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Mortification

The story of the Bible can be summarized in two words: death and resurrection. Ultimately, the story of the Bible is about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is the core of the story we call the ‘gospel’. But this basic story also finds its expression in many different and complementary ways throughout the Scriptures. To take just a few examples:

  • The ‘death and resurrection’ story is foreshadowed in the pivotal story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, the heir of the covenant (Genesis 22).
  • The prophets describe the story of the ‘death and resurrection’ of Israel. This is particularly obvious in the book of Ezekiel, which tells the story of the death of the old Israel through God’s judgement on her sin (chapters 1-24), followed by the resurrection of a whole new and transformed and cosmic Israel (chapters 33-40).
  • Other aspects of biblical teaching also seem to have the same general pattern. The wisdom of Proverbs seems to undergo a kind of ‘death’ in Ecclesiastes and Job, resulting in a transformed heavenly wisdom (see 1 Cor 2:4-16, Jas 3:13-18).
  • Paul’s ministry follows a kind of ‘death and resurrection’ story (e.g. 2 Cor 4:10-14).

But what is particularly interesting is the way that the ‘death and resurrection’ story is applied to the daily lives of believers. Death and resurrection is not only the big overarching story of the Bible, it is also our individual story. When we are justified and included in Christ, the story of our lives also become his story. Paul can say that he has been crucified with Christ, and so he no longer lives, but Christ lives in him (Gal 2:20). All those who are baptized into Christ are simultaneously ‘immersed’ into his story—the story of death and resurrection (Rom 6). This, of course, gives us great hope for the future: we look forward to the time when we will receive resurrection bodies instead of mortal bodies (e.g. Rom 8:11). But this story doesn’t just apply to the end of our lives; our life in the Spirit now consists in lots of little ‘deaths’ and ‘resurrections’ day by day. In Colossians 3:5-14, we read that we must put to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature (e.g. sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness, which is idolatry, anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk, lying, etc.), and put on the things that belong to our resurrection self (e.g. compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and love, above all).

So the story of our lives can also be summed up in two words: ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’. Consequently, our view of the Christian life is distorted when we neglect one or any of these other aspects of Christian living. Those who focus too much on ‘putting to death the misdeeds of the body’ (Rom 8:13) in the Christian life can tend to be pessimistic and negative, emphasizing the ‘don’ts’ of the Christian life—perhaps giving the impression that God is a killjoy who would be much happier if we just stayed in a monastery, twiddling our thumbs. Some Christians in past ages have been big on the idea of the ‘mortification of the flesh’, going to great lengths and schemes to “put to death” the misdeeds of the body. There have been very weird extremes too: self-flagellation, enforced celibacy, hermits doing penance in the desert, etc.

But I think that, in our day, the opposite tends to be more the problem: we in the modern western world don’t like negativity; we’re far more comfortable with the positive. To make a huge generalization, I don’t think modern Christians are too bad at emphasizing the ‘resurrection’ side of Christian living: God loves me, he has a wonderful plan for my life, he wants me to love others—to be kind and compassionate, to read the Bible, to tell others the wonderful message, to look forward in eager expectation to the new creation, etc. These are all very positive characteristics of our new resurrection life that God has given us in Christ, and they’re all true. But how do we go at remembering and embracing and proclaiming the fact that the ongoing story of our Christian lives is also about death? Are you comfortable with the teaching that we must be killing the old self daily? If so, when did you last make a concerted attempt to murder some aspect of your earthly and sinful self—for example, greed or sexual impurity? Many Christians have plans and goals for the future, but how many of your plans and goals involve killing and combatting sin in your life?

Saying ‘yes’ to God is simultaneously saying ‘no’ to sin. Death and resurrection (or, to use slightly older terms, ‘mortification’ and ‘vivification’): it’s the story of our lives.

Published inEthicsThe Briefing

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

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