I need not tell you of this who knew him, that it was his great Design to promote Holiness in the Life and Exercise of it among you: But it was his great Complaint, that its Power declined among Professors. It was his Care and Endeavor to prevent or cure spiritual Decays in his own Flock: He was a burning and a shining Light, and you for a while rejoyced in his Light. Alas! It was but for a while; and we may rejoice in it still.
A Funeral Sermon on the Much Lamented Death of the Late Reverend and Learned Divine John Owen, D.D.
J. I. Packer comments on the stature of this great man of God and teacher of godliness:
The Puritan John Owen, who comes closer than anyone else to being the hero of this book, was one of the greatest of English theologians. In an age of giants, he overtopped them all. C.H. Spurgeon called him the prince of divines. He is hardly known today, and we are the poorer for our ignorance.1
Space does not permit a lengthy introduction to this great man and his accomplishments. We will, however, make a few passing comments.
John Owen was born to Puritan parents in the Oxfordshire village of Stadham in 1616. He had three brothers and one sister. He graduated from Oxford on June 11, 1632 with a B.A. and on April 27, 1635 with an M.A. Later he began seven years of study for the B.D. degree. In 1642 he published his first work, A Display of Arminianism (a penetrating critique of Arminianism) which won him public attention and living facilities at the sequestered rectory of Fordham in Essex. Some time after this, still in 1643, he married his first wife who bore him eleven children, yet only one, a girl, made it into adulthood—only to die after the unhappy dissolution of her marriage. After the death of his first wife in 1676, Owen remarried eighteen months later.
In 1651 Owen was appointed Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. In 1652 he was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University, though he had no desires for the role. In 1655 he took responsibility for the safety of the town of Oxford (and county) during a Royalist uprising; he rode at the head of a cavalry troop, armed with sword and pistol. He was ejected from his position as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, on March 13, 1660 after which he moved to his estate at Stadhampton. Because of his political connections in high places he was able to help John Bunyan, securing the latter’s release from prison. He suffered for some time with asthma and gallstones and on August 24, 1683, died. He is buried at Bunhill Fields, London. It is the epitaph on the monument adorning Owen’s grave where we get one of the best and most complete pictures of this man. J.I. Packer translates the Latin as follows:
John Owen, born in Oxfordshire, son of a distinguished theologian, was himself a more distinguished one, who must be counted among the most distinguished of this age. Furnished with the recognised resources of humane learning in uncommon measure, he put them all, as a well-ordered array of handmaids, at the service of theology, which he served himself. His theology was polemical, practical, and what is called casuistical, and it cannot be said that any one of these was peculiarly his rather than another.
In polemical theology, with more than herculean strength, he strangled three poisonous serpents, the Arminian, the Socinian, and the Roman.
In practical theology, he laid out before others the whole of the activity of the Holy Spirit, which he had first experienced in his own heart, according to the rule of the Word. And, leaving other things aside, he cultivated, and realised in practice, the blissful communion with God of which he wrote; a traveller on earth who grasped God like one in heaven.
In casuistry, he was valued as an oracle to be consulted on every complex matter.
A scribe instructed in every way for the kingdom of God, this pure lamp of gospel truth shone forth on many in private, on more from the pulpit, and on all in his printed works, pointing everyone to the same goal. And in this shining forth he gradually, as he and others recognized, squandered his strength till it was gone. His holy soul, longing to enjoy God more, left the shattered ruins of his once-handsome body, full of permanent weaknesses, attacked by frequent diseases, worn out most of all by hard work, and no longer a fit instrument for serving God, on a day rendered dreadful for many by earthly powers but now made happy for him through the power of God, August 25, 1683. He was 67.2
Owen was a pastoral theologian at heart, writing many treatises throughout his career, the driving passion of which was to promote holiness and unity among believers. In his own words:
I hope I may own in sincerity, that my hearts desire unto God, and the chief design of my life in the station wherein the good providence of God hath placed me, are, that mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God; that so the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things.3
It is for this reason and in keeping with his vision that these interactions with his work have been written. It has been said, and I think it correct, that Owen will do more to straighten us out on the Biblical Christian life than most of the moderns combined. Were it my choice (and it certainly isn’t), every Christian would be required to read Owen’s work on Mortification, Indwelling Sin, and Temptation. But herein lies the problem for people today. Owen wrote with a very Latinised style, cumbersome to say the least; he is difficult to read even for the best. J. I. Packer, a Puritan scholar (esp. Owen) scholar, recognizes this situation and offers a promising solution:
Owen’s style is often stigmatized as cumbersome and tortuous. Actually it is a Latinised spoken style, fluent but stately and expansive, in the elaborate Ciceronian manner. When Owen’s prose is read aloud, as didactic rhetoric (which is, after all, what it is), the verbal inversions, displacements, archaisms and new coinages that bother modern readers cease to obscure and offend. Those who think as they read find Owen’s expansiveness suggestive and his fulsomeness fertilising.4
Regarding Owen, Spurgeon commented:
He [Owen] requires hard study, and none of us ought to grudge it.5
Perhaps these summaries and interactions with his work may help bridge the gap so that many others who would not have even heard of Owen, would dare pick up his works, read them aloud repeatedly, and learn from one who learned from the Master (cf. Phil 4:9). This is our hope. By way of note, we are including as many of the actual scriptural passages cited by Owen as possible so that the reader can readily see the points he is making from the text. These passages are meant to be read, not skipped. Let us proceed now to a discussion of his work, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.
1 J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997), 191.
2 Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 192; see also William S. Barker, Puritan Profiles: 54 Contemporaries of the Westminster Assembly (Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 1996), 295-300; esp. Sinclair B. Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987); James Moffatt, ed. The Golden Book of John Owen (London: 1904); Peter Toon, God’s Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen, Pastor, Educator, and Theologian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971); I. Breward, “Puritan Theology,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 550-53.
3 John Owen, The Works of John Owen: Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), VI:4. Hereafter Owen’s works will be referred to by the volume, e.g., VI, followed by the page number, e.g., 4.
4 Packer, Quest for Godliness, 194.
5 C. H. Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries (London: Banner of Truth, 1969), 103; as found in Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 194.
Owen’s entire thesis regarding the “mortification” or “putting to death” of sin in the believer is taken principally from Romans 8:13, the second half of the verse. We will therefore cite this text in both Greek and English (NET Bible). We must keep this passage before our minds if we are to follow Owen’s argument. Indeed, we would do well to memorize it. If you know Greek, you may find it quite easy to memorize it in that language as well.
eij deV pneuvmati taV" pravxei" tou` swvmato" qanatou`te, zhvsesqe.
but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. NET Bible
That this text is central to Owen’s exposition is made clear in his opening words:
That what I have of direction to contribute to the carrying on of the work of mortification in believers may receive order and perspicuity [i.e., clarity], I shall lay the foundation of it in those words of the apostle, Rom viii. 13.6
Owen suggests that Romans 8:13 has five key points that need to be considered—points he will develop at greater length in the following chapters of his work.7 The five points are as follows: First, Paul’s term mortify is a verb in the imperative mood; it is a command and thus there is, in Owen’s words, “a duty prescribed.” Second the people to whom the command is addressed are referred to; “ye” in Owen’s version and “you” in most modern translations today. Third, says Owen, there is a promise added to that command, namely, “if you put to death…you will live.” Fourth, there is a cause or means associated with the performance of the duty, namely, it is done by the Spirit. Fifth, and final, Owen observes that there is a condition which governs the outcome of Paul’s proposition here. The condition is expressed by the little word, “if.” In order to really follow the rest of Owen’s argument, you would do well, having memorized the verse, to run through these points in your mind’s eye to make sure they are clear to you.
We will begin now to summarize Owen’s arguments on these five points—at least as they are found in the rest of chapter one. Remember that the rest of the thirteen chapters will elaborate in one way or another on these ideas.
Owen begins his more detailed discussion of Romans 8:13 with the meaning and function of the conditional particle “if” (eij deV). He says that the “if” can be taken in one of two ways, either to express: (1) uncertainty as to whether the believer will perform the duty of mortifying the flesh, or (2) certainty with respect to the fact that when the believer does mortify the flesh, he will certainly live. It cannot be the first of these options, says Owen, since Paul has already said that believers are no longer under condemnation; they will mortify the deeds of the flesh; they have a new principle in them that wants to please God, not the flesh. Therefore, it must be the second of these options. In short, Paul is claiming that the believer who mortifies the flesh will most certainly live. Owen expresses the connection using the analogy of a sick man who is offered medicine:
…as we say to a sick man, ‘If you will take such a potion, or use such a remedy, you will be well’ The thing we solely intend to express is the certainty of the connection between the…remedy and health.8
From another angle, the meaning of the “if” could be simple cause-effect: mortification is the ultimate cause for the effect of new life. But, since spiritual life is freely given as God’s gracious gift (Rom 8:30), the “if” must indicate the means by which God has ordained that we reach the proper end (not the ultimate cause of it), that is, the means by which we increase our participation in that life which was already freely given to us as believers, i.e., by mortifying the deeds of the flesh.9 The “if” expresses the certainty of the promise of life, not the uncertainty of whether a believer will mortify the deeds of the flesh.
Owen next discusses the “you” as it appears in the text, i.e., “if you put to death….” He makes two very important points about the people to whom Paul addresses this command. First, they are Christians. They are those for whom “there is no condemnation” (8:1), those “who are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit” (8:9), and who are “quickened by the Spirit of Christ” (8:10-11). This is important for it relates the command to mortify to (1) a work already achieved by God himself, and (2) the present indwelling and sanctifying ministry of the Spirit. We would do well to note Owen’s connections here lest we think that in mortifying the flesh we are in some way gaining merit with God or are able in ourselves to do such a thing. We are not working for grace, but from and with grace.
Second, this command, by contrast, is not given to unbelievers who, no matter how pious and churchgoing they may be, are completely unable to fulfill it. In fact, they do not even know the presence of the One who sanctifies, let alone the power of indwelling sin (Rom 10:3-4; John 15:5). Owen says it this way:
The pressing of this duty immediately on any other is a notable fruit of that superstition and self-righteousness that the world is full of—the great work and design of devout men ignorant of the gospel.10
At the end of this section Owen formulates a thesis which will reappear later on. We simply state it here and elaborate on its meaning at that later time.
The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.11
Owen’s comments on this important element in the verse can be readily understood. Therefore we will cite them, in part, here:
The principle efficient cause of this duty is the Spirit…”If by the Spirit.” The Spirit here is the Spirit mentioned [in] verse 11, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God, that “dwells in us,” verse 9, that “quickens us,” verse 11; “the holy Ghost,”12 verse 14; the “Spirit of adoption,” verse 15; the Spirit that maketh intercession for us,” verse 26. All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit…Mortification from self strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.13
Owen is not here arguing that all other religions in the world are conscious of committing this mistake, per se, but only that in reality this is what they’re attempting to do, whether they’re conscious of it or not. They are attempting to overcome (perhaps “transcend,” in certain cases) their fallenness by their own abilities, spiritual prowess, and strength without the help of the Spirit and the cross of Christ. This, Owen says (and so should every informed Christian) is futile. It is futile, if for no other reason, than the holiness of God himself is the standard at which we aim. This is not to mention the derogatory implications it heaps on the necessity and value of the cross work of Christ.
But we too, as those who have come to know God through Christ, must also take to heart what Owen is saying. We too are just as unable to overcome the flesh by relying upon it as is the unregenerate. The flesh is powerless and unable to keep the law of God (Rom 8:7). The Christian knows what God thinks of the flesh: the Scripture says that “nothing good lives in it (Rom 7: 18); that it produces what amounts to spiritual dung (Phil 3:8), and that the only remedy for it, is to crucify it (Rom 6:6; Col 3:9). Owen himself will have more to say on this later.
NOTE: Is it any wonder that so many Christians today are shallow, lethargic, and disillusioned with their experience of the spiritual life? Since they spend so little time reading Scripture or listening and meditating on good teaching, they are unacquainted with these truths; they try to live the Christian life by instinct alone—not a good plan, and one that puts them practically in not much better stead than an unbeliever. Such a posture either degenerates into emotionalism with no solid ethic or into hardness of heart, with little love for God and fellow man.
Again, Owen reminds his readers that Paul’s language is in the form of a command: “mortify the deeds of the flesh.” For this reason, Owen refers to it as a duty—a word that does not sit well with many Christians today in the third millennium who have turned grace into a reason to rest when they should be zealous.14 But for those who are pursuing God (cf. Phil 3:10-11), this duty remains a logical and necessary result flowing from a gracious salvation. There is no room for antinomian tendencies in Pauline Christianity and Owen would have none of it.
In order to explain the apostle’s meaning with respect to “mortifying the deeds of the flesh,” Owen deals individually with three important elements in the text. First, he discusses the meaning of “the body.” Second, he explains “the deeds of the body.” Third, he takes a close look at the meaning of the verb, “mortify” (qanatou`te, thanatoute).
A. First, the question arises as to what exactly Paul means by “the body.” Owen argues, given the “antithesis between the Spirit and the flesh before and after” this verse, that “the body” refers to the flesh. He says:
The body, then, here is taken for that corruption and depravity of our natures whereof the body, in a great part, is the seat and instrument, the very members of the body being made servants unto unrighteousness thereby, Rom 6:19. It is indwelling sin, the corrupted flesh or lust, that is intended.15
Owen recognizes that the expression is most likely a metonymy or synecdoche. If a metonymy he suggests that the “body” here is to be taken as equivalent to “the old man” (Rom 6:6) or “the body of sin” (Rom 6:6). If a synecdoche, then the whole person is envisioned as corrupt including the seat of his “lusts and distempered affections.”
B. Second, Owen deals with the meaning of the term “deeds” (pravxei", praxeis). He recognizes that the Greek word is used to refer to outward actions primarily and not so much inward causes. But here, in this context, he is correct to point out that while the term generally refers to actual deeds, such as we have listed in Galatians 5:19 (a text Owen cites),16 Paul’s point is also taken up with the cause of such things, the fountain as it were. This is true because of the collocation of “deeds” with “body” where “the body” is pictured by Paul as a vehicle for sin. Owen says:
The apostle calls them deeds, as that which every lust tends unto; though it do conceive and prove abortive, it aims to bring forth a perfect sin.
Having, both in the seventh and beginning of this chapter, treated of indwelling lust and sin as the fountain and principle of all sinful actions, he here mentions its destruction under the name of the effects which it doth produce (italics mine).17
By “perfect sin” Owen appears to mean a sin that actually takes place in one’s life and not just in their thought process; “perfect”—meaning they actually carried out with their body the lust their flesh desired.
C. Third, the term “mortify” is not used much anymore in the English language, except occasionally to express embarrassment: “she was mortified when they stared at the curlers still in her hair.” Nothing could be further from the Biblical meaning of the term. In Biblical language it is an important word, crucial to understanding the spiritual life, and one which Owen takes pains to introduce here and clarify throughout the remainder of this treatise.
Owen rightly notes that the term mortify means to kill, to put to death, such as in the case of a living animal or the like. Thus Paul is using the expression metaphorically as if the flesh were a living person who needed to be killed:
Indwelling sin is compared to a person, a living person, called the “old man,” with his faculties, and properties, his wisdom, craft, subtlety, strength; this says the apostle must be killed, put to death, mortified—that is, have its power, life, vigour [sic], and strength, to produce its effects, taken away by the Spirit.18
Owen, as a wise pastoral theologian, is quick to once again relate the process of mortification to the cross work of Christ, following, of course, the teaching of Paul himself. Thus, we do not put to death anything that God has not already crucified with Christ on the tree. Not only has God dealt with the sin nature in us, that is, the flesh, he has also implanted a new disposition in us through regeneration. All of our lives as Christians is given over to pleasing God by putting to death the deeds of the flesh and walking in the newness of the regenerate life. Speaking of these realities, Owen says:
It [the flesh] is, indeed, meritoriously, and by way of example, utterly mortified and slain by the cross of Christ; and the “old man” is thence said to be “crucified with Christ,” Rom. vi. 6, and ourselves to be “dead” with him, verse 8, and really initially in regeneration, Rom vi. 3-5, when a principle contrary to it, and destructive of it, Gal v. 17, is planted in our hearts; but the whole work is by degrees to be carried on toward perfection all our days.19
Owen notes that there is a promise which attends this duty of mortifying the flesh. It is the promise of life; “you will live.” But what does Paul mean by “you will live”? We hinted at it above in our discussion of the meaning of the conditional, “if.”
Owen argues that the term “life” in 8:13 is used in contrast to “death” in the immediately forgoing clause. “Death” there means the experience of killing sinful lusts and actions; it is a present reality for the believer. Therefore, when Paul says “you will live,” he is not talking about entering into spiritual life for the first time, but about enjoying the power of spiritual life for those who have already been justified and possess the Spirit. As believers already we put to death in our experience those things that are of the flesh and we enjoy the power, joy and vigour of the Christian life:
Now perhaps the word [i.e., “life”] may intend not only eternal life, but also the spiritual life in Christ, which here we have; not as to the essence and being of it, which is already enjoyed by believers, but as to the joy, comfort, and vigour of it… ‘Ye shall live, lead a good, vigorous, comfortable, spiritual life whilst you are here, and obtain eternal life hereafter.’20
There can be little doubt that this is indeed the meaning of the apostle Paul. He has already discussed justification, both its need and realization, in Romans 1:18-5:21 and the foundation of sanctification in Romans 6 (co-crucifixion with Christ). In Romans 7 he discusses the relationship of the Law to sanctification and argues that while the law is holy, righteous, and good, we are not. It, therefore, by itself is impotent to help. Enter Romans 8, not as a vision of a higher life, per se, but as Owen remarks, Paul’s teaching on how we keep the demands of the law, namely through a Spirit-wrought mortification (8:3-4). Therefore, the “life” spoken of in 8:13 is the believers present possession of spiritual vitality through the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.
By way of conclusion, we will summarize Owen’s interpretation of the verse and restate his two main theses that follow from Paul’s teaching here. First, the interpretation of the verse. There are several key points: (1) the conditional “if” communicates the certainty of enjoying a vigorous spiritual life when we put to death the deeds of the flesh; (2) the command to mortify applies only to Christians, i.e., those who possess the Spirit; (3) the efficient means of accomplishing our duty is the Spirit and him alone; (4) to mortify the deeds of the flesh is the duty of all Christians and means “to put to death,” “to kill,” “to remove the principle of life from someone or something”; (5) the term “body” refers either to the physical body as an instrument for sinful desires and actions or to the person as a whole, corrupt and in sin; (6) the term “deeds,” while having an outward focus, also includes, in this context, the inward fountain of sin—the flesh; (7) the promise of life is not first time entrance into spiritual life, but greater participation and enjoyment of the spiritual life God has already given us in Christ.
For Owen, two main theses arise out of Paul’s words in Romans 8:13:
The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.
The vigour, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.
7 (There are fourteen chapters in all, about 80 pages in the Banner of Truth edition [from pp. 5-86]).
