Killing sin through the Gospel:
Comparing Pietism’s Mortification of Sin
with God’s Scriptural remedy
“You don’t put the old nature to death, as these prophets do, through works, but through the hearing of the Word of God.”
--Martin Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets
Hours of “waiting on God” in prayer each day
Absolute Surrender to God
Daily devotions in a legalistic manner
Handing out tracts and witnessing to everyone
Avoiding the world; i.e. movies, dancing, games, etc.
Adding ANY and ALL manmade concepts of Christian piety (a good thing) leads to pietism (a bad thing).
None of those listed above will “mortify sin in you”. Not one will “kill sin” in your life. Rather, the “hearing of the Word of God” puts to death the old nature.
As I’ve shared, I grew up in a pietistic church and home. The Pentecostal Church we attended until I was 12 (or thereabout) was a holiness-Pentecostal church. It had lots of rules which, if followed, would bring you closer to God. Do’s and Don’ts abounded in sermons and in private conversations by which one could determine their level of sanctification. Had you “surrendered all”? Did you “yield to God” at the altar tonight? Rules and regulations not found in the Scriptures were added so that by avoiding some and doing others you would grow in piety and holiness. As Martin Luther wrote, “They approach and force all external words and Scriptures belonging to the inward life of faith into new forms of putting to death the old Adam.”
I see Pietism everywhere
Don’t believe that this is only for the enthusiasts who are well versed in pietism. This idea of “killing sin before it kills you” is widely promoted in the Reformed and Reformed Baptist traditions. John Owen’s, a Puritan preacher, wrote a sermon, now a book, titled: The Mortification of Sin. In his book Owen explains that “killing sin” means that “sin get weaker, you fight against it constantly, and you have full success over it.” This is not just resisting temptation but one must fight against it using any means necessary.
What Owen’s never does in this sermon is rely upon the outward means God has decided to work through to actually “mortify sin”. God has chosen to work through outward means, Means of Grace, to forgive us and to grow and strengthen our faith so that we may love Him and serve others. While Owen does say that we are to “set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin…” he never points to the place God has set and through which Christ works by His Spirit. Owen focuses more on meditation on Christ for “provision” and one must have an expectation of “relief in Christ.” So, the Reformed Baptist and Calvinist view is once again Intra Nos, inside of us rather than Extra Nos, outside of us. Though Owen says that you cannot do this, he actually “tears down the bridge, the path, the way, the ladder, and all the means by which the Spirit might come to you.” (Luther, pg 147)
What does Scripture Say
Our old man, the Old Adam, was actually already drowned in the waters of your baptism. Lutherans do not say, I was baptized but rather I am baptized. We view it as a continual work of God in that every day, by “daily contrition and repentance” the old man is “drowned”. Lutherans remember our baptism daily (we try to). The reason is that baptism actually drowns and buries the Old Adam and we rise from those waters justified and forgiven.
Scripture teaches us:
He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. (Titus 3:5-8)
How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:2b-4)
Imagine it being that simple; in baptism your old man was drowned. Remember your baptism. Imagine being told that the way to do this (kill the old man, the Old Adam) is to attend the preaching of God’s Word and the Sacraments? What? That’s what it takes to kill this old man, this sin nature? Yes. These are the Means of Grace for salvation and for the life of the believer.
As Luther reminds us, When God sends forth His Holy Gospel He deals with us in a twofold manner, first outwardly (by the Scriptures and Sacraments), then inwardly…the inward is effected by the outward.
Most evangelicals have no problem with this idea when applied to “salvation comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17) Most evangelicals and reformed, if not all, will agree that “the Gospel is the power of God unto Salvation” (Romans 1:16) and that God has chosen to use the foolishness of preaching (1 Cor. 1:21) to bring about salvation. Yet they will balk at the thought that God has chosen the waters of Baptism (Water with the Word) and the True Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in with and under the Bread and Wine as the Means through which He forgives us our sins, strengthens and grows our faith. Keep this in proper order “for everything depends on it”: God works inwardly through outward means first. “God has determined to give the inward to no one except through the outward.”
