Colossians 3:5 “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
Now there are special words that God has taken pains to give us, and so it is our responsibility to receive them and understand them. These terms then become the stuff of believing meditation. There are a cluster of words that end in ‘-ation:’ predestination, justification, sanctification, imputation, adoption and I have been adding the word ‘mortification’ to that list. It is found twice in the New Testament in the Authorized Version, most especially in one of its greatest chapters, Romans 8, which we can never tire of reading.
What does it mean? We have pointed out that sin no longer reigns over any Christian. The old man, the person we once were before we became disciples of Jesus Christ, who lived under the influence of sin, is no more. He is dead and gone. Saul of Tarsus the Jesus-hater and persecutor of the church is no more. We are new men, but the new man is inhabiting our lives along with an earthly nature and so there is tension and strife in every believer. Paul in our text characterizes that earthly nature as one of; “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Cols. 3:5). He tells the Colossians Christians that this is, “Your earthly nature,” and he is reminding them of the sin that is latent in every regenerate life – none being exempt from it. Paul is tempering the certainties of their first love. Face these facts, he says to them, what sinful seeds are in your hearts. They protest, “We’re not capable of sinking so low. Am I a dog, that Paul would give someone like me such warnings?” But Paul built his life and his strategy on one peculiar fact, his own infirmities. And it is well for us to build our lives upon the same platform, our spiritual weakness and our remaining temptability.
What are we to do with these corrupt patterns of life within us new men? Paul says, “Put them to death!” Don’t explain and don’t condone; certainly don’t nourish, cherish, or tolerate. He says, “Annihilate! Destroy!” Why should I? For this reason, he says, “The unbeliever you once were has died! Therefore, put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” In other words, be what you are. Live according to what you now are, a new man. You have no right to live like an unregenerate man. You have no right to condone one little detail that looks like a symptom of indwelling sin. Show no mercy; give no quarter; offer no explanation; never rationalize what God abhors. How shall you who died to sin live any longer therein? Paul is holding before us the absolute absurdity of a sinning Christian. It is not the absolute absurdity of an apostate Christian, not even the absolute absurdity of a backsliding Christian, but the absurdity of a sinning Christian. John exhorts early Christians to this end, “I am writing to you that you don’t sin.” How shall you sin? How? How logically, how in any way, how can you that died to sin give it obedience for one moment longer? Paul is saying, it is anomalous, it is ridiculous. It is illogical. He is not saying it does not happen – “I find another law in my members.” But he is seeking to get Christians to a frame of mind in which they will not regard sin as natural, explicable, and tolerable. How shall you, in union with Christ, how shall you do this? “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” Live according to what you now are!
The believer is a new man. He is wedded to the Lord of glory, and the believer is to bring that into his reckoning, make it a part of his outlook on himself and his life and his battles with sin. Union with the Saviour is his new irreversible condition throughout all of his subsequent life. It is the whole context of his human life. Once he is regenerate he is in Christ, and he is with Christ. Just as marriage is valid not only on the honeymoon when the partners are overflowing with passionate love and devotion to each other, and not only later when they are in harmony in marital fellowship and decisions, but the married state is there, permanent and irreversible at other times too, and they cannot pretend they’re unmarried if there are days when things are not what they should be. They cannot say on those occasions, “Our marriage is not valid today, and we don’t need to live within the framework of the marriage today!” It is always valid. It is always the context of their lives. There are days when the believer is backslidden, when he is in the depths, when he is in darkness and he has no light, but he is still in Christ. He is still with Christ. Thus he is at all times under the obligation to conduct himself as a member of the body of Jesus Christ.