9 For further discussion regarding the relationship of protasis to apodosis in statements using eij + the indicative, as we have here in Romans 8:13, see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 762. You can order a copy of this excellent resource on CD at www. Bible.org/homepage.
12 As Goold points out this must have been an oversight on Owen’s part since the expression “Holy Ghost” does not occur in verse 14.
14 By this I do not mean mere activism, as if that were anything but a vain treadmill. I refer rather to a vigilant attitude toward sin, righteousness, and good works keeping Christ at the center of one’s thoughts.
16 The Text of Galatians 5:19-21, to which Owen alludes, reads as follows: 5:19 Now the works of the flesh (taV e[rga th~" sarkov") are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, 5:21 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, 5:22 envyings, murders, drunkenness, carousings, and similar things.—NET Bible
We saw in chapter one that Owen developed two main theses from Romans 8:13. His goal in chapter two is to elaborate, clarify, and strengthen the first of these two assertions, namely:
The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.
Chapter two develops and argues this principal assertion along the following lines:
(1) indwelling sin always abides in believers
(2) indwelling sin always acts to bring about the deeds of the flesh.
(3) indwelling sin not only acts but attempts to bring about soul-destroying sins
(4) The Spirit and the new nature have been given to us so that we may oppose sin and lust.
(5) Neglect of this duty to mortify causes the withering of the soul
(6) We are commanded to perfect holiness out of the fear of God
After arguing these six points, Owen concludes this chapter with a note about the evil that attends the Christian who claims to know God and yet continues in known sin. That evil is first in himself and second in others. In himself he treats sin lightly and therefore makes light of the blood of Christ. In others, his sin hardens them because they believe themselves as good as is necessary; they are deceived about their real need for mercy and grace.
We will now take a more detailed look at Owen’s argument in chapter two, beginning first with a restatement of his main thesis, supporting it not from Rom 8:13 this time, but from Col 3:5 and 1 Cor 9:27. Then we will examine his six points outlined above. We will conclude this chapter by mentioning Owen’s comments regarding the evils which attend every unmortified professor (i.e., one who claims to be a Christian).
Owen begins with a restatement of his main thesis, namely, that
The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.21
So put to death whatever in your nature belongs to the earth: sexual immorality, impurity, shameful passion, evil desire, and greed which is idolatry (italics mine).
Working with this verse, Owen asks, “to whom is Paul speaking?” In the immediate context he notes that the apostle writes to those who have been “risen with Christ” (v.1), who are “dead” with him (v. 3), those whose life is in Christ and with Whom “they will appear in glory” (v. 4).22 Speaking directly to his readers now, Owen continues:
Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work…be killing sin or it will be killing you. Your being dead with Christ virtually, your being quickened with him, will not excuse you from this work.23 And our Savior tells us how his Father deals with every branch in him that beareth fruit…He prunes it and that not for a day or two, but whilst it is a branch in this world (italics mine).24
In 1 Corinthians 9:27, the apostle Paul on another, previous occasion, says Owen, brings up this issue of mortifying the flesh, though the specific terms are not found there. The verse goes as follows:
Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.
Regarding this verse, and indeed the entire attitude of Paul on this subject, Owen’s comments are to the point:
And if this were the work and business of Paul, who was incomparably exalted in grace, revelations, enjoyments, privileges, consolations, above the ordinary measure of believers, where may we possibly bottom an exemption25 from this work and duty whilst we are in this world?26
Thus Owen brings in at least two other principle texts from which to make good his point that mortification is not for the elite among Christians, neither is it for the non-Christian, but indeed it is the duty of all Christians and is to be central in their experience of the Christian life. It is not an option for the Christian who names the name of Christ; “let him depart from all wickedness” (2 Tim 2:19).
For Owen to claim that we must mortify the flesh, he must demonstrate that Christians still possess the flesh. This is his point in this section.
Owen says that indwelling sin always abides in us until glorification. But there are those who have denied this doctrine, and have argued that they have kept the commands of God perfectly, or are wholly dead to sin in this life. This Owen regards as a “vain, foolish, and ignorant” argument. He notes that there are two kinds of people who argue this way: (1) there are those who do not deny the presence of indwelling sin, but whose spiritual perception is so awful that by making what is in essence no distinction between good and evil they claim to have perfectly kept the commandments of God. This so-called perfection, then, ends up being the height of wickedness, since they call good, evil and evil good; (2) there are others who deny indwelling sin and so imagine themselves quite able to keep the law of God; they create a new righteousness—a standard other than the righteousness of Christ. In their arrogance they demonstrate themselves ignorant of the life of Christ.
The only response to such foolishness, says Owen, wisely, is to not go beyond what is written or to boast of what God has not done for us. Paul says in Philippians 3:12 that he—the great apostle—has not yet arrived, in part meaning that he had not totally overcome the power and presence of indwelling sin:
Phil 3:12 Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me.
In 1 Cor 13:12 Paul implies that we still walk in some measure of darkness since we “know in part” and not completely:
1 Cor 13:12 For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.
Since we “know in part” we are commanded by Peter to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior:
2 Pet 3:18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the honor both now and on that eternal day.
Owen also points us to Galatians 5:17 where Paul makes the point clear. The use of the present tense “has desires” (or “lusteth” in Owen’s Bible) indicates an ongoing struggle and warfare:
Gal 5:17 For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want.27
Thus through these and other texts, including Phil 3:21 wherein Paul states that our sinful bodies will not be completely transformed until Christ comes from heaven, Owen makes good his claim and we would do well to sit up and take note: indwelling sin remains with us as believers until our death. Deception on this point is fatal to the obedient and vigorous Christian life.
But not only does sin still abide within us, it also constantly acts to bring about the deeds of the flesh. We are not to be deceived if sin seems quiet for a season. We should not think that since sin seems quieted down for a season that we are finally free from its entanglements, for sin “is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep when they are still.” Therefore, “our contrivances against it [ought] to be vigorous at all times and in all conditions, even where these is least suspicion.”28 This is shown from the following texts as well as the previous ones just mentioned above. Paul says in Rom 7:23 that sin is (not “was”) a law in “my members waging war against the law of my mind.”
Rom 7:23 But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members.
James 4:5 Or do you think the scripture means nothing when it says, “The spirit that God caused to live in us has an envious yearning”?
The writer of Hebrews, in his admonitions to his fellow Christians, reminds them that the Christian life can be viewed from one angle as a “race.” It is necessary, then, if one is to win, to throw off any excess weight, i.e., in the Christian race that weight refers to sin and Owen is correct to stress from Heb 12:1 the fact that “sin so easily besets us” or in the NET Bible, “clings so close.”
Heb 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us…
What is the source of this deep and abiding problem with sin? It is “the flesh,” the reality that in my flesh “dwells no good thing.” The flesh cannot be redeemed, only crucified, killed as it were. Evil lusts come from our flesh which is constantly tempting and conceiving sin (James 1:14). And here is the difficult part: “In every moral action it is either inclining to evil, or hindering from that which is good, or disframing the spirit from communion with God.”30 It is constantly present with us.
Who can say that he had ever any thing to do with God or for God, that indwelling sin had not a hand in the corrupting of what he did. And this trade will it drive more or less all our days. If, then, sin will be always acting, if we be not always mortifying, we are lost creatures. He that stands still and suffers his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance, will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue. If sin be subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of killing our souls, and we be slothful, negligent, foolish, in proceeding to the ruin thereof, can we expect a comfortable event?…The saints whose souls breathe after deliverance from its perplexing rebellion, know there is no safety against it but in a constant warfare.31
Paul says in Galatians 5:19-21 that the deeds of the flesh are obvious:
5:19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, 5:20 idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, 5:21 envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!
Thus every lust of the flesh would aim at the utmost of sin in that particular kind: “every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head.”32 It is crucial that we understand this truth, since it is in this very process of the movement from lesser to greater sin that sin has its greatest leverage, i.e., through its deceitfulness (Heb 3:13).
Basically, the idea that Owen is proposing here is that toleration of known sin, no matter how little, gives the flesh a foothold from which to launch off in further development of that sin and the hardening of the heart. This is, to be sure, a dangerous position to be in.
It [sin] is modest, as it were, in its first motions and proposals, but having once got footing in the heart by them, it constantly makes good its ground, and presseth on to some farther degrees in the same kind.
We have all experienced what Owen is talking about and about which the Bible warns us as Christians. Sin is simply never satisfied; it is like the grave. As we give in to sin we hardly take note or are aware of how far we have drifted from God.
This new acting and pressing forward [of sin] makes the soul take little notice of what an entrance to the falling off33 from God is already made; it thinks that all is indifferent well if there be no farther progress…but sin is still pressing forward (italics mine).
The reason for this relentless attack is “because it [sin] hath no bounds but utter relinquishment of God and opposition to him.”34 But it must be clearly noted and Owen says again, that sin makes these inroads and “proceeds towards its height by degrees, making good the ground it hath got by hardness” and this “not from its nature, but its deceitfulness.”35
Owen states that this is one reason that the Spirit is given to us, namely, that we might oppose sin and lust. The following passages make the point. In Gal 5:17 the Spirit opposes the flesh. In 2 Pet 1:4 the apostle tells us that through God’s promises we participate in the divine nature and so escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. Finally, Owen points out that in Rom 7:23 we have a law in our minds (produced by the Spirit and new nature) contrary to the law of sin and death in our members. Here are the key texts in Owen’s discussion:
Gal 5:17 For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want.
2 Pet 1:4 Through these things he has bestowed on us his precious and most magnificent promises, so that by means of what was promised you may become partakers of the divine nature, after escaping the worldly corruption that is produced by evil desire.
Rom 7:23 But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members.
Owen says that it would be foolish to let two combatants fight, all the while binding one and allowing the other to inflict wounds at will. Thus it is foolish for the Christian to neglect the daily employing of the Spirit and new nature for the mortification of sin and yet permit the flesh to strike as it wishes. Indeed, it is a sin itself against “the goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace, and love of God who hath furnished us with a principle of doing it [i.e., mortifying the flesh].”36 Christians who persist in this posture may find God justly holding back his hand from giving them more grace since his gifts are given to be used and exercised.
Paul says that though we are perishing on the outside we are being renewed daily on the inside (2 Cor 4:16). But without the mortification of sin we seriously impair this divinely wrought process; sin flourishes and grace is eclipsed in the heart. Therefore, Owen rightly notes that “exercise and success are the two main cherishers of grace in the heart; when it [grace] is suffered to lie still, it withers and decays: the things of it are ready to die” (Rev 3:2).37
Rev 3:2 Wake up then and strengthen what remains that was about to die, because I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.
Heb 3:13 But exhort one another each day, as long as it is called “Today,” that none of you may become hardened by sin’s deception.
This is why Christians who were once zealous for God and all his ways have grown cold; they have not put to death the deeds of the flesh and have allowed sin an entrance unto the hardening of their hearts toward God. This is the kind of lukewarm stuff we see so much of today in the twenty-first century. Certainly the following words of John Owen speak to our own situation in America today:
The truth is, what between placing mortification in a rigid, stubborn frame of spirit, which is for the most part earthly, legal, censorious, partial, consistent with wrath, envy, malice, pride, on the one hand, and pretences of liberty, grace, and I know not what, on the other, true evangelical mortification is almost lost amongst us.38
The following three passages again make it clear that it is our daily duty to be mortifying the flesh and perfecting holiness out of reverence for God. And there will be no growth in holiness without mortifying the flesh. As Owen says, “let not that man think he makes any progress in holiness who walks not over the bellies of his lusts. He who doth not kill sin in his way [i.e., as he goes along in life] takes no steps towards his journey’s end.”39 His words are good medicine for us who live in an age that promotes all sorts of pseudo-spiritualites which do not have the cross of Christ and practical holiness at their center. Perhaps more than any other doctrine today, we need clarification on this one.
2 Cor 7:1Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness out of reverence for God.
2 Pet 3:18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
2 Cor 4:16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day.
There are two great evils which befall the person who claims to be a Christian and yet willfully continues in known sin. First, such a person demonstrates that he regards sin lightly and therefore the cross of Christ lightly as well. People get this way, Owen says, when they “swallow and digest” sins daily without the thought of bitterness in their souls. They use the blood of Christ which was given to cleanse us (1 Jn 1:7), the exaltation of Christ which is to give repentance (Acts 5:31), and the doctrine of grace which is to teach us to deny worldly passions (Titus 2:11-12) as reasons and excuses for sin. Owen regards such a condition as a state of “rebellion that…will break the bones.”
When a man hath confirmed his imagination to such an apprehension of grace and mercy as to be able, without bitterness, to swallow and digest daily sins, that man is at the brink of turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, and being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.40
The second evil which this condition begets concerns others and has a twofold nature. First, it hardens others. Owen’s point seems to be this: those Christians who do not mortify the flesh harden other people into thinking they are in as good condition as the best of Christians. As these others, then, look with eyes stained with sin, at godly Christians, they imagine themselves to be as godly. Thus they have so-called zeal for God, but there is no accompanying patience with people and universal righteousness. They separate from the world, but then live self-centered lives, wholly focused on themselves. They talk spiritually, but live vainly. They boast of forgiveness, but never forgive others. Second, the unmortified professors deceive others by encouraging them to believe that if they can measure up to them (i.e., the unmortified professor) it will be well with them. But, as Owen points out, even if these “others” appear to excel past the unmortified professors, they may still be devoid of eternal life.
We said that Owen’s primary thesis in this chapter was to demonstrate that “the choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.” This he did by showing from several texts, besides Romans 8:13, that not only does indwelling sin remain after conversion, but it acts powerfully to bring forth sinful lusts and acts. These sinful lusts will always aim at the height of their kind, but through the Spirit and the new nature—resting on God’s meritorious mortification of all and every sin at the cross of Christ—the Christian ought to put such lusts to death. To neglect this duty is to continue to give sin a foothold in the soul, to engender a hard heart toward God, and to make light of both sin and the cross. In respect to others, it hardens them in “their own righteousness” and deceives them into thinking that such behavior is the acceptable standard before God and consistent with the possession of eternal life.
22 Owen is always clear to put the duty of mortification in its proper place in the ordo salutis or way of God’s salvation from sin. It is an imperative resting on the indicative of God’s finished work in Christ and the present gift of the Spirit.
23 Owen is quite correct on this point. Indeed, as Paul has just argued, it is because we are dead to sin in Christ and quickened by his Spirit that we want to mortify the deeds of the flesh.
24 VI: 9-10.
25 I.e., “find ourselves exempt”
27 Remember that Paul is here writing to Christians, not to suggest that such a struggle is uncommon or abnormal, but to argue the exact opposite; that such an ongoing, relentless warfare is the normal Christian life. This, of course, is Owen’s point.
29 The precise interpretation of this verse is, of course, filled with challenges. For a brief discussion of the possible renderings and their variations, see Ralph P. Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 48 (Dallas: Word, 1988), in loc., elec. version; see also Buist M. Fanning, “James,” in A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck and Darrell L. Bock (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 422, f.n. 11.
31 VI:11-12. The reader is encouraged not to get discouraged at Owen’s realistic picture of our battle against the flesh. His picture is none other than the apostle Paul’s who wrote by inspiration of the Spirit (the very Spirit, that is, who contends with us in this battle). Rather, he/she is encouraged to read on and see how Owen deals with the problem of perseverance. That will come later, though even in this chapter he talks about the ministry of the Spirit. Later in chapters 7-14 he will offer us much wise advice to help us in our fight against sin. Read on through the various chapters!
33 I.e., “how sin has set in motion the beginning stages of hardness of heart toward God and spiritual things”; we are separated from vital communion with God, and most often do not even know it, until He brings us back to our spiritual senses. Owen is not referring to loss of salvation, but to loss of fellowship in which there is the recognition of God’s holiness and my depravity.
In the previous chapter we saw that it was the duty of all true Christians to constantly mortify the deeds of the flesh. This is so because indwelling sin remains within the Christian after conversion until death, and if left alone, will bring forth scandalous sins. In this chapter Owen will talk about the great, efficient cause of mortification, namely, the Spirit.
The Spirit only is sufficient for this work; all ways and means without him are as a thing of nought; and he is the great efficient cause of it—he works in us as he pleases.
In this section, Owen comes down fairly hard on both the Catholic church—popish religion, as he refers to it—and Protestants, many of whom were attempting to mortify sin through unscriptural and wrongheaded ways and means. To the degree that churches continue in such ideas today, and in large measure many do, his words are right on target. Now, let it be said, as a former Catholic myself, that I am not writing this simply to castigate Catholic religion or any Protestant denomination for that matter, but only to point us to the truth so far as mortification is concerned and the centrality of Christ and the work of the Spirit in this process.
Owen says that the papists and certain Protestants who ought to know better (having more light and knowledge of the gospel) have fallen into the idea that with their “rough garments” (papal attire) and all their “vows, orders, fastings, penances…preachings, sermons, books of devotion…outside performances…bodily exercises…self performances, legal duties,” they are in fact mortifying sin. But such ways and means are wrongheaded and dangerous since they are done “without the least mention of Christ or his Spirit” and “are varnished over with swelling words of vanity.”41 The root of the problem, as Owen says, is that these people, while incurably religious—no one would deny that—have a “deep-rooted unaquaintedness with the power of God and mystery of the gospel.”42
There are at least two reasons, according to Owen, why people, whether Catholic or Protestant, can never mortify even one sin in this way. First, they do not use the ways and means God has ordained and no way or mean has any power for the mortification of sin unless God has appointed that it be so. All the vows, penances, disciplines, monastical life, and “self vexations” will simply evoke the question from God: “Who hath required these things at your hand?” and “In vain do ye worship me, teaching for doctrines the traditions of men.”
Second, the ways and means that are appointed by God—e.g., praying, fasting, watching, meditation, and the like—for the mortification of sin are not used by these people in their proper place and order. This is where Owen strikes at the root of false religion everywhere; those who use these means, he says, use them as if they were the efficient cause of mortification and not simply divinely appointed means.
These [e.g., prayer, fasting, etc.] have their use in the business at hand; but whereas they are all to be looked on as streams, they look on them as the fountain. Whereas they effect and accomplish the end as means only, subordinate to the Spirit and faith, they look on them to do it by virtue of the work wrought (italics mine).43
In other words, papists and many others attempt to root out the presence and power of sin simply by performing religious activities. This kind of thinking, says Owen, lies at the bottom of much superstition and untold “self-macerations,” and perhaps a large measure of the idea of the monastical life itself (at least as Owen knew it). Those who attempt this rigid self-mortification act only on the natural man and leave the corrupt “old man” completely untouched. None of these ways, in and by themselves, is sufficient for the job at hand.
That none of these ways are sufficient is evident from the nature of the work itself that is to be done; it is a work that requires so many concurrent actings in it as no self-endeavor can reach unto, and is of that kind that an almighty energy is necessary for its accomplishment.44
Mortification cannot be done simply be repeating certain religious duties apart from the work of God’s Spirit. The Spirit is the efficient cause of mortification.
