In Mortification of Sin, John Owen famously wrote, “be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” Owen’s piercing language touched upon a spiritual reality: that biblical Christianity is a good fight and those who refuse to take up arms will be conquered. Hence, all true Christians will actively be striving to mortify sin, because every true Christian goes through the process of sanctification or becoming more like Christ, who is holy. After all, Christ did not die for our sins so that we would go on sinning. This, of course, does not mean we will ever reach a state of perfection here on earth. But it does mean that God has called His own to be holy and to strive for holiness, for He is holy (I Peter 1:16; Hebrews 13:1-6). Our hope is that God is 100% for our progression in holiness because, as it says in I Thessalonians 4:3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.”
Our justification (being declared righteous) is once and for all, but our sanctification is a process that continues through life. Yes, sometimes that process is stalled and sometimes we may backslide, but the overall trend is toward Jesus. When we are spiritual “children,” we are spiritually immature; our sensitivity to sin is low, as we are generally unable to see our sinful nature for what it really is. An immature person uses things like denial and self-deception to tell themselves, “I’m okay right where I am.” This is the person who is not active in killing sin. Still, for His own, God will allow such pitiful defense mechanisms until we begin to seek Him. It is then that God helps us to come to terms with the depths of our own sinful corruption and open our eyes to ourselves in ways that will not crush us. It is only by God’s grace that any person changes, and the good news is that with God, change is possible. Everyone that God saves He also sanctifies and transforms: away from self-worship and toward God-worship as an increasingly steady disposition of the heart. The Christian therefore does not kill sin for sin’s sake; instead, with a focus on Christ, through the process of sanctification, their sinful nature has less and less dominion over them.
John Owen once compared indwelling sin to a river. Only if the springs and fountains of the river are dried up can the river be controlled and restrained. If the springs and fountains remain open, the current is still fed. Accordingly, you may restrain the water for a while, but inevitably it will increase, rise higher and rage until it breaks down all your external tweaks, well-intended resolutions and willpower. By God’s grace, the Christian is therefore called to progressively dry up the springs and fountains so that there will be less water and current downstream. Focusing on the source means focusing on your heart, because everything you do on the outside results from who you are on the inside. So, who are you? Because the Christian is called not to embrace sin but to battle it. As the apostle writes in I John 1:6-7:
If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
As I said at the top, Christianity fights the “good fight” against sin by mortifying it. Accordingly, any other version or distortion of the doctrine of the mortification of sin is not grounded in biblical Christianity, because it falls short of what Christ died for. Ephesians 4:22 commands us to put off our old self with its corrupt and deceitful desires. Romans 8:13 reminds us that if we live according to the flesh, then we will die. It also tells us that if, by the Spirit, we put to death the deeds of the body, we will live. Some may tell themselves that this is all important, but that dealing with their indwelling sin is not emergent. That is sin talking. The deceitfulness of sin reasons with regard to particular matters and occasions in life. It majors in minors and minors in majors; it compels you to obsess over foolishness and to dismiss what will last forever. After all, if a man tolerates and accommodates sin now, what makes him think he is suitable for a heaven that is sinless? The apostle Paul exhorts us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to desire and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13-14). Part of this “working out” is the mortification of sin.
So, every true Christian will be killing sin. But how? How does a Christian “be killing sin” according to the Scriptures? These are the questions I will provide answers for. The hope for any child of God is that after Yahweh saves a person, He does not leave them alone. He stays with them and perseveres with them until the end. Some of the wonderful treasures the Lord has provided for our sanctification are the promises of God. The Holy Spirit works through the divine promises and cooperatively enables and empowers a person to mortify sin. This is the most important part of this lesson: a crucial key to a believer’s sanctification is the promises of God. The power of the promises are made manifest when a Christian trusts the Promise-Maker, God, who has sent the Holy Spirit, who works in and on us to fulfill those promises, making us more like Jesus. The results of this transformation are numerous: one is the mortification of sin.
Let us go to the Scriptures. Our verse today comes from II Peter 1:1-4. Let’s read all four verses and then zoom in. The text says:
Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ:
Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, for His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. Through these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world on account of lust.
The first thing Peter says in verse 1 is “to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours.” There is only one type of genuine faith in the Bible, and that is the faith that is always qualified as trusting in God. So, Peter is talking to people who are saved. All those who are born again have faith of the same quality, although the quantity can vary.