So this is something that we have to remember and apply. When our faith is weak, when our lives are in some kind of declension that does not lessen the obligation to mortify sin. And it is one of the things that ought to stand over us as a constant rebuke; what are we, new men in Christ, with Christ, what are we doing, allowing this particular kind of conduct? When our life becomes worldly or impatient and plaintive; when our life becomes in terms of Christian ethics an irregular life, what are we doing, as members of the body of Christ, in such a condition? Why aren’t we putting to death the remains of our sin? You see Paul is taking what I am, and criticizing what I do, and how I think and feel. When I sin I am going to sin in union with Jesus Christ, because the union is there all the time. I cannot cancel my regeneration when I want to be worldly. I am regenerate all the time, and if I am worldly, I am still regenerate in my worldliness and I am disgracing my birth from above.
You know the story that is told of Spurgeon’s grandfather, whose heart was broken in his ministry, by the life and bearing of one particular professing Christian who had backslidden and had begun to frequent pubs. Spurgeon the child was grieved at what this man had been doing to his grandfather and so he went out looking for him and he found him sitting outside a pub with a glass of beer. Young Spurgeon walked up to him and put this question to the man as he sat at his drink, “What doest thou here, Elijah?” What are you, a Christian, what are you doing in this particular situation? What are you, a new man, doing here? What are you, a regenerate man, doing here? What are you, a man in union with Christ, doing in this particular condition? Do not give in to your flesh. Put to death your sinful nature. The Lord Christ spoke very vividly of this, of gouging out your right eye, and amputating your hand or foot.
Jesus is making mortification something very close and vivid. Now, of course, it’s figurative language. Why does Jesus use such terms as cutting off a limb? He wants to impress the duty of mortification upon our memories. He wants to wake us up, to make us think. He wants to make it unforgettable. Once you’ve heard these words, they stick, this cutting our hand off, cutting our foot off, plucking our eye out and throwing it away. He means none of it literally, of course, but he uses this kind of figure in order to startle us and stop us short. It is wonderful pedagogy; this is something we’ll remember in days to come in very different circumstances, because we’re not going to have a preacher preaching to us when we are alone in a room with a member of the opposite sex. Then we will need the words of Jesus to come home to us, and so he makes them unforgettable. You understand what he is saying? If you don’t have an eye then you are unable to see the pornography. If you don’t have a hand you can’t drape your arms around a woman’s waist. If you don’t have feet you can’t walk to the harlot’s house. “Make it impossible for yourself to break the seventh commandment,” Jesus is saying.
What Jesus is talking about in this passage is our response to what he has done in coming and living in our lives. This is what we Christians have to be doing. There are those who think that they have to do it all by blood, sweat and tears – and they are wrong. There are those who think that the Spirit of God does it all and you just let go and let God do it – and they are wrong too. The biblical picture always is that the human and the divine work together. We have to work out seriously the implications of our inward conflict because God is not simply a spectator; he is working in us even now. Paul exhorts the Romans, “By the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Roms. 8:13). You do it, but you do it by the energy that God the Holy Spirit supplies, and that’s what we have to keep in mind.
So, the chief end of this radical amputation that Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount is that mortification makes sinning harder to do. Let’s apply it to Christian people with their problems.
i] Here’s a man who has habitually struggled with alcohol and he comes to put his faith in Jesus Christ. He finds in the Saviour forgiveness for all his drunkenness. You’ve become his new friend as a fellow believer, and you want to help him. You counsel him, “You have to avoid every contact with that old way of life. When you come to church don’t take the approach that passes by the pub you used to visit. Avoid that entire street; come another route. In the supermarket don’t go down the aisle with all the bottles of liquor. Imagine that you no longer have a hand to reach out for a glass of whisky; you’ve cut it off. You no longer have an eye to see the bottles. You don’t have a nose to smell the stuff. You don’t have feet to walk there. Don’t even think of meeting with the old crowd.” You give him a verse: “I Corinthians 15:33 says ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’” You have to break off bad associates because their influence will destroy all the things the gospel has been teaching you. Rather now you need to hang around with the people who are going to help you (or at least make it easier for you) to solve this problem of abusing alcohol and abusing your own body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. You ask him if he plays golf. “Can we play golf together? Come to the Men’s Breakfast, and be in the Prayer Meeting each week and we’ll pray for you and you can tell God there in the presence of us all how hard it is, and we will weep with you when you fall. We will be your friends and we will do things together.” There is the amputation of the hand that holds the whisky glass. That is one case of putting sin to death. Again . . .
