Church History, Features, Pastorate, Theology

The Mortification of the Pastor

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”  – Acts 20:28

“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”  – 1 Timothy 4:16

“It is a fearful thing to be an unsanctified professor, but much more to be an unsanctified preacher.” – Richard Baxter


At the recent Expositors Summit at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I had the daunting task of lecturing on “The Mortification of the Pastor.” I chose this topic given the theme of the conference, namely, the pastor and purity. And I can think of no better way to promote purity than by killing sin.

There is a temptation in ministry to think you’ve arrived. After all, gospel ministers are constantly exhorting people to holy living while trying to live a life worthy of emulation. People look to us for sound doctrine and a life consistent with this teaching. And if we’re not careful, we might actually start to believe we have this whole sin thing under control.

But that would be very dangerous thinking.

Over every pastor’s desk should be the apostolic warning from 1 Corinthians 10:12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Over the last decade, the landscape of evangelicalism has become littered with fallen pastors—men who failed to “take heed.” And the damage to Christ’s church is incalculable. I offer this essay as an exercise in taking heed so that pastors can make progress in holiness. As Charles Spurgeon warned, “For the herald of the gospel to be spiritually out of order in his own proper person is, both to himself and to his work, a most serious calamity; and yet, my brethren, how easily is such an evil produced, and with what watchfulness must it be guarded against!” 1Lectures to My Students (Zondervan, 1954), 8.

To help us be still more watchful I will consider, first, the sanctification of the pastor; second, sanctification’s great enemy; third, the mortification of the pastor with some practical helps to see this work accomplished in our lives.


Christians are being sanctified. This ongoing work can be understood more clearly against the backdrop of what Michael Horton and others have called “definitive sanctification.” Horton writes: “Before we can speak of our being put to holy use and growing in grace . . . we must see that sanctification is first of all God’s act of setting us apart from the world for himself.” 2The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Zondervan, 2011), 650. This definitive work of setting apart can be seen in biblical texts like John 15:16 where Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” The apostle Paul has definitive sanctification in mind when he declares, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” The predestination and calling of a person are a definitive setting apart for salvation—a glorious truth also seen in 1 Corinthians 1:9, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” The Christian is one who has been set apart for salvation in Christ.

But the Bible also speaks of sanctification in another way, a way that considers what is actually happening to a person who has been definitively set apart for God. Again, Horton is helpful when he writes about the inward transformation going on in the believer: “However, the New Testament . . . also speaks of this setting apart as an ongoing work within believers that renews them inwardly and conforms them gradually to the image of God in Christ. We are holy (definitive sanctification); therefore, we are to be holy (progressive sanctification).” 3The Christian Faith, 653.

More help in our understanding comes from J.I. Packer. He explains progressive sanctification in relation to regeneration or the new birth:

Regeneration is birth; sanctification is growth. In regeneration, God implants desires that were not there before: desire for God, for holiness, and for the hallowing and glorifying of God’s name in this world; desire to pray, worship, love, serve, honor, and please God; desire to show love and bring benefit to others. In sanctification, the Holy Spirit “works in you to will and to act” according to God’s purpose; what he does is prompt you to “work out your salvation” (i.e., express it in action) by fulfilling these new desires (Philippians 2:12-13). Christians become increasingly Christlike as the moral profile of Jesus (the “fruit of the Spirit”) is progressively formed in them (2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19; 5:22-25). 4Concise Theology (Tyndale, 2001), 170.

More concisely, we have the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q&A 35):

Q. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Every Christian pastor is being sanctified. By the Spirit of God, we are being enabled to “more and more” (progressively) die to sin and live a life worthy of the gospel. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if this happened every day with no struggle, toil, or pain; no hiccups or setbacks? But surely the pastor, of all people, knows this is not the case. Our sanctification is not uninterrupted. Indeed, it has a great enemy that must be accounted for.


The apostle Paul introduces us to sanctification’s great enemy in Romans 7:21–25:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, [23] but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [25] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

In v. 21 Paul says that he finds it “to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” He uses this ‘law’ language again in v. 23 when he says, “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind.” By ‘law’ Paul means a ‘principle’ or ‘operational principle’. Indwelling sin is a contrary ‘law’ to the inclination to do good (an inclination Paul acknowledges that he has in vv. 21-22). And notice how this ‘law’ or ‘principle’ is always with us—it “dwells in my members,” Paul says. In other words, everywhere we go this law is with us waging war against our God-given desire to walk in righteousness. Unlike a jacket, I can’t leave this law at home or at the office. Where I go, it goes. I cannot get away from this enemy.


