Monday, December 06, 2010

The Mortification of Sin

"Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all." - Colossians 3:5-11


Death is always an indicator that there is a problem. The existence of death in the world speaks to us of the fact that we live in a fallen world that has been infiltrated by sin. God did not create this world fallen with death existing in it, but, as Romans 5:12 states, because we sinned death entered into the world. Now we live in a world with death, and one day we too will die. Whenever we witness or experience death, we should always do so with this understanding.

Webster’s Dictionary provides a simple definition of death: the deprivation of life. Deprivation means "a taking away". Thus when life is taken away there is death. A chair has no life, but it did not die. Something can only be called dead if it once had life and then that life was taken away.

In the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the apostle calls upon Christians to engage in the task of putting something to death. This is the word “mortify”. To mortify means to "put to death". This exhortation thus reveals to us two things: 1) something is wrong; there is a problem (since something needs to be put to death), and 2) this something is alive, it is a living thing, and it needs to be put to death. It will not naturally die on its own, but it needs to be put to death by you. If you do nothing about this problem it will not go away, but if you mortify it, then it will.

What exactly is the problem? What does God want us to mortify? The apostle Paul directs our attention to sin - that is, the existence of practical sin in the lives of believers: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” The list isn’t exhaustive but is a sample of those vices which are common to mankind. By saying “members”, Paul means our physical bodies that sin takes control of and uses. It is through our bodies that sin exercises its dominion and manifests it's life. A detailed study of this can be found in Romans 6, 7 and 8 of which I will refer to shortly. The sense of what Paul is saying is this: "Don’t give sin a platform. Put to death that which gives sin an opportunity." It is striking to see the parallel between Paul’s exhortation here and the exhortation of Jesus in the gospels. “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” (Matthew 18:8-9) Both Jesus and Paul are speaking figuratively, and both are exhorting us to put to death that which gives sin an opportunity. Since sin operates through our bodies, we need to know how to deal with this problem. It may be shocking to realize that the New Testament never instructs us to attack sin directly but rather the New Testament constantly directs us to attack that which gives sin it's life. The reason for this is because you will never succeed in defeating sin by attacking it directly, as the Old Testament tells us to do. It is impossible. Sin is a reality that cannot be exterminated head-on, no matter how sincere the endeavor. It is a reality that must be understood and dealt with in a specific manner. We need to understand the nature of sin so that we may know what strategy and weapon to use against it, because pea-shooters won’t work against tanks.

Before we begin exploring the answer to the question at hand, let us first ask what is the reason that Paul tells us to mortify sin. Then we will look at how exactly we mortify sin.


Let us first state what the reason for mortifying sin is not. It is not to be saved. The mortification of sin has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins. Paul had just declared to the Colossians that they had already died and risen with Christ and that their life was hid with Christ in God (3:3). This is the true status of every Christian who is exhorted to mortify sin, otherwise they would never be exhorted to mortify sin. A person who is not a Christian is never exhorted to mortify sin but is exhorted to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. Remember the gospel: Christ died for us and saves us freely by His grace through faith in Him. By simply trusting in the finished work of Jesus, no matter how sinful you are, you are justified freely. God forgives you of all of your sins and sees you as perfectly righteous in Christ Jesus. Christ's death and resurrection become yours, and you are therefore blameless in the sight of God. Now in verse 5, Paul is no longer speaking about salvation, nor is he undermining the truth he just set down. What he is dealing with now is the question of your practical walk on earth now that you are a Christian, spiritually seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Ephesians 2:6). So you are forgiven of all your sins past, present and future - so now what? It is to this question that Paul now addresses believers.

