by Mike Ratliff
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV)
The 21st Century version of pop-Christianity is not doctrinally sound. That should not surprise us since those most of influence in it elevate human philosophy up to the highest esteem while looking at Orthodox Christianity and its solid biblical doctrines as passé or old-fashioned or something to be phased out to make room for what is culturally relevant. One of the components of this “pop-Christianity” consists of using cool buzzwords like “missional.” Within that paradigm, there are other cool buzzwords like “incarnational” and “Spiritual Formation.” I have yet to see a denominational or church group go down the path of a “missional” focus that does not also emphasize the necessity of being “incarnational” and that that must be preceded by a church-wide emphasis on Spiritual Formation. “Incarnational” is a buzzword that refers to a church becoming culturally relevant. It calls for its members to alter how everything is done in the church in order for those outside of it to not feel threatened so they will come in and become part of it. They attempt to make the church look just like the culture they are attempting to be part of. They are trying to fit the church in. A crucial step in doing this is Spiritual Formation in which the members go through spiritual disciplines in order to enhance their ‘spiritual maturity.’ This is focused on things like transcendental meditation, yoga, et cetera.
None of this is biblical. It is a drive to make churches be just like the world in order to be acceptable by it. As I grow in Christian maturity I find that I am being drawn into becoming more and more separate from the world, to remove those markers from my life that make me worldly or be like the world, to actually mortify or kill the sin my flesh desires. Christian maturity is a call to become more and more holy and that means separate from the ways and standards of this lost and dying world. Christians who are more mature should take on the role of those who disciple. That is, they should come along side the less mature believers God brings into their influence in order to lead them into something far superior to anything that would come from spiritually bankrupt ‘Spiritual Formation.’
One of the reasons that pop-Christianity has such a hold in our time is that the deterioration and erosion of solid discipleship through biblical exposition has become more and more prevalent over the last 100+ years. C.H. Spurgeon in the late 19th Century noted its rise as the Great Down-Grade Controversy. This has only gotten worse as man-focused religiosity has replaced Bible-focused and God-centered discipleship and evangelism. In our time, the greatest sin seems to be to cause offense. No one is willing to stand firm and be bold with God’s truth. Carefully read the passage I placed at the top of this post. Is that politically incorrect or what? Well, that is God’s truth. The Gospel is offensive because it calls all people sinners and completely unworthy of salvation. However, those called by God to believe are also called to live a life of repentance. That means that within the Lordship of Jesus Christ they learn to walk through their Sanctification in continual mortification of their sin. The Puritans understood this. However, as compromise has consumed the will of the Church with no one wanting to risk offending anyone, this sort of teaching is rare indeed.
At our salvation, God justified us, but that is a forensic declaration by God as He imputes Christ’s Righteousness to our account. However, other than our regeneration, which makes us spiritually alive in Christ, we still have the reality of sin within us that is keyed to our flesh. Hence, the work of sanctification in our lives becomes the key to true Spiritual Maturity in Christ. Since the vast majority of professing Christians are ignorant of what I am talking about here and see doctrinal words like Justification and Sanctification through ignorance, let us take a closer look at this work of sanctification that God does in each of His children.
What is Sanctification?
According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q.35), sanctification is “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.” It is a continuing change worked by God in us, freeing us from sinful habits and forming in us Christlike affections, dispositions, and virtues. It does not mean that sin is instantly eradicated, but it is also more than a counteraction, in which sin is merely restrained or repressed without being progressively destroyed. Sanctification is a real transformation, not just the appearance of one.1
Is our sanctification solely a work of God or our work or some sort of combination?
God’s working in us [in sanctification] is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work.2
Therefore, within that context, let us look at the key verse that John Owen used as the foundation for all of his works on the mortification of sin in the believer.