Owen states that the putting to death of sin is a work of the Spirit in keeping with the promise and purpose for his coming to dwell in us. He cites the following texts to confirm his point:
Ezekiel 11:19 I will give them one heart and I will put a new spirit within you; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and I will give them a heart of flesh, 11:20 so that they walk in my laws and guard my commands and do them.
Ezekiel 36:26 I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove the heart of stone45 from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 36:27 I will put my spirit within you, and I will make you walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances; and you will do them.46
Owen says, in keeping with good, biblical, Trinitarian theology, that all the gifts of Christ are communicated to us by the Spirit. Mortification, both meritorious and progressive are given by Christ through the indwelling Spirit. “All communications of supplies and relief, in the beginnings, increasings, actings of any grace whatever, from him [Christ], are by the Spirit, by whom he alone works in and upon believers.”47 Christ was exalted to grant us repentance and the gift of the Spirit.
Acts 5:31 God exalted him to his right hand as Leader [Prince] and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
Acts 2:33 So then, exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he has poured out what you both see and hear.
Owen suggests three ways in which the Spirit mortifies sin in us: He (1) causes us to abound in grace; (2) works a real physical efficiency on the root of sin, and (3) brings the cross of Christ into the heart of the sinner. Let’s look at these in moral detail now.
First, the Spirit mortifies sin in us by causing our hearts to abound in grace and the fruits that are contrary to the flesh. In Galatians 5:19-21 Paul lists some works of the flesh and in 5:22-23 he enumerates the fruit of the Spirit and puts the two in opposition to one another. Owen asks, if the fruit of the Spirit is in us and abounding, will not the works of the flesh abound as well, so as to attempt to overthrow the fruit of the Spirit? After all, they are in opposition to one another. The answer is “no,” because the flesh has been crucified with Christ (5:2). Thus, as the Spirit causes us to abound with his fruit, the power of the flesh withers and dies progressively. Owen repeats again:
He [i.e., the Spirit] causes us to grow, thrive, flourish, and abound in those graces which are contrary, opposite, and destructive to all the fruits of the flesh, and to the quiet or thriving of indwelling sin itself.48
Second, the Spirit strikes at the very root and habit of sin. In Owen’s words, the Spirit sustains
a real physical efficiency on the root and habit of sin, for the weakening, destroying, and taking it away. Hence he is called a ‘Spirit of judgment and burning,’ Isa. iv. 4, really consuming and destroying our lusts…for as he begins the work as to its kind, so he carries it on as to its degrees. He is the fire which burns up the very root of lust.49
The third way in which the Spirit works to bring about mortification in us is by bringing the cross of Christ, by faith, into the heart of a sinner. In so doing he gives us communion with Christ in his death and fellowship in his sufferings. Owen will have more to say about this as his thesis develops in later chapters.
The final question in this chapter concerns the relationship between the Spirit as Sanctifier and the command to all Christians to mortify the deeds of the flesh. If the Spirit is the One who mortifies, why am I still commanded to do it? Let him do it. In one form another, this is a prevalent teaching today, e.g., “Let go and let God” or “I just try to get out of the way and let the Lord do his thing.” Now it is important to point out that in some sense each of these statements has some truth in it, but taken alone they are woefully inadequate as a doctrine of sanctification, scripturally speaking. While it is true, as Owen has taken pains to demonstrate, that the Spirit is the One who actually mortifies sin, it is an erroneous idea (spiritually detrimental too) and does not follow that we play no part; the commandment to “put to death” the misdeeds of the body is indeed a commandment, not a suggestion.
Owen notes that in one sense it is no different than all the good works we do and are commanded to do; they all ultimately come from the Spirit, yet we are commanded to perform them. Philippians 2:13 explicitly says that “the one who works in us both the willing and the doing…is God,” i.e., God, the Spirit. As Isaiah says, “LORD, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us.” The Spirit, “by his power,” makes you “worthy of your calling” and “fulfills every ‘good work’ (e[rgon, ergon) prompted by your faith” (2 Thess 1:11). Yet in all these cases we are exhorted to the good work and not to wait listlessly for God to do something. Thus it is both/and. All that Owen is doing, as a good theologian, is showing the proper biblical relationship between the command to do good works (which is part of mortification) and the role of the Spirit in that process:
He doth not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it an act of our obedience. The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us and not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement to the facilitating of the work, and not occasion to the neglect as to the work itself.50
Religious people have throughout history attempted to mortify sin (though they may not have used this term), but to no avail. The reason is because they think that simply by their works they can do it. In reality, they cannot. In the end, they wind up frustrated and confused, or even worse, arrogant, thinking they have obtained a measure of holiness on their own. Thus they confuse, as Owen says, streams with the fountain.
Therefore, we do not mortify our flesh on our own, by our own works, whether they seem to be scriptural or not. Even prayer when done without the Spirit is to no avail in the work of mortification. Instead, it is the Spirit who actually puts sin to death in us, positionally or meritoriously at conversion, and progressively or practically throughout the rest of our Christian lives. He does his work of progressive mortification by causing us to abound in the fruit of the Spirit, by actually working directly on the habit and root of sin, and by bringing us into communion with Christ in his death and fellowship with him in his sufferings. His work in no way gives us reason to neglect the commands of God to this end, but rather he brings consolation in the process and prompts us to obedience, all the while using our obedience as a means to mortify sin in us. We have reason for good cheer for we know that the Spirit is working to bring about holiness—working even at the level of our willing and doing.
45 In Rabbinic literature a “stone” was associated with the evil inclination (b. Sukk. 52a).
46 Jer 31:31-34 is parallel to this passage. Owen also cites Isa 57:17-18, though it is difficult to tell how this verse relates to his argument. Perhaps it is to point out that there is no peace for the wicked, but only God is the one who can heal us from our sin.
So far Owen has outlined his discussion according to the major points in Romans 8:13, though he has not in any way simply limited his discussion to this text. In chapter one he outlined the main points he wanted to argue and then in chapter two he launched in with his first principle assertion, namely, that the choicest of believers must make it their business all their days to continually mortify sin. In chapter three he explained his second principle assertion, namely, that the Spirit does the work of mortification and he uses certain appointed means. Now in chapter four he will set out to make good on his last major point. It is as follows:
That the life, vigour, and comfort of our spiritual life depend much on our mortification.
The point Owen is attempting to make in this brief chapter is to show the proper relationship between mortification and our experience of peace, vigour, and comfort. He regards it not as a necessary cause, but only as a means.
Owen starts off his discussion with an interesting insight. He says that there are only really two questions that believers ask and any other question either relates to these two in some way or is simply not worthy to be considered. Here’s what he says:
Were any of us asked seriously, what it is that troubles us, we must refer it to one of these heads: either we want strength or power, vigour and life, in our obedience, in our walking with God; or we want peace, comfort or consolation therein. Whatever it is that may befall a believer that doth not belong to one of these two heads, does not deserve to be mentioned in the days of our complaints.51
Now many of us living in urban America today have misinterpreted these legitimate longings. Every time we sense longings in our heart, we interpret them as indicators of need—i.e., the need for some other possession, relationship, or privilege. These “things,” of course, can never bring healing to the soul or good spiritual power. In any case, to the believer who recognizes that what Owen says is true, she needs to know that the experience of genuine power, peace, and comfort, depends greatly, says Owen, on our “constant course of mortification.”
Power, peace, vigour, and consolation do not flow from the practice of mortification in the sense that they are necessarily tied to it. In our day and age, people often treat God as a Nicolodian; “put a quarter in, get the song I want.” But Owen says that this is not the case with the relationship between spiritual power and peace and the duty of mortification. It is God’s peace that He decides to bestow; it is not an internal cause-effect relationship such that mortification automatically issues in peace, as if spiritual peace were inherent in mortification. It’s not. Owen cites the lamentable account of Heman in Psalm 88 as proof of this truth. Heman the Ezrahite had lost close friends and indeed his loved ones (88:8, 18). He says that his life too had drawn near the grave and that he was about to go to the land of oblivion. In great distress he cried out to the Lord “day and night” (88:1), “every day” (88:9), “in the morning” (88:13), but he felt that God had rejected him and hidden his face from him (88:14). Heman had known suffering since his youth, calling darkness his closest friend (88:15, 18). Thus it was that Heman held to a faithful course of mortification and did not give in to the sin or bitterness or grumbling, yet he did not experience peace and probably went to the grave, great in the eyes of the Lord, but counted as cursed by his one-time friends.
Thus Heman is an example to us, showing us many things, but one in particular stands out. God is the one who gives peace. As He says in Isaiah 57:18-19, “I will do that work,” referring to speaking peace to Israel and consoling her:
“I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him, creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the Lord. “And I will heal them.”
Therefore to experience peace is a gracious gift of God. Owen is not saying here that God is capricious and does not care about his people or that he is not faithful to his promises of peace—such as we see Jesus making in John 14:27—“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives…” All that Owen is saying is that God is sovereign in the bestowal of peace and that mortification is not a closed system to get what we want. In his own words: “The use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours; the bestowing of it is God’s prerogative.”52
Mortification is not the immediate cause of power, vigour, peace, and consolation in the Christian life. Actually, says Owen, such privileges as the experience of the peace of God himself comes through our adoption and justification as these are used in the hand of the Spirit. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God” (Rom 8:16) and this is the cause of the immediate sense and knowledge of God’s presence, power and peace. At this point, as so often, Owen is surely following Calvin in his doctrine of the witness of the Spirit (e.g., Institutes, 3.1.3; 3.2.7).
Having explained how mortification does not force God to give us peace and that it, in itself, is not the immediate cause of peace, Owen nonetheless says that our power, peace, consolation, and vigour depend on our mortifying the deeds of the flesh. It is a causa sine qua non, meaning that apart from mortification we will never experience God’s peace and the vigour of proper Christian living. It may not be related directly to our experience of peace, but it is a divinely appointed means apart from which we can never have God’s peace. What then, does mortification, biblically defined, accomplish?
Every unmortified sin will certainly do two things: (1) it will weaken the soul, depriving it of its vigour, and (2) it will darken the soul, depriving it of its comfort and peace.
First, sin, if not mortified will weaken the soul and deprive it of its strength. Think for a moment of the sin David engaged in and how is unconfessed and unmortified state wreaked havoc with him. In Psalm 38:3, he says: “my bones have no soundness because of my sin,” and in verse 8: “I am feeble and utterly crushed.” Further, in Psalm 40:12 he says: “my sins have overtaken me and I cannot see.” As Owen says, “an unmortified lust will drink up the spirit.”53
Now there are at least three reasons for this according to Owen. First, it distracts the affections of the soul which are supposed to be upon God and which are needed for engaging vigorous communion or fellowship with God.
It lays hold on the affections, rendering its object beloved and desirable, so expelling the love of the Father; so that the soul cannot say uprightly and truly to God, “Thou art my portion,” having something else that it loves. Fear, desire, hope, which are the chief affections of the soul, that should be full of God, will be one way or other entangled with it.54
At this point Owen cites 1 John 2:15-16 and we would do well to read and meditate on these wise words from the apostle John:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If someone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world, the craving of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, come not from the Father, but from the world.
And we might also want to add to this the very somber truth that follows in v. 17, namely, that “the world and its desires are passing away, but the man who does the will of God remains forever.”
Second, unmortified sin not only entangles the affections or emotions and replaces God with the cares of this world and the lust of the eyes (1 John 2:15-16)—and is thus founded on the great deception that life under the present order is forever—it also fills the thoughts with ways to its fulfilling. Unmortified sin constantly urges the imagination with how it might be satisfied and so distracts our thoughts from concentration on God. As Owen says:
Thoughts are the great purveyors [i.e., communicators] of the soul to bring in provision to satisfy its affections; and if sin remain unmortified in the heart, they must ever and anon be making provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.55
Third, unmortified sin actually breaks out and hinders duty; it weakens our will in the doing of God’s will. The person who is ambitious is constantly seeking after whatever they think will get them ahead. The worldly person is constantly engaged in the pursuit of what the world has to offer and the purely vain person is likewise in pursuit of activities that will better themselves. The point which Owen seeks to make good here is that the will to do God’s will is diverted to earthly things at the times when it should be in worship. This is so because the energy behind what otherwise might be good and necessary activity (innocent behavior in certain cases), is truly the restless energy of the flesh.
To summarize then, Owen has argued that unmortified sin will weaken the soul by (1) distracting the affections; (2) pursuing a means to fulfillment through the thought life, and (3) diverting it from its duty to God. In this way, unmortified sin corrupts our emotions, mind, and will and our entire soul is weakened.
Just as unmortified sin weakens the soul, so it darkens it as well. Owen points out that unmortified sin…
…is a cloud, a thick cloud, that spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favour. It takes away all sense of the privilege of our adoption; and if the soul begins to gather up thoughts of consolation, sin quickly scatters them.56
All of us, like David, have gone through periods of darkness and have discovered when the Lord graciously opened our eyes that our darkness and spiritual sickness was due to the unconfessed and unmortified sin we had lived with and entertained as a guest.
Therefore, it is in regard to the weakening of the soul and the darkening of it that our mortification of sin pertains and is the only means ordained by God for the cure thereof. Men have tried many other ways, but this is God’s way
Mortification is the continual process of putting to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature, to the lusts of the flesh. The positive aspect of it is that it makes room for the graces of power, peace, and Christlikeness to grow in our heart.
The example that Owen uses is that of a precious plant in a garden. If the soil is not properly tilled and the weeds removed the plant may grow, but it will be sickly, withering, and for all intents and purposes, useless. It may not even be recognizable. But, says Owen, take another plant in just as bad shape as this one and let it be planted in the garden. Then let the weeds by removed, the soil properly nourished, proper watering and sunshine and this plant will thrive and flourish. So it is with the graces of the Spirit planted in our hearts. They remain in the heart, as surely as the Spirit remains, but without mortification—dealing with the weeds of sin that choke the soul—they are weak and ready to die as John says in Revelation 3:2: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is on the verge of dying, for I have not found your works fulfilled in the sight of my God.” Owen finishes this section with these words:
The [unmortified] heart is like the sluggards field—so overgrown with weeds that you can scarce see the good corn….But now let [that] heart be cleansed by mortification, the weeds of lust constantly and daily rooted up (as they spring daily, nature being their proper soil), let room be made for grace to thrive and flourish, —how will every grace act its part, and be ready for every use and purpose.57
Peace comes as a result of sincerely mortifying the lusts of the flesh.
The point that Owen sought to make good in this chapter concerns his last principle assertion, namely, that the life, vigour, and comfort of our spiritual life depend much on our mortification of sin. This does not mean that these graces are necessarily tied to mortification so that mortification is the sole cause and not a means to their enjoyment. Nor is mortification the immediate cause of life, vigour, and comfort—it is the role of the Spirit to make these things directly known to us. Rather, mortification is the divinely appointed means to that end, that if we fail to do, we will not enter into such blessing. This is so because every unmortified sin (1) weakens the soul by entangling the mind, emotions, and will in sin and (2) darkens the soul, making us unreceptive to the love of God. But as sin is mortified there is an enlarged capacity in the heart for receiving, developing, and enjoying the power, vigour, comfort, and peace which comes from God’s Spirit.
In chapter one Owen laid the foundation for his whole discourse concerning the mortification of sin in believers. Drawing on Romans 8:13 he noted five related things: (1) mortification is a duty; (2) it is for believers only; (3) there is a promise attached to this duty—a promise of life; (4) the Spirit is the efficient cause of mortification; (5) there is a conditionality to the process.
In chapter two he explained why it is necessary even for the most mature believers to make it their business all their days to mortify sin. In chapter three he delved further into the role of the Spirit as the efficient means of the process of mortification and in chapter four he discussed the promise of life associated with the duty of mortification. This is, in short version anyway, the substance of what he wants to say. Where, then, do chapters five through fourteen fit in? Owen begins chapter five with the following words:
Suppose a man to be a true believer, and yet finds in himself a powerful indwelling sin, leading him captive to the law of it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing his thoughts, weakening his soul as to duties of communion with God, disquieting him as to peace and perhaps defiling his conscience, and exposing him to hardening through the deceitfulness of sin, —what shall he do? what course shall he take and insist on for the mortification of this sin, lust, distemper, or corruption, to such a degree as that, though it be not utterly destroyed, yet in his contest with it, he may be enabled to keep up power, strength, and peace in communion with God?58
Back to our question. How do chapters five through fourteen fit in with his discourse? Answer: They constitute, in light of what Owen has already said in chapters one through four, a detailed answer to the question he poses here. Every genuine believer longs for the presence of God, to know him intimately, and to be free from the shackles of sin. Many of us, dare I say all of us who are mature, live “smack-dab” in the middle of Owen’s question. We all want “victory” over sin, the world, and the devil, to use modern jargon (and biblical too; 1 John 2:13-14), but we’re not sure on exactly what “course” to take to get there. Owen has told us that the path to holiness is through mortification. Chapters five through fourteen are intended to “show us the course,” practically speaking, in this matter of overcoming sin. They are intended to show us how to apply his teaching up to this point, i.e., his teaching in chapters one through four.
Owen’s desire in chapters five through fourteen is to teach us how the truth of Romans 8:13 applies to our daily experience, how we can “keep up power, strength, and peace in communion with God.” In chapters five and six Owen talks about what it means to mortify any sin, both the positive and negative aspects. In chapters seven and eight he gives some general principles for the mortification of sin, and in chapters nine through thirteen he gets really specific in dealing with sin, enumerating nine practical principles (stated and explained), building on the general principles he has already explained. The final chapter, fourteen, deals at greater length with faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit in this business of mortification. So now you know where we’re going, let’s turn to the relationship of chapters five and six to each other.
Chapter five concerns itself with what it means to mortify any one sin, that is, negatively speaking. In chapter six Owen will deal with what it means to mortify sin, positively speaking. These are two very important chapters. They build on previous discussions and have the power to set believers free from wrong assumptions about this process—assumptions which can prove very disheartening and disastrous, if adhered to. Let us turn now to a summary of chapter five and Owen’s argument regarding what it means to put sin to death, viewed from a negative perspective.
The point of this chapter is to discuss the mortification of sin viewed from a negative angle, that is, what it is not.
To mortify any sin is not utterly to kill it, root it out, or destroy it. It is true that this is what we aim at, but it is not accomplished in this life. Owen reminds his readers of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:12: “Not that I have already attained all this or have already been made perfect, but I press on….” Paul, as a choice saint, is an example to all of us regarding the theology we are to believe and the life we are to live. Thus there is no perfection—as Christ himself is perfect—in this life. There is no man who intends to put to death some sin, who does not intend to totally root out both the fruit and the root, but sinlessness is never achievable. But this does mean that such a man may have no success at all in his struggle against sin. Indeed, by the power of the Spirit and grace of Christ, he may have eminent success and walk in constant victory over it. In fact, a large part of the normal Christian life is to have constant victory over sin. But again, this is not the same thing as saying he has eradicated it or his sinful nature. It is Christ himself who will transform our sinful bodies (bodies of humiliation) into his glorious body at his return (Phil 3:21).
