Mortification of the flesh

Mortification of the flesh March 1, 2017

Lent has traditionally been a time to practice “mortification of the flesh.”  That’s another concept we don’t hear too much about today.

But isn’t that Catholic?  An example of that medieval asceticism that the Reformation reacted against?  Not at all.  Reformation Christians also emphasized mortification.  In fact, it’s enshrined in the Lutheran confessions:

“We teach this about the putting to death of the flesh and discipline of the body. A true and not a false putting to death [mortification] happens through the cross and troubles, by which God exercises us . . . .There is also a necessary voluntary exercise. . . .This effort [at mortification] should be constant.”

Philip Melanchthon,“The Apology of the Augsburg Confession,” Article XV, in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), pp. 193-194.

This is pretty much the opposite of the “prosperity gospel.”  God gives us the crosses we have to bear and the troubles of our lives in order to “exercise” us.  Such problems and sufferings drive us to prayer, to greater dependence on God, and thus to the growth of our faith.  Furthermore, we voluntarily mortify ourselves–not doing what we want, depriving ourselves of certain pleasures, denying ourselves for our neighbor–in a “constant” effort at self-discipline.

More on mortification, including its Biblical and theological basis, after the jump. 

The idea is that we need to “mortify”–that is, put to death–our sinful nature.  It comes from Scriptural texts like this:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.  (Colossians 3:5)

There is a putting to death, but there is also a “putting on” of the new Christ-formed self.  St. Paul continues:

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[d] with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave,[e] free; but Christ is all, and in all.

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 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. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.  (Colossians 3:6-15)

This conflict between the “flesh” and the “Spirit,” or “the old man” and “the new man,” is the process of Christian growth; that is, sanctification.  The sinful nature is put to death by the Law; the new nature comes to life by the Gospel.  Through the Word and the Sacraments, we are continually brought to repentance and forgiveness, so that we grow in our faith.

But “mortification of the flesh”?  That sounds like medieval asceticism.  Is this saying that the flesh is intrinsically evil, so that we need to suppress it in order to be more spiritual?  Do we need to scourge ourselves or wear those self-torture devices we read about that are worn by scary monks?  No.   We need to discipline the “flesh” because the flesh is so important to our spiritual state.  As opposed to the gnostics then and now who believed and believe that what we do with our bodies has nothing to do with how “spiritual” we are.  It isn’t a matter of punishing, much less hurting the flesh.  But learning to control our passions and cultivating self-discipline is very helpful on many levels.

Not for our salvation–Christ’s suffering and literal “mortification” on the Cross took care of that.  But as we become, in Luther’s words, “little Christs” to our neighbors, we will bear our little crosses as we grow in Him.



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