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. (Romans 8:13 ESV)
13 εἰ γὰρ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆτε, μέλλετε ἀποθνῄσκειν· εἰ δὲ πνεύματι τὰς πράξεις τοῦ σώματος θανατοῦτε, ζήσεσθε. (Romans 8:13 NA28)
if (ει) for (γαρ) by (κατα) flesh (σαρκα) you live (ζητε), you are about (μελλετε) to die (αποθνησκειν); if (ει) but (δε) in spirit (πνευματι) the (τας) practices (πραξεις) of the (του) body (σωματος) you put to death (θανατουτε), you will live (ζησεσθε). (Romans 8:13 word-for-word translation from Koine Greek to English)
We must interpret this passage in light of Romans 8:1-3:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, (Romans 8:1-3 ESV)
Therefore, when we look at v13 we should understand that those being sanctified by God are those whom He has set free in Christ from the law of sin and death. This is not something He is doing for those outside of Christ. Also, I hear from quite a few readers who are struggling with their flesh and the pervasive sins that seem to cling to them. They worry that this is proof that they are not really saved. Well, no, that is not what that means. If one is consumed by sin and there is no struggle to repent nor any conviction or drive to repent then I would say that is probably the case, but if a believer is fighting the fight and is struggling with persistent sins then he or she is truly in the middle of working to be sanctified as God is also working in them to mature them in Christ. What is needed is a clearer understanding of both the necessity of and means to mortify these sins as a way of walking the Christian life. The key for us in learning this is that we must not confuse our Justification with our Sanctification.
The Apostle Paul, in Romans 8:13, tells us clearly both the cause and the means that our sanctification takes place, ει δε πνευματι, “but if by the Spirit.”
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. 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. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:9-15 ESV)
Carefully read this passage. Here we learn that all in Christ have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. He gave us spiritual life, and it was through His work that we were adopted as sons by God Himself. Now, it is His working in us to mortify our sins that is the only means that works. If we try to mortify our sins ourselves through self-strength then we will fail and the best we could ever do is to end up in self-righteousness. Look at all the false religions throughout the world and you will see that this is their basis. True Christianity alone gives believers both the cause and means of their sanctification.
What is this mortification? What does it mean to mortify the deeds of the body? These deeds are the acts that come from our corrupt and depraved natures outside of the grace of God. This is our natural man. These are the deeds of the flesh.
Having, both in the seventh and the beginning of this chapter, treated of indwelling lust and sin as the fountain and principle of all sinful actions, he here mentions its destruction under the name of the effects which it doth produce. ‘The deeds of the body’, are as much as ‘the wisdom of the flesh’ (Rom. 8:6), by a figure of the same nature with the former; or as the ‘passions and lusts of the flesh’ (Gal. 5:24), whence the deeds and fruits of it do arise: and in this sense is ‘the body’ used (v. 10); ‘the body is dead because of sin’. 3
What does it mean to mortify or put to death, θανατουτε, these deeds of the body? This Greek word is used here as a metaphorical expression, taken from the putting of any living thing to death. Paul is telling us that to mortify the deeds of the body is to take away the principle of all its strength, vigor and power. We do this so that it cannot act or exert or put forth any actions of its own. Therefore, the mortification of indwelling sin remaining in our mortal bodies, that it may not have life and power to bring forth the works or deeds of the flesh, is the constant duty of believers. We are promised in Romans 8:13 that if we will do this we shall live. What does that mean?
The life promised is opposed to the death threatened in the clause foregoing, ‘if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die’; which the same apostle elsewhere expresseth; ‘ye shall of the flesh reap corruption’ (Gal. 5:8), or destruction from God. Now, perhaps, the word may not only intend eternal life, but also the spiritual life in Christ which here we have; not as the essence of being of it, which is already enjoyed by believers; but as to the joy, comfort and vigour of it: as the apostle says in another case, ‘Now I live, if ye stand fast’ (2 Thess. 3:8), now my life will do me good, I shall have joy and comfort with my life. ‘ Ye shall live’; lead a good, vigorous, comfortable, spiritual life whilst you are here, and obtain eternal life hereafter.
Supposing what was said before, of the connection between mortification and eternal life, as of means and end, I shall add only, as a second motive to the duty prescribed, that the vigour, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depend on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh. 4
There you have it my brethren. The mortification of sin is our duty since God has declared us righteous in Christ. We cannot be at peace with our flesh. Our flesh cannot control us. We cannot serve our flesh. However, if you look at pop-culture in this world, you see that that is the very focus of this lost and dying world. Therefore, we must not become conformed to it in any way, but we must come out from it and be separate. The vast majority of professing Christians are enslaved to their flesh. This should not be.
I have written on this topic many times. Below are links to a series I did back in the Fall of 2006. God has not changed and most of us are still walking as if we are the center of the Universe and God is not really in control. Carefully read each article and comment here if God leads you to do so.
Soli Deo Gloria!
1”Sanctification: The Spirit and the Flesh”, The Reformation Study Bible, p. 1650.
2John Murray, Redemption, Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1955; reprint, 1992), 148-149, emphasis original.
3John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, (Geanies House, Scotland, 1996), p 22.