By dissimulation Owen means the quitting or forsaking of a sin in respect to its outward aspects, even to the degree that men regard such a person as a “changed” man. The problem with simply changing the outside, is that the inside remains corrupt and God can “see” the inside:
God knows that to his former iniquity he hath added cursed hypocrisy, and is got in a safer path to hell than he was in before. He hath got another heart than he had, that is more cunning; not a new heart, that is more holy.59
Though Owen does not mention it, one can scarcely read these words of his without the teaching of Jesus coming to mind. To the Pharisees, who loved to put on shows to appear deeply religious and spiritual, Jesus saved his most bitter denouncements:
Matthew 23:25 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 23:26 “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup so that the outside may be clean too.
Therefore, the business of mortification does not just involve cleaning the outside of the cup, so to speak. It involves a work much deeper than that. It involves the whole person and nothing less than the whole person. There is no such thing in Jesus, Paul, or Owen, about cosmetic surgery only.
The mortification of sin consists not in the improvement of a quiet, sedate nature. Owen says that just because a person has come by a quiet disposition naturally does not mean for one minute that they have mortified sin. There are men, he says, who struggle with sins such as anger, malice, etc. all the days of their lives who have done more to mortify the flesh than the quiet, sedate man:
Some men have an advantage by their natural constitution so far as that they are not exposed to such violence of unruly passions and tumultuous affections as many others are…Some man is never so much troubled all his life, perhaps, with anger and passion, nor doth trouble others, as another is almost everyday; and yet the latter has done more to mortification sin than the former.60
“A sin is not mortified when it is only diverted.” Owen says that a person might set himself against a sin with determination; he might take care that he makes no unnecessary provisions so that a it might spring to life, but in the end he merely exchanges one sin for another. This exchanging of one sin for another or the diversion of a sin can happen, Owen says, at any time, but is common when people change relationships, interests, and pursuits. Getting older also diverts sin. Old men don’t often pursue the lusts they had when they were young, but their hearts are no less full of lust, now diverted toward other things. This is true because they never really mortified sin, they simply changed the objects of sinful affections. Or as Owen puts it:
Notwithstanding the profession thou hast made, notwithstanding thy relinquishment of thy sorceries, thy lust is as powerful as ever in thee; the same lust, only the streams of it are diverted…He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others, let him not think he has mortified the sin he seems to have left. He hath changed his master, but is a servant still (italics mine).61
“Occasional conquests of sin do not amount to a mortifying of it.” There are two occasions when a man or woman may think they have mortified a sin and they may have indeed gained an upper hand, but this does not amount to mortification.
First, there are times in our lives when sin erupts and we think, say, or do something for which we really feel guilty, lose our peace, cause someone else great harm, and for which we expect God to severely chasten us. Indeed, we may abhor our sin, renounce it, and cry out to God for mercy and help. So sin shrinks for a moment, but only to seek another opportune time. Thus, while our repentance was sincere, we have not followed through on the process of mortifying the particular sin in question.
The whole man, spiritual and natural, being now awakened, sin shrinks in its head, appears not, but lies as dead before him: as when one hath drawn nigh to an army at night, and hath killed a principal person,—instantly the guards awake, men are roused up, and strict inquiry is made after the enemy, who, in the meantime, until the noise and tumult be over, hides himself, or lies like one that is dead, yet with firm resolution to do the like mischief again upon the like opportunity.62
There is a second situation in which sin has not been mortified—even when people think it has been. Whenever we find ourselves in a situation of intense suffering, or death appears imminent, we resolve to turn from sin and make peace with God. Many even say something like, “if you get me out of this one, God, I’ll serve you forever…no strings attached.” This problem is perfectly described in Psalm 78:32-37:
78:32 In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe. 78:33 So he ended their days in futility and their years in terror. 78:34 Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. 78:35 They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer. 78:36 But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues; 78:37 their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant.
Again as Owen points out, this sudden compulsion to turn from sin, does not constitute mortification, for when things have calmed down again, we have a convenient way of forgetting both our sin and the magnitude of God’s grace in the preservation of our lives. Some men claim that…
…sin shall never more have any place in them; they will never again give themselves up to the service of it. Accordingly, sin is quiet, stirs not, seems to be mortified; not, indeed, that it hath received any one wound, but merely because the soul has possessed its faculties, whereby it should exert itself, with thoughts inconsistent with the motion thereof [i.e., thoughts which oppose sin]; which, when they [i.e., thoughts against sin] are laid aside, sin returns again to its former life and vigor.63
The mortification of any sin does consist in the following three things, which we will only mention here and describe in detail in chapter six: (1) to weaken it; (2) to contend against it, and (3) to have success against it.
Let’s briefly summarize this important chapter. This chapter is indeed important for it tells us what mortification is not; thus there should be no confusion in our minds. Mortification is not equivalent to utterly killing sin once and for all. Sin persists in us until glorification. That point was firmly established in chapter two. Mortification is not simply a matter of outward change, where a person throws off some sinful habit or pattern. This person may appear changed, and indeed, in a certain sense they are, but this does not mean they’ve actually mortified that sin; it does not necessarily mean that they’ve actually put it to death, along with its lusts. Further, mortification is not the improvement of a quiet and sedate nature. There are people who struggle greatly with anger, let’s say, who have made far greater strides in the mortification of that sin than men who seem to have it all together in that (or any other) area. Neither is mortification the diversion or exchange of one sinful habit for another. In this case, the former lust was never mortified, the proof residing in the fact that such lust has now secured a new object. And finally, mortification is not the same thing as having occasional victory over sin. We may renounce a certain sin as a result of having been driven to despair because of its untimely outburst, but this is not mortification. Also, simply renouncing sin because we’re in some perilous situation requiring God’s immediate attention is not the same thing as mortifying sin. Mortification is much more than this. We proceed now to chapter six to find out more about mortification of sin, but now from a positive perspective.
In the previous chapter (5) we learned what mortification is not. Mortification is not the killing or eradication of any sin. Sin will be with us for as long as we are in these bodies. Mortification is not the dissolution of a sin either, that is, a quitting or forsaking of sin in terms of its outward actions. We must remember that God looks on the heart and it too must be cleansed of sin. Indeed, Jesus put the primary, though not exclusive, focus on the heart. Also, mortification is not acquiring a sedate or quiet nature. Some men are more naturally given to this particular demeanor than others, but this does not indicate that they have mortified even one sin. Neither is mortification the diversion of some sin. Old men don’t often pursue the lusts they had when they were young, but their hearts are no less full of lust, now diverted toward other things. Owen argued that this was true because they never really mortified any sin, they simply changed the objects of their sinful affections. They diverted their sinful lusts; they didn’t mortify them. Finally, mortification of sin is not the same thing as reacting earnestly to sin when it has erupted unexpectedly or when we are in some grave situation and need God’s help. Thus mortification is not the same thing as having occasional victory over sin.
We turn now to our review of chapter 6 and Owen’s positive comments on the meaning of mortification. There are three main points he wishes to make. He argues that mortification involves: (1) the habitual weakening of sin; (2) constant fighting against sin, and (3) having victory and success over sin.
Owen begins this section by emphasizing the fact that “every lust is a depraved habit or disposition, continually inclining the heart to evil.”64 Truly every man’s condition is accurately captured in Genesis 6:5: “every inclination of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil all the time.” Such is our desperate and pitiful condition. Therefore, it is important to realize at the outset that sin will set itself against your soul with violence and impetuousness. It will strive to “darken the mind, extinguish convictions, dethrone reason, interrupt the power and influence of any considerations brought to hamper it, break through all into a flame,” …remain alive and vigorous, “to rise up, conceive, tumultuate, provoke, entice, [and] disquiet.”65 As the apostles Peter and James noted:
1 Peter 2:11 Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles to keep away from fleshly desires that do battle against the soul.
James 1:14-15 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown it brings forth death.
There are, however, two limitations to the idea that every lust equally impels one to commit sins. First, some lusts, through one’s natural temperament, or through certain occasions and opportunities, (i.e., temptations) may be greatly strengthened above other lusts in that man or similar lusts in another man. Perhaps Satan has got the man into a particular habit and way of thinking so that now certain sins manifest themselves much more often and with greater power. In any case, all it takes is one lust, deeply rooted in our behavior, to bring about darkness of the soul. We may still recognize in our minds what is right, but our emotions and affections, being so captivated, are unable to respond.
Second, not all sins impel equally, that is, in terms of our inward awareness of them and their outward manifestation. Paul makes a distinction between uncleanness and all other sins:
1 Corinthians 6:18 Flee sexual immorality! Every sin a person commits is outside of the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body.
Therefore, says Owen, “the motions of that sin are…more discernible” than others, like the love of the world, for example. The “love of the world,” as John says (1 John 2:15-16), may have captivated the soul of a man more than immorality, but it is harder in some ways for both him and others to detect it. Thus, it follows that the world often times sees the man who struggles against immorality as less mortified than the man who is worldly. This, of course, is not necessarily the case at all; it’s just that the “motions” of immorality are more apparent to us than worldliness—especially when large numbers of people do not even understand what worldliness is!
So in this section Owen has shown us both the captivating power of sin as well as two ways in which it appears that every lust does not always act with the same intensity to bring about sin. Now that we understand these things, Owen brings us to his first main point:
I say, then, that the first thing in mortification is the weakening of this habit [of sin], that it shall not impel and tumultuate as formerly; that it shall not entice and draw aside; that it shall not disquiet and perplex the killing of its life, vigour, promptness, and readiness to be stirring. This is called “crucifying the flesh with the lusts thereof,” Gal 5:24; that is, taking away its blood and spirits that give it strength and power,—the wasting of the body of death “day by day,” 2 Cor 4:16.66
The two passages Owen cites are worth reading in this connection:
Galatians 5:24 Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
2 Corinthians 4:16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day.
Owen compares the mortification of sin to a man nailed to a cross. Just as such a man may initially struggle and cry out, demanding to be let down, so sin also struggles with great violence until eventually its lifeblood is taken from it and its strength dissipated though mortification. It may let out a violent cry near the end of its life, but it will die. This, Owen says, is described in Romans 6:6:
Romans 6:6 We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.
Again, Owen makes several observations from this verse. What is the end or goal of the crucifixion of the sinful nature? It is so that we might no longer be slaves to sin, that we might not be compelled to obey its every little wish. And this deliverance from sin applies not only to carnal and sensual sins, such as the lust of the flesh and eyes, and the pride of life, but also deliverance from the opposition that exists between us and God by virtue of our depraved nature, that is, in our minds and wills. Sin, whether it be impelling us to do acts of evil or hindering us from doing what is good, is weakened by crucifying the very body from which it springs. Anything less is simply shooting at the fruit and missing the root.
Therefore, the mortification of sin first involves the weakening of sin by crucifying its lusts, striking at the very root of its origin. Mortification also involves constant fighting and contending against sin.
There are at least three aspects to fighting and contending against sin which every person must realize, if they are to defeat sin. First, they must realize that they have an enemy. Second, they must seek to understand the ways, wiles, and devices of their enemy. Third, the height of the contest is to load the enemy down with all sorts of things destructive to his plans.
Some Christians, being unacquainted with the holiness of God, are thoroughly unacquainted with their own sinfulness and the enemy within. The first step to mortification of sin is to clearly recognize and admit that we have a ruthless enemy and that we are to treat sin as such. Sin is a deadly foe who takes no prisoners. All who sin, die. Sin is to be destroyed by all possible means—all the means ordained by God.
As in any battle, the general in charge would do well to know his opponent. He would do well to know his strategies, methods, advances, tactics, as well as the occasions of his success. In this way, he can anticipate and overcome the enemy, knowing beforehand his every move. Owen describes practical spirituality in these terms:
And, indeed, one of the choicest and most imminent parts of practically spiritual wisdom consists in finding out the subtleties, policies, and depths of any indwelling sin; to consider and know wherein its greatest strength lies,—what advantages it uses to make of occasions, opportunities, temptations,—what are its pleas, pretences, reasonings,”—what its stratagems, colours, excuses; to set the wisdom of the Spirit against the craft of the old man; to trace this serpent in all its turnings and windings; to be able to say, at its most secret and (to a common frame of heart) imperceptible actings, “This is your old way and course; I know what you aim at;”—and so to be always in readiness is a good part of our warfare.67
Owen says that we ought to daily load sin down with all things which are grievous, killing, and destructive to it. We should labor to give sin new wounds each and every day and that this is the height of contending against sin and mortifying it. He will take up this principle in much more detail in chapters nine through fourteen.
Owen argues that another evidence of true mortification is frequent success against sin and its motions. This is not simply momentary victory over sin, but rather the bringing of any sinful impulse to the Law of God (to see it for what it really is; heinous) and the love of Christ (to escape condemnation), condemning it thoroughly, and bringing destruction on the very root of the lust or desire. Owen says that when a man has brought sin to such a place of death, in both the root and the fruit, and he can with a calm attitude seek out sin and defeat it, he will experience peace all the days of his life and in him is sin truly mortified. Thus genuine success over sin is a true sign of biblical mortification.
In chapter five Owen mentioned several points in order to clarify what mortification is not. Here in chapter six, he has explained what true mortification is and what it involves. First, it involves a habitual weakening of sin at its very root. This is done by crucifying sin and its lusts. Second, true mortification consists in constantly fighting and contending against sin. In this battle we must realize that we do indeed have a deadly enemy—the stratagems of whom we must take pains to learn and be able to identify—and that we must bring all our resources to bear on him. Third, true mortification, based as it is upon the prior work of God in giving us his Spirit and a new nature, involves enduring success over sin.
In chapters seven and eight Owen will lay down two general rules for the duty of mortification. These refer to points he’s already made about the necessity of being a believer (7) and the necessity of sincere and complete obedience (8). Without these no man will ever mortify a single sin. In chapters nine through fourteen he will outline specific principles for the mortification of sin.
Chapter seven picks up right where chapters five and six left off. We gave an overview of the remainder of Owen’s book in our summary of chapter five. First, we said there that chapters five and six deal with showing what it means to mortify any one sin, both positively and negatively considered. It was Owen’s design to dispel common myths about mortification and to present a clear picture of exactly what is meant. Much of the same confusion over these issues exists today as it did almost four hundred years ago when Owen wrote. Second, chapters seven and eight are designed to give general directions as to the process of mortification. Third, chapters nine through fourteen draw out particulars whereby a person can mortify any sin which hinders their walk with Christ. So then, since we are dealing with chapter seven here in this lesson, we will consider general directions regarding “the ways and means whereby a soul may proceed to mortification of any particular lust or sin, which Satan takes advantage by to disquiet and weaken him.”68
The argument of chapter seven is really quite simple and straightforward. The basic foundation for mortification is that a man or woman be a believer. Otherwise one’s house is built on quick sand. In keeping with this foundation, which Owen has spoken about several times already, faith is the instrument whereby sin is mortified. With this twin foundation, Owen states his first general principle concerning the need to have a vital interest in Christ if mortification is ever to be a reality.
We have already seen in Romans 8:13 and Colossians 3:5 that mortification is the work of believers. Men may attempt it and even some philosophers such as Seneca, Tully, and Epictetus have written passionate discourses on renouncing the world and the passions thereof, but they are unable to mortify even one sin in the biblical sense. Stoicism can hardly be matched to the biblical doctrine of dealing with sin. The same is true of the papists who attempt mortification in ways not ordained by God, by their “vows, penances, and satisfactions.” As Paul has said, they ignore God’s method for righteousness, trying to establish their own by their works.(Rom 9:31-32).
It is the duty of all men who hear the gospel to mortify sin, but it is not their immediate duty. First, they must come to Christ in faith and receive the Spirit of God. Then, with the indwelling Spirit, without which no man is a Christian or knows anything real of Christ (Rom 8:9), they are no longer “in the flesh and dead in sin,” but are alive and “quickened unto righteousness.” To labor to mortify a sin as an unbeliever is to labor in the fire, as Owen says, with all one’s work being consumed as he builds. It is a futile process.
When Peter preached his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, he did not call on the Israelites to mortify sin, per se, but rather he called them to repentance, conversion, and trust in Christ. Owen says:
I say, then, that mortification is not the present business of unregenerate men. God calls them not to it as yet; conversion is their work,—the conversion of the whole soul,—not the mortification of this or that particular lust. You would laugh at a man that you should see setting up a great fabric [building], and never take any care for a foundation; especially if you should see him so foolish as that, having a thousand experiences that what he built one day fell down another, he would yet continue in the same course.69
A man who is not regenerate, that is, does not believe in Christ and therefore does not possess the Spirit, works in vain to mortify sins. Though he use a multitude of remedies, he will never be healed. He is responding incorrectly to the problem of sin in his life. When God causes his conscience to be wracked because of his sin and his heart discouraged, he should come to God through Christ, not set about the task of trying to assuage his conscience without God by his own effort. Religions that teach this send men to hell, not to God.
Owen laments the fact that many are led to believe that this is what God wants of them, when nothing could be farther from the truth. If a man should have what appears to him to be some measure of success in putting down the practice of some disquieting sin, he ends up deluding his own soul and further from God than he otherwise would have been, i.e., in his moment of need. He “mortifies” sin out of self-love, not for the love of God. In the end he comes to believe that his condition before God is really not that bad and so he becomes hardened in a kind of self-righteousness. And, in the end, it is very difficult to dislodge such a person from their self-righteousness.
But when a person, during the course of a long life, seems to never really put down sin, she, after much striving perhaps, decides to throw in the towel and give herself over to sin. After all, what’s the use of trying so hard? You might as well try and dislodge a nail from wood with your bare hands, as cast off some sins with your power. In the end, in many cases, the sin destroys them.
Men who live apart from Christ are spiritually dead according to the apostle Paul (Ephesians 2:1). They do not, as of yet, have the one faculty or instrument, as Owen refers to it, to affect the process of mortification; they do not have a genuine and living faith in Christ. It is madness to attempt to carry out a certain work without the necessary tools or instruments. So it is in the case of the person who attempts mortification without a Spirit-inspired love for Christ and a living faith in him. It is faith, according to Peter, that purifies the heart (Acts 15:9).
After making clear that mortification is the business of believers and not unbelievers; those who possess the Spirit, not those who are still dead in their sins, Owen states the first general rule for the believer who wants to mortify sin. It goes as follows: Be sure to get an interest in Christ; if you intend to mortify any sin without it, it will never be done. Now there may be some who object to the idea that unbelievers do not need to mortify sin.
Owen has claimed that mortification is not the work of unregenerate men. Those who think they are believers because they go to church need to realize that this does not make them a Christian. They may love Christian religion and yet be a stranger to Christ and therefore not possess the life of His Spirit (Rom 8:9). A person must trust Christ; they must have the Spirit; they must be regenerate.