The pastor needs help against this great enemy. And great help comes from the seventeenth century in the name of John Owen.

An English Puritan, Owen was a scholar, pastor, and preacher. Among the magisterial sixteen volumes that comprise his works are titles such as The Glory of Christ (volume 1), Communion With God (volume 2), The Holy Spirit (volumes 3 and, appropriately, where we find his essay entitled, “Mortification of Sin”—27 pages of tough sledding and in the context of 285 pages on the doctrine of sanctification), and Temptation and Sin (volume 6 with its 648 pages dedicated to understanding the biblical teaching on temptation and sin).

J.I. Packer, recognizing that Owen dealt with topics at a depth out-of-step with our relatively shallow evangelicalism, explains that Owen “wrote for readers who, once they take up a subject, cannot rest till they see to the bottom of it, and who find exhaustiveness not exhausting but refreshing.” 5James Houston, editor, Sin and Temptation: The Challenge of Personal Godliness (Bethany House, 1996), 18. Packer adds, “A Puritan model of godliness will most quickly expose the reason why our current spirituality is so shallow, namely the shallowness of our views of sin,” 24.

Taking our cues from John Owen, what is mortification? What does it mean to mortify sin?

To mortify means ‘to kill’. Owen calls mortification “the second part of sanctification.” 6The Holy Spirit, vol. 3 (Banner of Truth, 1966), 538. If sanctification is progressive holiness in the life of the believer, mortification is the progressive eradication of sin in the believer. Owen explains, “Indwelling sin in the believer is the old man that must be killed, with all his faculties, properties, wisdom, craft, subtlety, and strength.” 7Sin and Temptation, 154. He continues, “[mortification] is the weakening of sin’s indwelling disposition . . . it is the alacrity, vigor, and cheerfulness of the Spirit or new man contending against lust.” 8Sin and Temptation, 158. And to help us see that this “killing work” is ongoing, Owen reminds us that mortification “consists in a constant taking part with grace . . . against the principle, acts, and fruits of sin.” 9The Holy Spirit, 543. This is not a matter of on again, off again effort, but a constant cooperation with grace in seeking to destroy indwelling sin.

This is radical language—all this talk of mortifying, killing, and destroying sin. In our increasingly biblically illiterate churches, we may be tempted to think this is language exclusive to those “dour” Puritans and not the language of the Bible. But the Bible talks this way; the Bible is ruthless in its discussion of sin. When it comes to sin, the Bible doesn’t say to manage it, control it, befriend it, appease it, or merely avoid it. The Bible commands us to kill it.

Consider Romans 8:12-13, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 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.” The apostle says that the path of life is one where the deeds of the body are “put to death.” Paul repeats this teaching in Colossians 3:5-6, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” Sin, the apostle warns, is idolatry and brings wrath. Therefore, put it to death. And this isn’t only the language of Paul, but of Jesus as well. In his earthly ministry, Jesus taught clearly on the reality of heaven and hell; eternal life and eternal death. The one who mortifies the flesh is the one who will inherit eternal life. The person who does not, will be condemned in hell forever. This is the startling teaching of our Lord in Mark 9:42-48:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

It’s texts like the above that led Owen to famously state, “Be killing sin or it will kill you.” 10Sin and Temptation, 160.

To more clearly understand what mortification is, it is helpful to understand what it is not. There are at least two misconceptions about mortification that need to be highlighted.

First, mortification is not sinless perfection. In other words, it is not the final elimination of sin in this life. No one less than the apostle Paul himself, no strange to the powerful sanctifying work of God in his life, acknowledged in Philippians 3:12–14, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” And in 1 John 1:8 we read, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (cf., James 3:2). The Bible nowhere holds out the hope of perfection in this life.

Second, mortification is more than mere behavior modification. Mortification is not pretending sin is removed or simply suppressing our sinful behavior through the “improvement of a quiet, controlled temperament.” 11Sin and Temptation, 155. Mortification is getting beyond the symptoms of sin (i.e., behavior) and taking aim at the root of sin—a root that lies in the heart. Believing as Jesus taught that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45), the Christian prays like David in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

Having defined mortification and clearing up two major misconceptions about what it is, we now want to ask, “How do we do it? How does a pastor (and any Christian for that matter) mortify the flesh?”

