The Mortification of Sin
Many of us, behind our apparent mastery of life, despair of the small degree of progress we have made in the school of holiness. We groan, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). Why has our growth in Christ-like character been so negligible?
Some attribute our lack of spiritual progress to a failure to believe God’s promises and to abide in Christ (John 15:5). When we “let go and let God,” they say, the Holy Spirit will be unleashed to mature us spiritually. But the Bible teaches that while we should trust Christ to change us, we must not be passive. We must actively “strive” for holiness (Hebrews 12:14), deny ourselves, and seek, by the Spirit of God, to kill the sin that remains in us.
Spiritual growth requires trust in Christ and personal exertion. This is why the apostle Paul, who assures us that God ”works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13) also exhorts, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Positively, we must use God’s appointed means for spiritual growth (the Word, the sacraments, and prayer). Negatively, we must mortify sin, putting it to death. Sinclair Ferguson describes the mortification of sin as “the constant battle against sin which we fight daily – the refusal to allow the eye to wander, the mind to contemplate, the affections to run after anything that would draw us from Christ. It is the deliberate rejection of any sinful thought, suggestion, desire, aspiration, deed, circumstance or provocation at the moment we become conscious of its existence” (Know Your Christian Life, p. 143).
Notice how much responsibility Scripture puts on us to resist and fight against sinful desires: “Abstain from the passions of the flesh” (I Peter 2:11). “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Colossians 3:5). “Flee from sexual immorality (I Corinthians 6:18). “By the Spirit…put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13). The revivalist preacher Billy Sunday put it colorfully: “I’m against sin. I’ll kick it as long as I’ve got a foot, and I’ll fight it as long as I’ve got a fist. I’ll butt it as long as I’ve got a head. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. When I’m old and fistless and footless and toothless, I’ll gum it till I go home to glory and it goes home to perdition!” This language of personal exertion and self-denial is not popular in an evangelical culture that promises spiritual growth through three-step fixes and euphoric worship experiences, but it is the only way to true godliness.
Our striving for holiness should include the following practices:
Are you content with an outwardly respectable Christian life, or do you truly desire to reflect the holiness of Christ? Resolve to pursue holiness. During World War II Winston Churchill was asked to explain his strategy against the Nazis. He answered, “You ask what our strategy is. Our strategy is to wage war with all the strength that God gives us.” That should be our strategy as we battle the desires that wage war against our souls.
Peter Kemeny, Pastor
Good News Presbyterian Church
P.O. Box 1051, Frederick, MD 21702