by Paul Barker
In 2005 I preached a series of sermons on the so-called Seven Deadly Sins. That focused my thinking to reflect on the nature of preaching to bring about change in people's lives. I looked at the ethical injunctions in the epistles and considered how they indicated a move from sin to virtue can happen.
The doctrine of mortification of sin is not considered much. I don't recall a lecture on it when I trained for ministry. However this article is not so much a theological argument. Read John Owen for that.1 I am addressing preachers. It seems to me this is a crucial doctrine for preachers to grasp if our preaching is to be truly powerful under God.
The issue is, how do we put sin to death? If preaching is, in part, to train in righteousness, where does the power to change come from? Can human beings change themselves to be more righteous? Paul says in Romans in 6:12 "Let not sin reign in your mortal bodies to make you obey their passions". And, in Romans 8:13 "If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body you will live".
This is also an important doctrine to grasp if we are to persist in faithful preaching. It is easy to become discouraged in preaching when we see little fruit or impact from our preaching. In such cases it is tempting to look elsewhere for that secret source of power. The danger is we walk away from biblical truth and power.
Imagine that in your congregation you despair at the lack of love. So you preach, over a period of time, various sermons about the need to love. Perhaps you don't detect much change. So you think, "how do I get these people more loving?" There are various avenues that people go down as preachers. Some will go down an avenue that is heretical, either denying God's power to change us or finding it elsewhere. Or they go down a path of legalism. That is a common heresy that the writers of the New Testament often address. Some go down the path of triumphalism. Some proclaim positive thinking. "The more you think positively the more change you will effect in your life". Sometimes the preacher simply becomes despondent and gives up. Sometimes the preacher manipulates, dominates or bullies people.
The theology of putting sin to death is a cross-centred theology. That is, the power to change arises out of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is not a power inherent within Christians, nor is it a power that we as preachers have. Read through the following passages: Romans 6:1-23; Galatians 5:16-26; Ephesians 4:17-5:20; Philippians 2:1-16; 3:17-21; Colossians 3:1-16; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; 1 Timothy 6:3-10; Titus 2:1-15; 1 Peter 2:11-25. They all approach the issue of the power to change with the cross at the centre. The power to perfect us, or sanctify us, or put sin to death in us, or whatever language you want to use, comes out of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
One weakness that I suspect is not rare is to recognise the power of the Holy Spirit to change us but not to see that the Spirit's power itself derives from the power of the cross and resurrection. When Paul in Romans 8 says, "if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live", he is applying the power of the cross through the Spirit. It is not a separate power. We sometimes fall into the simplistic trap of thinking that the cross has the power to forgive sin but the Spirit has the power to mortify sin or sanctify us. The biblical view is that the cross defeats sin in all ways and the Spirit is powerful because it is appropriating the power of the cross and resurrection into our lives.
The same point can be made about the power of God's Word. The word is powerful to make us wise for salvation precisely because the power of the word is the power of the cross and resurrection. So whether the passages listed above speak of the power of the cross, the power of the resurrection, the power of the Word, the power of the Spirit or the power of grace, it is the one and the same power. And, it is a cross-centred theology.
That means that for those of us who preach, it is well worth asking ourselves from time to time, "What theology of the cross am I preaching?" This is a good question to ask of any sermon we preach, not just on sermons that deal exclusively with the atonement. It may not be that you even mention the cross in a particular sermon but underneath there will be some theology of the cross that is worth checking to ensure it is right. Is the theology that we preach cross-centred? Is the power we appeal to and rely on derived from the cross?
One of the concerns that drove my thinking on the mortification of sin is the reflection that most people underestimate the power of sin and overestimate the power of human beings. Therefore, we are to persist in preaching because people persist in sinning. Our persistence in preaching is not away from the cross, however.
What follows are ten points as part of a whole package for preachers seeking to aid their congregations in putting sin to death. The same points apply, obviously, to us as individuals struggling with sin in our lives. This checklist can function from time to time to remind ourselves whether or not we are preaching biblical power over sin. That is, to check whether our preaching of ethics is cross-centred or not. These ten points arise from my reading of the New Testament passages listed above.
1. Keep reading the Bible. If it is God's powerful word, keep reading it, and keep sitting under it, whether in the pew or in the pulpit. Because it is powerful, God's people are to meditate on it (Psalm 1).
2. Keep praying. That is, pray God's word into your heart. Pray that God's word will convict you of sin. Pray that God's word will teach, reprove, correct and train you in righteousness, as God promises it will. Pray for the desire or intent to be holy. Pray in confessing your sin and repenting of it.
3. Be thankful. Give thanks for the powerful death of Jesus. Give thanks for the powerful resurrection. Give thanks for the gift of God's powerful Spirit. Give thanks for forgiveness. Give thanks for God's power to cleanse us and change us. Thankfulness is an essential ingredient of our relationship with God. We must keep giving thanks.
4. Don't underestimate the power of sin. Sin enslaves us and destroys us. It dulls our minds and darkens our thinking. It is not like a mark on our skin that we wash off. It is a stain in our hearts.
5. Be quick to flee temptation. Many of us don't recognise this point. If you can imagine a fence, beyond which is sin, keep away. Our trouble is that we want to get as close as we can to see, to peer over the fence or climb on it to get even closer. We do not realise the danger in flirting with the prohibited. We overestimate our own strength. We are far more vulnerable than we realise.
6. Pursue virtue. So often Paul says, 'don't do this but do this'. That is, shift our focus from sin to virtue. Focus our minds on what is wise and good and noble and pure. Cultivate an attitude of desiring change, from desiring sin to desiring God and what is good.
7. Be accountable. Be aware of where you are weak. Ask Christian friends to pray for you. Hold yourself accountable to your Christian friends. Be prepared to challenge your Christian friends and let them to challenge you on areas of your weakness. If money is your weakness, don't handle the money of your church. Be accountable to others for your weaknesses.
8. Look forwards. The anticipation of the coming of the Lord Jesus to judge is a sanctifying thought. Thinking of the eternal delights of heaven is a motivating thought for holiness. Often the New Testament relates the mortification of sin to the power of Jesus' return and heaven. Keep looking forward to the full satisfaction of heaven. This is John Piper's point of 'Future Grace'. Having a heaven/parousia perspective, setting minds on things above, is a crucial component in the fight against sin.
9. Be people of grace. In Romans 6, Paul says "Let not sin reign because you are under grace". In Titus 2:12, "The grace that appeared trains us to renounce lust". A healthy doctrine of grace will mean that we do not despair when we fail, but neither do we live complacently either.
10. Expend lots of effort. It is hard work not to let sin reign in your body. However, all the effort we expend is to be appropriating and relying on God's power, not our own. God's power is the power of the cross, the power of the resurrection, the power of the Word, the power of God's Spirit, the power from grace, and the power of anticipating the Day of the Lord. They are one and same power of the gospel of God.
For us as preachers, we need to keep directing people to appropriate God's cross power. That requires human effort but not a reliance on human strength. If we get this wrong, we end up in heresy or immorality or legalism or despair or manipulation. Having a biblical understanding of the mortification of sin is crucial is we are to persist in powerful preaching.
Paul Barker is Archdeacon of Box Hill, & Vicar of Holy Trinity Doncaster in Melbourne
* This article is a modified version of a talk given to a Langham Preachers Conference in Istanbul in September 2006.