The next thing Peter writes (verse 3) is “for [Christ’s] divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness.” This is an important point not to miss. The energy source that empowers us to walk the road of sanctification is God Himself. That supply of spiritual life is granted by God’s grace. We pursue godliness and become more holy not by human effort or willpower; that would be a religion of works that requires no faith. God is able and faith is the bridge through which God communicates His strength. Hence, His power is what enables us to act and move forward. His power is also sufficient in that it grants us everything we need for life and godliness: this includes our sanctification. Notice the verse does not say that God’s power grants us everything we want; rather, God lovingly provides what is best for our long-term spiritual benefit.
Truly, when it comes to our sanctification, the initiative is always God’s, yet we are then responsible to act. Sanctification is not a passive process. The idea that we can do nothing for our own sanctification is an unfortunate myth that encourages cheap grace and “easy-believism.” The fact is, for anyone to be lost forever, the only thing they have to do is nothing: they can merely profess faith without a life that demonstrates they possess faith. The good news is that we’re not waiting for God to take the initiative, because He already has: by the Son of God incarnating into our reality. Christ has already lived, died and resurrected. The issue now is, what will you do?
Again, II Peter 1:3 says, “for [Christ’s] divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness.” Now, you may be asking yourself, what is the means or the instrument by which God grants His power? And the answer is the knowledge of Christ (which comes by faith). This is why Peter next writes, “through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” Knowledge of God and of Jesus are connected because God is known savingly only in and through Jesus Christ. No hidden, secret knowledge is necessary. If we know Christ, then we know God, and then we know how to live.
Now, what does Peter say next in verse 4?
Through these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world on account of lust.
When Peter says through these, he’s talking about all the excellencies of God already mentioned, such as through His grace, through the salvation of His Son, through His gifted knowledge. So, through God’s excellence, He has granted us what? His precious and magnificent promises. And why are the promises of God so important? Peter says, “so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world on account of lust.” A critically important lesson the text teaches us here is that by the promises of God, we become more like Christ (sanctification) and escape the corruption of sin (mortification).
This is the magnificent power of the promises of God: God has provided them to us so that we will know them and then trust He will make good on His promises. The Holy Spirit—who indwells all believers—is the divine agent that then uses those promises as a means to conform us to the image of Christ to a greater and greater degree.
In other words, the power of the promises is that they are the instruments that make us more like Jesus.
Of course, becoming a partaker of the divine nature does not mean becoming divine, because every creature will forever remain created.
I admit, we took the long way to get here, but the crucial point is worth repeating: the power of God’s promises is that they are accessible, knowable gifts we can hold on to that transform us to be like Jesus. The result is being renewed in righteousness and a mortification of sin.
All promises involve the profession of intentions, and the worth of a promise is based upon the intent of the promise-maker. Real life has taught many the hurtful lesson of how often professions are empty when dealing with other people. This is never the case with God. What He promises is backed by Himself, and His Word will not return to Him void. Because God’s promises are backed by His irrevocable, unchanging intent, the deed reliably follows. God only promises what He guarantees to make good on. Hence, get accustomed to serious meditation on God’s promises. Why? Because a child of God can be certain the Lord will act to fulfill them. Meditating on the promises elevates us from the smog of earth and is like getting fresh air from heaven into your soul. The result is peace, comfort, a purer spirit and nobler thoughts. A mind that is full of what is righteous, good and true will not entertain sin, while a mind devoid of God’s promises will soon be filled with devilish ideas. As Stephen Charnock once wrote, “Empty minds are the fittest subjects for extravagant fooleries.”
I said at the beginning:
Every true Christian will be killing sin. But how? Specifically, how does a Christian “be killing sin” according to the Scriptures?
One general answer provided thus far is “By the power of the promises.” The next logical question follows: “What specific promises should the Christian use?” The good news for all of us is that the Bible is a treasure box full of promises. And, because of Christ, we may say yes and amen to all the promises of God in the entire canon of Scripture (II Corinthians 1:20). That is, through Christ, the Christian may read all of God’s promises and say, “Yes! This promise applies to me. Amen.” However, while many may know where to look for promises, they might not have a clue as to what they are looking for. This is what leads to our applications. Each application will look at one of God’s promises and apply it to the Christian’s sanctification. The promises will prove to be the most helpful to you if you read them, meditate on them, memorize them and pray them. Remember, God provided these beautiful promises to you and me because we need help. Without them, we are helpless!
