Hebrews 12:1 “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”
I wish to conclude this series of three messages on the subject of mortification by dealing with some of the means of attaining gospel mortification. I will do so by bringing to you five directives to encourage you to make progress in dealing with the remaining corruption of our inner man.
1. KEEP YOUR HEART FUELLED WITH GOSPEL MOTIVES.
Last month we had a visit to our mid-week meeting of a former student who hails from Monmouthshire. Her life as a Christian has not been easy, and not two years ago she lost her husband. Now she is the single parent of three children aged 8, 10 and 12. She has decided to move to west Africa to teach missionaries’ children in a Christian school. At the end of this year the four of them are flying out to this school which is run by the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade. She began by giving us her high motive for this sacrificial decision. She started to quote some memorable words of the founder of W.E.C., C.T.Studd; “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.” But she couldn’t complete that sentence without her voice cracking and having to take a few deep breaths – just like the gold medal winners in the recent Olympics. What is moving Fiona to say good-bye to her father, brother and friends and leave the U.K. for Africa? It is not simply bare obedience to a divine command. She has been constrained by the love that Jesus Christ has shown to her, love so amazing, so divine, demanding her life, her soul and her all. And I am saying that for any sacrifice we will make as Christians of our relationships, or our right hand, our right eye, our right foot then something more is required than, “Well, Jesus has said this and so I guess I’d better do it.”
Legal motives and principles such as a desire to avoid hell, a fear of the consequences of people finding out about my sin, a new year resolution to change, or a fear of the chastening rod of God – these are all insufficient. Every day there are men and women who are filled with motives like those to change, and yet they are failing constantly. The power of pride and the love of comfort soon conquers them and they are back in the same rut. A king called Felix trembled with a legally aroused conscience as Paul spoke to him about mortification – righteousness, self-control and judgment to come. But that King never repented and broke with his sin. So in the life of the true Christian if we are only motivated by grim legal principles – “Geoff Thomas tells me that I’ve got to put to death remaining sin,” – then we’ll never make any progress in Christ-likeness and deliverance from sin. You have to energize your heart with the sort of gospel motive that C.T.Studd supplies.
What are gospel motives? I mean those motives to change and improve my discipleship that are rooted in the free grace of God and in the Christ who is set before us in the gospel in the perfection of his work and in the glory of his person. All the motives that derive from him and his work – they are gospel motives.
The apostle Paul indicates that this was the powerful motive which was constantly operative in his life, “For the love of Christ constrains us” [2 Cor 5.14]. We teach it to the children; “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” He loved me and he gave himself for me and Paul knew it and it had provided him with such energy and self-sacrificing service for the Lord Jesus and the souls of men. Paul was an irresistible force of divine love and wisdom, so that at the close of many a day he would drop exhausted into bed. If you were to say to him, “Paul, what is it that drives you on with this almost extreme passion to preach the gospel, to rescue men as brands from the burning, to establish men in the truth as you write your letters, to give yourself to the formation and the edification of the churches ?” then Paul would reply, “If you want to know in a simple statement the secret of what drives me, it is this: the love of Christ holds me in its grip, it constrains me. I stand in constant amazement that the Son of God loved a persecuting, blaspheming wretch like me so that he gave himself for me.” This was the gospel motive which drove Paul with far more zeal than any legal motive could possibly drive a man.
So I am saying that for effective mortification of sin the determination to kill sin must be inspired by the love of Jesus Christ. You see an example of gospel motives mortifying sin in the case of Joseph. Potiphar’s wife sets her eyes upon Joseph and she lusts after him. She tempts him day after day, until finally the situation is ripe for the downfall of this young man. She actually lays hold of him physically. Joseph’s reaction is this, “How can I do this thing” – and what? Run the risk of hell? No! Ruin my reputation? No! Risk my life when her husband finds out? No! He said, “How can I do this thing and sin against God.” You see, his heart was furnished with a gospel motive. His God had graciously preserved him when his brothers sought his ruin; his God had delivered him from the cistern into which they had thrown him; his God had kept him from the death they had plotted for him; his God had brought him to that present hour. He was tempted by the fact that his sin could have been totally or completely covered from the eyes of men (no one would have known), the fact that they could both have become willing participants, but it was the sense of the presence of his redeeming and protecting heavenly Father, that was what preserved Joseph from the seductions of the wife of Potiphar. The Lord Jesus tell us that this should be the mainspring of all our obedience. He said “If a man love me, he will keep my commandments.” Why should we cut off the right hand and pluck out the right eye? Because the onewho loves us whom we love in return tells us to do that. And so in the light of this principle let me give you three exhortations – one positive and two negative.