Paul similarly wrote elsewhere: "Live your life suitably according to the gospel" (Ephesians 4:1). You’ll see in verse 6 that we are reminded of God’s wrath which comes upon the children of disobedience on account of these sins. Christians are no longer in that camp, but we once were (3:7). We have been saved by the blood of Christ from the wrath of God that would have come upon us. We have seen how these sins are detestable to God. Therefore, now that we are saved from the penalty of these sins, we ought to not walk in them any longer. It only makes sense. It’s reasonable (Romans 12:1). “Lie not one to another, seeing you have put off the old man with his deeds.” (3:9) Loving God because He first loved us means that we consider what He loves and hates, and we seek to no longer do those things that we know His righteousness condemns, though we are already saved from their penalty. This has nothing to do us having to do it. It is all about us wanting to do it out of love for our God who first loved us. Grace (God’s unmerited favor) is teaching us to do this, not law (Titus 2:12). “Mortify therefore.”


Now how exactly do we go about mortifying sin? I mentioned before that we need to know the correct strategy and weapon to mortify sin, and knowing this requires knowing our enemy. The old strategies are not working. No, not all the armies in the world will avail in mortifying sin, because until we understand the nature of what sin is we will never succeed in our efforts to kill it. The sad fact is that most people do not know what the nature of sin is and therefore do not know how to go about mortifying it.

The experience of the common religious person is as follows: You become aware of the reality of God and start out excited about the prospect of having a relationship with Him. God’s ways are beautiful to you and you feel that when you obey Him God is smiling down on you. But it is not long until you realize sin is still a problem in your life. You want to get rid of it. You acknowledge that it is sin and a bad thing to do. You feel that your sin is keeping you from having an intimate relationship with God. When you sin you feel that God is perturbed at you, annoyed that you did it again for what seems like the millionth time. You begin promising that you will not do it again. You hope that by your promise God’s favor will be restored toward you, buying you enough time to prove to Him that you mean business. But you sin again. You begin to get desperate. You start feeling that there may be no hope for you to have a relationship with God. You cry and pray that God will take the sin away but He doesn't. Even though you are sinning, you hope that your sincerity and your desires will make God favorable toward you. This course of action soon runs dry because you can’t keep the weary one-way relationship going. You then start trying to motivate yourself to stop sinning by fear: “How can I do this when Christ died for me? Do I really want to go to hell? How can I choose sin over a relationship with God?” But you discover that fear doesn't work, for you are still sinning, despite all your fears, only now you feel worse. Now you begin to despair. You start to think that you are the only Christian who sins. You feel like the Bible condemns you on every page. You feel like Jesus is disgusted with you. You are ready to quit, saying, “I guess Christianity isn’t for me. I can't do it. I’m just not good enough.”

Do you think this experience is common? This is extremely common. Most people are on different stages in this process. If you are currently somewhere in this process you are going about it all wrong.

You see, understanding what sin is and that it is bad isn’t enough. Lots of people know what they want to do but they just don’t know how to do it. This common religious experience is described in the seventh chapter of the book of Romans. Do you remember? “The good that I want to do I do not, but the evil that I don’t want to do, I do. I acknowledge the law is good, but I don’t know how to perform it.” Do you know what the problem is? Romans 7 tells us plainly: the sin that dwells in him. This thing called sin exists within his nature and has taken captive his body so that he cannot do what he wants to do. Sin is controlling this person like a puppet. However, when Paul says that “it is no longer I that do it but sin that dwells in me” there is no sense of the alleviation of responsibility. He is not saying that he is not guilty; rather, he is acknowledging the depravity of his own nature that justly deserves damnation, even though there is a part of him that sees the good and wants to do it. His mind cannot overcome his nature. His desire for good is perpetually trumped by his desire for bad. Thus he says, “For I know that in me dwelleth no good thing.” He’s saying, “I am a bad guy. I know with my brain what is good and I even want to do it, but in my essential nature I’m totally corrupt.” His nature just doesn’t have the power to obey what he knows is right.

In Romans 7 the word “law” is used 23 times in 25 verses; more than the word “for” “is” “to” and “of”. Romans 7 describes the common religious experience of living under the law. The law is not bad, for it is God's law, and it makes it's just demands upon you. Trying to obey the law by your own power and ability is, theologically speaking, called the “flesh”. The flesh is your human power, strength and ability attempting to keep the law. But it cannot be done. You cannot stop sinning by the flesh. It is not the right weapon to use against sin. Mortifying sin cannot be done through the flesh, because no matter how hard you try or how sincerely you want to obey the law, you will always fail because you cannot overcome your own sinful nature. Human resolve cannot defeat human depravity. This is the painful lesson of Romans chapter 7.