Inspired by John Owen, let me suggest eleven ways to make progress in mortification.

  1. Practice Self-Denial

The world says, “You just need a little me time.” If you said that to John Owen my guess is that he would have looked at you baffled and confused. He would have been perplexed because at the heart of the gospel is exactly the opposite message. Take, for example, Mark 8:34 where Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” At the heart of discipleship is a denial of self. To not practice self-denial is, according to the apostle Paul, one of the marks of an enemy of the cross of Christ: “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19). When your god is your belly you are living to satisfy your sinful passions and lusts, which is utterly contrary to the Christian life—and makes your heart a breeding ground for sin.

  1. Be Resolved That the Battle Never Ends in This Life

Back to Romans 8:12-13, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 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.” All the verbs in this passage emphasize an active, ongoing effort. There is no cease-fire in this war—mortification is a habitual weakening of sin through constant contention against sin. Owen warns:

Sin never wavers, yields, or gives up in spite of all the powerful opposition it encounters from the law of the gospel. If we only believed this, we would be less careless in carrying around that implacable enmity with us. It is well that those who are vigilant should weaken its force within them. But how sad is the deception of those who deceive themselves into thinking they have no sin (1 John 1:8). 12Sin and Temptation, 19.

And because sin will always, to some degree, be active in us, Owen exhorts us to never “let sin alone”: “Sin not only still abides in us, but is still acting, still laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh. When sin lets us alone, we may let sin alone.” 13Temptation and Sin vol. 6 (Banner of Truth, 1966), 11.

  1. Know There Can be Great Victories

Given the power of the gospel, some sins in this life can be eradicated. This is great motivation to engage in warfare against indwelling sin. Owen writes, “Mortification succeeds in varying degrees and may completely triumph if the sin in question is not lodged too deeply within the natural temperament.” 14Sin and Temptation, 158. We believe this to be true because Christians are nothing less than a new creation in Christ, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” As new creations in Christ we now, by the Spirit, “walk in newness of life.” 152 Cor. 5:16-17; Romans 6:4

  1. Beware Surprise Attacks

Sin loves to “come out of nowhere”—to spring up when we least expect it. This is what Owen called “involuntary surprisals.” He warns, “Sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep, when they are still.” 16Temptation and Sin, 11. Sin is quiet like an enemy is quiet before an ambush. One of sin’s strategies, according to Owen, is to induce a false sense of security as a prelude to a surprise attack. Therefore, the pastor must be vigilant and always at the ready to battle this merciless enemy. Recall how Jesus warned his sleepy disciples in the garden, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 17Matthew 26:41

  1. Understand the Deceitfulness of Sin

First, Owen would have us understand how deceit hides the consequences or full truth of sin: “We also see the danger of sin’s deception of the mind by examining the general nature of deceit. It consists in falsely presenting things to the mind in such a way that their true nature, causes, effects, or present conditions to the soul remain hidden. Thus, deceit conceals what should be exposed, whether it be circumstances or consequences.” 18Sin and Temptation, 37. Sin, in other words, presents only the desirable.

Second, Owen would have us understand the creeping nature of deceit: “Deceit also operates slowly, little by little, so that its manipulation is not exposed all at once. In the story of the Fall, Satan acts in a sequence of steps. First, he removes the objection of death. Next, he offers them great knowledge. Then he suggests that they become gods. Each step hides aspects of reality and only presents half-truths.” 19Sin and Temptation, 37.

Third, Owen would have us understand how deceit twists the truth. This is seen alarmingly in how sin deceives us into thinking grace is for licentiousness: “Here then is where the deceit of sin intervenes. It separates the doctrine of grace from its purpose.” 20Sin and Temptation, 41. The purpose of grace is holiness. But sin would have us believe it is for more sin. The apostle Paul addressed this heresy in Romans 6:1–2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

Perhaps no other man in church history outside the Bible studied temptation and sin more than John Owen. We would do well to follow his lead for surely the spiritual shallowness in the evangelical church today is due in large part to our woefully shallow view of sin.

  1. Make No Provision for the Flesh

Romans 13:14 states it plainly, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This is exactly what Jesus was teaching in Mark 9:43-48 when he called for spiritual amputation when it comes to sin.

