Colossians 3:5 “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.”
Every Christian is at war to the death, no matter how humble or simple he may be. He is fighting against principalities and powers and also resisting the organized world system which operates as if there were no God. That is a vital and pressing battle, but that outward war cannot be fought as it should unless the Christian is successfully winning the war within, battling invisibly in the depths of his soul against remaining sin (the flesh), and he is determined to put it to death. Let us again consider this every day battle.
1. WHAT PUTTING TO DEATH REMAINING SIN IS NOT
Let’s remind ourselves again what actually it is to mortify sin? I suppose that it is in some ways easier to say what mortification is not;. I shall start there.
i] Mortification is not the eradication of sin. No Christian ever comes to a place in this life where he has so completely destroyed indwelling sin that it no longer exists; “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:8). For such perfect comprehensive deliverance we must wait to look at the Son of God. When we see him then it is we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
ii]Mortification is not the same thing as diverting sin. Here is an elderly former rock star; now he likes to drink Horlicks at the end of the day and be in bed by 9.30! He has diverted his former, outward expressions of sin, but they are there still in his heart, the lusts of the flesh and the lusts of the mind dominating his life.It is clear in the New Testament that most of the ‘sins of the flesh’ are heart sins and mental sins rather than physical sins – “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy;” (Gals 5:20&21). You may never steal anything from another, or hurt another with a weapon, or even betray on your face your contempt for someone but still you are nurturing in your hearts disdain for him. The passing of the years changing your temperament is not the same as putting a sinful spirit to death. When some women grow older the external circumstances and the pattern of their lives can alter to such an extent that their ‘old’ sins no longer dominate their lives. They used to be quick-tempered but now they are wearier women; their minds don’t retaliate as they once did. They’re more subdued. Once they were obsessed with their outward appearance worrying about every wrinkle and every pound. Now they shrug their shoulders and accept the aging. In cases like these irritability and vanity have not been mortified; they’ve simply been diverted. There are men who grow older and so no longer chase women; it is not because they have a new love for purity and self-control. To assume that those men and women have put to death their sins because of those changes is delusional thinking. Their sins have been diverted. Again, a man can become so numbed with drink that he can’t take another glass. All his desires for liquor have been sated. He’s not freed from his alcoholism, nor repentant about his drinking. All he wants is to sleep. That is a natural not a spiritual reaction to excess. That change in behaviour is sin diverted not sin put to death.
iii] Mortification is not the same as changing one’s behaviour through a fear of discovery. A clerk stops putting his hand in the till because he hears that the accountants are coming soon and beginning a radical overhaul of the company’s finances. He is waiting until stocktaking is over. Or a man fears that people are noticing his behaviour, so he chooses less discoverable forms of sin. He’s afraid his wife is close to finding out about him and she’ll leave him, but the man still doesn’t hate the sin itself. Altering the form your sins take doesn’t push sin off the throne of your life and enthrone in its place King Jesus. Your sin is still there and it is still despising God. Swapping one sin for another is not putting your sin to death. So . . .
2. WHAT IS PUTTING TO DEATH REMAINING SIN?
i] Mortification is being engaged in an inward war with the flesh. We fight our sin daily – the refusal to allow the eye to wander and linger and lust, and to let the affections run after things which draw us from Christ. It is deliberately refusing to feed sinful thoughts, and doing a U-turn, heading away from all such suggestions, desires, aspirations, drives, vain ambitions or provocations to sin. It is the steadfast endeavour to do all in our power to weaken the grip which sins, both in general and in particular, have over our lives. It is not simply saying ‘no’ to what is wrong, but a sincere, consecrated commitment to every good and spiritually-nourishing discipline of the gospel. It is a determination not only to weed the garden of the heart, but also to plant and water and nurture every Christian grace there – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control. That is putting sin to death. Not only must we root out the seeds of sin, but we must see that the osmosis of grace is sucking up the nourishment of the Spirit’s life and creating the delicious fruit of Christ-likeness. When our hearts are full of grace then there’ll be little room there for sin to breathe and flourish.
ii] Mortification is being engaged in a battle everywhere with sin.
A] In our personal lives. Paul can be very frank when he talks about some sins. You think of Romans chapter one where he mentions both men and women practising homosexual activities. But elsewhere he writes that certain topics of conversation are “unwholesome” (Ephs. 4:29) and shouldn’t be mentioned. You can appreciate that distinction can’t you? You don’t want to hear me frequently talking about unseemly actions. You’ll start to wriggle in your seats and then wonder if I have a personal problem with those sins if I am raising them too frequently. But all of us know Christians who’ve got family members who have come out as homosexuals. They love them, and they want them to hear from the word of God a tender and wise presentation concerning God’s gift of sexuality and how it can be a blessing and is not to be abused. I am saying we can talk about everything that the Bible talks about, but let us do it in the same proportion and spirit as we find in the Bible.