Well then, what is the unbeliever to do? Since mortification is decidedly not his business, according to Owen, what should he do? Should he just sin to his heart’s content? Owen anticipates this objection:
You will say, “What, then, would you have unregenerate men that are convinced of the evil of sin do? Shall they cease striving against sin, live dissolutely, give their lusts their swing, and be as bad as the worst of men? This were a way to set the whole world into confusion, to bring all things into darkness, to set open the flood-gates of lust, and lay the reins upon the necks of men to rush into all sin with delight and greediness, like the horse into battle.70
To this question Owen gives four responses. First, he says that it may be regarded as the good wisdom, mercy, and love of God that he should use whatever ends he chooses to restrain men from acting on every lust they experience. This includes their own delusion as to how to keep from sinning. Second, God is often times pleased to restrain men from sin through the preaching of his word, even though such men are often times not converted. While the word is preached so that they might come to Christ in faith, those that do not are nevertheless often held back from committing vile sins. The word has a powerful affect on people. Third, though men are restrained from sin through the work of the Spirit and the preaching of the word, this does not mean, in any way, that they are somehow saved or spiritual; they are still dead in their sins and under the power of darkness. Fourth, let people know that mortification is indeed their duty, but in its proper place. They must be converted first, and then rely on the indwelling Spirit (through genuine faith) to carry out the process of mortification.
At this point, Owen brings his discussion to bear on preachers or those who seek this “employment.” He says that they must be careful, in their duty of pleading with men about their sins, to do so with the goal of helping them see their real condition overall. Otherwise, to rail against sin without bringing men to Christ, may certainly sober them up, but it may simply lead to a formal or external change, with no genuine internal change; they may remain unconverted. In this case, you have not brought them to Christ for cleansing, but have left them to their own hypocritical devices and strength in the matter of dealing with their sin:
To inveigh against particular sins of ignorant , unregenerate persons, such as the land is full of, is a good work; but yet, though it may be done with great efficacy, vigour, and success, if this be all the effect of it, that they are set upon the most sedulous endeavors of mortifying their sins preached down, all that is done is like the beating of an enemy in an open field, and driving him into an impregnable castle, not to be prevailed against. Get you at any time a sinner at the advantage, on the account of any one sin whatever? Have you anything to take hold of him by?—bring it to his state and condition, drive it up to his head, and there deal with him. To break men of particular sins and not to break their hearts, is to deprive ourselves of advantages of dealing with them.71
In summary, Owen has said that true mortification is only for those who are true believers in Christ. Such a believer possesses the Spirit and is regenerate; he has the life of God in him. He must then exercise genuine faith in the process of killing sin. Thus Owen’s first general rule for the mortification of sin is that the believer make sure he/she develops an interest in Christ, without which there will be no mortification of sin. [We may add here, and Owen will develop these ideas later, that such disciplines as Scripture reading and especially meditation, along with prayer and joyful fellowship with other saints, are key ways the Lord uses to kindle our understanding of him and our thirst to know and love him more. Of course, our response to trials is very important in our daily fellowship with the Lord as is the habit of gratefully doing good works and gently sharing the gospel with out friends.]
But the unregenerate person, no matter how serious or religious, cannot mortify sin and it is dangerous to teach them to do so for they will do it inevitably out of self love and not because they love God. Indeed, they are really not mortifying sin anyway and it is a delusion to make them think that they are. In the end their pride will be their downfall as they become entrenched in their own self-righteousness. This does not mean that the unbeliever is free before God to do whatever he pleases and sin to the extent of his lusts. God is pleased to use manifold ways in restraining such evil and the utter confusion that would result. Preachers nonetheless need to deal with men by bringing them to Christ in light of their sin, not to simply inveigh against sin in itself.
70 VI: 38.
71 VI: 39. Owen’s advice to preachers here is strong medicine. But explaining to people the nature of sin and speaking to their particular sins was certainly the job of the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles. And it is our job as well. But, we must carry out this ministry with deep humility as Isaiah himself came to understand (Isa 6:1-8). Above all, it must be done in love and respect for where others are at (Col 4:5-6). Do not transgress the fruit of the Spirit to share his message!!! Rather, let your light shine before men by doing good deeds, and out of this context speak the truth into their lives. You are not the be-all to end-all; you’re a sinner like they are—a thirsty sinner who by the grace of God knows where the water is!
In chapter five Owen showed what mortification does not mean. It is not any of the following: (1) the utter eradication of sin; (2) ceasing the outward practice of some sin; (3) the improvement of an already quiet nature; (4) the diversion of one sin for another, or (5) the occasional conquest of some sin due to dangerous circumstances or for whatever reason. These things, says Owen, are not true mortification. He balanced this out in chapter six, however, with a clear description of what it does mean to mortify sin. It means to (1) constantly weaken the power of sin throughout life; (2) to constantly fight against sin, and (3) to have continual and habitual success against sin.
With both a negative and positive description of mortification Owen thus laid the groundwork for what is to follow in his discourse, namely, general and particular principles for the process of putting sin to death; now that we understand what mortification is, he proceeds to show us how to accomplish it. Thus he sets out in chapter seven and eight to give some general principles for mortification upon which he will build in chapters nine through fourteen with specifics. In chapter seven we saw that mortification is strictly for the Christian and that non Christians who assign the duty to themselves either wind up deluded as to their own righteousness or after much failure simply give up hope. They must first be converted to Christ and born again. Then they may begin the process of mortification through the Spirit who has come to take up residence within them. Therefore, Owen’s first general principle is: Be sure to get an interest in Christ; if you intend to mortify any sin without it, it will never be done. Here in chapter eight Owen will proceed to give his second and last general principle concerning mortification. It is this: Without sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained.
The argument of chapter eight involves three distinct yet related ideas: (1) there will be no mortification without a genuine desire for universal obedience, i.e., obedience in all areas of one’s life; (2) partial obedience will not lead to true mortification because it proceeds from self-centeredness and therefore rests on a corrupt foundation, and (3) God sometimes allows a lust to overtake us as chastisement for our lack of obedience in other areas of our lives. Let’s take a closer look at these three principles.
In the process of mortification it is not enough to simply try and put down a lust because it has caused you much grief and heartache, all the while leaving other known sins to flourish. There must be obedience in all areas, a universal obedience as Owen refers to it:
A man finds any lust to bring him into the condition formerly described; it is powerful, strong, tumultuating, leads captive, vexes, disquiets, takes away peace; he is not able to bear it; wherefore he sets himself against it, prays against it, groans under it, sighs to be delivered; but in the meantime, perhaps, in other duties,—in constant communion with God,—in reading, prayer, and meditation,—in other ways that are not of the same kind with the lust wherewith he is troubled,—he is loose and negligent. Let not that man think that ever he shall arrive to the mortification of the lust he is perplexed withal.72
Owen says that this principle can be seen in the life of Israel and also stands to reason. First, with Israel, Isaiah excoriates the nation for her duplicity with regard to universal obedience to God. He says (esp. vv. 5-7):
58:1 “Shout loudly! Don’t be quiet! Yell as loud as a trumpet! Confront my people with their rebellious deeds; confront Jacob’s family with their sin! 58:2 They seek me day after day;
they want to know my requirements, like a nation that does what is right and does not reject the law of their God.
They ask me for just decrees; they want to be near God.
58:3 They lament, ‘Why don’t you notice when we fast?
Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?’
Look, at the same time you fast, you satisfy your selfish desires, you oppress your workers. 58:4 Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls, and fist fights.
Do not fast as you do today, trying to make your voice heard in heaven. 58:5 Is this really the kind of fasting I want?
Do I want a day when people just humble themselves, bowing their heads like a reed and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes? Is this really what you call a fast, a day that is pleasing to the LORD? 58:6 No, this is the kind of fast I want. I want you to remove the sinful chains, to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke, to set free the oppressed, and to break every burdensome yoke. 58:7 I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood! 58:8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise; your restoration will quickly arrive; your godly behavior will go before you, and the LORD’s splendor will be your rear guard. 58:9 Then you will call out, and the LORD will respond; you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’ You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully. (NET Bible)
Isaiah says that it is hypocritical to fast and seek God on the one hand, and oppress people on the other. As the apostle John put it: “anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). Obedience must be universal if we are to have victory over any sin through mortification. But, second, this principle also stands to reason. If someone has some bodily ailment brought on by a misuse of the body through negligence or poor diet, or what have you, it is vain to attempt to treat the malady without curbing one’s lifestyle, at least in regards to the activities that brought the sickness on.
To undertake the process of mortifying any one sin without due regard for one’s obligation to universal obedience is to place the success of mortification on less than solid footing. Indeed, one’s whole perspective is corrupt and needs to be changed. Both a hatred for sin as sin and the love of Christ stand at the heart of all true mortification. The desire to throw off some sin simply because it is disquieting and troubling does not give rise to a proper, biblical attitude toward mortification. To want to put sin down, simply because it has taken away your peace, is a sure recipe for failure. What about the other sins in your life—the ones you know about that have not taken away your peace? Indeed, you may be comfortable to have them. But, it will not do to pass over them lightly simply because they don’t seem to bother you as much or plague you as often as this one troubling sin. They are no less sins in God’s eyes and must also be dealt with through mortification. All sins grieve the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us. As Owen says, “Dost thou think he [the Spirit of God] will ease thee of that which perplexeth thee, that thou mayest be at liberty to [do] that which no less grieves him?”73
Paul made it clear in 2 Corinthians 7:1 that the Christian is to set himself against everything (i.e., every sin) that is sinful in his life, not just certain sins that at the moment seem to be particularly troublesome.
Therefore since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness out of reverence for God.
How does a person know, asks Owen, if God has not permitted and tolerated a certain lust within them to grow and become strong as a chastisement for unconfessed sin in other areas, including the sin of lukewarmness? “The rage and predominancy of a particular lust is commonly the fruit and issue of a careless, negligent course in general, and that upon a double account”74:
First, there is a natural effect of unmortified sin. When we guard our hearts and watch them closely we are able, if we’re willing, to put sin down at its first signs. But if we should leave our post, and our heart become unguarded, sin through the affections will make its way into our thoughts and become lodged there. We may even give occasion for that sin in our behavior, giving yet a firmer foothold to it. Thus, through failure to guard our heart—and we should guard it for from it flows the wellspring of life—we are overtaken in sin. Some men spend the rest of their days in sorrow dealing with such sin—sin that could have been prevented through watchfulness (Prov 4:23).
Second, as Owen has already pointed out, God may permit sin to overtake us in order to chasten us, that is, to prevent or cure some other evil in us. This was Paul’s experience in 2 Corinthians 12:7:
Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me, so that I would not become arrogant.75
Owen suggests that this might have been the case with the apostle Peter also. Perhaps God permitted him to deny his Master three times so as to cure him of his vain confidence.
The end result is that without the desire for universal obedience no attempt at mortification will work because such desire is almost certainly proceeding from a corrupt, self centered heart. Owen concludes:
Whilst there abides a treachery in the heart to indulge to any negligence in not pressing universally to all perfection in obedience, the soul is weak, as not giving faith its whole work; and selfish, as considering more the trouble of sin than the filth and guilt of it; and lives under a constant provocation of God: so that it may not expect any comfortable issue in any spiritual duty that it doth undertake, much less in this under consideration, which requires another principle and frame of spirit for its accomplishment.76
Owen has suggested two general principles for our consideration. The first one was to get an interest in Christ. This may seem obvious, but many people think of mortification in a stoic sort of way. To foster a personal interest in Christ, however, helps us understand that it is in the context of a relationship with Christ that mortification grows. The second principle is that true mortification is impossible for the person who does not develop a sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience. First, the foundation of mortification is a hatred for sin as sin and a love for Christ. Therefore, to want freedom from sin simply because it hinders us or robs us of our peace is a corrupt foundation. Such a person inevitably treats lightly those sins which do not give him grief or unsettle him in some way. Second, and in contrast, the kind of mortification which is sponsored by the Spirit, is the kind that has at its very foundation a hatred for all sin in one’s life and a corresponding determination to set oneself against everything that contaminates us and ruins our complete or universal obedience to God. This, and this alone, is in keeping with the death of Christ, i.e., the gospel of God’s grace. As you examine your life and bring it to the Lord, ask yourself whether there are certain besetting sins in your life as a result of his chastening. Has God allowed certain sins to overtake you because you have not given yourself to wholehearted obedience? Let us search our lives under his watchful eye and Scripture in order to see if there be some wicked way within us which we have failed to confess and mortify.
75 The precise identification of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is difficult to say with certainty, since he does not tell us. Accordingly, there have been numerous guesses, from poor eye-sight, to poor speaking skills and a host of others. Owen seems to imply that it may have been a constant temptation to a certain sin (e.g., spiritual pride)—a temptation brought on by a demon that God sent for this particular purpose.
In chapter seven and eight Owen set forth two general rules for the proper understanding and practice of mortification. First, a person must develop a love for and interest in Christ. In saying this, Owen is trying to cut off those papists who reduce mortification to the practice of certain religious rites, etc., but who advance no real knowledge of or love for Christ. Thus they have religion, but no power and the whole system, Owen would say, is to no avail. They are working for grace and not from grace. But Owen has shown us through Romans 8:13 and many other texts that God has already accepted us by faith and given us his Spirit as the true efficient cause of mortification.
The second general principle that Owen outlined was in chapter eight and had to do with what he calls a universality of obedience. Actually, what he was saying is that true mortification springs from the proper foundation of a sincere and diligent frame of heart toward a universality of obedience to God. The person who simply tries to overcome a perplexing lust, as Owen refers to them, without desiring obedience in all areas of life, is building his house on quicksand and in the end will mortify no sin.
Having outlined these two general principles, Owen proceeds now in chapters nine through fourteen to give “particular directions” for the practice of mortification. These particular directions can be divided into two categories: (1) those which are preparatory to mortification, and (2) those which describe the actual work of mortification. The first particular direction is preparatory to the work of mortification and concerns dangerous symptoms attending any lust and the characteristics of these symptoms.
The first particular principle Owen suggests is as follows:
Consider what dangerous symptoms thy lust hath attending or accompanying it,—whether it hath any deadly mark on it or no; if it hath, extraordinary remedies are to be used; an ordinary course of mortification will not do it.
You will say, “What are these dangerous marks and symptoms, the desperate attendencies of an indwelling lust, that you intend?”77
The rest of the chapter is taken up with demonstrating some of the “dangerous symptoms,” that is, “desperate attendencies” of indwelling lusts.
Owen argues that if we have allowed some sin to lay long in the heart, “to abide in power and prevalency,” and we have received many blows from it without attempting to kill it or nourish the wounds which it has inflicted, then that lust is dangerous:
Hast thou permitted worldliness, ambition, greediness of study, to eat up other duties, the duties wherein thou oughtest to hold constant communion with God, for some long season? Or uncleanness to defile thy heart with vain, and foolish, and wicked imaginations for many days? Thy lust has a dangerous symptom….When a lust hath lain long in the heart, corrupting, festering, cankering, it brings the soul to a woful [sic] condition. In such a case, an ordinary course of humiliation will not do the work.78
These are the kinds of lusts and sins, says Owen, that make their way into all the faculties of the soul, including the emotions where they often take up residence, as it were. As a result they become familiar to the mind and cause no great alarm when they appear; they can ply their trade without the slightest bit of resistance. Owen says they are dangerous for two reasons: (1) The person who lives in such a condition becomes increasingly unable to distinguish between the long abode of an unmortified sin and the dominion of sin, the latter of which can only properly be said of a non-Christian, and (2) the person who sees his lust so fixed in his soul lacks hope, struggling to believe that things will change and his peace restored? Comparing sin to an inmate Owen says:
Old neglected wounds are often mortal, always dangerous. Indwelling distempers grow rusty and stubborn by continuing ease and quiet. Lust is such an inmate as, if it can plead time and some prescription, will not easily be ejected. As it never dies of itself, so if it be not daily killed it will always gather strength.79
Our hearts have a tendency to speak peace to us, all the while knowing that we possess some lust which we are not even attempting to mortify. This is another “dangerous symptom of a deadly distemper in the heart.” Owen says we do this in several ways, two of which are as follows.
First, when we recognize some sin in our heart, and neglect to apply diligence in the mortification of it, but instead turn to look for the good in our heart so that it might go well with us—that our consciences might be assuaged—sin has taken a dangerous root. Now Owen is not saying that we should never think about our experiences of God and call them to mind frequently so that we might be comforted and encouraged, but when we do this in order to escape a guilty conscience, we are in a dangerous posture. Listen to Owen:
For a man to gather up his experiences of God, to call them to mind, to collect them, consider, try, and improve them, is an excellent thing,—a duty practiced by all the saints, commended in the Old Testament and the New….And as it is in itself excellent, so it hath beauty added to it by a proper season, a time of trial or temptation, or disquietness of the heart about sin….But now to do it for this end, [that is,] to satisfy conscience, which cries and calls for another purpose, is a desperate device of a heart in love with sin. When a man’s conscience shall deal with him, when God shall rebuke him for the sinful distemper of his heart, if he, instead of applying himself to get that sin pardoned in the blood of Christ and mortified by his Spirit, shall relieve himself by any such other evidences as he hath, or thinks himself to have, and so disentangle himself from under the yoke that God was putting on his neck, his condition is very dangerous, his wound hardly curable.80
A second way in which the heart of a man or woman countenances itself (i.e., speaks peace to itself) is by turning the grace of God into license. People who apply grace and mercy to unmortified sin, or sin not sincerely endeavored to be mortified, are deceitful and entangled in the love of sin. To indulge in sin because you know that God will forgive you is the height of hypocrisy and turns the grace of God into an occasion for license, the very thing Paul warned against in Romans 6:1-2:
6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase? 6:2 Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (NET Bible)
Thus both by the craft of Satan himself and our own remaining unbelief we twist that which is meant to set us free from sin and turn it into an opportunity for the flesh. Though Owen does not mention it here, we would do well to read Titus 2:10-11 to see what the true effect of grace is:
2:10 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. 2:11 It trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age (See also 1 Cor 15:10).
Such a person who has a secret liking for sin, but will not practice it at any given moment simply because people are present or some circumstance prevents them, and who relieves his conscience by ways other than mortification and the blood of Christ, that person is corrupt, and will, “without speedy deliverance, be at the door of death.”
Another dangerous symptom, according to Owen, is the frequency of sin’s success in obtaining the prevailing consent of the will toward that sin. What Owen means by this is that sin has success when it obtains the delight of the will, even if the act cannot be committed or sin cannot be “finished” (as James says) at that particular time. This too, is a bad state for a person to be in—“dangerous” in Owen’s words. And, according to Owen, it does not matter whether this state arises as a result of a choice of the will or inadvertently. He says,
When we are inadvertent and negligent, where we are bound to watchfulness and carefulness, that inadvertency doth not take off from the voluntariness of what we do thereupon; for although men do not choose and resolve to be negligent and inadvertent, yet if they choose the things that will make them so, they choose inadvertency itself as (i.e., since) a thing may be chosen in its cause.81
According to Owen, men should not think that the evil in their hearts is somehow overlooked just because their consent surprises even them. But why is it not overlooked? Because it is often times a state of affairs brought about by their own previous negligence.
