The Necessity of the Mortification of Sin in Believers
We have seen thus far throughout chapter eight that the difference between believers and unbelievers in that the former set their minds on things of the Spirit or heaven while the latter set their minds on things of the flesh or this world. For Paul this is simply a fact: Believers do this and unbelievers do that. Today we deal with not just the fact that believers do this (people born of the Spirit) but the necessity of doing so. Much of what I will write in this devotion comes from John Owen’s classic, The Mortification of Sin in Believers. It is a pity that preachers do not preach much on this topic today as it was especially important to the Reformers and Puritans. Our sins are forgiven but Paul would have us also to understand that indwelling sin which remains in the believer is not to be tolerated but must be put to death (Latin: mors, mortis, meaning “death,” thus, to mortify or put to death).
Taking 8:13, “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,” Owen writes: “The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin” (WJO 6:7). He doubts not that such people are believers; after all, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” But Owen understands Paul to be saying that having been freed from sin’s condemnation, we must now work to be freed from its power. Now this can only be done “by the Spirit,” but we sense that we are required to cooperate in this endeavor; indeed, if we are believers, we shall strongly desire to sincerely engage in this holy effort that we may grow in grace and godliness and thus draw closer to our saving God.
But we must also hear the words of warning: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die,” and Paul certainly means eternal death. This is no place to waste time on debates between Calvinists and Arminians. We must hear the word of God and tremble before it. Again I quote Owen: “Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it while you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you (WJO 6:9; italics added). Did you hear that last line? Indwelling sin will not take a holiday; it will hound you the rest of your life and seek to destroy you. Therefore, you must destroy it, finding ways to deprive it of its vigor and strength. It is a fight to the death and one you cannot avoid. This is one of the reasons why heaven is called “rest,” rest from the temptations of sin. And we are promised victory, but we must enter the lists and do battle.