Promise #1, Romans 6:11. Consider who you really are.
In Romans 6:8-11 Paul writes:
Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all time; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. So you too, consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (italics mine)
The wonderful promise of Romans 6:11 reminds you that a person cannot pursue holiness if they don’t fully understand who they are in Christ. You see, in contemporary Christianity, there’s a great deal of emphasis on what has happened for you in the Cross—forgiveness of sins and peace with God—without an equal emphasis on what has happened to you in becoming born again. This new identity is exactly what the apostle Paul emphasizes in Romans 6:11. This emphasis on identity is key to how we are to mortify sin and pursue holiness and spiritual fruitfulness.
Paul teaches that when we become Christians through faith in Christ, we are united to Him so that His death counts as our death (Colossians 2:11-14). This is what he means when he writes, “if we have died with Christ.” This death refers to the fulfillment of the penalty for sin, in addition to coming alive with Christ in His resurrection. Those who trust in Christ are in union with Him. Hence, when He died, so did you.
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)
But what does it mean that you died when you are in fact alive and reading this? It means your old self—with all of its inclinations to sin and a mind hostile to God—died (Romans 6:6, 8:7). Our fleshly nature cannot please God because it doesn’t want to: it’s ferociously rebellious and insubordinate. This is why it has to be crucified (Galatians 2:24). Properly, then, when you became a Christian, God killed your flesh and your natural rebellion against Him. And God doesn’t replace something with nothing; rather, He makes us all new creations (II Corinthians 5; Ephesians 2:10), and the new self wants to please God.
This means that for a Christian, he or she is alive to God. Christ is the one who now owns the deed to your heart, and the Lord is now real, precious and worthy of your trust. Because of your faith, you don’t live a self-exalting life but one that submits to and depends on God’s mercy. It is therefore no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. The new creation trusts Yahweh, loves Christ and seeks to be who God made them to be.
So, how does this relate to the mortification of sin? Because to fight sin, the apostle Paul exhorts us to consider who we really are. In Romans 6:11 the apostle says, “Consider yourselves to be dead to sin.” In other words, he says, “Be who you really are: a new creation made by God’s hands.” The apostle Peter expresses the same sentiments as Paul in I Peter 4:11:
Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with [this thought], because the one who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin. (cf. I Peter 2:4)
Paul says, “Consider yourselves.” Peter says, “Arm yourselves with this thought.” Consider what? What thought? That your new self is not a slave to sin but a disciple of Christ. This thought is the weapon that we yield in our daily fight against sin. Hence, whenever a temptation comes to do anything evil, we remember God’s promise to “consider yourselves to be dead to sin” and “alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Trusting that divine promise removes the fog of forgetfulness and nudges us to remember who God has made us to be. So, when a temptation comes, flee to God’s promise and say to yourself:, “When my Lord and my God suffered and died to free me from sin, what He accomplished worked: I died to sin, and what His death purchased for me is greater than the fleeting pleasures of sin.” As John Piper once said, it is then that we can say, “Satan, be gone! My mouth doesn’t drool anymore when I walk by your candy store.”
Practically speaking, then, a new creation is not a helpless addict, a born-this-way fornicator or a mindless drone that must yield to every immoral inclination to false worship, dishonoring, malice, murder, lying, stealing or covetousness. No! They are not a beast that has no choice. Rather, they are a child of the king who is mucking around with swine in the mud. What are you doing there? Do you know who God made you to be? Did you forget who you really are? Consider that God already make you a new creature and consider your real identity. God already performed the miracle, now you act it out by rejecting sin and doing what is right.
That was the first promise. The second is closely linked to the first.
Promise #2, Romans 6:14. Sin shall not reign.
In Romans 6:14 Paul writes:
For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under the Law but under grace.
What the apostle does not write is “Sin will not exist.” Instead, he assumes that it continues to exist but lacks the power of control. You see, on this side of heaven, every Christian is freed from the penalty of sin (because of Christ’s atonement at Calvary), and we will only be free from the pollution of sin in glory. So, right now, here on earth, sanctification progressively frees us from the power of sin as we mature in Christ. Hence, sanctification begets mortification of sin, and mortification of sin is possible because every recipient of saving grace is set free so that sin shall not be a master over them. This “mastering” refers to the ability to exercise control over or to dominate. Yes, because of our indwelling sin nature, sin will still have a voice, but it won’t be the loudest in the room. Sin will always attempt to usurp control and convict our will to spite God, but Yahweh has placed a new spirit within every believer. God promises that sin will not reign because we are under God’s grace, and this empowers us to walk in obedience to righteousness. Sin will not reign over the Christian because they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (I John 4:4).
