Romans 8:13 “If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live”

These are the words of the Authorized, King James, Version. The word ‘mortify’ is not found in any modern translation. It is not in the N.I.V., the New King James, or the E.S.V. They all translate the word by the good phrase ‘put to death.’ You are all familiar with a mortuary, the place to which the dead are consigned. We are speaking about consigning our sinful natures to death. So that is our subject for these three sessions, putting to death remaining sin. I have chosen to speak on this theme for a number of reasons. It is a misunderstood and neglected theme. Its neglect has caused a weakening of the Christian testimony and a dumbing down of Christian living. Even Christian worship is affected because of an absence from our services of exhortations to every worshipper individually to be putting to death the remains of sin. One unconsidered result of this failure to put to death remaining sin is that we find ourselves living in a new age, the age of the addict. Technology has been invited into our front room and we’ve got the cash to indulge our desires. I’m saying that we are witnessing a change in the relationship of people and their social environment. Men have learned the art of manipulating their brains to produce bursts of short-term pleasure. Insidious, life-sapping addictions are very common, addictions to sugar, and to television, and to alcohol, and to gambling, and to credit cards, and to computer games, and to drugs, and to rock music, and to pornography, and to 24 hour news. The roots of all this is in our national spiritual malaise. Men have turned from God and they have turned to stuff and they have little power in controlling it.

So you can appreciate that I don’t intend to deliver three theological lectures on some obscure doctrine but practical biblical messages on one of the most crucial themes for Christians to consider. I myself need to understand this subject of mortification and to put myself under the sanctifying power of God’s truth to help me become a better Christian.

So I shall start by setting out three familiar biblical propositions which underlie all that I will later say in the practical areas of putting to death indwelling sin.


In the eyes of God every single unregenerate man and woman in the world without exception is at this moment mortified. The Scripture is not at all reluctant to use this concept. This is the divine diagnosis of the state of man. The chapter which is most replete with statements about this is Ephesians 2. The chapter begins quite categorically; “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephs.2:1), and this particular section ends in verse 5 repeating the same phrase but now turning to the first person plural,’we’, “We were dead in transgressions” – ‘me too’ says the apostle. In other words, there was a time when we were just like the world and totally lacking in the life of heaven – eternal, divine life. Then, in between the book-ends of those two declarations of our state of death, the apostle explains what he means in such statements as these: they showed they were dead by “following the ways of this world.” They were dead fish drifting with the stream; they did and said what everyone else did and said. They followed “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” In other words they were influenced by Satan. They gratified “the cravings of their sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” The flesh dominated their lives. That is what it means to be spiritually dead to all the glorious life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is a common theme of the Bible; Colossians 3:13, “You were dead in your sins,” and Paul makes it intensely personal when he says to Timothy, “The widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives” (I Tim. 5:6).

The problem you face in your indecision in not yet coming out and confessing Christ is not a lack of information or a lack of inspiration. Your problem is an utter lack of inner spiritual life! While you are dead you cannot come to Christ. You need to be drawn by the Father, and so cry mightily to God to give you such life from heaven. It is death without it! So everyone without Christ is dead in sin. Then there is another proposition.


What does God do when he makes someone a Christian? What is the Christian man and woman as a result of the life of God entering his soul? Paul tells the whole congregation in Colosse, “you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Cols 3:8). Again he tells the Roman congregation, “We died to sin, how can we live in it any longer?” (Roms. 6:2), and he tells them in the next verses that they have been buried with Christ, and that their old self has crucified with Christ. So “Count yourselves dead to sin” he exhorts. So what is Paul doing here? I will tell you in a phrase you have never heard before because I made it up. He is teaching them the doctrine of definitive mortification! Let me explain that to you simply.

The very first thing that is true of the Christian believer, from an experimental point of view, is that he is a person who is – according to this teaching – dead. Paul is not saying to us to be dead; he is not urging Christians to die; he is not, at this point, enforcing any obligation at all; he is not yet talking about the mortification of sin, by which we put sin to death. There is no demand here at all; it is a statement, a proposition which Paul affirms to be true of every Christian believer – “you died.” Paul is not even saying, “You are dying.” That again is a biblical truth – believers are dying to sin, they are mortifying the sin that is in their members. And although that is truth, it is not the truth which is taught here, because what is before us here is not a process of dying, it is the fact of death. The apostle is not talking about a line, he is talking about a point, a definite moment at the new birth when every Christian died! It is not that they are dying. It is that they are dead. Definitive mortification! We say that it is an event not a process. We could say that it is punctiliar, not linear.

