One summer, our family hiked in northern California. The pine trees were as tall as a city building, blocking the sun and making it seem like dusk in the middle of the day. We stood like tiny ants beside ancient trunks which have reigned over the forest for hundreds of years.
During our trek along the trails, I noticed the charred remains of trees interspersed among the Giant Sequoias. We learned from a guide that there are some pine trees that can only reproduce through fire. Their cones only open to scatter their seeds from the heat of a forest fire. They need what would normally be a terrible thing, fire, in order to produce new life. If there hasn’t been a natural fire, sometimes the park service will start a controlled fire so that the pines will scatter their seeds.
This irony in the natural world is also at work in our lives as well. The upside down story of Christianity is that life comes from death; ours from Christ’s. And because we are his, we are called to die to ourselves so that we might live for him. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” (1 Peter 2:24).
Death to Sin
Death marks not the end, but the beginning for the believer. To come to faith is an end to our old life. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). When we are in Christ, everything changes. We are at once justified and made righteous. We are brought into the family of God, no longer orphans, but sons and daughters of the One True King. The Spirit takes up residence in our hearts, comforting, guiding, training, and transforming us into the image of our Savior.
Yet salvation is not the end of death for the Christian. A kind of dying still exists. Though our salvation has set us free from the power of sin in our lives, the presence of sin still remains. So a kind of death continues. It’s the death of sin.
Like the Giant Sequoia, in order to grow in our faith and bear fruit as a believer, we need to walk through the refiner’s fire. We need to be stripped of our sin. We need all those things that keep us from living for Christ removed. We need to put our sin to death. The Puritans called this “mortification of sin.” To mortify means to kill. Puritan preacher John Owen wrote, “Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Do not take a day off from this work; always be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
The Apostle Paul describes this process as “putting off” sin. In Colossians 3, he lists the things that must die in us: “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. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (vs. 5-10).
How do we put such sin to death? Romans 8:13 tells us: through the Spirit, “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 death of sin is a work of the Spirit in us. It’s also our work as well—a cooperative work—as we yield to him. The Spirit, using the weapon of the Word of God, helps us put our sin to death (Ephesians 6:17). As we read and study the word, the Spirit convicts us of sin and we see it for what it is. We see that it is an affront to a holy and righteous God. We see the true depths of its evil and the impact it has on us and the world around us. And as we see our sin, it stands in stark contrast to the life found in Christ. We grow to hate our sin and are grieved by it. We then respond in repentance, appropriating the gospel of grace, and receive forgiveness. We turn from our sin, weakening its grip on us. Repentance then becomes the daily life of the Christian.
Life from the Ashes
As our sin dies, new life emerges from the ashes. Paul then tells us what to “put on.” “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful” (Colossians 3:12-15).
We can’t put on without first putting off. We can’t grow in Christ-likeness without first shedding sin. Like the Giant Sequoia, we can’t bear fruit without the fire. As we shed our sin, we then “put on” the things of God. We wear clothes that reflect our new standing and our new life such as kindness, humility, and patience.
Such new growth sprouts through the Spirit as well. The more we read and meditate on the word, the more the Spirit begins to shape our hearts to it. Our desires and longings and loves conform to it. We find ourselves wanting what God wants. Our very tastes have changed and like the psalmist, we crave God and his word. We find ourselves setting our mind on the things of Christ, rather than on the things of the flesh and of this world. The Spirit produces fruit in us, a reflection of the new life reigning in our hearts (Galatians 5:22).
Death so often seems like the end of things. But sometimes it’s not. Like the Giant Sequoia, the fires of death make way for new life. A resurrected life. A fruit-bearing life. A life that reflects the One who died and rose again for us. May we all desire the mortification of our sin.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.