by John Pedersen

“For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Romans 8:13.

What is it to “put to death the deeds of the body”? The question gets to the heart of what it means to live by the Spirit, and belongs to the description of the Christian life found here in Romans 8.

First, what “putting to death the deeds of the body” or “mortification” is not:

1. It is not something believers have in common with unbelievers. This is obvious from the phrase, “by the Spirit”. Unbelievers do not have the Spirit. Unbelievers do not have the life of regeneration. Apart from this life, we are rightly said to be “dead” in our transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1ff).

By the Spirit, the believer has that by which he knows what has been given to him by God. All knowledge entails distinction. To understand something, it must be distinguished from something else. God’s gift of His Spirit brings a mind whereby righteousness is distinguished from unrighteousness, light from darkness, good from evil (I Corinthians 2:12-16)

2. The second point follows the first: Because mortification is not something in common with unbelievers, it follows that mortification is not “moral reformation”. It is not the amendment of a particular sinful behavior or attitude in the way an unbeliever may recognize something in his life to be wrong and seek to change it.

This is not to say mortification does not entail some change in behavior or outward, observable conduct (See, for example, the descriptions of conduct found in Ephesians 4:22ff. The “putting off” of the old man speaks to the same reality as the “putting to death” the deeds of the body in this verse, Romans 8:13).

It is to say what is in view is not of itself a stopping of some behavior or attitude as, say, an unbeliever would stop using profanity, or stop stealing from his company and admit blame in these things.

Both unbelievers and believers may discontinue a certain behavior or at least apparently discontinue an attitude, but their motives for doing so may be entirely different. In the one case, the motive may be one of self improvement and a guilty conscience.

In the other case, the motive is one of self abasement and thankfulness for the removal of guilt by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

The point is this: mortification most certainly has an outward expression, but it does not consist essentially in this expression but in the motive, the judgment, which gives rise to it.

Second, what mortification is:

1. Mortification is a Spiritual work in the experience of the believer. As the phrase says, it is “by the Spirit”. The Spirit of God brings that life whereby a believer is convicted of his sin and sees the truth of his unrighteousness, be he ever so “moral” and “upright” by the observations of others (John 16:8ff., John 3:3ff, I Corinthians 2:12ff., Philippians 3:3ff., I Corinthians 12:3).

It is this life, seeing the truth of God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, whereby the believer looks to Christ in faith. Without the Spirit, and without this life, there is no faith (John 3:3).

2. Mortification entails judgment. The phrase “put to death” speaks of judgment, the conclusion of a judgment. When a murderer receives the sentence of death for his crime, it is on account of the judgment, or assessment, of the gravity of his offense and the justice due him for the offense committed.

The actual execution, or putting to death, is this judgment being carried out. Here, the believer is said to “put to death” the deeds of the body. The deeds of the body are those actions and attitudes belonging to what the Scriptures call the “flesh”, to the principle of rebellion and opposition to God’s righteousness existing in the realm of our body, or our present earthly existence.

The believer carries out the sentence of death when he sees his life apart from Christ’s righteousness as God sees it.

When we see ourselves with Spiritual eyes, and thus see ourselves as God sees us, we take sides with God against ourselves. We know the greatest treasure and advantage we may find by our own selves as something worth discarding for the value of Christ and His righteousness.

It is to regard as evil what we once regarded as good.

It is to regard as worthless what we once treasured.

It is to see as nothing what we once saw as everything.

Mortification is determining that who we are outside of the glorious moral perfection of Jesus Christ is a person worthy of death, with deeds deserving of death.

3. Mortification is not a technique for “Christian victory”. It is common among religionists to speak of “living by the Spirit” and “mortification of sin” as what might be described as an extra-curricular activity for those who are really interested in “getting deep” and going on with the special techniques and procedures which give them a leg up on “normal” Reformed Christians and open up the door to the “deeper life”.

The apostle Paul is not describing a technique in verse 13 that Christians may consider if they are having a problem overcoming a particular sinful habit plaguing them. He is describing experience common to all Christians.

All Christians put to death the deeds of the body. All believers do this “by the Spirit”. There are no exceptions: From the youngest, most inarticulate believer to the most “seasoned” saint of many years, every single believer is already engaged in what is being described in verse 13, and such is the quality of their experience, from the time they first believed.

So it is not a technique or an approach. It is a description of the essential life, the quality of Christian experience, all believers share.

Having said this though, it must also be said that Christians, in their earthly sojourn, may find themselves forgetting and sinning against the gospel they believe, and require correction, rebuke, and a reminder of who they are and what Christ has done for them.

This correction never comes to the believer as some new and different approach to mastering his sinful flesh. It comes to the believer in words he essentially recognizes to be true and agreeable with the judgment he has made about himself by the Spirit of God. As the Apostle John writes, “I have not written to you because you do not know the truth but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth” (I John 2:21).

The truth of Christian mortification is found in this: The judgment, or assessment, a believer makes concerning himself, and his sinful attitude and behavior, that he is, for this, worthy of the death Jesus Christ died on the cross and the penalty Jesus Christ suffered there.

In Christian mortification, the believer puts to death the deeds of his sinful life by seeing himself as deserving what Christ endured for him, judging himself accordingly, and thus finding his life not in himself but in Christ and His righteousness.

Here the believer discontinues sinful activity, not for the fear of impending judgment, but in a confident knowledge all judgment has occurred by Christ’s sacrifice, and he will not be judged for what he determines is worthy of death, as Jesus Christ has died for him and risen.

In Christian mortification, the believer stops doing what he used to do, and stops living like he used to live. The believer lives by the Spirit of God, putting to death the deeds of the body.