Inflaming Affections for Christ, Part 1: Mortification

In the next three articles, we are going to consider what the Bible teaches is the blueprint—processes and mechanisms that are typical of spiritual growth, what the Bible calls sanctification.1 The next two articles will focus on first regarding ourselves according to our God-defined identity (namely, union with Christ) and second vivification—the coming alive of the new man through God’s Spirit creating and inflaming new affections for Him in the heart of the Christian. However, in this article we will look at five main characteristics of mortification—that is the Spirit-empowered putting to death of indwelling sin lurking in the recesses of the Christian’s heart.


Sanctification through Transforming Spiritual Affections

The Puritans talked often about how sanctification occurred through the transformation of a believer’s affections. In order to understand what precisely they meant, it is important to first understand how the Puritans defined the affections. Simply put, the Puritans believed the affections were those things that one truly loved. For this reason, in his Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded (1681) John Owen explained that God desires our love, our affections. Owen said, “he will accept of nothing from us without them; the most fat and costly sacrifice will not be accepted if it be without a heart.”2 This was Jesus’s indictment of the Pharisees when he said, “this people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8). As John Piper says, the affections “are not icing on the cake of Christian living. They are essential. The great lesson of the Pharisees is that cleaning up the visible, physical outside of our lives, while the inward affections remain unchanged, is deadly.”3 And, in this way, the affections were a litmus test of sincerity or hypocrisy.

For this reason, the Puritans believed that genuine spiritual growth occurs through the transformation of one’s affections. In this way, depending on whether or not a person loved Christ, his affections either drove him towards Christ or away from him.  Owen beautifully illustrates this when he says that “the affections are in the soul as the helm in the ship; if it be laid hold on by a skillful hand, he turneth the whole vessel which way he pleaseth.” For “if God hath the powerful hand of grace upon affections, he turns our soul unto a compliance with [him].”4 If the affections are the helm of the ship, then the next logical question becomes how is it that a believer’s affections are transformed from loving the world and sin to loving God. The classic text for Puritans was Romans 8:13, “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.” For contained in this verse was the Christian mandate to engage in the two-fold work of mortification and vivification. As J.I. Packer says, “sanctification has a double aspect. Its positive side is vivification, the growing and maturing of the new man; its negative side is mortification, the weakening and killing of the old man.”5 


John Owen’s Mortification of Sin

The classic Puritan text on mortification was John Owen, Mortification of Sin (1656). Interestingly, while many contemporary readers have remarked at how difficult Owen’s work is to read, Sinclair Ferguson has pointed out that “Mortification of Sin was not originally prepared from pastors of Christian congregations, but was originally the material for a series of sermons Owen preached to students at the University of Oxford.” Indeed, these sermons were “essentially addressed to teenagers!” In short, “Owen did not view the material as strong meat for the well-tried Christians we see it as. Rather it was basic milk, foundational principles for every Christian believer.”6


Killing Sin—Active and Imperative

For the Puritans, Mortification had a number for different features. First, mortification was imperative. Hebrews 12:14 says that without holiness “no one will see the Lord.” Those who are truly led by the Spirit of God will mortify the flesh. Second, mortification is active, not passive. The Puritans viewed sin not as a passive agent, but rather an agent that actively seeks to destroy a person. (like the ocean, you cannot drift). Owen said,

He that stands still and suffers his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance, will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue. If sin be subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of killing the souls, and we be slothful, negligent, foolish, in proceeding to the ruin thereof, can we expect a comfortable event? There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on; and it will be so whilst we live in this world.7


Perhaps you have had the experience of anchoring your umbrella in the sand at the beach before going out to wade in the ocean, only to find that after a half hour or so you have drifted forty to fifty yards down the shore without even noticing. This is a picture of our battle against sin in this life. For since we live in an ocean of sin and are constantly drifting away from Christ, we must be actively swimming against this sin-tide by vigorously engaging in mortifying the flesh.


This Means War

Third, the Puritans believed mortification is warfare. Samuel Rutherford said “think it no easy matter to take heaven by violence.”8 It is no wonder, then, that the Puritan William Gurnall (1616–1679) said that the war between Satan and the Christian is “so bloody a one, that the cruelest which ever was fought by men, will be found but sport and child’s play.” For “what is the killing of bodies to the destroying of souls?”9 Fourth, Puritans contended that mortification increasingly extinguishes (rather than merely diverts) sin. There is a massive difference between mortifying sin— to kill it entirely—and diverting sin—to appear to kill sin but allow it to merely relocate to another less obvious form.10 This is the distinction that Paul draws between worldly sorrow and godly repentance in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “for godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” The astonishing thing is that, although they are entirely different, worldly sorrow and godly repentance often look nearly the same. Augustine testified to this reality in his Confessions when he described his struggle with sexual sin, saying that when he “had spent my young manhood in such misery” he turned to God and prayed “Grant me chastity and continence” but hastened to add “but please, not yet.” For he said, “I was afraid that you would swiftly answer my prayer and swiftly heal me from the sickness…which I would rather have satiated than extinguished.”11


Spiritual Horticulture—Get Digging Deep to the Root Sin-Motivations

Fifth, Puritans held that true mortification is motive-focused, not just behavior focused. All intelligent horticulturalists know that, when it comes to tending properly one’s garden, there is a massive difference between running your lawnmower over a weed and uprooting it. While the lawnmower may temporarily remove the appearance of weeds, only uprooting the weeds will rid the garden of them entirely. Much of so-called mortification is merely sin diversion because it does not go deep enough. Instead believers must engage with the roots of our sin—what Ferguson calls, “the reality which lies behind, and comes to expression in, any and every pattern of sinful behavior.”12 This is why Puritans gave extensive directions for self-examination. As Joel Beeke has said, true mortification focuses on the “motives of the inward attitude[s] as well as the outward act[s]. Sanctification is the Spirit’s warring against the flesh.” 13 Likewise, Ferguson argues that “the key test of any formula for sanctification is: Does this enable me to overcome the influence of sin, not simply in my outward actions but in my inner motivations?” In this way, mortification is progressive and lifelong. For our hearts are like onions, wherein “the unravelling of one layer simply reveals the next – on and on continue the painful revelations of our sinfulness.”14


[1] This article is an expand and updated version of one section of Greg Salazar, “Growing in Christ-likeness,” in Joel R. Beeke, ed., Growing in Grace (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020).

[2] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 16 vols., (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 7:395.

[3] John Piper, Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), pp.119-120

[4] Owen, Works, 7:397.

[5] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 1994), p.199.

[6] Sinclair B. Ferguson, John Owen: the Man and his Theology (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2002), p.73.

[7] Owen, Works, 6:11

[8] Samuel Rutherford, “Letter to Carsluth (1637),” in The Letters of Samuel Rutherford with a Sketch of his Life and Biographical Notices of His Correspondence, ed. Andrew Bonar (1863; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth,1984), p.374.

[9] William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour: A Treatise of the Saints’ War against the Devil (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), pp.2–3.

[10] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), p.153.

[11] Augustine, The Confessions, trans. and ed. Philip Burton (New York: Random House, 2001), 8.7.

[12] Ferguson, Devoted to God, p.154.

[13] Joel Beeke and Mark Jones. A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books), p.530

[14] Ferguson, Devoted to God, p.119.


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