A favorite motif for horror films is the coming back to life of a corpse. Formerly dead people always wreak havoc; they never spread happiness and joy. Christians experience this phenomenon each day as their sinful identity with all its tendencies surface again despite the fact that in baptism we have died to sin and our sinful identities have been laid into Christ’s tomb and sealed there. This is the mystery of the continuation of sin and evil in the lives of God’s chosen people.
Rather than master the mystery with our rational calculation, we can only master with repentance, with another day of drowning the sinner in us and enjoying the Holy Spirit’s causing our new person to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity. This is a life of delight, delight in living under God’s gracious favor and enjoying the life of love and service He designed for us in conversation with Him and community with other human beings. In this world, where missing the mark continues to bedevil us, the dying which is a presupposition for the fuller enjoyment of the blessings of God’s gift of life never goes away. “Mortifying the flesh,” is the way we used to describe this necessary part of daily life for believers.
“Mortification” is one of those words that has gone lost in our language—willfully abandoned by North Americans hell-bent on denying death. The insights of sociologist Ernest Becker in his description of a society determined to hide death from the consciousness of young and old (The Denial of Death, 1973) applies not only to physical demise but also to our spiritual death. The end of our existence as sinners is an accomplished fact; God’s re-creative promise of life in Christ has anchored our new identities in His baptismal act of laying our sins in His tomb and giving us new birth as children of God (Romans 6:3-11; Colossians 2:11-15). The killing and restoration of righteousness is why He came into human flesh (Romans 4:25). But for reasons beyond our comprehension, the battle goes on in our lives each day even though He has secured our identity as His children. He has secured it in His own mind. It is not always so fixed and unshakable in ours.
We are confronted day in and day out with the mystery of the continuation of sin and evil in the lives of the baptized. Martin Luther found stimulus and impetus for combatting sin and evil in the baptismal promise when he wrote in the Small Catechism, “The old creature in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily contrition and repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Living before God sounds good but doing it in righteousness and purity is not always to our taste, especially when it involves drowning and mortifying the sins and evil desires which keep on besetting us.
To be sure, there are moments of embarrassment or even pains and aches that unleash the words, “I wish I were dead,” from our lips, and there are days, weeks, and years impelling some to actually mean it. But even then, some of those sinful idols are giving us more than pleasure; they become sources of our identity, wellsprings of our sense of security or safety, cradles of feelings giving our lives a notion of worth and meaningfulness for who we are and what we do. For those who mean they wish they were dead, God comes to say, “Do I have a deal for you!” and presents us with a total alteration in our core identity. The challenge of making that identity express itself in our daily interaction with our Creator and with the creatures he has placed within our reach remains.
God has placed preachers of His Word in the frontlines of His combat against Satan and all his minions that is fought out on the battlefields of the individual lives of believers. Each believer finds in the proclamation of both Gospel and Law powerful support in the task of combatting the Tempter. The Holy Spirit gives us the ability as His people to put our old identities to death each day, as the remnants of that sense of who we are as sinners raises the ugly heads of temptations of all kinds. Both pleasure and trepidation, anxiety and desire lure us away from the obedience of faith. Against these lures and traps which attempt to impose our former identities as sinner upon us the preacher fights with both the promise of the Gospel and the directives of the Law. The Law—God’s design for human life—always accuses, even when we are not listening. The Law always crushes, even when we do not identify where the pressure is coming from. Even when God’s exposition of what faith in Christ produces in our lives is being consulted by a sanctified will in search of more than the sanctified mind can advise, the Law shifts quickly to focus on what we have not done in accord with God’s design.
+Each believer finds in the proclamation of both Gospel and Law powerful support in the task of combatting the Tempter.
Believers hear God’s pronouncing them righteous, and their passive reception of this gift of righteousness—despite appearances of many kinds—convinces them God knows what He is talking about. If God thinks I am righteous, I can—should, must—regard myself as righteous, and so go about enjoying that righteousness by actively pursuing His will. But the temptations continue to gnaw, lure, undermine, entice, and ensnare. Repeating the promise of new life in Christ provides the power to put the desires of our sinful selves to death. So does reiterating the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and retelling the story of Christ’s death and resurrection that has become our baptismally-enlivened story as well. The repetition of God’s design for our lives plays its role in mortifying the flesh.
No matter how the preacher wants the announcement of God’s design for human life to make an impact, its actual use or force is determined by or in the receiver. The Law given as the friendliest and most helpful advice still accuses, particularly the most conscientious of believers. But the actual design of daily life, as God has revealed it, aids believers, whose perceptions of that design apart from the preacher, may be somewhat lacking, to make their righteous identity take concrete shape.
+The Law given as the friendliest and most helpful advice still accuses, particularly the most conscientious of believers.
Preachers aid the necessary process of mortification by addressing the folly of both sins of commission and sins of omission. Specific directives and specific examples can model how believers begin with identifying what in their lives is distracting them from trusting completely in Christ and what is luring them into abuses of their own humanity. Then we need help and practice at identifying the source of the power of specific sins over us. We need to identify why some of those abuses are so attractive. We need to recognize why some things intimidate us to the point that we do not venture into specific ways of serving others and sharing the joys of the Gospel. With sharper perceptions of what is fouling our nests and why we enjoy contaminating ourselves with certain practices or feel compelled to abstain from bringing the joys of service to ourselves and others, we can better dampen the fires which lure us into self-indulgence and scare us off from aiding others.
Finally, mortification should make plans for the vivification the Holy Spirit is just itching to enact in our lives. There dare not be left room for seven devils to enter into the spot where sin has been dwelling. Preachers supply the content of the admonitions and identifications of their hearers as children of God that form the framework of constructing new habits. Preachers help cultivate the replacements that fill the time and supplant the motivating forces Satan has been claiming as his own and directing according to his destructive plans for us.
Preachers are the lieutenants who inspire those going into battle and give them orientation both to the enemy with his schemes and flaming arrows and to the powerful weapons in the arsenal God has provided through Christ for their daily engagements: the belt of God’s truth about Himself and about our humanity, the bullet-proof vest of the righteous identity Christ has won for us, boots of the Gospel of peace, the shield of faith in Christ, the helmet of the salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, and the practice of constant prayer which all these weapons produce (Ephesians 6:20-18). Then, strong in the Lord and the strength of His might, preachers and people together are mortified and rise up to live in the righteousness that creates peace and joy, the courage to die with Christ and to live for Him.