Some of us only talk about not sinning in the context of judgment for sin. “I better not do that because God will punish me for it.” While this statement is prima fascia true, such truth itself becomes corrupt in the hands of sinners. We are trying, in effect, to overcome sin by bringing in the law and its punishments; we have exchanged the gentle yoke of Christ, for the iron yoke of the law. Punishment for sin is not the primary or central reason for mortifying the deeds of the flesh. Such a perspective reveals, according to Owen, that sin has taken great possession of our will. Instead we ought to bring in “gospel weapons” to deal with sin—weapons such as (1) the death of Christ; (2) the love of God; (3) the detestable nature of sin; (4) the preciousness of communion with God, and (5) a deeply grounded abhorrency of sin as sin. Owen says this was the attitude of Joseph in the Old Testament (Gen 39:9) and Paul in the New Testament. Read 2 Corinthians 7:1 for example and note the movement from the grace of God (through promises) to the command to grow in holiness:
7:1 Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness out of reverence for God.
Summarizing, Owen says,
But now if a man be so under the power of his lust that he hath nothing but the power of law to oppose it withal, if he cannot fight against it with gospel weapons, but deals with it altogether with hell and judgment, which are the proper arms of the law, it is most evident that sin hath possessed itself of his will and affections to a very great prevalency and conquest.
Such a person hath cast off, as to the particular spoken of, the conduct of renewing grace, and is kept from ruin only by restraining grace.82
Owen tells us that when we are driven to take a stand against sin we should ask ourselves whether this is because we are afraid of “getting caught” (i.e., God punishing us), or whether we truly hate sin and love Christ. The overriding orientation of the believer should be the latter posture because he is “no longer under the law, but under grace.”
There are times, says Owen, when God leaves us under the perplexing power of some lust or sin as chastening punishment for previous sin, negligence, and folly. This may be the very thing for which Israel is making her complaint before God in Isaiah 63:17:
63:17 Why, Lord, do you make us stray from your ways, and make our minds stubborn so that we do not obey you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your inheritance! (NET Bible)
Thus the question arises as to how we can know whether this “dangerous symptom” attends our lusts.
But how shall a man know whether there be any thing of God’s chastening hand in his being left to the disquieting of his distemper? Ans. Examine thy heart and ways. What was the state and condition of thy soul before thou fellest into the entanglements of that sin which now thou so complainest of? Hadst thou been negligent in duties? Hadst thou lived inordinately to thyself? Is there the guilt of any great sin lying upon thee unrepented of? A new sin may be permitted, as well as a new affliction sent, to bring an old sin to remembrance.83
Owen concludes by saying that if we have received any mercy, protection or deliverance from God and have not been thankful, if we have not labored to mortify sin, if we have given way to temptations in the world, and this is now our state, we are to “awake [and] call upon God” because we are “fast asleep in a storm of anger” all around us.84
At times we would rather stay in our sin than repent when God chastens us. We refuse to let go of that attitude or thing even after God has graciously disciplined us for it. Isaiah 57:17 talks about this issue and how God disciplines by affliction and desertion:
57:17 I was angry because of their sinful greed; I attacked them and angrily rejected them, yet they remained disobedient and stubborn. (NET Bible)
Owen says that if a man continues in such sin after the prolonged discipline of God there is nothing that can bring him back except the sovereign grace of God. But no person should presume upon God to do this or promise himself such deliverance from the Lord. God may not deliver, but instead allow you to continue in your folly.
There are times when God will visit men for their evil and he did just that in the case of Joseph’s brothers. This made them reflect on their sin and judge themselves for it. He might also speak loud and clear through the danger, sickness, and trouble that a man finds himself in. He also speaks clearly through the preaching of his word—that great ordinance for the conviction, conversion, and edification of his people—startling sinners, calling them to relinquish the lust in their hearts and so return to him. But the soul that does not repent when God has done all this is truly in a very sad condition. Owen says:
Unspeakable are the evils which attend such a frame of heart. Every particular warning to a man in such an estate is an inestimable mercy; how then doth he despise God in them who holds out against them! And what infinite patience is this in God, that he doth not cast off such a one, and swear in his wrath that he shall never enter into his rest!
This is the first particular direction: Consider whether the lust or sin you are contending with hath any of these dangerous symptoms attending of it.85
Owen warns his readers that just because they struggle with lusts that are common to all believers does not mean that they are in fact believers. These are the kinds of sins a believer may fall into, but they do not constitute what a believer is. You might as well call yourself a believer, Owen says, because you commit adultery; after all king David, a believer after God’s own heart, committed adultery! No, these struggles with sin belong to the Christian due to the reality of indwelling sin and will someday be dealt with at glorification. The unbeliever has no such hope. Therefore, a person must realize that one becomes a believer through faith in Christ, not by possessing sinful struggles common to all men, believer and unbeliever alike. A person must look for other evidences indicative of belief if he is to rightly determine his state. Owen says that to argue the opposite is to suggest that since wise men sometimes do foolish things, to do foolish things is to be a wise man.
In this chapter Owen laid out for us a particular principle and six ways of determining its relevance to our lives. The principle is: Determine what dangerous symptoms attend your lust because if there are any, a normal course of mortification will not do. Now, to determine whether any dangerous symptoms exist, a person should look for six things. They are: (1) the inveterateness of sin, that is, the length of time the sin(s) has been allowed to abide in the heart and therefore its strength; (2) the ways in which the heart denies the presence of sin and seeks to find comfort even when it knows there is unmortified sin; (3) the frequency of sin’s success in securing the delight of the will, even if such a lust cannot—for whatever reason—be immediately acted on; (4) the desire to mortify sin only in light of possible punishments; (5) a judiciary hardness whereby God allows a certain lust to perplex you because of unconfessed sin in other areas, and (6) continuous resisting of God’s chastening hand—chastening which comes through confrontation, preaching, and difficult circumstances. In the next chapter Owen will build upon this foundation by bringing in another particular principle: dealing with sin by seeking a clear and abiding sense of its guilt, danger, and evil.
As always, we begin each new chapter by way of review. This time we shall start from the beginning and bring ourselves up to the present chapter. In chapters 1-3 we learned that mortification is the lifelong duty of every Christian, even the [so-called] best among us, and that the Spirit is the efficient cause of it. Our discussion was grounded in and flowed out of an exegesis of Romans 8:13. In chapter 4 we learned that the vigor and comfort of our spiritual lives depends on the mortification of sin. In chapters 5 and 6, having laid a foundation in 1-4, we learned what mortification is not, as well as what it actually is. In chapter 7 and 8 two general rules for the mortification of sin were set forth. First, in chapter 7, Owen states that there is no real mortification unless a man be a believer. Second, in chapter 8, Owen argues that mortification of any one particular lust is dependent on a universality of obedience, i.e., obedience in all things, not just the sin that troubles us. In chapter 9, Owen gave us the first of several particular directions for the mortification of any lust: consider the dangerous symptoms which attend your lust. By this he means that a person should be alert for at least six things: (1) sin’s inveterateness, i.e., the length of time a particular lust has been permitted to remain unchallenged in our hearts and the strength it has thus acquired; (2) ways we alleviate our conscience in spite of unconfessed sin; (3) how successful a sin has become in at least delighting our minds, whether or not we are able to act on it right then and there; (4) a willingness to forsake sin only in light of possible punishments; (5) the presence of a judiciary hardness, and (6) the strength of any lust to withstand God’s dealings—dealings which include affliction, desertion, and God’s call through the preached word. If these six things be present a normal course of mortification will not do.
We have briefly surveyed chapters 1-9. In chapter ten, Owen continues his discussion of particular principles for the mortification of any lust. Here is the second principle (see ch. 9 for the first): Get a clear and abiding sense upon the mind and conscience of the guilt, danger, and evil of that sin wherewith thou art perplexed.
The argument of chapter ten is an exposition of the second particular principle stated immediately above. Thus, Owen gives us two ways in which we can deepen our sense of the guilt of any sin so that we do not excuse ourselves for it. Further, he gives us four clues regarding the danger of any lust, including deceitfulness, divine correction, loss of peace and strength, and eternal destruction. Finally, Owen talks about three evils which attend every sin, that is, it grieves the Spirit of God, wounds the Lord Jesus Christ afresh, and takes away a man’s usefulness to the Lord. Let us now look at these areas in more detail.
It is an unmistakable trait of fallen humanity that we excuse ourselves for our sin, sometimes in the face of the most heinous crimes. We often do so by deflecting another’s gaze from the evil we’ve just perpetrated to some other (worse) crime committed by someone else. “Look,” we say, “I’m not as bad as that person. Why…I’ve never done that before!” Is it any wonder that the Bible refers to sin as incredibly deceitful and is also full of examples illustrating this point. Take the life of David for starters. We need only think of the length he went to in order to exonerate himself of his sin against Bathsheba until finally the prophet Nathan “shut up all subterfuges and pretences by his parable that so [sic] he might fall fully under the sense of the guilt of it.” Owen says:
Innumerable ways there are whereby sin diverts the mind from a right and due apprehension of its guilt. Its noisome exhaltations darken the mind, that it cannot make a right judgment of things. Perplexing reasonings, extenuating promises, tumultuating desires, treacherous purposes of relinquishment, hopes of mercy, all have their share in disturbing the mind in its consideration of the guilt of a prevailing lust.86
There is, then, the need for Christians to examine their sinful ways deeply and not invoke thoughts of forgiveness too quickly, lest they really not understand what it is they have done. They must, rather, learn “to fix a right judgment” as to the guilt of their own sin. Owen suggests two ways to grow in this. First, we must realize that as those who have been brought from death to life, and have experienced the liberating grace of God, there is a sense in which sin is more grievous when we commit it than when an unbeliever commits it. This is so because we have sinned against the personal knowledge of God’s mercy, grace, assistance, relief, means, and deliverances. Unbelievers have not. Second, God sees the abundance of beauty in the desires of our believing hearts, more than exists in the best of unregenerate men and their deeds, but he also sees the incredible evil in our hearts since we commit sin all the while conscious of grace. We confess one thing and live another; we are hypocrites in respect to our testimony about God. This God sees. Remember what Christ said to the church of Laodicea: “I know your deeds” (Rev 3:15).
In summary then, the knowledge of these two facts, namely, that our sin is in some sense more grievous since we consciously sin against Christ, and also that God sees this evil, should help lead us to a proper recognition of the guilt of our sin. We cannot “run and hide” as our first parents thought.
We must not only consider the guilt of our sin, but we must also recognize the dangers inherent in it. The first real danger that we face is that we become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Indeed, this is exceedingly dangerous because it is deceitful; it is difficult to realize when it’s happening. Hebrews 3:12-13 says,
3:12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an evil, unbelieving heart that forsakes the living God. 3:13 But exhort one another each day, as long as it is called “Today,” that none of you may become hardened by sin’s deception.
It is important to realize that the hardening spoken of here is to the uttermost; do not be deceived, sin is never content to stop anywhere short of destruction; in any way accessible to it, it will make strides in that direction. As we progress further and further into a sin, the more it deceives us and the less we fear God. In this sense it is akin to hypoxia or the loss of oxygen; we are often unable to recognize the problem before it’s too late. Regarding the devastating consequences of sin’s deceitfulness, Owen comments:
Sin will grow a light thing to thee; thou wilt pass it by as a thing of nought; this it will grow to. And what will be the end of such a condition? Can a sadder thing befall thee? Is it not enough to make any heart to tremble, to think of being brought into that estate wherein he should have slight thoughts of sin? Slight thoughts of grace, of mercy, of the blood if Christ, of the law, heaven, and hell, come all in at the same season. Take heed, this is that thy lust is working towards,—the hardening of the heart, searing of the conscience, blinding of the mind, stupifying of the affections, and deceiving of the whole soul.87
The second danger we face—should we continue in some sin—involves God’s correction, sometimes referred to as his “vengeance,” judgment,” or “punishment.” Owen is not saying that God will cast off his beloved eternally (cf. Rom 8:1, 38-39), but that he will visit us with the rod. Again, we need only think of Yahweh’s relationship with David. Because of David’s sin, his son died, his kingdom was diminished, his own body suffered agony, and he himself was exposed to public scandal and humiliation. God had promised that he would do this; Psalm 89:30-33 says,
8:30 “If his sons forsake My law, and do not walk in my judgments, 8:31 if they violate My statutes, and do not keep my commandments, 8:32 then I will visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with floggings. 8:33 “But I will never take away my tender love from him, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness.”
The third danger we invite when we persist in known sin is loss of peace and strength. As Owen says, “to have peace with God, to have strength to walk before God, is the sum of the great promises of the covenant of grace.”88 But of what value is life if everyday is a chore and we experience so little of his perfect peace that transcends understanding and his strength through which we can do all things. Allowing one unmortified lust to have its way can bring us to this point. Listen to the words of Isaiah and Hosea:
Isaiah 57:17 I was enraged by his sinful greed; I punished him, and hid my face in anger, yet he kept on in his willful ways.
Hosea 5:15 For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, like a great lion to Judah. I will tear them to pieces and go away; I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them. 5:15 Then I will go back to my place until they admit their guilt. And they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me.”
When Judah sinned, God hid himself in anger. So Owen asks the question, “what peace is there when God hides himself from us?” This is not the same thing as the wrath and judgment God pours out on unbelievers all the time (see Romans 1:18-32). This is the way God deals with his people that they might “admit their guilt,” abandon their “willful ways,” and “seek his face.” When God hides his face, so to speak, we lose the beauty of our fellowship with him and the power of walking in his presence. The design is to bring us back to him. Owen says,
Consider this a little,—though God should not utterly destroy thee, yet he might cast thee into this condition, wherein thou shalt have quick living apprehensions of thy destruction. Wont thy heart to thoughts hereof; let it know what it is like to be the issue (i.e., result) of its state. Leave not this consideration until thou hast made they soul to tremble within thee.89
These are strong words, but they come from a pastor’s heart—a heart that knows sinful waywardness and the sting of God’s chastening hand. Owen wants us to reflect on the fact that God might take away our peace and strength, he might give us pain and suffering because of unmortified sin. We would do well to think long and hard about this and come back to our senses; we must return to a holy fear of the Lord God.
The fourth danger we invite when we live with unmortified sin is the danger of eternal destruction. Since Owen believes in the eternal security of the believer, he takes pains to spell out what he means here. First, he notes that there is a connection between continuance in sin and eternal destruction:
…that though God does resolve to deliver some from a continuance in sin that they may not be destroyed, yet he will deliver none from destruction that continue in sin; so that whilst anyone lies under an abiding power of sin, the threats of destruction and everlasting separation from God are to be held out to him. So Heb iii.12; to which add chap. x. 38.90
Owen continues discussing the problem of abiding sin. We would do well to listen carefully to what he has to say, for this is an issue that most people (including Bible teachers) today do not understand very well, or at all. Generally they have so confused God’s love with some sentimental attitude toward sin that there is no room left for his holiness, nor is there any corresponding confidence that he can keep them to the end. It is worthwhile to quote Owen at length:
That he who is so entangled…under the power of any corruption, can have at that present no clear prevailing evidence of his interest in the covenant, by the efficacy whereof he may be delivered from fear of destruction; so that destruction from the Lord may justly be a terror to him, and he may, he ought to look upon it, as that which will be the end of his course and ways. “There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus,” Rom. viii. 1. True; but who shall have the comfort of this assertion? who may assume it to himself? “They that walk after the Spirit, and not after the flesh.” But you will say, “Is not this to persuade men to unbelief?” I answer, No. There is a twofold judgment that a man may make of himself,—first, of his person; and secondly, of his ways. It is the judgment of his ways, not his person, that I speak of. Let a man get the best evidence for his person that he can, yet to judge that an evil way will end in destruction is his duty; not to do it is atheism. I do not say, that in such a condition a man ought to throw away the evidences of his personal interest in Christ; but I say, he cannot keep them. There is a twofold condemnation of a man’s self:—First, In respect of desert, when the soul concludes that it deserves to be cast out of the presence of God; and this is so far from a business of unbelief that it is an effect of faith. Secondly, With respect to the issue and event, when the soul concludes that it shall be damned. I do not say this is the duty of any one, nor do I call them to it; but this I say, that the end of the way wherein a man is ought by him to be concluded to be death, that he may be provoked to fly from it. And this is another consideration that ought to dwell upon a soul, if it desire to be freed from the entanglement of its lusts.91
Let’s summarize the point Owen is making here. I think it is this: The person who believes that he/she can continue in sin, with no desire to be free of it (most often because they do not even consider the “sin” in question to indeed be “sin”), ought not to believe that heaven will be their latter end; they ought to conclude that terror and judgment awaits them. The hope of heaven ought not to be held out to those who do not desire its reign, in some measure, in the here and now. The person, on the other hand, who says that he/she should be cast out of God’s presence is at once a believer, for unbelievers do not possess such acute understandings of their own sin in relation to God and his holiness. One should allow their sin, and the possible, eternal consequences of it, to cause them to flee from it.
In short, notice that Owen is not saying that because a person sins, he/she should have no hope of heaven. Not at all. In fact, he is not making any such judgment. He is merely claiming that if indeed you continue in sin with no thought of your latter end, he does not hold out heaven for you. Thus he is not saying that you are or are not a believer, but only that he would not treat you as such, and you too should be leery of making the claim to believe when you do so little about your sin. The argument is an evidence to inference argument not cause to effect. Owen is not saying that the cause of your salvation is mortification. But, he is saying that one may reasonably draw the inference from the evidence (i.e., lack of concern over one’s continual sin) that you are in danger of God’s judgment; you are in reality an unbeliever. In the end, however, no man should make the judgment that he will certainly be condemned by God, but only recognize his sin (i.e., his ways) and flee from it now.
While the danger of sin deals with what is to come in the future, i.e., the judgment of God, the evils attending any sin deal with the present, its impact in the here and now. Owen lists three evils accompanying any sin and the Christian should give serious consideration to them.