i] If we are serious about mortification (the putting to death of remaining and indwelling sin), we must seriously employ all the means of grace, public and private, in order to keep the heart well supplied with gospel principles. What happens when you neglect the secret place? The thought of Christ crucified, amazement at his love, begins to get more out of focus and marginalized. What happens when you are no longer sitting under the best ministry you can hear each Sunday, when you are no longer blending your voice with theirs in singing ‘Amazing grace how sweet the sound’? What happens when you neglect the Lord’s Table where Christ’s dying love is set before you symbolically in the elements of the bread and wine? Gospel motives begin to recede in the mind and in the affections and therefore we are not as fortified to face sin as we would have been had the heart been kept well supplied with gospel principles. So my first exhortation is, ‘Be diligent in the use of all the means of grace, public and private, with the prayer that in all of them Christ himself will draw near to you.’
ii] The second exhortation is, ‘Beware of anything which bleeds away the vigour and the reality of Gospel principles in your heart.’ For example there is the area of music. Does the music you are hearing on the Lord’s Day help you to hear more clearly such an important theme as putting to death remaining sin? Does it give you a repentant view of man’s depravity? Does it lead you to search your heart and not just tap your feet and lift your hands? Does it get beyond the realm of feeling to duties to be done in obedience to Christ? Does it bring you to a place where you loathe your sin and want nothing to do with it other than mortify it? Does it encourage you to disciplined godly living? Does it help you separate yourself from the values and attitudes of the world? Is the music you hear more at home in the club, in the pub, in the brothel, with other group entertainments? What voices are you hearing in the music? Does it appeal to the sensual or the spiritual? Does it stimulate pure appetites or impure? Does it help or hinder the mortification of remaining sin? Is this the music which you can imagine being used to draw people into full time Christian service? Can you imagine God the Father enjoying that music? Is it serious music? Does it promote peace and reverence and a hunger for holiness?
Again, consider the area of entangling and distracting relationships. If you want a good test of whether or not your budding romance is of God, ask yourself whether time with this young woman or this young man make your heart more sensible to gospel motives? Is Christ’s love to you more real after you have spent an evening together? Is it easier for you to go down on my knees and sing to your Saviour, ‘My Jesus, I love Thee’ after I have said ‘I love you’ to that young woman or to that young man? Be sure that if any relationship causes Gospel motives and principles to weaken in your heart that that relationship is not of God. Some inordinate conduct has entered into the relationship and is weakening its sanctifying influence. Beware of anything which bleeds away the vigour and the reality of gospel motives within the heart.
iii] Again, thirdly, beware of falling back under legal principles. The human heart by nature is either antinomian or it is legalistic and only grace can keep it within the orbit of grace. Left to itself, human nature will either go into antinomianism and say, “Since I am under grace, I may live as I please,” or else it will go into legalism. It happened in the early Church, hence the epistle to the Galatians, the letter of James, the first epistle of John. We fall so easily under legal principles, drifting back under the sense that it is our conduct which forms the basis of our acceptance before God. We think to ourselves, “If I am a good boy or if I am a good girl, then I can pray with liberty because I have had a measure of victory. I have gone for three or four days without falling into my besetting sin, and so I can come straight into the presence of God with no reminder that I am a sinner who comes through the mediation of Christ.” That is falling under legal principles and it will not be long before you will be crippled by a tragic fall, because legal principles cannot hold you in the way of Gospel obedience. So keep your heart fuelled with gospel principles.
2. KEEP YOUR CONSCIENCE SENSITIVE TO THE GUILT AND DANGER OF THE SIN THAT SO EASILY BESETS YOU.
The battle against remaining sin is difficult enough when we regard our enemies as enemies, but if we begin to look upon our enemies as neutral observers or even as friends the battle is lost. You must keep staring your enemy in the eye, as in the old days in the West, when the two cowboys with their six-shooters came walking down facing one another, they always kept their eyes right on the other man. They watched each other’s hands – “that is my enemy.” You see, as long as they regarded each other as enemies there was some measure of safety – for one of them anyway! The man who took his eyes off his enemy and began to turn around and raise his hat to his friends and say “How d’y do”, was done for. So too you must stare your specific sin straight in the eye and say, “You are my enemy, you are out to destroy me. But Christ in me is out to destroy you.” As long as you look at him as your enemy there is safety. The minute you begin to look upon him as a neutral observer or friend, all is lost.
