Toward A Catechism on Mortification

posted by R. Fowler White

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth. Colossians 3:5 (KJV)

For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. Romans 8:13 (KJV)

For most folks, that word mortify in the citations above is plainly just an antiquated term found in an antiquated Bible translation. That opinion, however, is more than a little naïve, showing only how afflicted we can be by the arrogance of the modern. The fact is, the more we study that word and concept in the context of the Bible and in the context of the church’s historic confessional and theological discussions, we realize that there is enduring benefit in recovering their usage. That is particularly true if we want to get a handle on the basics of the Bible’s teaching about the Christian life: after all, as indicated by the citations above, mortification is evidently fundamental to Paul’s conception of the believer’s new life. The continuing value of the term is also seen when we seek to understand and engage responsibly in the current debate over the meaning and relevance of mortification in the lives of men who aspire to occupy or already occupy the office of elder or deacon in Christ’s church.

It was precisely for the reasons just stated that the questions and answers below were drawn up. Oh, to be sure, the catechetical format might not appeal to everybody. The format is not so much the point, however; the content is. It aims to distill the insights on mortification from what is widely regarded in Reformed circles as the masterwork on that biblical doctrine by John Owen (1616-1683). No doubt improvements can be made; hence the word “Toward” in the title of this post. For the moment, however, let me mention that, in drawing up this catechism, great benefit came from consulting the annotated edition of Owen’s original work by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor, the modernized edition of it by William Gross, and the popularized summaries of Owen’s teaching found in the books of Sinclair Ferguson, Kris Lundgaard, and Jerry Bridges. Readers may also notice that an attempt was made to integrate, wherever possible, language and concepts related to mortification found in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Finally, let me express my gratitude to Reed DePace, teaching elder and pastor of First Presbyterian Church (PCA), Montgomery, AL, as well as contributor here at Green Baggins. His patient interaction with multiple drafts of this catechism was very valuable. Of course, responsibility for the final form of this document must be my own.

Overall, my aim in drafting this catechism for myself and for others has been to get a firmer grasp on the serious business that mortification is, together with a greater appreciation for just how central mortification is to our Christian lives. This project has certainly motivated me to heed Owen’s stark reminder: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” As a result, my prayer is that we’ll all buckle down and go on to mature in holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor 7:1; Col 3:5-14; 1 Pet 2:24; Heb 12:14; Col 1:9-11; 1 Thess. 3:13; cf. Phil 3:12-14; 1 John 3:1-3), to grow in the saving grace and knowledge of Christ (1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 3:18), and to be transformed inwardly day by day (2 Cor 3:18; 4:16; Rom 12:2; Eph 4:23; Col 3:10).

Q. 1. What is mortification?
A. Mortification is both an initial and a progressive work of grace in believers by the Holy Spirit: the initial work of grace being that the Spirit unites believers to Christ in His death to sin, with the result that they are said to have been crucified with Christ and to have died to sin with Christ (Rom 6:3-7; Gal 2:20; 5:24; Phil 3:10b; Col 2:20; 3:3, 9); and the progressive work of grace being that the Spirit empowers believers to fulfill God’s command that through daily crucifixion they put to death the sin that remains in their mortal body, together with sin’s lusts and deeds (Rom 7:25; 8:13b; 13:14; 1 Cor 6:11; Gal 5:17-18, 22-25; Phil 2:12-13; Col 3:5; 2 Thess 1:11).

Q. 2. What specifically do we mean by the word “sin” when we speak of it as the target of mortification?
A. When we use the word “sin” for the target of mortification, we refer to sin and its lusts that remain in the mortal body of believers, corrupting their nature, defiling all the parts and faculties of soul and body, and inclining their mind, will, and affections habitually toward unholy thoughts, words, and deeds
(Gen 6:5; Jer 17:9; Rom 3:10-19; 5:6; 6:12-13; 7:5, 7-8, 17-18, 20, 23, 25; 8:7; Gal 5:17; Col 1:21; Titus 1:15).

Q. 3. What do we not mean when we speak of “mortifying sin”?
A. When we speak of “mortifying sin,” we do
not mean that sin is completely killed (i.e., eliminated or removed) in this life (Phil 3:12-13; cf. 1 Cor 9:24-27; 1 Tim 6:12, 19); nor that it is merely disguised in or diverted to a more socially acceptable or less discoverable expression (cf. Acts 8:23); nor that it is merely tamed, quieted, or only occasionally defeated (cf. Ps 78:32-37).

Q. 4. What do we mean when we speak of “mortifying sin”?
A. When we speak of “mortifying sin,” we mean habitually weakening sin, constantly fighting and contending against it, and realizing success over it, all through daily crucifixion.

Q. 5. What do we mean when we speak of “habitually weakening sin”?
A. When we speak of “habitually weakening sin,” we mean to say that, little by little, sin’s life, power, promptness, and eagerness are taken away,
with the result that it acts more seldomly and more faintly, cries out sparingly, and is hardly heard in the heart, and with the result that the habits of sin are not able to rise up in believers to incline them with the same intensity, seriousness, and frequency, nor to make them its slave as it did before their conversion (Rom 6:6; 1 Cor. 6:18-19; 2 Cor 4:16; cf. Jas 1:14-15).