ii] Here’s a Christian who’s been unfaithful to his wife. Let’s apply Jesus’ teaching on mortification to his situation. (Let me use an illustration from Jay Adams, “Radical Amputation” in The Journal of Modern Ministry, Volume 9, Issue 1, p.59. I am glad to be using his fine material).One of the first things you say to him is to urge him to delete from his mobile phone directory that telephone number or the numbers of the other women who’ve been in his life. Cut them out. There’s no need to have those any more. If you keep them, it’s going to be another temptation for you to fall into that same kind of sin in the future. You are repentant of your sin and you really want to stop, but the problem is that in your mind you are constantly thinking of her. So you ask the man if he has a photo of her. “Give it to me.” “What are you going to do with it?” “Well, I’m going to take it, and I’m going to tear it into little pieces and throw them in the waste paper basket right here where it belongs.” You do it. You take it from his hands and tear it up and throw it into the trash can. You just amputated the picture. “How about letters? Do you have any old letters of hers or text messages saved on your cell phone?” “Yes.” “I want you to delete those texts right now, and when you get home hand whatever packet you have of those letters from their hiding place to your wife, and she’s going to burn them. Right?” “I sure will; I’ll burn them.” “Now, I suppose you have a key?” “Yeah, I do have a key to her house.” “Let me have it.” “What do you want it for?” “I’ll show you in just a moment.” As he gives you the key, you pull open a drawer in your desk, take out an envelope, put the key in the envelope, lick it and seal it, and say, “Now, write her name and address on it.” He does that, and now give it to your wife to mail. “Did you have dalliances in the car?” “Yes,” he says. “Regularly?” He nods. “Then you might have to sell the car and get another.” And off you go down the line, amputating the picture, the letters, the key, the car, whatever there is that’s remaining of the sin.
You see, the problem with this Christian is that he really hasn’t been doing what the general principle of the Scripture and this precise teaching of Jesus says he must do. His problem is disobedience. He is still Mr. Facing Both Ways. He is a double minded man and so unstable in all his ways. Jesus tells us where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be, and this man still has some money in the other woman’s bank. You understand? If he still has a deposit over there, be it a phone number, a key, correspondence or a picture, then he hasn’t closed down that account. His treasure is still there, and that’s where his heart will be also. That’s what he’s going to be thinking about. So, he has to empty the account. Of course, the necessary positive things for this process start when he reopens the account in his wife’s bank, and he starts thinking about her and doing loving things for her. He must make the right kind of deposits in her account.
iii] Here is a Christian widow who lost her husband two years ago. (Jay Adams moves on to speak of an entirely different situation.) This woman hardly ever goes to church any more. And when she does, she’s in tears. Her pastor goes to visit her. As he starts to talk to her, he realizes that he should have gone a lot sooner because this woman has not accepted God’s will that her husband go to heaven years before she joins him there as eternal brother and sister. So, he starts, “We’d really like to see you in church more often.” Then, she replies, “Oh, yes, I know I should be there, but I just have had such a hard time in the past years whenever I think about John. We used to sit together in the pew. If I go and I sit in that area again, it’s just so empty not having him next to me, and somebody else is sitting there instead. I, oh . . .” Then she begins to cry.
So, the pastor says, “What is it that makes it so difficult for you to come to church?” “Well, when I see John’s chair over there, and I think about that chair being empty, he’s no longer there to talk to, he’s no longer there to . . . to argue with, even. He’s just not there. And I’m alone. He’s gone.” Then she breaks down again. “John’s chair?” “Yes.” “Is your apartment still set up the way it was when John was here?” “Well, yes.” “Are his clothes still hanging in the wardrobe?” “Yes.” “Is his razor and his shaving brush all still there in the bathroom?” “Yes.” “Well, do you see that you’ve not set yourself up for one-person living and that is the will of God for you now? You’re still set up for two-person living. I have an idea. Do you know that young couple at the church and he is heading for the ministry and they don’t have any money? They’re sitting on boxes and upright chairs in their little flat. They’re really struggling to make ends meet right now.” “Yeah, I know . . . I’ve met them.”