How does one keep the conscience sensitive to both the guilt and the danger of besetting sins ? Let me give several suggestions.
i]. By bringing your specific sins to the light of God’s law in its full purity again and again. 1 Timothy 1 is the classic passage indicating the right use of the law, and in that passage the Apostle Paul says , “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers–and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me” (I Tim. 1:8-11). The law is God’s instrument to expose sin for what it is all the way from the gross obvious forms of sensuousness to those refined sins which are contrary to the standards of the Gospel. The Sermon on the Mount is powerful in showing us the inward nature of sin, anger, and pride and lust. When you begin to congratulate yourself that you haven’t fallen into sins of violence you read our Lord’s words about rage and calling your brother a fool. Romans chapter 12 does the same and Ephesians chapters 5 and 6. So the conscience is kept sensitive to the guilt and danger of your specific sins.
ii] By bringing those sins to the light of the gospel in all of its glory. See your sin in the light of the self-emptying of Christ. Address the sin that so easily besets you and say, “Is this what caused him to leave the ineffable glory of his Father’s presence, to come to the confines of the virgin’s womb, to be born amidst the stench of a cow barn – from the adoring wonder of angels to the rude, dumb stare of cows and goats? Was it for sin that I had done he groaned upon the tree?” Bring those sins to the Cross of Christ, hear the voice of the Son of God, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” and in your own minds hear the Father’s voice saying, “My son I have forsaken you because of that sin of Mr. So and so . . . that sin.” Name your sin and dare to bring it into the blazing light of that awful darkness. There is no light like that darkness to show sin in its true colour. Keep the conscience sensitive to the guilt and danger of your specific sins bringing them to the law in its purity, to the Gospel in all its glory.
3. AVOID THE PERILOUS OCCASIONS OF SIN.
This is another way of mortifying remaining sin, and perhaps there is no exhortation more needed for young Christians than this. Remember Jesus counseling his disciples saying to them, “Watch and pray that ye enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). And how is that weakness to be overcome? By watching and by praying. And what is ‘watching’? It is keeping your eyes open to see the hazard lights flashing and avoiding known occasions to sin. Let me illustrate. I have a daughter who happens to be sensitive to cats. If a cat comes into the room her eyes will start closing and streaming. Cats produce that reaction, and she begins to wheeze and her eyes will water and burn. Knowing this, she must live accordingly. If someone asks her and her husband out for a meal she has to ask if there are cats in the house. Some of you may have a similar problem from feathers or pollen or dust. And so, if you hate the wheezing and sneezing and the itching that comes, you watch, you just have to have enough good sense to avoid pillow fights, flower gardens and funeral parlours. The hall where we have our 7 a.m. Friday morning Prayer Meeting, “Arise to Pray”, is hired the night before every February 14 and every Mother’s Day by a local florist and we never seem to be prepared for the sight and odours in that room full of flowers. We have to hurriedly find a little room away from all those blooms because one woman in particular is allergic to a room of flowers. She has to avoid every known occasion which provokes an allergic reaction.
You can see what I am going to say. You and I must show our resolution to be mortifying sin by avoiding all known provocations to fall into some particular sin. John Owen says, “He that dares to dally with occasions of sin will also dare to sin. He that will venture upon temptations to wickedness will also venture upon wickedness itself.”
Let me illustrate and apply that in this way. You may happen to possess as one of your besetting sins a hair-trigger temper, and you know that if you have cheated on your regular hours of sleep through late night TV that you will be more tempted to be quick and short with wife or brother or sister or room-mate. The proof that you really mean it when you say, “O God, conquer this ungovernable spirit of sharpness,” is that you discipline yourself to get to bed when you know you ought to. Now that does not sound very spiritual but it is scriptural. You know, there is an awful lot that is scriptural that does not sound spiritual. You can fast and pray for forty days and nights and get no victory if you are not using the means appointed. You have found that an indiscriminate watching of television is a provocation to resist God’s will for where you are now and what you are doing now. You want the sort of luxurious, exciting lifestyle you see in the stars of the telly. It is not a help to you in accepting God’s will. So you avoid that world. It has been a pleasure to watch some of the athletics and cycle races in the Olympics in the past weeks. We watched the opening of the Olympics with a distinct purpose and pleasure, and it was all the more enjoyable because it was quite limited, and a one off. It was a specific programme and we watched it for a certain reason, and when it was done we turned it off. That is the best kind of TV watching, the great crises and dramas and royal weddings.