Paul is not even simply saying to us that we are in a state of death. No! He is saying to us that in the life of every Christian there has already occurred the event of dying. There is no more breathing, and no more electrical activity in the brain, and rigor mortis has set in. There is an inner chill of death. He is saying this to us – you died! It is funda­mental to Paul’s practical application of his Christian teaching. The Christian believer is a person who has died. At a par­ticular point in his past life, there is this completed event, there is this past experience; there has been this definitive, once-for-all, irreversible actuality – the believer has died.

What does Paul mean? He tells us in Romans 6 that the believer is a person who has died to sin. He is not a person who has died to the influence of sin. He is not a person who is without sin, but he is a person who has died to the dominion of sin. Sin still rages within the Christian believer, but sin does not reign in any single Christian believer, and Paul’s exhortation is not simply, ‘Don’t let sin reign,’ it goes beyond that to the categorical assertion, sin shall not reign. It is absolutely impossible that sin shall reign in any Christian believer. It is not to sin that we are slaves. When sin orders us, “Don’t trust in Jesus Christ! Pour contempt on Calvary! Stop going to church. Stop praying. Don’t give God a single thought,” now that we are born again we refuse to obey. We cannot obey. Once we used to obey sin, just like the whole world. We said “Yes sir,” as we cowered before sin and we did what sin told us to do, ignoring Jesus Christ and his salvation. We were prisoners to sin. The great biblical indictment is there in Galatians 3:22 “the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.” Sin exercises its tyranny over the life of the world so that there was nothing in the lives of men and women, as there was nothing in our lives, but sin. An unbeliever, as a prisoner of sin, is incapable of saying to God, “I do this for your sake, because I love you and love my neighbour as myself. I do it to your glory.” He cannot give that obedience to God at all for “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11. 6). That man who is joined to Christ he alone is capable of a real obedience, but even he is unable yet to offer to God perfect obedience.

So Paul here is speaking of a definitive moment when the Christian died to sin, when he, by the grace of God, shook off and ended the tyranny of sin. The apostle is saying to us, “Will you please try and appreciate the tremendous change that has taken place in your lives and characters, so that you who were previously totally averse to all that was godly and opposed to all that was spiritual, you are now capable of the real obedience of Christian faith and Christian repentance.”

The killing work of God in our lives at salvation means this, as Paul says to the Colossians 3, we “have put off the old man.” We are not simply dying, we have died, and we have died in this sense, that we have done with the old man once and for all. Now Paul did not mean that we have finished with indwelling sin. He recognized that the power of sin continued in his own present Christian life. The good that he would he did not do and the evil that he would not do he found himself doing and he cried out, “Oh wretched man that I am who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” But Paul knew something else too, some thing that was very wonderful to him and enormously inspirational to us too, that the unregenerate man that he once was, the persecutor of the church and the blasphemer of Christ has now ceased to be. All the other Jesus-hating Pharisees would go searching for Saul of Tarsus in their conventions and gatherings and they would never find him in those places because he had gone! That Christ despiser is no more to be found.

Now one can go on and expound and expatiate upon all the sin of which we are conscious in ourselves, how weak and inconsistent and hypocritical we are, but whatever the failings of every believer, and whatever power sin may exercise still in our lives as Christians, we are not the men or women that we used to be. There is not a Christian here who has the right to deem himself the man that he had once been, and what is more he doesn’t have the right to live like the man that he once was. The un­regenerate man, dead in sins, has ceased to be; the carnal mind that was enmity against God, that has ceased to be. The human being who was totally incapable of receiving the things of the Spirit of God; that has ceased to be. The man who was dead in trespasses and sins is no more. The believer is not an unregenerate and a regenerate man. He is not a man with a new heart and an old heart. He is, and he is only, a regenerate man. He has, and he has only, a new heart. He has only the one nature, the one human nature, transformed by the grace of Almighty God. The man dead in sins, the carnal man, the unregenerate man – that man has absolutely ceased to be. He is dead and gone. That is our past; that is definitive mortification. Our regeneration and our union with Jesus Christ represent a break, and it is a decisive break, with what we used to be. So every Christian has died to the dominion of sin. That is the second biblical proposition; the Christian has died to the domination and tyranny of sin over him.