Now I want to show you the solution to the problem that the Bible enthusiastically tells us. Did you know that the Bible tells us there is a solution to the problem - that there is victory over sin? If there wasn't Paul would never tell us to mortify sin in Colossians 3:5. The Bible most optimistically tells us the way to defeat sin, but it is surprising to the extreme, because it is absolutely counter-intuitive; that is, it goes against the grain of how we would normally think. It is not what we would expect, and it is not by attacking sin directly.

The Biblical weapon for mortifying sin is God’s grace. It is forcefully declared in Romans 6:14: “For sin shall not have dominion over you, because you are not under law but under grace.” In actual fact, sin only has dominion over us so long as we are under law, but once we are freed from law and begin to live under grace sin cannot have dominion any longer. This is a most shocking and radical truth. Paul is actually answering an objection leveled at the gospel of grace in Romans 6:1, which argues: "If we preach grace people are going to sin! If we do not preach the law, then what's to stop people from sinning?" Natural wisdom cannot conceive beyond this. But Paul surprisingly turns the whole argument completely on its head: "It is actually the law that causes sin to have dominion over us, and it is only grace that frees us from the dominion of sin!" Contrary to what we may have thought, the objector has it totally backwards. Of course the question is: how does grace do it?

Notice in Romans 7:8-13 how sin is spoken of as a living thing. “For without the law sin is dead. For I was alive without the law once, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.” (Rom. 7:8-9) Sin is something that comes to life, and therefore sin is something that may be put to death. But how does sin come to life? The answer is of such importance, for once we know how sin gets it's life, we shall then know how to put sin to death: by taking away that which gives sin life! The answer is so easily seen in the passage, it is a wonder how so many can miss it. Sin comes to life by the law. In this we are taught the most amazingly profound truth. Sin lives by law; law gives sin it's vitality so that it controls our bodies. "For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death." (Rom. 7:5). How does the law give sin life? The law gives sin life by giving sin an occasion, an opportunity to rebel. It is sin’s nature to rebel when commanded to do something. This is what it will do every time. Have ever felt that within yourself? Have you ever noticed that when you are commanded to do something and you don’t have the freedom to say no, you will naturally feel a resistance within and a desire to rebel? This is simply the reality of fallen human nature. It is called sin. One writer, C.H. Mackintosh, well said concerning this: “If I am not consciously free, I shall be seeking to attain liberty in the strangest way possible.” Do you see that? “If I am not consciously free.” We have a perverse desire to be free, to be our own god. Our personal autonomy is more important to us than God's holy law. Because we are sinners we rebel against constraint no matter how good and wonderful it is - no matter how healthy it shall be to us - for we are depraved by pride and have a hardened intransigence against authority. What then shall deliver us? The situation is humanely impossible. How can wretched sinners as we be saved and delivered from sin and have relationship with God who is jealous for His glory when everything within us shouts "no"?

The amazing answer is the gospel of God’s grace. Did you know that even though you are indeed full of pride and will not keep the holy law of God, God loves you still? Did you know that God knows that your path is destruction but does not desire for you to perish, for He loves you still? Did you know that God is kind and merciful to terrible sinners? Did you know that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, died upon a cross for your wicked sins, to save you by sheer undeserved grace, because He loves you still? Did you know that He suffered and died in agony so that you could be free? God did this all for you because He loves you with a love that cannot be quenched by many waters. We are talking about a love that is beyond anything we have ever known or will ever know. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16) "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." (1 John 4:10) "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8) You will never find a love like this in all the world except in one place alone: Calvary. It is a love that loves no matter what; a love that extends even to it's enemies; a love that gives all, even the highest price.