There are areas in which many Christians face very severe temptations. Paul tells Timothy to flee youthful lusts. In other words there are certain passions which are more prevalent when one is young and immature. It’s of no value to pretend that they don’t exist. Robert Murray M’Cheyne once wrote in his diary that he had discovered the seed of every known sin living in his heart. Sometimes it is impossible for us really to make progress in holiness until we’ve realised that. Then we can specify to ourselves and before God what our own sins are. We can take them to God. Ashamed as we might well be, if dirty-mindedness is a real problem for us, we must face up to it, and nail it to the Cross of Christ: lust and greed and a spirit of criticism must be similarly treated if it is starting to put down roots in our personal lives. But there are other areas where we have to fight the good fight
B] In our everyday experiences before the watching world, we’re there in the battle too. Jesus speaks of letting our light shine before men that they see our good works. So, how are you in the office, or the staff room? There is no way that the light of holiness and love for God can shine if what the world sees most of all are our short tempers, our sarcasm, our sharp tongues. Do we rejoice at the mishaps of our enemies? Is it obvious that we are jealous of our friends’ success? Are there people to whom we are mean but because we end our words with a cackle we think we can speak like that to them? Does some mishap, hitting our thumb with a hammer, produce filthy language? Some of you would think it would be impossible for a Christian to swear, but didn’t Peter swear when he denied his Lord, after years living in his presence? Didn’t Paul write to a church and tell them that no filthy speech should come from their lips? He says, “Now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these”. Sometimes men have looked upon speaking bluntly and impatiently as being almost a Christian virtue. “I told him exactly what I thought of him.” Glorying in their shame! No, says Paul, such behaviour is the sin that you must kill before the watching world sees you acting in these sub-Christian ways. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
I have a cousin who has entered a home for the elderly far from Aberystwyth. I cannot visit her, but I have a colleague, the pastor of a church in that town. I have never heard him say an unworthy word, or do an unworthy action. He is utterly self-effacing and modest. He wouldn’t recognize this description of himself, but he, at my request, visits her and she loves to have him call on her. In fact this week she phoned me and wondered had she offended him that he had not been to see her in the past weeks. I would love to be like him. I esteem him so highly, and it stirred me not to neglect some of the house-bound people in our congregation. I am saying in our everyday relationships we are to kill remaining sin. But there is another place where we have to do that . . .
C] In the fellowship of the church we are in the battle. Particularly in all the inter-faces of congregational life sin must be killed. In the body of Christ it certainly mustn’t be spared; it must be shown no mercy. Everything that gives any encouragement to be divisive and disruptive in the fellowship must be put to death. You know how it shows itself, don’t you? There’s a coolness and a distance between you and another Christian. She is your eternal sister. He is your eternal brother, loved by Jesus Christ, saved by his dying love, prayed for every day by our Lord, and yet you treat them so strangely! “Yes, but I have reason. He or she is . . . imperfect!” Oh, and you are perfect? Paul tells the Colossians not to tell lies to one another, not to say one thing with your lips that you are not practising in your life. He tells the Ephesians to, literally, “truth it to one another”. Not merely speak the truth, but live truthfully, openly and transparently with one another. “Don’t live a lie!” is what Paul is saying. Or again he exhorts us not to make capital out of our background.
In those New Testament times the church was facing a horribly divided society with rigid class and race and sex and age distinctions. There were Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free men, cultured and barbarians, men and women. The deacons at the door quivered with excitement when a rich man turned up at church on his stallion. “Here is a fine seat for you, sir,” they said talking like Basil Fawlty meeting a titled guest in his hotel lobby, but when a poor old woman came to church she had to find her own place because they ignored her. Today our churches are at least as diversified as those in the first century. There can be no place for feelings of inner superiority based on intelligence, old school tie mentality, the area of town in which we live, the kind of clothes we wear, the tones of our accents, the amount of money we have or our past. That is the flesh! And in the congregation it has to be mortified. All that is anathema in the house of God. It must be dragged to the Cross and brutally slain for the sake of Christ who loved the church and gave himself for the entire congregation. Rich though he was, he became poor for its sake, and being made poor, he died as an outcast to unite the fellowship of God’s people and tear down walls of partition between races. All are one in Christ Jesus. All attitudes of superiority, or lack of forgiveness for past offences, whether in the mind only, or in the impressions we give to others, or in actual words and actions, these are crimes against the seamless robe of Christ, and they must be met with the nails of crucifixion. Let each deem the other better then himself. So there are those three areas where we engage in the battle with sin, in our own hearts, before the gaze of our neighbours, and within the congregation.