We must acknowledge that God could have removed from us – even at the occasion of our salvation – every trace of sin. He could have wholly sanctified us then and there if that were his desire. He did very much for us at that time didn’t he, above all that we asked or even thought? He freely gave each one of us all things with Christ, didn’t he? Before we knew what we needed from him he gave us such privileges as total forgiveness for all our sins – past sins, present sins and future sins. He imputed to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ, all the loveliness of our Lord and his obedience even to the death of the cross laid to our account. God then gave us a new heart; he put a new spirit within us; he gave us saving trust in himself. He then gave us a new Master and ended the tyranny of sin over us. He then gave us the privilege of adoption into his family. He then gave us a glorious inheritance, making us co-heirs with Jesus the Son of God. He then joined us to Christ like a vine is in a branch so that the life of Christ could flow into us. He then gave us the baptism of the Holy Spirit so that by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. He then gave us the Holy Spirit as a seal sealing us until the day of Christ. He then sat us down in the heavenlies in Jesus as our eternal status. He promised that from that moment on he would supply all our needs richly and he would ensure that all things would work together for our good. He would allow nothing whatsoever to separate us from his love. All this he gave us, long before we had any inkling that we had to have all those blessings and resources and that status. He blessed us exceeding abundantly above all that we could ask or even think. Our life in Christ has been simply one discovery after another of the truth that having Christ we have also got everything else. God didn’t explain to us as the years went by what we needed, and then wait and make us agonize and intercede until finally he grudgingly gave us that blessing and then another blessing. No! He blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ. He dealt with us in grace not according to our understanding. He omitted nothing, but one thing he did not do at our regeneration and that was to make us perfect in holiness, even though he could have. He reserved Christ-likeness until the moment we shall meet the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. Then, when we see him, we shall be like him, but not before.

So it is made perfectly clear to us in Scripture that we have to live our entire lives as Christians confronting the remnants of sin within us. What is the consequence of that? The consequence is strife; there is ongoing war between ourselves – renewed and indwelt by the Holy Spirit – and remaining sin. That conflict is what we meet in the Bible isn’t it? We see it in Galatians 5:16&17; “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” Our flesh is fed up at its juxtaposition alongside our renewed spiritual nature, but the two cannot to parted. I as to my flesh and I as to my spirit are chained together. There is no possibility of a separation and no possibility of a truce. There is ongoing war; the flesh is always trying to prevent our obedience, trying to trip us up, turning down the thermostat of our hearts so that they grow cold, putting stumbling blocks in front of us each day, encouraging resentful critical thoughts of others, making us bitter and justifying our weak discipleship. There is ongoing conflict, and so we find that we cannot obey God absolutely perfectly as we would.

Again you find the conflict described in Romans chapter 7; “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Roms 7:15). Again he says, “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Roms. 7:18&19). He says again, “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (Roms 7:21-23). James describes our defeats in this fight like this, “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (Ja.1:14&15).

So here is a battle we are engaged in that will never end until we see the Saviour. Face up to this reality. Know your enemy. That is half the victory, knowing who is attacking you. Don’t be surprised by him. The acorns of every sin are in the lives of us all. The sins that brought down Adam and Eve and Abraham and Lot and Jacob and Gideon and Manasseh and Jonah and Peter are all in our lives too. The sins that disgust you the most are in seed form in your life. The actions evil men perform that make you draw in your breath and say to your best friend, “How could anyone do a thing like that?” – I am warning you that the seed of that sin is in your life, and that in the right environment it would begin to grow.

It is because of this conflict that the Lord and his servants exhort us, “Watch and pray! Put on all the armour of God! Awake! Don’t sleep like others! Stand in an evil day and having done all stand! Yield not to temptation!” He exhorts his disciples because of the enemy within. There have been religious movements that have promised an end to the fighting between the Spirit and the flesh. A hundred years ago an American speaker and writer named Charles Trumbull wrote a book called The Life that Wins. He wrote in that book, “I have learned that as I trust Christ for surrender, there need be no fighting against sin, but complete freedom from the power, and even the desire of sin.” What an error! There is no secret that any preacher in all the world possesses by which any one of us can learn to escape from the activity of sin within us. I prefer roaring, spitting, shouting, angry sin to quiet sin. Sin is never so dangerous as when it is quiet. Sin is never less quiet than when it is most quiet. When sin is quiet we are to be most on our guard.