First, there is the evil involved in grieving the Holy Spirit with whom we were sealed for the day of redemption. In giving a reason why Christians should put off the old man with his many lusts, the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 4:30:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Therefore, Christians should abstain from fleshly lusts because it grieves the Spirit of God. Further, it is through the Spirit that we receive all the benefits of salvation and through Him that we come to know the personal presence of Christ in us. Our bodies are the temples of God and so it behooves us to deeply and thoroughly consider what things we expose this temple to, for God is jealous for his temple, his dwelling place by the Spirit. Owen says,
As a tender and loving friend is grieved at the unkindness of his friend, of whom he hath well deserved, so it is with this tender and loving Spirit, who hath chosen our hearts for a habitation to dwell in, and there to do for us all that our souls desire. He is grieved by our harbouring his enemies, and those whom he is to destroy, in our hearts with him. “He doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve us,” Lam iii. 33; and shall we daily grieve him?92
Second, willful sin wounds the Lord Jesus Christ afresh: It wounds us, those for whom he died; it wounds him in that it foils the communication of his love for us; and it gives his enemy gratification when we sin. “As a total relinquishment of him, by the deceitfulness of sin, is the ‘crucifying him afresh, and putting of him to open shame;’” so every harbouring of sin that he came to destroy wounds and grieves him.93
Third, another evil attending unmortified lusts is that they take away a man’s usefulness in his generation. Owen points out that God will often resist such a person in ministry so that they are effectively laboring “in the fire” without “any success.” Regarding a man so entangled in his lusts, Owen says,
His works, his endeavours, his labours, seldom receive blessing from God. If he be a preacher, God commonly blows upon his ministry, that he shall labour in the fire, and not be honoured with any success or doing any work for God; and the like may be spoken of other conditions.94
Owen laments the fact that in 17th century England there were so many who professed to know Christ but whose walk with him gave no real evidence of it. How some things never change! There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, Owen says, but it can hardly be denied that chief among them is that many men “harbor spirit devouring lusts in their bosoms, that lie as worms at the root of their obedience, and corrode and weaken it everyday.”
In this chapter Owen outlined his second particular principle for the mortification of any lust: Get a clear and abiding sense upon the mind and conscience of the guilt, danger, and evil of that sin wherewith thou art perplexed. He spoke of the guilt of sin in terms of believers who knowingly sin against the God who has delivered them and how this renders their sin more grievous than those who sin without this knowledge. Further, he discussed four dangers attending unmortified sin. They are: (1) sin’s deceitfulness in hardening the heart; (2) the danger of God’s rod of correction; (3) the loss of peace and strength, and (4) eternal destruction. Finally, Owen elaborates three evils which attend unmortified sin. These are: (1) it grieves the Holy Spirit; (2) wounds Christ afresh, and (3) takes away a man’s usefulness in service to God. The point Owen wishes to make in his discussion is that the person who would deal with deeply ingrained sins must take these considerations to heart, meditate on them often, until it is clear what effect sin has really had on their soul; they should think on these things “until they tremble.” This is his second particular principle. In the next chapter he will deal with the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh principles.
In chapter eight Owen gives us a general principle for the mortification of sin, namely, the need for a universality of obedience if one is to truly put to death any lust. In chapters nine through thirteen Owen discusses nine particular principles for the mortification of sin. First, in chapter nine, he tells us to consider the dangerous symptoms which attend any lust we’re struggling with. When we follow Owen’s advice we come to realize the breadth and strength of sin in the heart, whereas before we may have walked almost totally unaware of it. The second particular principle, outlined in chapter ten, involves the idea of getting a clear sense upon the mind and conscience of the guilt, danger, and evil of the sin we’re dealing with. This is important lest we simply pass over it lightly or fail to even recognize it as sin.
Now we come to chapter eleven. In this chapter Owen will give us five particular principles, namely, three through seven. All these are brought together in order that we might find release from the power of indwelling sin. Owen’s advice flows from a command of the text, a sound theological synthesis, and warm pastoral insight and concern, and we would do exceedingly well to follow it. How much more in an age in which people are so thoroughly unable and unwilling to countenance the weight of their depravity? Christians have a Savior who makes it both possible and necessary that they examine themselves under His watchful eye. The goal is to turn from sin and to grow in Christlikeness.
As already mentioned, Owen gives us particular principles three through seven in this chapter. They are (3) load your conscience with the guilt of sin; (4) long for deliverance from the power of it; (5) consider whether a certain sin is rooted in your natural temperament and constitution; (6) consider what occasions give rise to your sin, and (7) rise mightily against the first actings of your sin. Let’s take a closer look at these five principles.
Owen says that we should not only consider that sin has guilt, but we should load our conscience with the guilt of its actual eruptions and disturbances; we should feel the guilt deeply when we commit sin. He gives several clarifications for this direction and they are as follows.
First, we should take God’s method in loading our consciences with sin; we should begin with general considerations and then descend to particular ones. The first general consideration involves charging our conscience with the guilt of our sin in light of the rectitude and holiness of the Law.
Bring the holy law of God into thy conscience, lay thy corruption to it, pray that thou mayest be affected with it. Consider the holiness, spirituality, fiery severity, inwardness, absoluteness of the law, and see how thou canst stand before it. Be much, I say, in affecting thy conscience with the terror of the Lord in the Law, and how righteous it is that every one of thy transgressions should receive a recompense of reward.95
Do not allow your conscience to find ways of escape, including the idea that you are not under law, but under grace. The law still speaks to the sinfulness of all men and its holy standard is eternal. To plead that you are free from the power of sin and the law, all the while allowing some unmortified lust to reign in your soul, is a dangerous thing. Let the Law pronounce its condemning verdict on such a thought! Let the Law drive you to God for forgiveness; let it reveal the guilt of your sin to you and bring you to the place of humility before the Lord. Owen complains that many in his day—as also in ours—champion freedom from the Law and do not allow it to speak to their sin, uncovering and condemning it. Thus they have “turned the will and affections loose to all manner of abominations.”
The second general principle is to “bring thy lust to the gospel,—not for relief, but for farther conviction of its guilt; look on him whom thou hast pierced and be in bitterness.”96 We must consider what love, grace, and mercy we have trampled on and despised when we sin. Have I defiled the heart that the Son died to wash and the Spirit came to live in? Am I grieving the Spirit daily and disappointing the purpose for which Christ died? Have I taken all the benefits of God’s salvation, including his presence, peace, goodness, and forgiveness, and esteemed them a thing of nought? We should prayerfully meditate on these things. Once again I say, we have virtually eclipsed God’s holiness (‘otherness’ and purity) in the name of his love (erroneously thought of, however; see 1 Peter 1:17-19).
Having surveyed two general ideas, namely, looking at our sin in terms of the holiness of the law and then examining it in light of the benefits of the gospel, we turn now to discuss three particular directions. First, we should consider the infinite patience and forbearance of God. Consider what he could have done to make you a reproach among men and expose the shame of our sin. But he has not; he has given you time to repent and return to his love. Do not provoke him to anger! Consider also how many times you have been at the brink of becoming hardened in your heart through the deceitfulness of sin and God has rescued you. If you see that “delight in duties” and love to God are decaying in your soul and your walk becoming loose and careless, then return to him in humility. Finally, consider all God’s providential dealings with you, including your conversion, when, by his grace, you first came to know him personally. Then let this load your conscience with the guilt of the sin you now relish in. Do not use such grace as a reason to sin, but rather reflect on it so that your conscience might learn the enormous evil of its sin and the guilt which, in a healthy Christian’s conscience, attends evil.
In summary, the third particular principle is to load your conscience with the guilt of the particular sin in question. Owen gives two general principles for this and three particulars. Start by measuring the evil of your sin against the holy demand of the Law and the mercy of God as seen in the benefits of the gospel. Then move to consider three particulars related to these general statements: (1) consider God’s infinite patience; (2) how he has rescued you in the past from hardness of heart, and (3) recall all God’s gracious dealings with you and let them move your conscience to an apprehension of the guilt of your sin. We move now to talk about the fourth particular principle.
Once we have been exercised about the guilt of our sin, we are to get a constant longing, breathing after deliverance from the power of it. The longing to be free is a grace itself and it has great power to conform us to the thing longed after. Owen says,
Hence the apostle, describing the repentance and godly sorrow of the Corinthians, reckons this as one eminent grace that was then set on work, “Vehement desires,” 2 Cor vii. 11. And in this case of indwelling sin and the power of it, what frame doth he express himself? Rom vii. 24. His heart breaks out with longings into a most passionate expression of desire for deliverance…Assure thyself, unless thou longest for deliverance thou shalt not have it.97
Strong desires for the release and deliverance from some erupting lust will motivate us to take any and every opportunity to pray, read scripture, talk with our brothers and sisters, etc. that we might find freedom. Indeed, strong passions and longings in this regard give rise to great faith and certain hope and are in reality the soul’s moving after the Lord.
We come now to Owen’s fifth particular principle. It is this: consider whether the lust or sin with which you are most perplexed is not rooted in your very nature, that is, in your natural disposition. If you think this is the situation, then consider the following three points.
First, this in no way exonerates us of our sin; it is not a “ready-made” excuse. This is true because ultimately our sin is from the fall and not from our natural temperaments, whether or not our natural temperaments more easily give way to one particular sin over another. As Owen acutely observes,
David reckons his being shapen in iniquity and conception in sin98 as an aggravation [i.e., ultimate cause] of his following sin, not a lessening or extenuation of it. That thou art peculiarly inclined unto any sinful distemper is but a peculiar breaking out of original lust in thy nature, which should peculiarly abase and humble thee.99
Second, we must fix our thoughts on this situation since a sin that “comes so naturally” will take great advantage over us otherwise, not to mention the advantage Satan will take over us if we don’t pay careful attention to our souls in this regard.
Third, for sins that are specifically related to one’s natural temperament, there is one particular means of mortification well suited to the problem and it is that mentioned by the apostle Paul in 1 Cor ix. 27:
Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.
The bringing of the very body into subjection is an ordinance of God tending to the mortification of sin. This gives check unto the natural root of the distemper, and withers it by taking away its fatness of soil…. [I]t may be a temptation to some [since the Papists do it improperly] to neglect [this] means of humiliation which by God himself are owned and appointed. [But] [t]he bringing of the body into subjection in the case insisted on, by cutting short the natural appetite, by fasting, watching, and the like, is doubtless acceptable to God….100
But regarding the subjection of the body, Owen gives two limitations. First, the outward weakening of the body, say through fasting, is not good in itself, but only as it leads to the weakening of the natural root of any lust. Second, fasting, watching, and the like have no power in themselves to produce mortification of sin. If they did then, the Spirit would not be needed and any unbelieving person in the world could mortify sin. Rather, they are ways and means that the Spirit sometimes uses in the process of delivering us from certain perplexing lusts which have gained inordinate ground in our souls in keeping with our natural inclinations.
The sixth particular principle involves careful consideration of the occasions and advantages our distempers (Owen’s word for lust or indwelling sin) have taken to exert themselves; and watch against them all. This is the spiritual discipline that Jesus enjoined his disciples to perform. In Mark 13:37 the Master says,
13:35 “So then stay alert, because you do not know when the owner of the house will come—whether during evening, at midnight, when the rooster crows, or at dawn—13:36 and when he comes suddenly he will not find you sleeping. 13:37 What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert!”
We are to watch against all the “eruptions of [our] corruptions,” as Owen nicely says. This is what David meant when he said that he had kept himself from his iniquity. He had watched himself carefully so that he didn’t fall into his habitual ways of sinning and we are, by the force of his example, to do the same thing (Psalm 119:9, 11). A person should learn what circumstances, what environments, what seasons cause them to sin and studiously avoid them, for the one who does not avoid temptation will be ultimately unable to avoid sin. That person is only giving occasion to be overwhelmed by sin’s deceitfulness. Because Owen considered the problem of entering into temptation so serious, he wrote another whole book on the subject. We will summarize that material at a later time. Suffice it to say here, however, that the one who knowingly enters into temptation through carelessness or arrogance, will not stand against sin in the long run.
In the seventh and final particular principle in this chapter, Owen urges us to rise mightily against the first actings of our distempers, in their first conceptions in the heart. He advises us not to let them have even the least ground within us. We are not to say to sin: “You can go this far, but no further.” This is based on a serious misunderstanding of the insidious nature of sin; sin will not stop until it has plied its trade to the uttermost. It will never be content with “this far, and no further.” It wants to go the whole way in rebellion against God and, if it could, usher in the complete death of the soul. Recall the words of James:
1:14 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. 1:15 Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it brings forth death.
Doth thou find thy corruption to begin to entangle thy thoughts? rise up with all thy strength against it, with no less indignation than if it had fully accomplished what it aims at. Consider what an unclean thought would have; it would have thee roll thyself in folly and filth. Ask envy what it would have;—murder and destruction is at the end of it. Set thyself against it with no less vigour than if it had utterly debased thee to wickedness. Without this course thou wilt not prevail. As sin gets ground in the affections to delight in, it gets also upon the understanding to slight it.101
In this chapter Owen has given us more advice on how to mortify those indwelling lusts which seem to have gained so much strength in our souls. He gave us five principles (3-7) which are as follows. First (#3), we must load our conscience with the guilt of our sin. We can do this by looking at our sin through the holy lens of the Law of God and further by meditating on the gracious benefits he has given us through the gospel. We can also do this by reviewing his particular patience and mercy to me as a sinner, his work to keep me from growing completely hardened to him, and his providential dealings with me which have stemmed from his infinite mercy, grace, and love. This alone should weight our consciences with the guilt of sin. Second (#4), we must acquire a longing from God to be delivered from the power of sin. Third (#5), we must pay careful attention to sin that seems to be rooted in our natural disposition. We are not exempt from this sin but must watch it carefully so that we are not held a slave to it and that Satan might not gain the upper hand. Fourth (#6), we are to consider on what occasions and seasons certain sins seem to take most advantage of us. We are to avoid these situations, nourish our souls, and stay clear of known temptations. Fifth (#7), we are to rise mightily against the first actings of sin in our souls. When you see yourself beginning to think sinfully or start to “go down the wrong road” (as they say nowadays), consider what evil that particular sin is and that it won’t stop until it has run its full course.
In chapter twelve we will look at principle number eight. It has to do with biblical thinking that leads to humility, i.e., the right judgment of who I am in light of the majesty and greatness of God. In chapter thirteen we will wrap up our discussion of Owen’s particular principles with a summary of his ninth principle. There we will talk about the danger of failing to listen to what God is saying to us about our sin by rushing to speak peace to our souls. Instead, we should listen and let God speak peace in his own time.
Mortification is only for believers and is ultimately caused by the Spirit who indwells us. In light of this truth, and the fact that believers are commanded to this divine duty, Owen begins in chapter six to clearly define what mortification is and what it is not. In chapters seven and eight he lays out two general principles without which no mortification will be ever be achieved. First, unless a person be a believer there will be no mortification (chapter seven) and second, without sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience, there will be no mortification (chapter eight). Thus, having laid the groundwork with these two general principles, Owen outlines nine particular principles for the mortification of sin. These are spelled out in chapters nine through thirteen. They are: (1) consider the dangerous symptoms which attend your lust (ch 9); (2) get a clear sense of the guilt, danger, and evil of the sin (ch 10); (3) load your conscience with the guilt of the sin; (4) get a constant longing for deliverance from the sin in question; (5) consider whether the sin in question be rooted in your nature and heightened by your constitution; (6) consider the occasions in which this sin raises its ugly head most often; (7) rise up mightily at the first signs of the sin (ch 11). There are two more particular principles, numbers eight and nine. Principle eight will be outlined in this chapter and nine in the following.
The particular principle Owen wishes to argue in this chapter is this: Use and exercise thyself to such meditations as may serve to fill thee at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of thine own vileness. First, Owen will give two practical principles to accomplish this task and then he will defend the idea against potential detractors.
How is it that a man can come to a personal realization of his own vileness before God and be humbled? The scripture affirms that true humility is a result of knowing God and meditating on his awesome greatness. This is the first practical principle. As Owen says,
Be much in thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God and thine infinite, inconceivable distance from him. Many thoughts of it cannot but fill thee with a sense of thine own vileness which strikes deep at the root of any indwelling sin…Be much in thoughts of this nature, to abase the pride of thy heart, and to keep thy soul humble within thee. There is nothing will render thee a greater indisposition to be imposed on by the deceits of sin than such a frame of heart. Think greatly of the greatness of God.102
The following texts from Job and Habakkuk urge this attitude upon the saints:
Job 42:5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye has seen you. 42:6 Therefore I despise myself, and I repent in dust and ashes!
Habakkuk 3:16 I listened and my stomach churned; the sound made my lips quiver. My frame went limp, as if my bones were decaying, and I shook as I tried to walk. I long for the day of distress to come upon the people who attack us.
The second practical principle is that we think much about our own “unacquaintedness” with him. It is true that we do know God through Christ, but consider how little ground we have really “taken” in our relationship with him. “We know…but we do not know as we ought!” Think about the testimony of that wise man, Agur, in Proverbs 30:2-4:
Proverbs 30:2 Surely I am more brutish than any other man, and I do not have human understanding; 30:3 I have not learned wisdom, nor do I have knowledge of the Holy One. 30:4 Who has ascended into heaven, and then descended? Who has gathered up the winds in his fists? Who has bound up the waters in his cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is the name of his son? —if you know!
The psalmist said the heavens cannot contain Him!! How infinite! How immense! How little we know him! As Owen says, “Canst thou look without terror into the abyss of eternity? Thou canst not bear the rays of his glorious being.”103
Owen rightly points out that the practice of this second principle be in keeping with the filial boldness with which we, through Christ, draw nigh unto the heavenly throne (cf. Heb 4:15-16). The two truths must be kept together in our experience. Thus, we are not to conclude from our scant knowledge of God that we are somehow not his sons or daughters. On the contrary, we are to joyfully experience our sonship by striving to know him deeply and by continuing to recognize our bankruptcy in this relationship—a relationship planted, watered, and nourished by the grace of God (cf. John 15:6).
Consider, then, I say, to keep thy heart in continual awe of the majesty of God, that persons of the most high and eminent attainment, of the nearest and most familiar communion with God, do yet in this life know but a very little of him and his glory. God reveals his name to Moses, [for example]—the most glorious attributes he has manifested in the covenant of grace, Exod xxxiv. 5, 6; yet all are but the “back parts” of God. All that he knows by it is but little, low, compared to the perfections of his glory.104
But someone may reply that Moses (Owen’s example above) was under the shadow of the Law, yet now we have the full light of the gospel; we have God “revealed,” as it were. We are no longer left with just his “back parts,” but we now see his “face.” Therefore, there are those who disagree with Owen. They claim that we should not attempt to abase our pride with ideas of how little we really know of God. They maintain that we do know him well through the gospel and that to deny this is injurious to one’s faith. To this Owen raises several considerations.
First, he agrees with them that the gospel is a far greater revelation of God than the law: “Our day is more clear than theirs was, the clouds are blown away and scattered, the shadows of the night are gone and fled away, the sun is risen.”105 Thus Owen is not arguing that Christians do not know God and enjoy this knowledge. He is simply saying that this story has two sides. Second, Moses’ “sight” of God was indeed a gospel sight, but it was low and mean in comparison, not with today, but with the perfections of God himself. Third, even Paul when considering the enormous spiritual blessings afforded under the new covenant, says we still look in a glass “darkly,” as it were (1 Cor 13:12). Our vision is still seriously impaired; we see “in part” in comparison with how we shall see when “the perfect” comes. Even the Queen of Sheba, when she saw Solomon face to face, had to confess that all the stories she had heard faded in comparison. So it is with our present knowledge and experience of God; it pales in comparison to what we will “see” in the future. We know as children: in weakness, frailty, and incompleteness. This should humble us, for right now we do not “see him,” John says (1 John 3:2), but someday we will. Our arrogant souls would do well to fixate on this truth.