“Well, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you gave them John’s chair? I know John would love it if you did. You remember how John used to give things all the time to people – how extremely generous he was? And, I just think that would be a great idea. And you know, as I think about it, probably the husband is much the same size as John was and some of those suits, especially the new ones that John hardly ever wore once he was taken ill – maybe some of those suits would be a very nice gift to him, as well.”
So, the pastor assists the widow in mortifying inordinate grief, in amputating all sorts of things that create and contribute to the problem of accepting God’s will that John has been taken to the joys of heaven. What I have now described to you is a very different situation from the former drunkard and the unfaithful husband, but as you can see, the principle of mortifying remaining sin applies across the board. In killing remaining sin it is the Christian who has to act definitively: No halfhearted, halfway measures will do. These examples that Christ gave are examples of irremediable action. They burn that bridge. The foot is cut off, the hand is gone, the eye is ripped out. Even today, we have a hard time replacing those limbs adequately with something mechanical.
You will even notice that it’s not just the hand, the eye, and the foot that Jesus speaks of. It’s the right hand, the right eye, the right foot. For most people, that’s the most important one. If you’re left-handed, then it would be fine for you to think in terms of radically amputating your left hand and the like. What Jesus is saying is that it is the hand that you type with that may have to go — or the foot that you use to kick a ball. There’s the eye that enables you to see the rugby player carrying the ball and hurtling down towards you and you have to tackle him around his knees. It may mean that you will have to get rid of some of the things that are most important to you, like playing football for the local team. It is perfectly permissible for a Christian to play football but if it is drawing you into compromise with sinful actions then you have to stop it. And if it’s the right eye – maybe the one that you use to look through your favourite telescope, or the one you use to line up the thread in the sewing machine – you’ll to have to learn a whole new way of sowing and knitting.
iv] Here is a man and his problem is internet pornography. More than 150 million people every year visit porn sites, and soon the figure will be hundreds of millions as the developing world hooks up to the Internet. The images they will look at are shockingly explicit. Never before in human history have so many middle class people discovered the sin that is active in their own hearts. I am saying that internet pornography is the quick road to addiction. There are patterns of behaviour in our living rooms that were unthinkable a decade ago. The environment has been meticulously engineered to alter our mood and behaviour. Technology is producing sharper and smarter hits that create craving. This means of temptation entering our homes is new to most human beings, and it is intensifying all the time. In the past only monstrous tyrants could behave (in many ways) like that. Today 150 million people are visiting porn sites. They are like alcoholics taking their first drink. They have no idea where they will end up, but many of them don’t care!
We do care! We say to them what Paul said to the Philippian jailor, “Do yourself no harm.” And then we tell all who’ll hear us the gospel, and we pray for them to have a new heart, and to know the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, a new energy and strength to resist. We long for them to know the expulsive power of a new affection for Jesus, to love and serve him most of all, every day in every way. And then we teach the man watching internet pornography about mortification, killing remaining sin, that this is one of the key ways of deliverance, that it is indispensable for his eternal good. We meet with them together every week for counsel. We say quietly to him on Sundays, “Had a good week?” And they know what we are asking and they just nod, or they shrug. We tell them about a programme on the web called ‘Covenant Eyes’ which we urge them to join so that the heading of every website they visit in a week is sent to us, and they go to their laptops knowing that they are accountable to us, that we are going to see what they’ve been watching at the end of every week. It is a Christian programme called ‘Covenant Eyes.’