One of my teachers was Dr. Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia. He was in his seventies when he taught me. There was once a Saturday student conference and the IVCF group of students from the Philadelphia universities came to our campus and there was a question session at the end. A student got up and asked Dr Van Til a question. “Dr. Van Til, isn’t there a sense in which as you get older, sins that once bothered you no longer do so?” Van Til, his finger shaking, answered the question energetically. ‘Young man, that is incipient perfectionism. The greatest battles I fight now are the same battles I fought as a student.” The fight never ends; on our death beds we are fighting it.

So you will sympathize with a new Christian who says to you one day, “Before I was a Christian, in some ways, things seemed easier. Now I find I’ve got new problems: I find myself at war with myself.” You know your response, “Praise the Lord!” You’re glad to hear that, because that is how it should be. That is the mark of the activity of the Holy Spirit in your life challenging the corrupt and compromising patterns of your life which have gone on and on unchallenged until you were born of the Spirit. Of course it had to be psychologically easier before your conversion. There was no indwelling Spirit. You could sing, “I did it my way . . .” There was no pressure being brought to bear on you by God the Holy Spirit to change your sinful attitudes and ways. Once you are born from above immediately your flesh is no longer having its own way and it lashes out and it kicks against you. New problems, yes. An internal war, yes.


I have read to you one of the places in the Bible where the word ‘mortify’ is found in the Authorized Version in the majestic eighth chapter of Romans and the 13th verse: “If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” There is I believe just one other place where the exhortation is found clothed in those exact words, and it is in Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the third chapter where again Paul exhorts his readers to mortify or “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Cols. 3:5). You say, “Just two places in the A.V. where the very ‘mortify’ is found?” Yes, but because of the brevity of the references to that word we’re not to think that this activity is rather a fringe optional activity that is found only in a few by-paths in Scripture. Let us see others . . .

You find it in the Old Testament, for example when David is praying and he says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart O God, you will not despise” (Psa. 51:17). Such a broken heart and spirit is the fruit of mortification. David knew that remaining sin is proud. It tells you to ignore God and to do things your way. But regenerate and repentant David is here praying for a broken spirit and a contrite heat. In other words, he is praying for his ego to be shattered. Again David prays for this in Psalm 141; “Set a guard over my mouth O God; keep watch over the door of my lips. Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil.” Put the brakes on my flight into evil! That is David’s prayer that he would be helped to fight against the flesh. You find mortification often in the psalms.

Then our Lord Jesus himself teaches us about remaining sin and battling against that. He disdains the Pharisees’ obsession with outward ritual, with washing their hands and arms ceremonially before every meal. Christ said, “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man`unclean’. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man`unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him`unclean’” (Matt. 15:17-20). Our problem is an internal problem, he tells us, and we have to set our mind zealously on that, not on external things like ceremonies with water . . . holy water? They’re not the essence of religion at all. We have to deal with the flesh, because if we don’t deal with it then it’s going to deal with us, increasingly powerfully, and gain the mastery over us. It will make us unclean if we don’t control it.

Jesus tells us most solemnly about mortifying remaining sin in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said,`Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt. 5:27-30). The picture is of a gangrenous limb, and if it is not amputated then the infection is going to spread and spread. It will destroy the rest of the body. Cut it off if you want life. The Lord Jesus is urging us to be merciless in battling the lusts of the flesh for the sake of eternal life, for the sake of our usefulness in the church, for the sake of the glory of God. The alternative is that we end up in hell.

Then there is the apostle Paul, and he teaches us mortification by using his observation of the behaviour of athletes. We sometimes hear of the utter humiliation and destruction of a fine athlete whose unmortified longing for alcohol has virtually ended his sporting career. He knew that he had to discipline his body in order to perform at a high level of sporting excellence, but he didn’t know that he’d failed to discipline his spirit. This is what Paul says; “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (I Cors. 9:24-27). That is mortification, treating remaining sin like a rottweiler guard dog, making sure it does nothing, nothing at all – it doesn’t utter a growl – without some express permission from you. A little girl is running past it, and it does not twitch! So you are in control of your body. Paul says, “I make it my slave.” Remaining sin is not a free spirit. The flesh will plead with you, “Release me . . . let me go . . . You want me to enjoy my life don’t you?” speaking so plaintively. But if you listen to its voice then you will destroy yourself and many others. How can you preach to others the liberty of the children of God if you are evidently enslaved to your lusts? I’m not speaking these things just from my knowledge of what the Bible says, but from my own sad acquaintance with my own heart.

