In 1 Timothy 4:7, Paul exhorted Timothy to “train yourself to be godly.” The word train Paul used is a word from the athletic arena, a word used to describe the training activity of young men as they prepared themselves to compete in the athletic games of that day. Just as those young men trained themselves physically in order to compete in the games, so Paul wanted Timothy, and now us, to train ourselves spiritually toward godliness. Though godliness is a broader concept than holiness (see chapter 11), holiness is a major part of it, so training ourselves to be godly certainly includes training ourselves in holiness.
The important point, however, is that we train ourselves through exercise. In fact, the King James Version translates this phrase as, “exercise thyself rather unto godliness.” And how do we exercise ourselves in the spiritual realm? Through the choices we make.
What happens when we make wrong choices, when we choose to sin instead of obey God’s Word? We train ourselves in the wrong direction. We reinforce the sinful habits we have already developed and allow them to gain greater strength in our souls.
Consider 2 Peter 2:14: “With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood!” This is part of the apostle Peter’s description of false teachers, and in verse 14 we are right in the middle of it. The key phrase in verse 14 for our present purpose is, “they are experts in greed.” The English Standard Version says they have “hearts trained in greed.” The word trained is the same verb Paul used when he wrote, “train yourself to be godly.” Peter said the false teachers had trained themselves to be greedy. They had trained themselves to the point where, in the very colorful but accurate expression of the New International Version, they had become “experts in greed.”
These false teachers had become experts but in the wrong direction. Instead of becoming experts in generosity and self-giving sacrifice, they had become experts in greed. Instead of training themselves to be godly, they had trained themselves to be greedy. The word translated as “train” in the New International Version can just as accurately be translated as “discipline.” So these false teachers were disciplined but in the wrong direction.
The message implied in 2 Peter 2:14 is very sobering. It is possible to discipline ourselves in the wrong direction. We usually think of disciplined people as those who “have their act together” and do the things they should do when they should be done. But the truth is, we are all disciplined to some degree. The question is, In which direction are we disciplined? Every day in some areas of life, we are disciplining ourselves in one direction or the other by the choices we make.
THE DISCIPLINE OF MORTIFICATION
Making the right choices to obey God rather than the desires of our sinful natures necessarily involves the discipline of mortification. Mortification is an archaic word we don’t use much anymore, but it’s one we need to resurrect. To mortify means to deny our sinful desires or, in the words of our modern Bible translations, “to put to death” those sinful desires.
The apostle Paul said in Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death [mortify] the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” The misdeeds of the body are the sinful actions we commit in thought, word, or deed. Paul was more explicit about these misdeeds in Colossians 3:5: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” This list of sinful deeds is not meant to be complete but is only typical of the expressions of sin Paul had in mind when he said to put them to death. If we are going to pursue holiness—that is, take steps to separate ourselves from sin—we must mortify our sinful desires.
HOW TO PUT SIN TO DEATH
How then do we mortify or put to death the misdeeds—the sinful expressions—of the body? First of all, Paul did not say to mortify indwelling sin, but rather sins, which are the various expressions of indwelling sin. We cannot eliminate indwelling sin in this life. It will be with us until the day we die. Rather, we are to mortify specific sin patterns, which are the expressions of indwelling sin.
To mortify a sin means to subdue it, to deprive it of its power, to break the habit pattern we have developed of continually giving in to the temptation to that particular sin. The goal of mortification is to weaken the habits of sin so that we make the right choices.
First then, mortification involves dealing with all known sin in one’s life. Without a purpose to obey all of God’s Word, isolated attempts to mortify a particular sin are of no avail. An attitude of universal obedience in every area of life is essential. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit” (2 Corinthians 7:1, emphasis added). We cannot, for example, mortify impure hearts if we are unwilling to also put to death resentment. We cannot mortify a fiery temper if we are not also seeking to put to death the pride that so often underlies it. Hating one particular sin is not enough. We must hate all sin for what it really is: an expression of rebellion against God.
Second, not only must there be a universal fight against sin; there must also be a constant fight against it. We must put sin to death continually, every day, as the flesh seeks to assert itself in various ways in our lives. No believer, regardless of how spiritually mature he or she may be, ever gets beyond the need to mortify the sinful deeds of the body. We must make it our business, as long as we live, to mortify the sin that so easily entangles us.
Third, to mortify sin we must focus on its true nature. So often we are troubled with a persistent sin only because it disturbs our peace and makes us feel guilty. We need to focus on it as an act of rebellion against God. Our rebellion is of course against the sovereign authority of God. But it is also rebellion against our heavenly Father who loved us and sent His Son to die for us. God our Father is grieved by our sins. Genesis tells us that when “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on earth had become.… The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:5–6). Your sin and my sin are not only acts of rebellion; they are acts that grieve God. And yet, He sent His Son to die for those very sins that fill His heart with pain.
Bridges, Jerry. 2004. Growing Your Faith: How to Mature in Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.