“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…” –Colossians 3:5
When we think of the “spiritual disciplines” that are often associated with the Christian life, practices such as Bible reading, prayer, and even fasting quickly come to mind. As Colossians 3 points out, however, every Christian must also discipline themselves to regularly put sin “to death” in their lives. Though we often focus our effort on passively trying to avoid our sin, the apostle Paul emphasizes in his letter to the Colossians that the fight against our sin should be proactive rather than simply reactive.
A Puritan Putting Sin to Death
But what does this look like? How do we go about proactively putting our sin “to death?” The late Puritan John Owen (1616–1683) dealt with exactly this topic in his book entitled The Mortification of Sin. Acknowledging the reality that the believers of his day still struggled with temptation after their conversion, Owen set out to share how the gospel allows us to put our sin to death in an infinitely more holistic way than simply trying to legalistically avoid temptation. At the heart of Owen’s work was an explanation of the process of sanctification: how we as Christians are progressively transformed to reflect more and more of the glory of Christ. Since sin is always active in our lives and it is able to both weaken our souls and harden others to the gospel, Owen declared that every Christian must be committed to the daily “mortification” of his or her sin.
What it Means to Mortify Sin
This mortification of our sin, however, does not mean that we are to utterly eliminate it. That is the work of Jesus alone, hence our need for the gospel in the first place. Moreover, putting our sin to death also does not mean that we merely stop practicing the outward actions. As Jesus makes clear through his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, our sin is ultimately a matter of our hearts, even if it is never explicitly manifested in our lifestyles. Though we may think this kind of war against our personal sin may force us into a quiet and calm nature, Owen is careful to state that this is not the case. A friendly disposition does not necessarily equal a sinless constitution. While we may experience occasional periods without a particular sin in our life, the true mortification of that sin will not see it regularly resurface or diverted towards another expression.
According to Owen, a better way to think of putting our sin to death is to fight for a habitually weakening of our sin by focusing on its root. Although this may be more difficult in the beginning, Owen describes success as our vigilance in constantly fighting the sin that is present in our lives. Because of the power of the Holy Spirit present in the life of the believer, we can be confident that God will work through our obedience to transform our lives and ultimately give us victory over our sin.
With these things in mind, our primary question still remains: how do we practically and intentionally establish the discipline of putting our sin to death?
While Owen’s Mortification of Sin does offer the church great advice on the subject, his writing is incredibly dense and can often be difficult to read. Thankfully, contemporary scholars, such as Bob Thune, have been able to study Owen’s work and summarize the information for Christians living in the 21st century. What follows is a list that Thune has compiled of John Owen’s practical suggestions for mortifying our sin (this is part of a larger document that includes an outline of Owen’s entire book):
How Do We Mortify Sin?
A. Four General Principles
- You must set faith on Christ. (Fill your soul with the consideration of who Jesus is and what he’s done for you)
- You must rely on the Holy Spirit. “A man may easier see without eyes and speak without a tongue, than mortify a sin without the Spirit.”
- You must be truly converted.
- You must intend universal obedience. If you don’t intend to obey God in every area, you don’t hate sin; you hate the particular sin that is bothering you. Which means you don’t love Christ; you love yourself. A particularly strong, besetting sin commonly issues from a careless, negligent spiritual life in general.
B. Nine Specific Directives
- Get a clear and abiding sense upon your mind of the guilt, danger, and evil of your sin.
- Load your conscience with the guilt of your besetting sin.
- Long for deliverance from the power of sin. “Longing, breathing, and panting after deliverance is a grace in itself, that has a mighty power to conform the soul into the likeness of the thing longed after… unless you long for deliverance you shall not have it.”
- Consider whether you are prone toward a particular sin because of your personality or disposition. This should awaken your zeal. “So great an advantage is given to sin and Satan by your temper and disposition, that without extraordinary watchfulness, care, and diligence, they [sin and Satan] will prevail against your soul.”
- Consider what occasions your sin uses to exert itself, and watch against them all.
- Fight strongly against the first actings of your lust. “Sin is like water in a channel – once it breaks out, it will have its course.”
- Dwell on thoughts that humble you and remind you of your sinfulness.
- Know the warning signs of particularly dangerous sin patterns: persistent, habitual sin; secret pleas of the heart to leave sin alone; giving into sin without struggle; ignoring the conviction of the Holy Spirit; avoiding sin because you fear punishment. If a lust has any of these symptoms, it cannot be dealt with by an ordinary course of mortification; it requires extraordinary measures.
- Do not speak peace to yourself before God speaks peace to you.
May we intentionally fight together to put every sin to death in our lives as we strive to live out the gospel and its practical implications. As John Owen said, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you."