Now see how the gospel is not anything like the law at all. In His hand Christ holds out the free gift of eternal life so that you can take it by faith and receive the salvation of your soul. He says, “Come unto me, you who are dying of hunger and thirst.” He appeals to your need. You have need, and He has provided for you. You are going to hell, and He can save you from it. He appeals to your self-interest. He does not say “Come and serve me”, He says, “Come and let me serve you.” He warrants you to come for no other reason than to be saved. Do you want to be saved? He wants you to be saved too! Jesus died to save you! It is in your best interest to come. He appeals to your freedom. He does not force you, but invites you: "Whosoever will, let him come." This is not a law that will provoke you to rebellion. This is a free offer for your well-being that you can choose to accept or reject.

Come ye sinners, come and welcome;
God’s free bounty glorify!

What a marvelously beautiful Savior who is genuinely concerned with your well-being! How can you resist such a One, who has met your need by dying in your place to spare you from the wrath of God that ought justly to fall upon you for your evil? Oh, how He loves you!

Grace, not law, causes us to respond to God in the freedom of love. The natural instinct to rebel is gone once the law is no longer in the equation. Grace makes it no longer about us having to do anything, therefore sin has no more opportunity to rebel anymore. And as the law caused sin to come to life, so now God’s grace (His unmerited favor demonstrated at the cross) causes holiness and worship to come to life. We freely respond to such incomprehensible love by willingly giving to God all glory and praise from our hearts. As Jesus said, it is from the heart that all the issues of life flow out. Once our hearts are melted by the love of God, our actions cannot but follow. Sin is put to death by the grace of God, and holiness and worship find their occasion. Our bodies are no longer a platform for sin, but a platform for righteousness. Thus grace is the Biblical weapon of mortification. This, and this alone, is how we mortify sin and reclaim our bodies for holy use.

Let's go back to the example of the person struggling in that process of the common religious experience. Remember how they were trying to fight against sin by the flesh and ended up despairing, ready to quit altogether? All of that could have been avoided if, instead of thinking that their relationship with God depended upon their performance by law, they saw that God has freely loved them by dying for them upon the cross for all their sins past, present and future so that nothing in all the world could ever separate them from the love of God. How different would things be then! If only they saw that a relationship with God is theirs for the taking by simple faith in Jesus Christ. Christianity is not about trying to make God favorable toward you; it is about believing the good news that God in fact is favorable toward you, and that His favor has nothing to do with your performance! Until we believe and walk in this revelation of grace we will forever be defeated and will never enjoy a relationship with God. Life will be hard and wearisome, and many will give up. But if we believe and walk in the reality of God’s love and grace that has been revealed to us 2000 years ago at Calvary, we shall experience the opposite effect: righteousness, joy and peace in the Holy Spirit!

Every exhortation for Christian living in the New Testament is simply one spiritual worshipper directing other spiritual worshippers in joyful practical response to the sin-bearing love of God. We also can encourage and exhort one another to love and good deeds as we point to the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus. Life is no longer about rules, but relationship!


“And have put on the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge after Him that created Him: where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” (3:10-11)

We can now understand why the New Testament tells us everywhere that the Christian life is all about the renewal of our minds from law to grace. In this verse the renewal of the mind is not a one time event but a constant, continual renewing. Every single day we can experience the transforming power of grace by setting our mind on the truth of God's love for us in Christ Jesus. Every single day is a new day to mortify sin by not giving it an opportunity by the law. Every single day is a new day to worship the Lord and give thanks to His Name when we remember His great mercy that endures forever. The mortification of sin is not a one time event, just like worshipping God is not a one time event. Day to day, either sin will revive or worship will revive in accordance with what we set our minds upon: law or grace.

The Christian life is all about renewing our knowledge and reminding ourselves of who God is and what He has done for us. As we grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord, we will stop judging ourselves and others based upon who they are and what they do, but we will see only Christ and what He is for us. "Christ is all and in all." To see only Christ and what He is to us, excluding all other considerations, means not only the mortification of sin, but us being transformed by the power of the amazing grace of God.