In courtship you have to avoid the known occasions to fall. You are willing to subject yourself to physical surroundings that make fornication impossible. God does not say ‘Pray about your fornication.’ He says ‘Flee it.’ I think that is significant. Flee fornication! Women can help with an attractive modesty in dress. Hold up every piece of garment before the mirror and dare to say, “Lord Jesus, can I wear this to your glory?” In other words your professed Christianity embraces your hemline and neckline. Dress is not amoral and purely cultural. There are times when you mortify fashion.
4. STRIKE AT THE FIRST RISINGS OF SIN.
The first proposals of sin are often very modest. Sin smiles at us and says, “How are things?” So we relax . . . “I can go along with this without any danger.” But you remember that whatever its first approach might be, the ultimate end of sin is always the same. Look at James 1.14 and 15; “but 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.” This is the anatomy of sin. A man is tempted; he is drawn by his own remaining sin and enticed; then when he gives in to the desire, there is conception. The child that is born is sin, maybe only a small sin to start, nonetheless a living sin, and a healthy sin, and a growing sin that develops and gives birth to death. So no matter how modest the first proposals of sin may be, its ultimate consummation is death. The purpose of the lecherous man entering the company is to find a woman. His first encounter always begins with modest banter. There is the old Flanders and Swann song; “Have some Madeira my dear. I have a case of it here. And we have to drink it, it really won’t keep, so have some Madeira my dear.” That man has one thing on his mind – the destruction of the purity of another woman.
So sin comes to us with some modest proposals. “Indulge me this little bit, give quarter for a brief moment.” But, men and women, never forget sin’s real intention. Every stirring of anger, if it had its way, would lead to violence. Every doubt on any miracle of Scripture, if it had its way, would lead to the ultimate denial of God and of every truth of the Bible. Every breathing of pride in its first stirrings, if it had its way, would run and tear the crown off God’s head. Every unclean thought, if it had its way, would lead us actually to wallow in the slough of lechery. Strike, I say, at the first risings of sin. Sin’s proposals are modest, and if you once let them gain ground in your affections, it will affect your reasoning. Common sense, let alone a Christian conscience, will disappear. There is a madness about infatuation. Never debate with your passions. Passion has never lost a debate yet. The most powerful persuasive debater is sinful passion leading to gossip, to envy, to personal hostility, to pride, to church splits. What do they call it? ‘Just differences of personality,’ or ‘personality clashes.’ “That is all it is,” they say and fail to see the power of envy or pride behind the explosion. That is one of those modest explanations that sin makes, that you are just approaching things in a different way from others, and it pleads for compromise.
You say, “Isn’t that a bit morbid and a bit extreme?” I answer, look at Peter and how he fell at the first hurdle. It was a modest inquiry. “Listening to your accent I would think you’re from Galilee. Aren’t you with the people following the man on trial?” There was no threat to him or any of the disciples at that time. The chief priests’ rage was focused on Jesus of Nazareth alone. Peter could have quietly acknowledged that he was with Jesus and the whole incident would have been over, but instead of that he told a lie, and then that required another lie to support the first, and then a third horrendous falsehood underlined with swearing and anger, to support the first two. It all started with the first little deceit.
There is that pathetic train of people who follow Samson, who once knew what it was to accomplish mighty conquests for God but who now are blinded, and chained to some mill and they grind out day after day an empty, powerless, useless round of ‘Christian’ activity (I put ‘Christian’ in inverted commas). The breath of the Almighty has gone from their lives and their ministries. Where did it start? When sin came with a little modest proposal or question, and the door was opened and sin was considered and entertained. Strike at the first roots of sin.