What I am doing – do you see? – is taking the words of Jesus on mortification in the Sermon on the Mount and I am telling men to pluck out the right eye so that they can’t see those ugly pictures. I am telling them to amputate their fingers so that they cannot type in the addresses of the porn. I am not talking of literally doing that, of course. I am talking about behaving so that that stuff is unattainable to you. You are weakening your desire for it. The choice I tell you is very stark; it is either addiction, or it is mortification by the Spirit.
It may mean that things that are most valuable to you may have to go. For example they may conclude with growing certainty that they can no longer live in a city. They have to move out to some rural area. They have to mortify city life. It’s addiction or mortification? Perhaps there is something else that means more to them than anything else may have to go. I once had a man in the congregation who told me that he had given up his photography hobby and sold all his cameras and equipment. It had become an idol and a snare to him. I questioned him whether it was necessary, but I couldn’t dissuade him. That’s the kind of action for which Jesus is calling. It’s definitive. It’s once for all. All the things you once utilized to enable you to sin have to go. You’re not going to get them back.
For deliverance there has to be such single-minded commitment to putting to death remaining sin. Let me give you an illustration of this. This was the experience of an acquaintance of mine named Conrad Murrell. Let him tell his own story:
A few years ago a pastor brought a troubled man to me for counseling. When I asked him about his problem, he replied, “I want to serve the Lord but I am having a terrible time.” “What seems to be hindering you?” I asked. “Everything and everybody it seems,” he said. “Let’s get down to particulars,” I insisted. This is his story.
“I have a smoking problem. I know I shouldn’t be smoking. It is harmful to me and a blight on my testimony but I am having a hard time giving it up. Then there is my wife. She thinks I am a fanatic and she says if I insist on living a Christian life, she is going to leave me. She wants to have some fun, and I don’t want to go back into that kind of life; but I don’t want to lose my wife. Then there is my business partner. He is not a Christian and we are having a conflict over some unethical business deals he wants to pull. He says I am holding back the business with my stupid morals and if I don’t shape up he is going to force me out. Then, last week I was down in Tucson in a restaurant feeling sorry for myself and this young divorcee approached me. She liked me and made some obvious suggestions and approaches. I almost fell into what she was proposing. But, I don’t want to live like that. I’m just in a terrible mess.” “You surely are,” I said, “but, maybe I can help you get some things settled. It seems to me you have about four options here. You can only take one of them so you may as well eliminate the other three. Let’s find out which ones you can take and which ones you cannot and then see what we have left.
Here is your first option. You can walk out that door the same way you came in with nothing changed and nothing settled. Can you do that?’ “I don’t want to.” “But can you?”
“If I had not wanted help I would not have come here.” “But can you leave without it? Are you willing to walk out of here the same way you came in? Can you do that? Can you go on living the way you are now? Think about it. Because if you can, you will. There is no use of me wrangling around here with you for two or three hours only to have you refuse to do what you must and leave the same way you came in. If you can do that, then go ahead and do it now. Let’s not waste anymore time. He looked at me, saw I meant it, thought about it a bit and then said, “No, I can’t do that. I have got to have some help. I cannot live any longer the way I am. Something has to be settled.”
“Then we can eliminate that option. It no longer exists. Something has to be settled before you leave here tonight. Now we have only three left. Here is your second option: Forget about being a Christian and forget about mortifying sin. Put the thought of it out of your mind and go ahead and do what you like. If you want to smoke, stop feeling guilty about it and puff away. If your wife wants you to go out and get drunk and raise hell with her, go ahead. If your partner wants to pull some fast deals that can make you rich and won’t get you in jail, go for it. Take advantage of anybody you can, make as much money as you can, do what you like and live it up. If you see that divorcee again, take her up on the proposition. Whatever you feel like doing, help yourself.”
He stared at me incredulously wondering was I serious. “Can you do that?” I asked. He shook his head, “No, I can’t do that. I can’t live that way.” “Are you sure?” “I’m sure.” “Think about, it now, and settle it. If you can do that then you ought to go ahead because you will sooner or later. But if you can’t, then settle it in your mind that you can’t and forget about it. It’s no use you ever thinking about it anymore. It is an utter impossibility.” He replied, “I can’t do that.”