The “How to” is all wrong
I know many of my reformed and reformed Baptist friends agonize over this “mortification of the flesh” and “killing sin”. Yes, we should be holy, even as He is holy (1 Peter 1:15). We should want to sin less and live unto God in a manner pleasing to Him. But, the way you have been taught to go about that is all wrong. You have been taught to look within to some “imaginary realm” for deliverance when it is as simple as this:
Attend the preaching of the Word regularly where you:
confess your sins,
receive absolution from the Minister who has the Office of the Keys,
listen to the proclaimed Word of God
and partake of His Holy Food, the True Body and Blood of our Lord given to you for the forgiveness of all your sins.
From Outward to Inward: Never reverse the order God set up
Sounds too simple, aye? I know. I know. I grew up with holiness being complicated. I ended up in Calvinism where this “kill sin or sin will kill you” attitude abounded because we were somehow to look inward for the fruits which proved we are Christians. Once again, both Pentecostals and Calvinists look within for a serious problem solved without. Don’t mix up God’s ordained order. Don’t be insolent and disrupt God’s way of serving you to make you more and more like Christ. God works from the outward to the inward and He does it perfectly. After all, He who began a good work in you will perfect it. (Phil 1:6)
When I read this: “You don’t put the old nature to death, as these prophets do, through works, but through the hearing of the Word of God”, I could not help but realize how much of my life revolved around my own “putting to death the old man.” In fact, I still fall into this trap. Too often, because I grew up with this teaching and only 3 years ago have I come to understand the Biblical teaching on this, I still look within way too often. Yet, now, I remember my baptism. Sitting across from my desk is that wonderful picture which has the hymn, God’s Own Child, I gladly Say It, side by side with I just Remembered My Baptism and the date (12/6/1986).
The second stanza says:
Sin, disturb my soul no longer;
I am baptized into Christ!
I have comfort even stronger;
Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice.
Should a guilty conscience seize me
Since my Baptism did release me
In a dear forgiving flood,
Sprinklin’ me with Jesus’ blood.
Should a guilty conscience seize me. WOW! Sounds like the author of this hymn knew the struggle. Yes, the struggle against sin, the world, ourselves and the devil is real and powerful. But, we have a Savior who conquered sin, death and hell and who has forgiven our sins and raised us, in baptism, to new life in Christ Jesus. We have a guilty conscience because we are sinners and we still sin even though we have been justified by faith and were forgiven all our sins. But, there are times when that guilt is so fierce it seizes us. Taught under the pietistic system, we were to look within to a solution. We were to look to our works, attitude and other sources for relief. You will never find it within you. You will always find despair and desperation, if you’re honest. Sometimes you will even find pride, which then leads to the vicious cycle because we know pride to be sin. Looking within for relief will just keep you spinning on the pietistic wheel of turmoil. It will make you dizzy with despair and despondency. Get off that wheel and realize God works from the outward in through His Means of Grace.
One of my favorite hymns which we sing during Holy Communion is Lord Jesus Christ, You have Prepared. The sixth stanza really hits on this point:
Lord, I believe what You have said:
Help me when doubts assail me.
Remember that I am but dust,
And let my faith not fail me.
Your supper in this vale of tears
Refreshes me and stills my fears
And is my priceless treasure.
In Thy Body, Given for me, O Savior it says
Thy body, giv’n for me
O Savior, Thy Blood which Though for me didst shed
These are my life and strength forever,
By them my hungry soul is fed.
These hymns remind us that God strengthens the inward through the outward. This isn’t my opinion. This is how God has ordered it to be. He works through the Means of Grace to forgive and strengthen us so that we may live unto God and serve our neighbors.
Simple? Yes. Easy? No!
It really is this simple. Notice, I did not say easy. The world, our own flesh and the devil will do everything to keep you away from that which God has chosen to use to strengthen your weak faith, to build you up, to forgive you of your sins (hearing it out loud in the Absolution and receiving it in the Bread and Wine which is the True Body and Blood of Christ). Don’t lose heart. What you see on the inside, your own sins and trespasses, is effected by the outward Means of Grace. The struggle is real but the solution is there in the hearing of the Gospel which takes place in the reading of Scriptures, the preaching of them, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (as well as in Absolution). God’s ways are much higher than ours. We humans, trying to ever attain God through our own ways and means have complicated things. As Luther said,
You don’t put the old nature to death, as these prophets do, through works, but through the hearing of the Gospel. God works through the outward to affect the inward.
 Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., Luther's Works, vol. 40 (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1955–1986).