John Stott on the Mortification of Sin

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. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom 8:12-14)

In his commentary on the Epistle of Romans (The Message of Romans, IVP 1994), John Stott addresses verse 13, ‘a very significant verse on the neglected topic of “mortification” (the process of putting to death the body’s misdeeds).’ There are ‘at least three truths’ to be clarified:

First, what is mortification? Mortification is neither masochism (taking pleasure in self-inflicted pain), nor asceticism (resenting and rejecting the fact that we have bodies and natural bodily appetites). It is rather a clear-sighted recognition of evil as evil, leading to such a decisive and radical repudiation of it that no imagery can do it justice except ‘putting to death’. In fact, the verb Paul uses normally means to ‘kill someone, hand someone over to be killed, especially of the death sentence and its execution’ […] Elsewhere the apostle has called it a crucifixion of our fallen nature, with all its passions and desires (Gal 5:24). And this teaching is Paul’s elaboration of Jesus’ own summons: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ (Mk 8:34) Since the Romans compelled a condemned criminal to carry his cross to the site of crucifixion, to carry our cross is symbolic of following Jesus to the place of execution. And what we are to put to death there, Paul explains, is the misdeeds of the body, that is, every use of our body […] which serves ourselves instead of God and other people. […]

Secondly, how does mortification take place? We note at once that it is something that we have to do. It is not a question of dying or of being put to death, but of putting to death. In the work of mortification we are not passive, waiting for it to be done to us or for us. On the contrary, we are responsible for putting evil to death. True, Paul immediately adds that we can put to death the misdeeds of the body only by the Spirit, by his agency and power. For only he can give us the desire, determination and discipline to reject evil. Nevertheless, it is we who must take the initiative to act. Negatively, we must totally repudiate everything we know to be wrong, and not even ‘think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature’ (Rom 13:14). This is not an unhealthy form of repression, pretending that evil does not exist in us and refusing to face it. It is the opposite. We have to ‘pull it out, look at it, denounce it, hate it for what it is; then you have really dealt with it’ (Lloyd-Jones). Or, as Jesus graphically expressed it, we must gouge out our offending eye and cut off our offending hand or foot (Mt 5:29ff). That is, if temptation comes to us through what we see, handle or visit, then we must be ruthless in not looking, not touching, not going, and so in controlling the very approaches of sin. Positively, we are to set our minds on the things the Spirit desires (Rom 8:5), set our hearts on things above (Col 3:1f), and occupy our thoughts with what is noble, right, pure and lovely (Phil 4:8). In this way ‘mortification‘ (putting evil to death) and ‘aspiration‘ (hungering and thirsting for what is good) are counterparts. Both verbs […] are in the present tense, for they describe attitudes and activities which should be continuous, involving taking up the cross every day (Lk 9:23) and setting our minds on the things of the Spirit every day.

Thirdly, why should we practise mortification? It sounds an unpleasant, uncongenial, austere and even painful business. It runs counter to our natural tendency to soft and lazy self-indulgence. If we are to engage in it, we shall need strong motives. One is, as we have seen, that we have an obligation (Rom 8:12) to the indwelling Spirit of life. Another, on which Paul now insists, is that the death of mortification is the only road to life. Verse 13 contains he most marvellous promise, which is expressed in the single Greek verb zesesthe, you will live. Paul is not now contradicting himself. Having called eternal life a free and undeserved gift (Rom 6:23), he is not now making it a reward for self-denial. Nor by ‘life’ does he seem to be referring to the life of the world to come. He seems to be alluding to the life of God’s children, who are led by his Spirit and assured of his fatherly love, to which he comes in the next verses (14ff). This rich, abundant, satisfying life, he is saying, can be enjoyed only by those who put their misdeeds to death. Even the pain of mortification is worth while if it opens the door to fulness of life.

This is one of several ways in which the radical principle of ‘life through death’ lies at the heart of the gospel. According to Romans 6 it is only by dying with Christ to sin, its penalty thereby paid, that we rise to a new life of forgiveness and freedom. According to Romans 8 it is only by putting our evil deeds to death that we experience the full life of God’s children. So we need to redefine both life and death. What the world calls life (a desirable self-indulgence) leads to alienation from God which in reality is death, whereas the putting to death of all perceived evil within us, which the world sees as an undesirable self-abnegation, is in reality the way to authentic life.

Holy Spirit, would you indeed give us the ‘desire, determination and discipline’ to reject evil. May we actively reject sin and embrace life.

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