All right, that eliminates two options and two more are left, here is your third one: Go home. If you do not have one at home, stop off at a pawn shop and pick yourself up a pistol. Get out in the yard so that you won’t make a mess in the house for someone to clean up, take good aim so that you don’t miss and put a bullet in your brain.” He jerked his head back and stared at me. “I can’t do that. I’d go to hell.” “Probably so,” I said, “but at least you wouldn’t have to live in this hell till you get to the next one.” “No, I can’t do that.”
“Then it looks like you have only one course left. Follow the Lord and declare war on your sins without surrender. If your wife leaves you, follow the Lord. If you lose your business and all your money, follow the Lord. If it costs you all your pleasures, put to death remaining sin. You really don’t have any other option. You cannot do anything else. Live, die, swim or sink, you must follow the Lord and keep killing your sins.” He thought awhile, then lifted his head and slowly as the truth began to dawn upon him, a relieved smile spread across his worried face. “That’s right isn’t it? It’s really very simple. He is my only hope of life. There is nothing else to do.” I prayed with him, shook his hand and dismissed the meeting.
Nearly two years later I was back in the same city and this man came to the meeting. His wife was with him, clinging to his arm. They had been, it seemed, through the toughest time of their marriage. His faith had been tried in the fire. The devil had exhausted his resources in his attempt to shake him from the commitment he made that night. But when he had left that counseling session, he was a single-minded man with only one place to go. His eyes were steadfastly fixed upon God as his deliverer and sin as his enemy. He and his wife both wore the broad sweet smiles of a victory that endures. They had learned indeed that faith is the victory that overcomes the world. Such as these can give unerring testimony that God is indeed worthy of our trust. That is mortification.
That is the way that Jesus talked to people and all who are Christians here should do likewise. When the professing Christian refuses mortification, when he says, “Oh, no, no. I’m not going to submit to Covenant Eyes and to other people seeing what I watch on the web. I am not going to tear up the other woman’s photo. I am not going to hand over that key. Or he says “I’ll give up the key, but I’m not going to give up the letters,” if he lays down conditions for what sins he is prepared to sacrifice then he has never seen his perilous position and he has never truly appreciated what a wonderful thing Jesus did when he took all our sins and died under their weight and pain. When the widow persists in keeping one chair sacred and living as if the spouse God has taken to glory were still alive then we must ask is the will of God the most important thing in her life? We keep pressing the fact that they’ve got to get rid of all those things, – “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature” and the alternative might be that they just look defiantly back at you, and finally quit coming to church, and no longer talk to you. Then you must question whether these persons really were believers after all. And you have to warn them that if they won’t do whatever it requires to put to death remaining sin and replace those sinful addictions with a walk in the Spirit and all the biblical alternatives, they might not go to heaven after all; they may go to hell. This is serious business.
I am urging you today to face up to your lostness; to deal with the sin that so easily besets you and ask the Saviour to help you. Go to him. Today is a wake-up call. God has brought you to hear these words to save you from hell. Here is a Saviour whose name is Jesus. He can save you from hell, but he can also save you from making a mess of your life in this world. You must go to him. You must pray to him, and in your own words tell him how weak you are, that you are helpless to resist temptation, and that you need his love to help you, you need his presence in your life and his forgiveness for all the things you’ve done wrong. His grace is greater than all your many sins. “Come into my heart Lord Jesus. Come and clean it up. Give me strength to resist these temptations that are crippling me. Help me to live a righteous and useful life. Deliver me from the hypocrisy I feel right now, with so many people, even my family and friends, never suspecting for a moment how badly I am living. Wash me. Strengthen me. Help me kill my sins. And come into the future with me. Let me learn to glorify and enjoy you now and for ever. Amen”
12th August 2012 GEOFF THOMAS