By mortification is meant the disciplined practices in which renewed creatures, reconciled to God by Christ’s meritorious death and moved by the Holy Spirit, repudiate, resist and do away with the remnants of the old ‘earthly’ nature which has been disqualified but which nevertheless persists ‘in’ us (Col. 3.5). By vivification is meant those habits of life in which renewed creatures, made alive and empowered by the Spirit, amplify their new nature, actively disclosing, confirming and exercising it. [. . .] Mortification is not a permanent, essential practice of the regenerate nature but an interim necessity, and once its goal of clearing away the diseased remainders of the old nature is reached, it will no longer be required. Vivification, by contrast, is the implementation of the new nature and stretches out to perfection. In vivification we begin to perform the new nature which will endure and so complete and resolve itself that there will be no necessity for mortification.[. . .]Continence is much broader than sexual abstinence; it is restraint of all sinful appetite and the setting aside of wicked practice. By continence, the regenerate resist the propensity of vestigial sin to continue to rule conduct. Sin’s persistence depends upon consent. Sin is not natural, some irresistible element of creaturely life, but an interpolation which holds out the prospect of pleasure in order to win compliance. Mortification refuses to acquiesce, and by withholding consent it despoils sin of its pretended power and clears a space for the operation of the new nature.[. . .]Continence operates in the situation in which regenerate persons are divided against themselves, and so it takes the form of self-denial, that is, denial of that which the Christian once was and is no longer, but which, despite its abolition, continues to disturb. ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mk 8.34). An invitation to pathological self-destruction? No, because self-denial derives from faith’s contentment with and joy in the new nature bestowed by divine love. The ‘self’ which is denied is worthless, and can be lost without peril; indeed, to lose it is to save one’s life (Mk 8.39) by ridding oneself of an enemy.[. . .]In practice mortification takes the form of a regime of training, disciplining and forming bodily, intellectual, affective and social life so that regenerate conduct eradicates the vestiges of the old nature and amplifies the new.[. . .]In a culture ensnared by tawdry and ignoble conceptions of human flourishing, dedicated to hurtful appetites and unsure how to relieve its sorrow, mortification and vivification bear testimony to the gift of different possibilities by which creaturely life may be healed and enlivened. Dying and rising with Christ, believers exemplify a way to love life and see good days (Ps. 34.12; 1 Pet. 3.10-12).John Webster, ‘Mortification and Vivification’, in God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume ii: Virtue and Intellect (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), pp. 115–116, 117, 118, 119, 121
It’s axiomatic to me that Christians are called to live the life of the age to come in the present evil age (Gal. 1:4), that is, in the here and now. Webster’s words in this essay seem to relate to that quite well. In many sermons I hear, there’s an emphasis on compassion for one’s failings—and this is certainly in line with the gospel, which proclaims forgiveness for the truly penitent. But I don’t hear so much about mortification and vivification, either in name or in concept. And on those rare occasions when mortification is mentioned, vivification tends to be neglected, and so the former is relegated to a concept of the pathological self-destruction Webster himself eschews. Is it time to promote anew self-denial not as the simple denial of self but as the denial of the sinful self?