3. FIVE TIPS TO EFFECTUAL MORTIFICATION.
i] Say ‘No!’Learn from the grace of God to say no to ungodliness.Mortification is a subject that has to be taught to every disciple in the school of Christ. It’s on the syllabus and it can’t be removed; it is there alongside other subjects to learn like truth, repentance, prayer, worship, stewardship and bearing witness to the faith. None of those activities is picked up by some kind of religious inhalation. You have to be taught about them all and that includes our theme, putting to death indwelling sin. I have to preach sermons to you about all these subjects and there is no one who doesn’t need to learn about mortification. Psychiatry uses the term ‘suppression,’ and it rightly sees it as something positive. It is normal, healthy activity not to give in to our every emotion, urge and passion. The best of psychiatry is an echo of the Bible. For example, Paul tells Titus what is one of the great lessons the coming of Jesus Christ into the world teaches everybody; “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 3:11&12). Are you a good student to what grace has been teaching you? Have you learned about putting sin to death? Have you learned to say ‘No’? What a simple lesson. Just say ‘No!’ What could be simpler? The first step in Christian mortification is to be negative about anger and revenge and bitterness and self-pity and lusts of the mind and body. “No!” We cannot live happily unless we say “No!” to sin.
Also say ‘No!’ to Satan. I am thinking of the way Satan makes capital out of our falls. Who hasn’t encountered his accusation, “How can you be a Christian with thoughts and passions and words like those passing through your mind?”? Then we reply to the devil, “I want you to know that I do say ‘No’ to them, but I am like the disciples, that their spirit was willing but their flesh is weak. Sometimes I fall even though I’ve said ‘No.’ But I say ‘No!’ to your suggestion Satan that I can’t be a Christian because the Lamb of God died for these my sins, and that is all my hope.They are forgiven sins.” In other words we never lose our conviction taught us by the word of God that salvation is because of the grace of God, not by our works and religion. Divine justification has become our status since we’ve put our trust in Jesus Christ. It is not because of some robe of personal righteousness which we have woven, but it’s his blameless life that’s been imputed to us. It is he that has saved us and not we ourselves.
However daring it sounds under other circumstances, under these circumstances we have to say categorically: “I can never be more regenerate than I am at this minute, nor more justified, nor more joined to Christ, nor more adopted than I am now – even with these failures and bad thoughts and desires – for I am still trusting in Christ. He is my hope, not me. Forgiveness is God’s gift to me; it was not according to my deserving. I didn’t earn it and nothing can separate me from God’s love. Also I want to tell you this, devil, that by God’s grace I shall one day gain total victory over those sins that so easily beset me. I will eventually see them all put to death.” So in the school of Christ you learn about mortification, and you put into practise what you learn, you say “No!” to sin and you keep on putting it to death until the day you breathe your last. And you also say ‘No!’ to Satan’s attempts to drive you to despair. Then there is a second tip concerning putting to death remaining sin.
ii] Say ‘Yes!’Paul tells Titus that he must be positive, not only to say ‘No!’ but “to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 3:12). You must be positive. There must be no mere negativism. The way to drive out the old is to replace it with the new. If all you do in your garden is pull out the weeds then you will work ten times as hard as those who also are smart enough to be also planting flowers and bushes. By doing that they’ll prevent the weeds growing, yes, but they will also be filling the garden with beauty. That’s the point of the final chapters of the New Testament letters, all they encourage us to be doing, planting and watering, by all those many positive exhortations. If we sow to the Spirit, we will reap from the Spirit. Yes, but Paul also says that if through the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the sinful flesh, then also we shall live (Rom. 8:13). Life comes from not neglecting weeding but also to be planting and watering. If we pray, “Lord help me to bear much fruit,” then we’ll be sure to sit under the best preaching of Jesus Christ and his gospel that we can hear. We will be reading one or two . . . or three Christian books at the same time. We will be doing good works to people in need. We will be meeting with Christians for prayer, and we’ll also be praying for and with our families, and we’ll also pray alone. We will be generous and helpful to others. We will seek to be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. All these positive ways will serve the cause of mortifying remaining sin. There can be no life without the positive life of good works.
iii] Accept help. In the final chapter of the letter to the Galatians Paul tells that entire congregation, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Gals 6:2). I have heard of Christians who say that they don’t need to go to church. They can worship God in their own way in their own place, but in that way they are defying and disobeying a command of God. Here is a command just like any of the Ten Commandments, not to lie, not to steal, not to murder, and not to commit adultery. Then there is this particular positive commandment, “Carry one another’s burdens.” They are not doing it. They don’t see or know their fellow Christians because they never meet them and so they are neglecting to obey the law of Christ to carry the burdens of other Christians. The burdens are then heavier for us.
Look at the context of that command in Galatians 6:2. See how this chapter begins; it starts by referring to a Christian who has been caught in a sin and is burdened with his fall. “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (Gals. 6:1), and then he tells the congregation why they must carry one another’s burdens. One reason is to restore such brother. But if you don’t know him then you cannot be restoring him gently can you? You cannot carry his burden of restoration. You are selfish. He needs the help you can give him but you state, “I don’t need to go to church,” but he needs you, and the help that you can give him. Move into the battle alongside any brother who has been overcome by the enemy. Restore him gently to his place of usefulness. Help him. Heal him. Make him hearty in the faith so that he can do what you ought to be doing, carrying his own share of the load: “each one should carry his own load” (Gals. 6:5).
Let me say something more to those who live independent, non-congregational lives. Due to foolish pride, there are Christians today who lose battles with the flesh, not because there is no help available but because they will not avail themselves of that offered help. That is unconscionable; the battle is not yours but the Lord’s. How dare you—if you are a defeated Christian—refuse help? God has commanded others to help you, and he commands you to receive such help. Hear what Jay Adams says in The War Within, Harvest House Publishers, 1989, pp.97&98).
There are those who plead that they’ve got the Holy Spirit to help them. Yes, but the Spirit often works through the ministry of his Word by other Christians. Christ himself gave the gift of teachers to his church. He also provided encouragers and helpers of all sorts. To fail to avail yourself of these provisions, and to haughtily claim that you’d rather fight by using your own resources alone, is in effect to say that Christ didn’t know what he was doing when he set up his church. The only other possible explanation is that you think you are an exception, that you are special, not needing help from others, so that Christ’s provisions (which are so important for other Christians) are unnecessary for you. Either way, the problem is pride. And pride is the sin above all sins that needs to be mortified.
When Christ tells you to give or receive help, those are orders. You are not the Commander-in-Chief; he is. You must obey orders, like them or not, and embarrassed or not. After all, what is embarrassment? It is the clearest evidence of pride. When you are embarrassed, it is because whatever the task, you think you ought to be able to accomplish it on your own, and are embarrassed when you find that you can’t.
There are many battles that cannot be fought alone. That is why Christ has provided help in his church and ordered his troops to help one another in fighting them. We tell people who are hesitant to come for help (whether it is for counseling about some complex situation or for simple encouragement and direction): “As soon as you feel yourself sinking, and know that your efforts to extricate yourself are useless, shout for help. Don’t wait until the quicksand gets up around your neck. It’s always a lot harder on everyone when all we can get hold of is an ear!”
Are you having troubles in your marriage? Are you losing a battle with the web? With lying? With thievery? With anger or bitterness? With discouragement? With drugs? Do the forces of evil seem to be storming the citadel of your soul in some other way? Then call for reinforcements. Don’t wait. You need additional forces right now! Make an appointment with the pastor.
iv] Ask God to show you your soul and also your Saviour. You would do that with a medical doctor, if you were uneasy with some niggling symptoms that you’d discovered. You’d make an appointment with him or her and then you’d tell him or her that you’d been a little unhappy with a pain here or there, and you’d ask your physician for his diagnosis of what might be wrong. You trust your doctor; you appreciate him; he’s helped you in the past, and you go to him with your queries. So that is what you must do with a sick heart and soul. Go to the Lord and tell him you want to know more clearly your true condition and your heart. A psalmist once asked God to open his eyes. That is what you must do.
Young Hector McPhail was a Scottish minister and he had to stay one night in an inn on a journey to Edinburgh. He asked the family who ran it to join him to hear the Bible read. As they gathered he asked if there were any more, and like Jesse telling Samuel, he was told, “Ah, there’s someone insignificant who wouldn’t be missed” You remember that Jesse’s youngest boy David was guarding the sheep on the mountain. “I’d like everyone to come here,” said Hector, just like Samuel the prophet said. So in the inn they sent for the scullery maid who was most embarrassed to be called for. She was unwashed and wearing the drabbest clothes which were in tatters, but Hector welcomed her. He read Scripture and prayed, and afterwards he spoke personally and kindly to her, how pleased that she had come. She seemed pretty ignorant about the Bible and so he asked her some basic questions from the children’s catechism; “Who made you?” “Do you know you have a soul?” “Why did God make all things?” “Where may we learn about God?” “Do you pray?” She was in utter darkness concerning all those questions, and she could not read. So he said to her, “I am on my way to Edinburgh. When I come back I will stay here again and I will bring you a pretty little shawl if you promise me one thing, to pray every morning and evening this prayer, “Lord, show me myself!” The girl was delighted at the thought of a shawl and she readily promised that she would pray that prayer.
Two weeks later he returned and again Hector gathered the family and maids to hear the Scripture being read to them, but again the scullery maid was absent. “Where is the maid I spoke to?” He asked the inn-keeper. “Since you were here she has not been well. She does not eat, and she sits and cries night and day.” “Take me to her,” said Hector, and when he entered her room she was lying listlessly on a pile of blankets. “Hello,” he said to her, “I have brought you this shawl as I promised. Have you prayed the prayer I gave you last time?” “Oh yes,” she sniffed, “and I’ve seen what a wicked person I am. I have broken all God’s commandments. I have not lived as I should, and God is so angry with me. What shall I do?”
Hector gave her the shawl and then he explained the gospel to her, that we deserve eternal death because of our sins, but Jesus because of his great love for us, has died the awful death that faces us, when he was crucified in our place. Our judgment was borne by him, and God is offering pardon for our sins and everlasting life if we trust in him. “Now,” Hector told her, “You must pray this prayer, ‘Lord show me yourself. Show me the Saviour.’ You must pray that prayer until you know that God had answered you.” Then he left her, and never visited that inn again, but many years later a middle-aged woman introduced herself to him. She told him that she had been the girl whom he had spoken to in the inn whom he had taught the first steps of a living relationship with God, and how wonderfully God had answered that prayer and what a blessed and happy life she had known for the past thirty years. What joy the minister and the former scullery maid both knew then!
You must pray that prayer. “Show me my sin and then I will fight it. Show me the Saviour and he’ll help me to kill it.” You must take your sin to where you see it clearly, in the light of God’s wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. That place is the Cross. In your mind’s eye take your sin there. See the sun grow dark with the sight of such shame; see the onlookers leave wailing and beating their breasts; hear the cry of the One who bore our judgment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Look again at your sin, and humbly say, “Lord Jesus, the answer to your question is clear. It was my sin that caused you to be forsaken.” That is the next step to putting sin to death. Our sin crucified God the Son and so you must show it no mercy but mortify it. Then the final means of strengthening you to put to death remaining sin . . .
v] Look to Jesus. You know the basic pattern of many of the New Testament epistles, that first of all Paul expounds the gospel of salvation, and then he concludes by reminding them of the consequences of this gospel for their daily living. The third chapter of Colossians is describing one of these hinges. Paul briefly reminds them again of some of the salient points of which he’s been writing to them in the first two chapters concerning their status as joined to the glorious Christ, of the wonderful blessing of being a Christian, that one is now in Jesus Christ. So Paul says this in the opening verses of the chapter; “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Cols. 3:1-4). Remember who you are in Christ. Let me ask you could you ask your wife or your parents to join you in looking at that particular website or accompany you in going to a certain place? No you could not. Then how can you ask Jesus Christ to look at it with you, or go with you to that place? Let that awareness do its own powerful work in your life! The Lord Jesus Christ is more important to you than your wife or your parents. So, in order to mortify remaining sin you are to remember that you are indissolubly united to Christ. That is the motivation that Paul uses elsewhere. He tells the Corinthians in effect, that when we sin we’re not temporarily separating ourselves from Christ. We may distance ourselves from a sense of his presence and his fellowship, but we remain one with him – in other words, when we sin we’re dragging the Lord Jesus into our sin. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” (1 Cor, 6:15).
Go on giving remaining sin a hard time. It is not going to take that lying down. It will make every effort to bring you down. Take heed lest you fall. Give the Lord the glory for all you’ve been able to do. Thank him for protecting you and using you. Continue to call upon him for wisdom and strength. Don’t grow weary, even when you see other Christians flagging. Bear their burdens by restoring them and they will fight alongside you.
23rd September 2012 GEOFF THOMAS