Q 6. What do we mean when we speak of “constantly fighting and contending against sin”?
A. When we speak of “constantly fighting and contending against sin,” we mean to say that believers
recognize sin for what it is in the light of God’s wrath (Eph 2:3; 5:6; Col 3:6), recall the shame of past sin (Eph 2:1-2; 4:17-20; Col 3:7; Rom 6:21; Ezek 16:63), and learn the ways of sin’s success in their lives (Rom 7:15-25); and that believers also reckon with the reality that the Spirit has united them with Christ in His death to sin (Rom 6:2; Col 2:20; 3:3), and He empowers them to subject indwelling sin with its lusts and deeds to daily crucifixion (Rom 6:12-14; 7:21-25; 8:12-14; Gal 5:16-25; Col 3:5; Luke 9:23).

Q. 7. What do we mean when we speak of “realizing success over sin”?
A. When we speak of “realizing success over sin,” we mean to say that sin is no longer able habitually to keep believers from obeying God or to interrupt their peace with Him
(Rom 6:11-14, 19-22; 7:21–8:4; Gal 5:16).

Q. 8. Do believers have the power to fulfill God’s command that they mortify sin?
A. No, believers do not have the power in and of themselves to fulfill God’s command that they mortify sin
(Rom 7:18; Gal 5:17; cf. Rom 8:13).

Q. 9. Since believers lack the power in and of themselves to fulfill God’s command that they mortify sin, from whom do they obtain that power?
A. Only from Christ by the Holy Spirit and through faith do believers have the power to mortify sin
(Rom 8:13; Gal 5:16).

Q. 10. In what ways are believers empowered to mortify sin?
A. The ways in which believers are empowered to mortify sin include the following: by meditating on the grandeur of God’s glorious perfections
(John 17:24; 2 Cor 3:16-18; 4:6; Col 1:10-23; 1 Pet 1:14-21; 2:1-3) and earnestly seeking God for deliverance from their sin through Jesus Christ their Lord (Rom 7:24; Gal 5:17); by being convinced of their sin’s guilt, defilement, and corruption; truthfully diagnosing its severity (asking, e.g., if it is deep-rooted, long-indulged, often victorious, or only opposed to avoid shame or punishment) (cf. Isa 63:10; 2 Chron 36:15-16; 1 Cor 3:1-3; Eph 4:30; Heb 5:11-12; 6:1-3, 6); and being persuaded of the risks it poses to them (whether the risk is, e.g., that of being deceived, of being disciplined by God, of losing strength and peace, or of being exposed as unconverted) (Rom 7:14-25; Eph 4:17-24; 1 Pet 1:14; 4:2-6); by avoiding situations that incite sin and by dealing with sin when it first appears (1 Cor 6:18; 10:14; 1 Tim 6:3-11; 2 Tim 2:22; Jas 4:7); by considering the relationship between their sins and their natural temperament and being careful not to conclude too soon that the sin in them is really mortified; and by committing the considerations just mentioned to regular prayers of repentance and faith.

Q. 11. What benefits may believers enjoy through mortification?
A. The benefits that believers may enjoy through mortification include the following: that their
strength and peace—indeed, their power and comfort—in their life with God will be stirred up, increased, and built up through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of adoption (Col 1:10–11; Eph 3:16–19; Rom 7:4-6; Gal 5:16, 22-23, 25; Heb 6:11–12; Jude 20); that they will more and more die to sin as its power to produce unholy thoughts, words, and deeds in their lives is taken away (Rom 8:4, 13; Gal 5:16, 19-21); that they will more and more have power to fight and overcome sin (Rom 6:14; 1 John 5:4; Eph 4:15–16), to bear the fruit of the Spirit, and to grow in all saving graces (Ezek 36:25-27; Rom 6:11-23; 7:4, 6; 8:13b; 2 Cor 7:1; Gal 5:22-23; Col 3:8-14; 1 Pet 2:24); and that they will enjoy communion with Christ in His death to sin (Rom 6:2-4, 6, 14; 8:13; Gal 5:16, 25; Phil 3:10b; 2 Cor 1:5), the assurance of God’s love (Rom 5:5), peace of conscience (Rom 5:1), joy in the Spirit (Rom 14:17), and growth and perseverance in grace to the end of their lives (2 Pet 3:18Phil 1:6; 1 Pet 1:5).

“Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” — John Owen

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2 Comments

  1. Reed Here said,

    September 21, 2022 at 3:03 pm

    Excellent!

    As I opined in a couple of relevant groups:

    I want to commend to you a catechism on mortification written by our brother Rev. Dr. Fowler White. Arising in some discussions he and I had on the current debates in our denomination, Dr. White took on the task of (re) examining the doctrine of mortification using the writings of John Owen and those following in his footsteps.

    Without any consideration of my “gadfly” assistance, I must commend this catechism to you with the highest admiration. Listening to Dr. White over the last few months as he worked on this, I was delighted to hear him time and again respond with the joy of the boy running in from the backyard with his latest dug up “treasure”. The difference with this analogy is that Dr. White truly has dug up treasures, gospel gems of rare beauty. His setting of them in this catechism crown results in a mutual showing off of their collective beauty with stunning results.

    Forgive my gushing. While the saying “nothing new here” must always apply when discussing classic doctrine, this catechism frames these gems of mortification in a manner that is worthy of our attention, and renewal of our commitment to practicing mortification (aka “daily crucifixion”, so Owen) in our lives.

    I commend it to you with that goal in mind.

  2. September 22, 2022 at 2:43 pm

    Outstanding work!


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