Then there is the writer to the Hebrews, and he speaks of this same theme of putting to death remaining sin. This is how he expresses it in very familiar words in the opening words of Hebrews chapter 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Now the picture here is of a marathon run. If you are not dressed up like Donald Duck you lay aside heavy loose clothes, and so we lay aside everything that hinders us from completing the course. We run to win! That’s the Christian life. There is a fight to be fought and a race to be run and dangers to meet by the way. So there is the Scriptural evidence that the theme of remaining sin and putting it to death is familiar biblical teaching. In other words, God the Holy Ghost has caused this to be written clearly for our soul’s good.

So mortification is weakening and strangling that living force within us which we know to be actually fighting against God. To mortify is to take away its power, so that it cannot act according to its nature. You are not feeding it and it becomes feebler. Its vigour is depleted. You have weakened its determination to resist “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable . . . excellent or praiseworthy” (Phil. 4:8). You are encouraging those graces.


Mortification is only half of the way that this battle with sin is won. Mortification is not THE secret to the Christian life. It is a danger, I suppose when you first discover it, to imagine that it is. This truth is neglected and so we who have discovered its importance in the Bible can absolutize it. Some seem to set out on a mission proclaiming that this is the silver bullet of successful discipleship. I say that we are to explain mortification and its necessity, and apply it to our lives but in balance with all other Christian truths that deal with the means of holy and God-honouring living. There are parallel truths to be noted. One is putting to death sin, but there is another and that is looking unto Jesus Christ. They are as inseparable as the two sides of a ten pound note. A picture of the Queen is on one side and a picture of Charles Darwin is on the other side. You cannot have a ten pound note with a picture of just one of them, and I know whose picture we would choose. So it is in the teaching of the Bible there are two ways to serve God better and grow in honouring him; one is mortifying the flesh, and the other is trusting in Jesus with all your heart.

Let’s see this in a passage we have already considered, the opening verses of Hebrews 12, verses one through three; “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” [that is mortification] “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” [that is fixing our eyes on the Lord Jesus]. Can you see the perfect balance of those two exhortations beginning “Let us . . .”; throwing off everything that hinders is balanced by fixing our eyes upon Jesus? You can see how the two are essential. If the Christian life were only to be lived by cutting off the right hand that offends, and plucking out the eye, and beating my body and making it a slave, and killing remaining lusts then what the apostle writes in these verses to the Hebrews would be the experience of all of us, we would “grow weary and lose heart” (Hebs. 12:3). Each day would be another day of fighting against sin. We would come to feel like Matthew Arnold’s character in Sohrab and Rustum when he says,

“But now in blood and battles was my youth

And full of blood and battles is my age,

And I shall never end this life of blood.”

But the Christian life is not like that. Certainly you shall never end the life of struggling against sin and resisting even “to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebs.12:4). But there is another delightful and demanding duty that we are to perform, and that is to appropriate our great Saviour who of God is made to us our prophet and priest and king. Every morning and each day and hour and every passing moment we look to him, “I can only get by today by your help.” The dynamics of the relationship of mortification with trusting in Christ have been made plain to us by Robert Murray M’Cheyne, for every look at your sins you take ten looks at the Lord Jesus. We turn our eyes upon Jesus and look full in his wonderful face, as often as we can. We can never look at him enough.

There are two very valuable books. They were both written within a few years of one another by Puritan pastor-preachers. The first was written by Irving Ambrose and is entitled, Looking Unto Jesus, and the second was written by John Owen and it is entitled The Mortification of Sin. You need the truths in which both authors glory, one seeing Jesus in every part of the Bible so that we see him in every part of life, and the other book by Owen is full of exhortation about putting to death the sin that so easily besets us.

August 12 2012 GEOFF THOMAS.

*The most helpful book on this theme is still John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin, abridged and made easy to read by Richard Rushing (Banner of Truth 2004). The Banner of Truth has also published a study guide booklet of the same title outlined by Rob Edwards. Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor have brought together three books of Owen in a large 450 page paperback and they coined the title Overcoming Sin and Temptation; it has a foreword by John Piper (Crossway). This is an expensive volume but you do get three basic books of Owen on this theme. Then Kris Lundgaard has written The Enemy Within (P&R Publishing) in which the author presents Owen’s teaching. But I did not find much on the mortification of sin. It is simply written, 150 pages in length