5. LOOK CONSTANTLY TO CHRIST FOR THE KILLING OF YOUR SINS.
Isn’t this the heart of our victory over remaining sin? Christians are people who are in union with the Son of God Jesus Christ. This is the only explanation for how they live. You cannot explain how believers resist temptation and mortify their sin by referring to the way they’ve been brought up. You can’t explain the way they overcome the temptations of sin from the education they’ve had had. You can’t explain their resistance to the lusts of the flesh and the mind in terms of their temperament. Their life is hid with Christ in God! That is the reason.
I wonder how often does the way we live, and the holiness and the patience and the obedience and the longsuffering that we manifest, perplex the world? How often does our conduct make men and women ask, “Whence this power?” Can the life that we live be understood in naturalistic terms – the kind of school we went to, or, the kind of home that we came from? You can’t explain our Christian lives in those terms, in any psychological or sociological or biological terms, because there are those who came under identical influences to those Christians who today are far from any faith in God without any pretense to a Christian lifestyle. We want to affirm to you that how we’ve kept believing and following can only be explained by the grace of God. And the grace of God is this – it is omnipotence at work redeeming! It is not God showing men the way. It is not God beseeching, or God pleading, but it is God himself putting forth this power to make it absolutely certain that certain changes are going to be effected in my life and conduct so that I take on remaining sin and put it to death.
I am wondering, is my life a mystery to the world? Is there something in our lives that can only be explained by this; with Jesus Christ? “They took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4. 13). I am not talking of having certain feelings of communion, great and glorious and desirable as all that may be; but I am talking of this relationship that ordinary Christian men and women possess. They are men and women in organic and spiritual union with a living and a risen Saviour. They are living lives that can only be explained in terms of this – that the Lord of Glory, risen from the dead, is reigning by his grace in their lives and in their behaviour.
If ever one lovely chorus is warranted to be sung or even quoted it is this one in the context of our fight to put to death remaining sin.
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus.
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.”
It is based on the phrase, “Looking unto Jesus . . .” in Hebrews 12 and it is saying to us,‘Be convinced of the power that is in Christ to overcome sin.’ Be utterly convinced of that. Be absolutely convinced of this, that the Lord Jesus is able to save to the uttermost them that come to God by him. I went to a cemetery in Bonar Bridge in Sutherland the northernmost county in Scotland and I tidied up a little a grave of the man most full of God whom I have ever met, John Murray. There I read the words that he had asked to be inscribed on his grave . . . “Thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1.21). Paul tells us that Christ “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify to himself a peculiar people zealous of good works” (Tit 2.14). For someone who has sinned as badly as the worst person reading these words there is power and love in Christ to deliver you from all its guilt and shame. Be convinced that the domination of sin over the Christian has ended. Be thankful for the provision in Christ. I know this is hard for some of you. You have gone down before certain sins so many times that you really have begun to wonder if there is virtue in Christ for the conquest of that sin. Men and women, there is! “To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3.8). This is why he came. Look at him while he was on earth, setting free men and women bound fast in the chains of sin for years, and bringing them into the glorious liberty of the children of God. Look to Christ, be convinced that there is provision in him, and then raise your eyes in expectation of deliverance from him. Look unto the Lord Jesus that he bring you to that place where you know deliverance from him. All fulness of grace is in him, and that fulness is available to all of his people.
These are the means God has provided for the killing of remaining sin. These are some of the Bible’s practical directives. You will never outgrow the need of every one of them right to the end of your days. So when somebody comes along to you saying, “Here’s the secret of release from the conflict. One experience and you will be delivered from the battle. Step into glorious victory so that afterwards you can just rest and abide without a care” then stop your ears! When anyone promises a way of the Christian life that brings you out of the necessity of these principles, they have gone beyond Jesus and Paul and David. There is something good about a fight when you know that you’ll become more than a conqueror. You won’t just break down in relief having survived, but you will by the fight weaken sin and be an example to those who know you and you will strengthen them too. You will be more than a conqueror you will be a witness and an encourager to others through your victory. Thanks be to God who always leads us to triumph in Christ.
*The backbone of this message is not my own work but a most helpful article on Mortification written by Al Martin forty years ago in the Banner of Truth magazine (July 1972). Those pages have been my companion and guide all these years and I would commend it to you all as the best brief summary of this theme. I have drunk at this spring, and have been refreshed, and so in this chapter I pass on to you Dr. Martin’s exposition with very slight modification or change.
August 12 2012 GEOFF THOMAS