, desires evil, and lures us toward evil. And we go after it like intolerant, unaccommodating, spiritual assassins.

But we don’t just stop there with a scorched earth sanctification. We must work to cultivate a new desire to replace the fallen lusts:

“by the implanting, habitual residence, and cherishing of a principle of grace that stands in direct opposition to it and is destructive of it. So, by the implanting and growth of humility is paid weakened, passion by patience, uncleanness by purity of mind and conscience, love of this world by heavenly mindedness: which are graces of the Spirit, or the same habitual grace variously acting itself by the Holy Ghost.”

We are working to put off and put on. We are putting sinful vices to death and putting godly virtues to work. The old writers speak of mortification (putting to death) and vivification (putting to life or quickening).

Read More