Mortification of Sin (Exposition of Romans 8:12-14)

In the current war on terrorism’s Iraq battlefront, it is easy to see how an enemy can be defeated and yet continue to wreak havoc through various pockets of resistance. These insurgent outposts continue to do battle against the Iraqi and U.S. forces even though the major battle has been won. After all, Saddam Hussein’s reign of tyranny has ended. He sits in an Iraqi prison cell awaiting his trial for crimes against the Iraqi people. A new government has been elected which is about the hard task of writing a new constitution. Yet there remain these deadly pockets of resistance which must be systematically and decisively eliminated.

Likewise, in the life of the Christian there remains various pockets of resistance that seek to wreak havoc against his/her soul! The decisive victory against and sin and Satan was won at Calvary, yet there remain these outposts of the old fleshly regime in our mortal bodies. These deadly pockets of resistance must be systematically and decisively destroyed!

In Romans 8:5-11, the apostle Paul teaches that believers are in the Spirit and not in the flesh. Therefore, Paul concludes that believers, who are in the Spirit, are not under any obligation to the flesh to live according to the flesh. You’re not in the flesh and you have no reason to act like you are! Instead, those in the Spirit are obligated to live according to the Spirit. To be led by the Spirit. Being led by the Spirit is evidence of one’s being a son of God. Are you a Son of God? Are you in the Spirit? The apostle Paul provides a challenging test of our sonship in Romans 8:12-14.

Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. (13) 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. (14) For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.

This text begins with a statement in v. 12 that believers are no longer bound to obey the flesh to live according to the flesh. I can imagine a soldier, recently released from the army, who is so used to receiving orders from his commanding officer that he may still snap to attention at his orders, but he doesn’t have to! Likewise, believers have been released from the tyranny of sin, we may still respond to the flesh, but we don’t have to!

Instead the regenerate believer who is in the Spirit has a new obligation. That obligation is to “mortify” i.e., put to death the deeds of the body. According to v. 14 this mortification is the way we are “led by the Spirit of God” and is evidence that we are the sons of God.

We often use v. 14 as a proof-text for spiritual guidance, but in the context this verse is referring to those who are led by the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the body! In other words this verse is not teaching that you know you are a son of God because you look back on the seashore and see only one set of footprints, it is teaching that those who are led by the Spirit of God are led to put to mortify their sinful deeds! If you are a son of God, then you are actively putting to death the deeds of the body. To state it another way, if you are not actively putting to death the deeds of the body, you’re not a son of God!

This is serious business because the text says if you’re not doing this the result is death and if you are doing this the result is life! John Owen wrote, “Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Both the life and death in this passage are to be taken in their fullest eschatological sense. Eternal death and eternal life are at stake!

But you may say, I thought that now that we are free from the law we can relax and coast into heaven without much of a struggle. No, the Christian life is a battle! We are waging war against the kingdom of Satan in this world and the outposts that still remain in our own bodies! As John Murray wrote, “The believer’s once-for-all death to the law and to sin does not free him from the necessity of mortifying sin in his members; it makes it necessary and possible for him to do so.”

We are therefore responsible to put to death the deeds of the body! The Christian life is not one in which the believer simply “lets go and lets God”. We are not to be passive! No, there must be an active participation on our part. If you’re not struggling against sin, then you are not a child of God!

How Does a Christian Mortify Sin? (Adapted from a John F. MacArthur, Jr. essay titled “Mortification of Sin” which was published in TMSJ 5/1 [Spring 1994] 3-22, available for pdf download here.)

First, sin is not mortified when it is hidden, internalized or exchanged. You can hide sin from others, but that is not mortification. You can internalize sin by stopping the outward practice while still living in the pleasure of the memory of it, but that’s not mortification. You can exchange one sin for another, but that’s not mortification. Instead, mortification is:

1. Abstaining from Fleshly Lusts

Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; 1 Peter 2:11

2. Making No Provision for the Flesh

But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. Romans 13:14

3. Fixing your Heart on Christ

Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. 1 John 3:2-3

4. Meditating on God’s Word

Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee Psalm 119:11

5. Praying Without Ceasing

Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. Matthew 26:41

Jesus also taught His disciples to pray, “Lead us not in to temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Luke 11:4

6. Exercising Self-Control

And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. 1 Corinthians 9:25-27

7. Being Filled with the Holy Spirit

And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Ephesians 5:18

This work can only be accomplished if we are controlled/governed by the Spirit. As our text tells us this is done through the Spirit (vv. 13 and 14). The work of mortification is thus synergistic. We cooperate with the Spirit of God in putting to death the deeds of the body. We “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” because it is “God that works in us” (Philippians 2:12-13). Or as Romans 8:13 states it, we “mortify the deeds of the body” “through the Spirit”.


  1. Excellent post Steve! I have “Sin & Temptation” by John Owen. A pastor need only read IT & “The Reformed Pastor” by Richard Baxter, and He will be a man ablaze with the fire of God burning within him….or he will grow disinterested, put them down, & at best…show his need for the chastening hand of God, or at worst….that He is dead…& dead men can’t preach!

    P.S. I left a comment in reply to yours on your Sept. 12 post.


  2. Gregg and Joe,

    Thanks for your comments!

    Greg, I’ll check out your comment on Sept. 12’s post when I get a chance. Thanks!

  3. Pastor Weaver, You are a burly looking man with beard, do you think you can intimidate people into the kingdom against their Will?


  4. Dear Concerned,
    It will encourage you to know that Pastor Steve Weaver has shaved his beard, but he is still burly. Please pray for him.


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