When a Christian begins to fight their indwelling sin, they will certainly find it difficult. But the fact that a struggle even exists is a telltale sign of spiritual life. That is, unregenerate people who truly delight in sin are at peace when they are in the darkness. It is only in the presence of light that darkness recedes, but it always puts up a fight.
Practically speaking, Romans 6:14 is a promise to meditate on and pray. The believer has to trust not in their own willpower but rather in God’s strength. Remember, sin shall not be master over you, not because of your resolutions but because of God’s grace. So, in the early morning, pray to God and ask Him to fulfill the promise of Romans 6:14 in your life. Then, later on in the day when you are tempted, the first thing you ought to do is stop and pray Romans 6:14 again. Don’t fight in your own strength, which is doomed to fail. Instead, entreat God for His strength because nothing reigns over omnipotence.
That was the second promise. Now we move to our third and final promise.
Promise #3, I Corinthians 10:13. God is faithful.
In I Corinthians 10:13 Paul writes:
No temptation has overtaken you except something common to mankind; and God is faithful, so He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.
The key phrase in this verse is God is faithful. So, because He is trustworthy, we can trust His promise that there is no temptation that is beyond what we are able. We can trust as well that God is faithful to provide the way of escape so that you will be able to endure. Now, notice that this verse does not say God is faithful to eliminate temptation. Rather, it says God is faithful to provide the way of escape with the temptation. I would never endorse sin, but a biblical reality of the Christian life is that people are plagued with certain inclinations not so that they dwell on the inclinations but instead so that they may trust God, who has providentially allowed such temptations in order that, by faith, He can provide the way out. God is faithful, so the power of His promises is that they can be trusted. God is faithful, so you can trust that He will provide an escape from all your temptations. When you flee from sin, you don’t run into the desert. Flee from sin by running to God.
Certainly, as you read through the Scriptures, you will come across particular verses that speak to specific situations. That being said, there are also general promises that apply to life overall. For example, when you are tempted with fear or need help, meditate on Isaiah 41:10:
Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, I will also help you, I will also uphold you with My righteous right hand.
When you are tempted with impure thoughts or actions, meditate on Christ’s words in Matthew 5:8:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Or, when you are tempted with doubt in God and lose hope, meditate on Jeremiah 29:11:
“For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for prosperity and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
When the Christian begins to fight the good fight against sin, they must always keep a vision of the kingdom of God in their mind. And what is the kingdom of God? The domain where what God wants is done. Accordingly, this is why Jesus teaches His disciples to pray like this in Matthew 6:9-10:
Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Consequently, in everything that we do, what we are aiming for is to live fully in the kingdom of God here and now, not just hereafter. Your vision of God’s kingdom is focused on Christ. Concretely, we live in the kingdom of God by intending to obey the example and teachings of Jesus. This is the tangible form that faith takes. The man who does what God says actually trusts that what God says is true and trustworthy. The man who does not do what God says actually thinks God is untrustworthy. Profession without practice means the profession is false. The idea that you can trust Christ for Paradise but have no intention to obey Him now is a lie that has led so many astray. A clear vision leads to a solid intention to obey Christ, which will naturally lead to seeking out and applying the means to that end.
Transformation is what happens when our spirit-filled heart grows while our fleshly heart dies. On the one hand, everyone knows that the more you sin, the more you are inclined to sin. On the other hand, the same logic also applies for grace. That is, grace is also increased by its exercise. The more men exercise their grace in duties of obedience, the more it is strengthened and increased. Hence, the way someone mortifies sin is by mortifying sin. Follow the advice of the Psalmist when he writes, “I have stored up your word in my heart” (why?) “that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). Solicit God for help as frequently as temptations and wicked thoughts solicit you. As they knock on the door of your mind, knock on heaven’s door and plead the promises of God. Read them, meditate on them and pray them. God will always hear and respond to an earnest request, for His will is your sanctification.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal