When we moved into our house over a year ago, we noticed this big green, ivy-like bush growing in the corner of the back yard. Consultations with green thumbs yielded no answers as to which species it was. Once we determined its uselessness, we decided to eradicate it in order to clear space for more pleasant landscape possibilities. So, we had our lawn guy come out and chop it down after which he recommended that we poison the root of this green monster that was sure to come back. So for several months, we initiated a cycle of Round-Up squirts aimed at the leafy shoots which arose from every square inch of the area where the bush resided. Once poisoned, the shoots would begin to wilt and die followed by a good mowing over by our lawn guy. But funny thing, new vines would pop up again and again followed by more Round-Up and mowing. No matter how much weed killer we squirted and how often we mowed, new leaves would continue popping up in different spots. Finally, I contacted a landscape friend of mine and told him our problem with killing this menace. He recommended a more powerful solution… a broad leaf weed killer! Now as you probably have deduced, yard maintenance is not one of my gifts, which is why I hire a guy to do it. After applying the new poison, I began to see results immediately, and after a few applications, I can happily say, our Godzilla has left the premises!
Likewise, as believers in Christ, we must deal with ugly bushes that crowd the landscape of our souls. The apostle Paul calls this “indwelling sin” and like my backyard ivy, it needs to be put to death to allow beauty to flourish. (Col 3:5). The theological term for this process is called mortification. To mortify means to put to death.
Often we neglect this necessary discipline due to an incomplete view of salvation. Perhaps our evangelical traditions have trained us to think this way by reducing salvation to a decision we made once (or twice) as opposed to the lengthy process that it is. Indeed, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus we are declared righteous in God’s sight. Like the prodigal son, our filthy selves have been embraced by a loving Father, and we’ve been clothed in a fine robe and celebrated as His son. So, our identities, our standing, and our future have been secured by this atonement. Though our justification is immediate, however, we are still in the process of being saved. You see, though we have made the identity switch from rebel to son, sin still resides in us. Paul writes in Colossians 3 that this righteousness with all its benefits, especially that of knowing Christ, has not been attained or realized, yet is “the prize” that he is striving for. He encourages us to “press on” even though he knows that we have a dim view of what this will eventually look like (1 Cor. 13:12).
In John Owen’s classic work, “The Mortification of Sin”, he reminds us that “sin doth not only still abide in us, but is acting, still laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh” and “in every moral action it is always either inclining to evil, or hindering from that which is good”. Owen knows Paul’s teaching well about the need to kill sin and goes on to write “He that stands still and suffers his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance, will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue.” All this can be summed up in Owen’s well known quote “be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”
Now, it’s easy to see this idea of killing one’s sin as yet another religious activity or behavior modification we have to keep up with. Indeed, our sin nature beckons us to improve ourselves externally, but this is motivated by receiving the approval of others or even the approval of God and not by the desire to truly know Christ. The apostle Paul should know. His life as a Pharisee was fueled by his religious pursuits and in his bitterness and hatred he sought to kill and persecute those who followed Christ. But one day, he was knocked off his donkey by the very presence of Christ and converted and it is through his pastoral writings that he encourages the churches he founded, as well as the ones we are a part of, to be disciples of Christ in a continuing effort to truly know Christ. The catch phrase of the past century most familiar to those of us with an evangelical background is to “accept Jesus as your personal Savior”, yet Paul is saying that to truly know Jesus personally is to die to self and kill the deeds of the flesh every day.
When John Owen admonishes us to “kill sin or it will kill us”, he is saying that our natural bent toward sin moves us farther from Christ and kills our relationship with Him. Therefore, knowing Him intimately and deeply IS our life and the very reason we were created for.
Just like the bush in my backyard, sin must be diligently fought against daily, but to fight is not merely mowing over it and spraying weak poisons on the shoots that pop up. This will not address the root itself and this brings us to the most important thing to remember when talking about killing sin. We should never forget where the power to do this comes from. Owen reminds us where the power does NOT come from when he writes, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religions in the world.” In other words, we can’t do this work from our sin nature because our sin nature only desires to be glorified in this work, thus echoing Paul’s words of “not of works, lest any man should boast”. (Rom. 6:33)
So, if we’re called to this discipline of mortifying our sin, yet we are unable to achieve this with our own pragmatism, then where does the power to kill sin come from? Back to Owens once more. “All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit.” He points us back to Paul in Romans 8 10But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 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.”
This work of killing our sin ultimately is not ours. It’s not the white-knuckles of weed-chopping; it’s the effective “poison” applied by the Holy Spirit who ravages the root of our sin by daily pointing our hearts to the scarred hands of a resurrected Christ. We not only trust in this power for the perfect garden of the life hereafter, but for the landscape of our souls here and now.