by Mike Ratliff
O LORD, God of my salvation; I cry out day and night before you. Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry! For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; (Psalms 88:1-8 ESV)
Despite what many so-called Christian leaders are teaching in our day about the necessity of repentance in the life of the believer, the Word of God teaches us something entirely different. In it, we learn that the life, vigor, and comfort of our spiritual life depends much on our actively and deliberately mortifying the sin that clings so closely. This teaching has unfortunately been neglected much over the last several decades to the point that some scoff at its necessity in the Christian walk. However, if we go back and read the Puritans and others that came before we find that personal holiness has not always been neglected in the Church as it has been in our day.
If a professing Christian considers of little value spiritual strength, comfort, power, and peace in his or her walk with God then there is a problem. Why? The genuine believer, being a new creation with a new nature, deeply desires these things. He or she has a growing hatred of sin while their love of holiness is continually increasing. These are indicators of the working of God’s Spirit in the heart to sanctify the believer unto Christlikeness. These believers have an insatiable hunger and desire for a level of obedience to their Lord that is marked by spiritual strength, power, vigor, and life as they walk with God day by day. Along with this, he or she deeply desires peace, comfort, and consolation within that walk.
On the other hand, many professing believers see no value in any of those things. Their focus is elsewhere. Their desires are controlled by their lusts. Since their souls are not illuminated by God’s truth and grace, they become more and more darkened. Their ability to recognize what is true and what is false becomes distorted. It is these professing Christians who have constructed or participate in a form of religion they call Christian but its values and constructs are according to what seems right to man. Their sins are not mortified so their hearts are darkened.
However, many a good Christian, while deeply desiring to kill their sin and walk in holiness before their God, even as they are on a constant course of mortification all their days, never enjoy a good day of peace and consolation. We see this in the passage I placed at the top of this post. I can relate to Heman, who wrote this Psalm, because there are days that I feel much like this even as I prayerfully seek to kill the sins that are tempting me as my flesh demands to be fed. Heman’s life was one marked by a perpetual mortification and walking with God, however, terrors and wounds were his portion all his days. God singled out Heman for this walk. Why? He used Heman, his choice friend, to make him an example to those that are fighting the same battle who read Psalm 88 and find therein comfort and encouragement by God’s grace.
The blessings of the sin mortified walk help us in pursuit of affirmation, vigor, courage, and a spirit-filled life as the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God. Why? Victory over these sins keeps them from depriving us of fellowship and intimacy with God. On the other hand, when sin is allowed to live uncontested in the believer it will certainly weaken the soul, depriving it of its vigor while it also darkens the soul depriving it of comfort and peace.
The sin-weakened soul of the believer is deprived of spiritual strength. When David had sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband he then attempted to cover it up. However, the affects of this unmortified sin on David’s soul were dramatic.
There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. (Psalms 38:3-6 ESV)
Unmortified lust will drink up the spirit and all vigor of the soul, and weaken it for all duties. Why? It clouds and scrambles the heart itself, by entangling its affections. It diverts the heart from its proper focus, the glory of God, which is required for vigorous communion with Him. It lays hold on the affections, rendering its idol as its beloved and desirable, which expels the love of God (1 John 2:15; 3:17). What this does is place a veil of mist over the soul that removes certainty. The believer will walk from God to love his or her idol and in the process lose the desire to say uprightly and truly to God, “You are my portion.” He or she loses this because their idol is now the object of their love. This is not simply an act of disobedience isolated in itself. No, it also entangles fear, desire, and hope with this idol worship. These things should be full of God, but now the heart is darkened and entangled with a contender for the believer’s affections.
Not only does this idol worship drive a wedge between the believer and God in the heart, it also fills the believer’s thoughts and imaginations about it. Thoughts are the great purveyors of the soul, to bring in provision to satisfy its affections. When sin remains unmortified in the heart, these thoughts are bent on making provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts rather than on walking in repentance and communing with God. Believers captured by their flesh this way must continually lift up the objects of the flesh, and embrace them in order to receive satisfaction. To make this work, however, their imagination becomes defiled beyond all expression. Christians so captured by their flesh are also hindered in their Christian duty. Instead of worshipping and serving God, they are serving their idols in vain attempts to be fulfilled. These idols can be anything that the flesh sees as a potential object of self-gratification.
As sin weakens the soul, it also darkens it. This darkness is a cloud, a thick cloud, which covers the soul, intercepting all the beams of God’s love and favor. The sense of fulfillment that comes from contemplating one’s adoption into the family of God is taken away. Any sense of guilt or thoughts of consolation and turning back to God are quickly scattered by sin.
The believer’s who are sick and wounded under the power of lust often do cry to God for help. Their darkened souls remember, in a sense, how far they have fallen. However, they are not delivered until they come to acknowledge their offense. Any self-help cures to deal with a sin-sick heart will never work. Healing and repentance, which mortifies sin, begins with confession. This is the only means of the removal of the sin that has allowed the flesh to capture the soul.
Mortification prunes all the graces of God, and this makes room for them in our hearts so they may grow. The life and vigor of our spiritual lives consist in the vigor and flourishing of God’s grace in our hearts. My Dad used to be a wonderful gardener. However, he is in his late 80’s now and can no longer do that. The strip of land next to his house still resembles a garden somewhat, but instead of rows of tomato plants and corn and okra there are weeds. The fruit trees are still there, but now weeds instead of crops surround them. The ground is no longer tilled or fertilized. The contrast with the condition now with what it was only 5 years ago is striking. However, I know that if I or my brother or sister could move back to that area and take over that garden, things would change just as quickly. We would till up the ground. We would eradicate the weeds and apply fertilizer. Then we could plant good crops and they would thrive because we would tend them with water, pruning, and harvesting.
This is the duty of the Christian in the maintenance of the heart. Deliberate and active mortification of sin is necessary in order for the graces of the Spirit to grow in the heart. The believer who neglects this has a heart choked by weeds because sin is allowed to run free and his or her flesh rules their lives. He or she has a darkened soul. Even though they may indeed search for faith, love, and zeal, they will probably not be able to find any. By God’s grace, they may discover the weak and neglected remnants of them, but their hearts are so clogged with lusts, that they are of very little use to them. But now let the heart be cleansed by mortification of the weeds of lust being constantly and daily being rooted up! Let room be made for grace to thrive and flourish. Then will God’s grace act its part, and be ready for every use and purpose.
The Christian who works to continually deny self and crucify the flesh is actively and deliberately mortifying his or her sin. This is the soul’s vigorous opposition to self. In this is Christian authenticity most evident.
Soli Deo Gloria!