The pastor must know himself and take pains to not put himself in a position of weakness. For the love of holiness, the pastor must ask himself questions like, “Should I watch that movie or show? Is this music good for my heart? Is social media edifying—is it promoting godliness in my life?” In every question of Christian liberty what guides the pastor is a longing to see Philippians 4:8–9 realized in his life:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

  1. Wield Your Spiritual Sword

In Ephesians 6:17 we’re told that part of God’s armor for us in the battle against the world the flesh and the devil is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” This, of course, is how Jesus battled the temptations of the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). If the Son of God used the Word of God to battle against temptation how much more should we? The pastor says with the psalmist, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” 21Psalm 119:9-11

  1. Replace Sin with Grace

By replacing sin with grace, we are killing sin by nurturing the virtue that counters it. It’s what we see the apostle describing in Colossians 3:5-17 with his commands to “put to death” and “put on.” The idea is to crowd out sin in our life by filling our hearts with the graces that are sin’s opposite. For example, we kill lust by practicing purity; we wage war on pride by practicing humility; we counter greed with generosity and contentment; we crucify self-centeredness by serving others; we destroy anger by pursuing peace.

  1. Stay in Community

Christians were saved to be in community—to be a vital member of Christ’s church. The commands of Hebrews 3:12-13 and 10:24-25 are equally true for pastors. After all, would you rather go to war on your own or with an army at your side? There is strength in (godly) numbers.

  1. Look to the Cross

We put sin to death only in the context of Christ’s ultimate victory over sin at the cross. Provision for our victory has been made in his victory. The banner over our war against indwelling sin is Galatians 6:14, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Indeed, we fight in the triumph of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14; Colossians 2:13-15). Therefore, we battle with the confidence that when we fail, we are not abandoned by our God. This is motivation to get up and get back to the frontlines knowing that the ultimate victory is assured.

  1. Depend on the Holy Spirit

This war is not fought in the flesh. Our only hope in mortification is to battle in the strength that God supplies. And that strength is himself. As we’ve seen, it is “by the Spirit” that we put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13). Only as we “walk by the Spirit” will we “not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). Owen cautions, “All other ways of discipline are in vain. All other helps leave us helpless. Mortification is only accomplished ‘through the Spirit.’” 22Sin and Temptation, 153.


In one sense the reasons for a pastor falling are many. But in another sense the reason is single: a pastor falls when he fails to take heed. Another Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter, knew this and, therefore, warned pastors in his day to take heed to themselves. What was needed in seventeenth century England is utterly relevant for our day:

Take heed to yourselves, for you have a depraved nature, and sinful inclinations, as well as others. If innocent Adam had need of heed, and lost himself and us for want of it, how much more need have we! Sin dwells in us, when we have preached ever so much against it; and one degree prepares the heart for another, and one sin inclines the mind to more. If one thief be in the house, he will let in the rest; because they have the same disposition and design. A spark is the beginning of a flame; and a small disease may cause a greater . . . . In us there are, at the best, the remnants of pride, unbelief, self-seeking, hypocrisy, and all the most hateful, deadly sins. And does it not then concern us to take heed to ourselves? 23The Reformed Pastor (Banner of Truth, 1974), 73.

The discipline of mortification is one way a pastor takes heed to himself. May our efforts to kill our indwelling sin in the power of the Holy Spirit bear much fruit in our day for the glory of God and the good of the churches we serve.


1 Lectures to My Students (Zondervan, 1954), 8.
2 The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Zondervan, 2011), 650.
3 The Christian Faith, 653.
4 Concise Theology (Tyndale, 2001), 170.
5 James Houston, editor, Sin and Temptation: The Challenge of Personal Godliness (Bethany House, 1996), 18. Packer adds, “A Puritan model of godliness will most quickly expose the reason why our current spirituality is so shallow, namely the shallowness of our views of sin,” 24.
6 The Holy Spirit, vol. 3 (Banner of Truth, 1966), 538.
7 Sin and Temptation, 154.
8, 14 Sin and Temptation, 158.
9 The Holy Spirit, 543.
10 Sin and Temptation, 160.
11 Sin and Temptation, 155.
12 Sin and Temptation, 19.
13 Temptation and Sin vol. 6 (Banner of Truth, 1966), 11.
15 2 Cor. 5:16-17; Romans 6:4
16 Temptation and Sin, 11.
17 Matthew 26:41
18, 19 Sin and Temptation, 37.
20 Sin and Temptation, 41.
21 Psalm 119:9-11
22 Sin and Temptation, 153.
23 The Reformed Pastor (Banner of Truth, 1974), 73.