But why is it that we, who have received the gospel and know Christ, really possess so little knowledge of God? The reason is simple: God is incomprehensible. That is, we gain our knowledge of his essential being by negating that which he is not. We say that he is infinite and immortal, that is, that he is not finite and not mortal like us. Thus he is totally other and “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen nor can see” (1 Tim 4:16). The result is that we do not know by experience anything of his essential nature. Owen clearly points out that in his essence no man has ever seen or will ever see God, and to make from our senses some sort of conception of his being would be to instantly fall prey to idolatry. We simply cannot know the essence of the divine being. We know God by what he does, not by what he is.
Another reason we know so little of God is because of the means by which he has ordained that we know him, i.e., by faith. Faith is an “assent upon testimony and not an evidence upon demonstration.” Thus it always has room to grow; “we see in a glass darkly.” We can always trust more completely, give ourselves more fully, submit more dutifully; thus our knowledge of God is always deepening, expanding, reaching out, and maturing. But even when we have made strides in our faith, it is only the “back parts” of his perfections that we really see. Let our souls remember this when they lift themselves up with pride.
There are some who might further object that what Owen describes here is true, but only of those who do not know God through Christ or those who are so weak in their faith that such is their present lot. Therefore, the rest of us need not meditate on such things in order to humble our souls. The bottom line is—these objectors would point out—mature Christians certainly know God better than Owen so disparagingly thinks. Certainly we as Christians are now “light in the Lord” and not in the darkness as Owen seems to be arguing. Owen summarizes their complaint:
The light of the gospel whereby now God is revealed is glorious; not a star, but the sun in its beauty is risen upon us, and the veil is taken away from our faces. So that though unbelievers, yea, and perhaps some weak believers, may be in some darkness, yet those of any growth or considerable attainments have a clear sight and view of the face of God in Jesus Christ.106
To this objection Owen gives four basic responses. First, all Christians know enough to obey, love, serve, and delight in Him further than what we have currently attained. Our darkness and ignorance is no plea for disobedience and negligence. In fact, none of us can say that we have been thoroughly transformed into the knowledge which we have so graciously received. Further, we must remember that if we had used our talents just a bit more faithfully we might have been entrusted with even more.
Second, the argument that says we have a greater revelation in Christ than was available in the OT is true, but it cuts both ways. Not only does it teach us that through Christ we can know God more fully than those in the OT dispensation, but it also quells any human pretension to fully understanding God. The incarnation was as much a veiling of God as it was an unveiling. Like a vast uncharted ocean; there are always new places to go, frontiers to be explored and smells to breathe in. Every revelation leads to questions, perplexities, resolutions, and discomforts.
Third, in response to the idea that Owen refers to unbelievers, it must be said that the difference between unbelievers and believers is not in what they know, per se, but in the manner in which they know it. Unbelievers do not know savingly, by genuine faith and heavenly light, but merely by a disinterested knowledge that stops well short of trust; they are unacquainted with the Referent for the language, though they may know it, i.e., the language, better than the believer. Thus Owen is not referring to unbelievers as his detractors might suppose.
Fourth, the gospel was not intended to unveil God’s essential glory, but only to make known to his creatures what was of first importance for encouraging us to trust Him, to delight in Him through enjoyment and obedience. As Owen says,
The intendment of all gospel revelation is, not to unvail [sic] God’s essential glory, that we should see him as he is, but merely to declare so much of him as he knows sufficient to be a bottom of our faith, love, obedience, and coming to him,—that is, of the faith which here he expects from us; such services as beseem poor creatures in the midst of temptations.107
In short, the revelation of God is directed not toward comprehensive knowledge, as if that were either desirable or possible for creatures, but toward love and trust. But herein we encounter yet another limiting factor. This time, however, it relates not to Scriptural revelation, but to the recipients of that revelation meaning the church, i.e., people as fallen human beings. We ought to be humbled by the fact that we are weak, stubborn, and dull at times, despite God’s continual work of grace in our hearts. The pangs of spiritual poverty ought to gnaw at our pride, whittling it away.
Owen’s point in this chapter is simple. As a Christian, you are to use and exercise thyself to such meditations as may serve to fill thee at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of thine own vileness. There are two practical principles Owen gives to help us in this. First, we should constantly be meditating on the excellency of God and, in this light, our own vileness. Second, we must be constantly reminded of how little we know our Father and how much more of the promised land is being offered to us. All Christians need to know God better and this must be our constant longing, hope, and passion. Do not let other Christians use the stunning revelation of the gospel or their own salvation experience to keep you from the gnawing hunger to know God better. Do not let what you know get in the way of what you have to learn. If you know Christ, you have set sail through a vast uncharted ocean. Much awaits you.
In the thirteenth chapter Owen will give his last particular principle regarding mortification. It is central to the Christian life for it deals with the issue of inner spiritual peace. Most Christians would die for two things: more power to fulfill God’s will and more peace in the process. Read on in chapter thirteen.
102 VI: 63.
Mortification means “to put sin to death.” As the apostle said: “If you by the Spirit put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13). The never ending (i.e., in this life) process of killing sin is carried along by the gracious work of the Spirit who indwells us. We are his temple and he is about the business of cleansing it. The more we understand this, the better off we are in determining the focus and direction of our efforts in the Christian life. It is for this reason that Owen has taken such lengths to explain and open up for us this whole area of Christian experience.
The promise attached to mortification is “the promise of life,” that is, the enjoyment of the vigor, power, and comfort of our spiritual lives. But again, this promise is given only to those who are Christians, to those who possess the efficient cause of mortification, namely, the Spirit. All other so-called attempts at mortification by unbelievers are really in vain for no sin is put to death without the Spirit and all fall woefully short of God’s standard.
Thus it is only those with the Spirit who will mortify sin. But the Spirit does not do the work apart from our cooperation (Phil 2:12-13).108 We must develop a sincerity in the universality of obedience or no sin will be truly mortified. Owen made these and other related ideas clear in chapters seven and eight. Then, in chapters nine through thirteen, he gave nine particular principles for the mortification of sin. They are: (1) consider the dangerous symptoms which attend your lust (ch 9); (2) get a clear sense of the guilt, danger, and evil of the sin (ch 10); (3) load your conscience with the guilt of the sin; (4) get a constant longing for deliverance from the sin in question; (5) consider whether the sin in question be rooted in your nature and heightened by your constitution; (6) consider the occasions in which this sin raises its ugly head most often; (7) rise up mightily at the first signs of the sin (ch 11), and (8) fill yourself with thoughts that lead to healthy self-abasement (ch 12). The ninth and final particular principle will be discussed here in our summary of chapter thirteen.
The ninth particular principle concerns our experience of peace. Owen says,
In case God disquiet the heart about the guilt of its distempers, either in respect of its root and indwelling, or in respect of any eruptions of it, take heed thou speakest not peace to thyself before God speaks it; but hearken what he says to thy soul. This is our next direction, without the observation whereof the heart will be exceedingly exposed to the deceitfulness of sin.109
So, according to Owen, it is not that God does not want to speak peace to us, but that we have a tendency to speak it to ourselves before we have really dealt with known sin in our lives—the sin he is calling us to come forward with. This leaves us with a pseudo-peace which is not from God, will not last, and can actually harden us in our rebellion. Owen gives us two guiding principles “to manage this direction aright.”
The first principle is that God reserves the right to speak peace, even to those who are saved, when and where he wants, and not before. In common vernacular, he is not a slot-machine, that once having paid your quarter’s worth of confession, you may now instantly receive the peace you want; confession does not work ex opere operato. That this is true, is evident from the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Isaiah 57:16 For I will not be hostile forever or perpetually angry, for then man’s spirit would grow faint before me, the life-giving breath I created. 57:17 I was angry because of their sinful greed; I attacked them and angrily rejected them, yet they remained disobedient and stubborn. 57:18 I have seen their behavior, but I will heal them and give them rest, and I will once again console those who mourn.
Therefore, God creates peace for his own children and according to his sovereignty he metes it out as he pleases.
The second related principle is that, as God creates peace, it is Christ alone who reserves the right to speak it home to the conscience. One need only think of the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3. This church spoke peace to itself, but it was a false peace and not given by God. Jesus, referring to himself as the Faithful and True Witness, exposed the church’s pseudo-peace and called it on its relaxed view of sin. They thought they were in a state of peace with God, but the Lord described them as wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked and counseled them to buy from him so that their nakedness might be covered (3:17-18).
These two principles, namely that God is the author of peace and it is the prerogative of Christ alone to speak it to our souls, should help guide us in an increasing experience of his peace. But Owen does not leave off here. He gives us five more rules to help us discern whether we speak peace to ourselves or whether it is truly God who speaks peace to us.
People constantly speak peace to themselves when their “speaking” is not also attended by deep hatred for the sin in reference to which they seek peace. They realize that there is peace only in Christ, on the basis of God’s mercy. So they claim peace under the covenant of his love, but they do not recoil from and hate the sin itself. Therefore, they speak peace to themselves; God is not the one speaking the peace. God’s peace always comes with a consciousness of the cross and the awful penalty Christ paid to secure peace. It always come with a hatred for sin. As Owen says,
When we look for healing, his stripes are to be eyed,—not in the outward story of them, which is the course of popish devotionists, but in the love, kindness, mystery, and design of the cross; and when we look for peace his chastisements must be in our eye. Now this, I say, if it be done according to the mind of God, and in the strength of that Spirit which is poured out on believers, it will beget a detestation of that sin or sins for which healing and peace are sought…When God comes home to speak peace in a sure covenant of it, it fills the soul with shame for all the ways whereby it hath been alienated from him.110
For example, a person may find her heart longing for and chasing after the things of the world, and this makes communion with God a difficult thing. Any sensitive conscience cannot bear it. But then the Spirit speaks explicitly to such a person about this sin: “Do not love the world…” (1 John 2:15-16). Let not that person speak peace to their soul until they have a thorough detestation for such sin. Let them ask God for this first, and then see if His peace does not follow sometime later.
When Christian people go about the process of dealing with sin according to what they know to be rationally true, but without the aid of the Spirit, the resulting peace is not from the Lord; it is of their own making. For example, suppose a person has sinned in some way, knows it, and feels guilty for it. The fact that he knows it and experiences real guilt is a good thing, to be sure. But as a Christians he wants relief from his guilt so he goes, as he has been taught, to the word of God for soothing. He knows that there are promises that speak to his situation. So after searching, he finally finds one, say, in Isaiah, where God promises forgiveness and spiritual healing. He then says to himself, “God promises me forgiveness in this text so I will apply it to myself.” He then goes away feeling like he has some peace. But does he have God’s peace if his application has been done merely according to human reason and ability? Owen says, “No!” It has the appearance of peace, but the Lord is not in it. Why, you ask? Because it was not the Spirit who spoke the peace to him. He simply did it on his own, as a kind of Christian knee-jerk reaction. So then, just because the Bible promises peace from God, this does not mean that we instantly have it, even if we find a verse to that end; for it is God’s prerogative to give peace or take it away as he sees fit, for our instruction, good, and transformation.
Further, Owen suggests that there is another reason our friend does not necessarily have the peace he thought he had: while we know as Christians that God’s speaks peace to us through his word, and therefore, we rightly consult it, we do not always come to it operating in the power of the Spirit. We are often times just using our Christian, enlightened reason without a consciousness of God’s presence and will at the time. Certainly he wants to give us peace, but perhaps through the delay of that peace he wants to speak even more clearly to us about our sin and his concern. Regarding the problem of peace and recurring sin, Owen says,
Suppose the wound and disquiet of the soul to be upon the account of relapses…[so] in the perturbation of his mind, he finds out that promise, Isa. lv. 7, “The Lord will have mercy, and our God will abundantly pardon….” This the man considers, and thereupon concludes peace to himself; whether the Spirit of God make the application or no, whether that gives life and power to the letter or no, that he regards not. He doth not hearken whether God the Lord speak peace. He doth not wait upon God, who perhaps yet hides his face, and sees the poor creature stealing peace and running away with it (italics mine).111
But the question arises from this, and the astute reader will have already asked himself, “How do I know, then, whether the Spirit goes with me in my quest for peace or whether I go alone? After all, I am coming to the Word of God for forgiveness and healing. Surely the Spirit is with me. To this question Owen gives three related answers.
First, be confident that if you err in this regard, and come to the Scripture solely relying on yourself, God is committed to let you know. In humility ask for his guiding hand, for he leads the humble in his ways. He will probably show you by alerting you to the transitory nature of the peace you thought you had; it came and it went. It was not from him; he is calling you to something else—something that lasts.
Second, relationships take time. Wait for God when you go to his Word. Wait for him to speak the peace to your heart. The fact that you rush in and out may betray a heart that it not at rest in his presence and therefore lacking in his peace. Sit at the feet of the Master and wait for him to speak. Do not try to force his hand. As Owen says, those who speak peace too quickly to themselves are “self-healers” and strangers to the peace of God—a peace which “transcends all understanding” (Phil 4:6-7).
Third, false peace secured too quickly may perhaps quiet the mind, but it does nothing to sweeten the soul, and reorient the heart toward rest and a gracious disposition. As in the case of Elisha speaking to Naaman: “Go in peace!” His mind was probably set at ease for awhile, but his heart was not joyful except at the thought of his healing. But God’s word is “good” and does good things, for it proceeds directly from him.
When God speaks, there is not only truth in his words, that may answer the conviction of our understandings, but also they do good; they bring that which is sweet, and good, and desirable to the will and affections; by them the “soul returns unto its rest,” Ps. cxvi. 7.112
Fourth, and worst of all, according to Owen, pseudo-peace gained apart from God does not amend the soul. As Owen says, “it heals not the evil, it cures not the distemper.”113 The peace that God gives on the other hand, keeps a soul so that it will not turn again into the way of sin. The peace that we create for ourselves, once dissipated in a day or two, has no alluring power to deter us from the sin we originally engaged in and thus we return to our foolishness. With God’s peace there is a discovery of his love—a discovery which places a strong, inner obligation on the soul to maintain its freedom from sin.
One of the complaints of Jeremiah against the leaders of his people was that they spoke peace slightly:
Jeremiah 6:14 They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.
And so it is with some people. They fall under Jeremiah’s rebuke since they make the healing of their wound a slight thing. They think all you have to do is speak peace to it and it is done. They take a brief glance at the promises, throw in a sprinkle of faith, and presto, there you have it. But in reality, they have little or no faith. But true faith does not make just a passing glance at the Mercy-Giver, but instead fixes its gaze long and hard upon Christ. Again, Owen’s point is that haste in these matters is dangerous and probably causing one to fall short of realizing God’s peace.
This point should be so clear that little needs to be said about it. But as hypocrisy has always accompanied us, and is therefore a great danger, it must be mentioned. In short, then, there is no peace for the man who wants it, but at the same time flirts in his heart and life with other sin(s). It matters very little whether he cries “Peace” or not; he does not have it from God. He is only fooling himself and perhaps other unsuspecting people. As Owen says, “God will justify us from our sins, but he will not justify the least sin in us: ‘He is a God of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.’”
The peace which comes from God, as opposed to the peace we manufacture on our own, brings with it the distinctively Christian grace of humility. It is a “melting” peace, as it was in the case of David when Nathan told him of God’s pardon for his sin. He was thoroughly humbled.
We have been looking at God’s peace in this chapter and have made the following observations. The first thing we said was that God reserves the right to speak peace when and where he wants. In keeping with this we said that (1) peace must be accompanied by a hatred for sin and if it is not, it is not from God; we have manufactured it ourselves and it will not last; (2) peace does not come just because we claim a Bible verse to that end. Again, God must speak the peace to us; (3) true peace from God does not come lightly, but recognizes the healing work that needs to be done. A simple glance of faith is not what true repentance leading to peace involves; (4) there is no genuine peace from God when we live in other known sin(s), and (5) God’s peace is a humbling peace and brings with it life and power.
So how do we know, then, when God speaks peace to us? First, remember that God can speak at any time he wishes, whether you’re in the process of repenting or sinning. And when he speaks, he must be received. Second, and in keeping with this, the secret to hearing his voice—and his sheep do hear it (John 10:4)—is to have frequent and protracted times of communion with him so that you come to recognize it. This secret eye of faith, trained by the Master, cannot be taught by one person to another. Others can point to it, as John the apostle does in John 10:14, but a person himself must develop it with the Master. Third, remember that Christ, through his indwelling Spirit, speaks with power, not like any other man speaks, and he causes our hearts to burn within us (Luke 24:32). Thus his voice is recognizable. Fourth, and final, his word of peace does good to us, cleansing our heart, purifying it from stain and securing it for obedience to Him alone. Who is the person who can therefore discern the voice of God’s peace? According to Owen it is…
He that hath his senses exercised to discern good or evil, being increased in judgment and experience by a constant observation of the ways of Christ’s intercourse, the manner of the operations of the Spirit, and the effects it usually produceth, is the best judge for himself in this case.114
108 By “cooperation” we do not mean that we do half and He does half. Rather, we mean that we respond in faith to the Spirit’s call, when he calls us through his word, people, circumstances, etc. to particular attitudes, acts, etc. He leads us; we learn to follow with his help.
In the previous thirteen chapters Owen has shown us the nature of Biblical mortification. He has given us its foundation in Christ and the work of the Spirit, and outlined for us general as well as particular principles for its accomplishment. We have come to understand that while we are commanded to mortify the lusts of the flesh, the Spirit is the efficient cause of this transforming work. We also know now that the vigour and comfort of our spiritual lives depends on mortifying the flesh. Thus we must set ourselves as Spirit indwelt believers to fulfilling our calling.
All that Owen has said to this point, however, he regards as advice preparatory to the actual work of mortification. In chapter fourteen he will tell us how to actually effect the work of mortification. The foundation he has laid in the previous chapters is crucial, to say the least, but in this chapter he will get to the actual business of mortification. In general, “directions for this work are very few,” that is, in respect to actually doing it: we are to set faith at work on Christ, and rely on the Holy Spirit because we know that the Spirit performs the necessary work. Let’s look at this in more detail now.
The first thing a person is to do in the actual process of mortifying sin is to fill their soul with all the provisions the Lord Jesus offers them in this work. Ponder the fact that in your weakness you are not able to secure mortification from any besetting sin, but that through Christ who strengthens you, you will certainly and ultimately put it to death (Phil 4:13). As Owen says,
In thy great distress and anguish, consider that fulness [sic] of grace, those riches, those treasures of strength, might, and help, that are laid up in Him for our support, John i.16, Col. i.19. Let them come into and abide in thy mind...To act faith upon the fulness that is in Christ for our supply is an eminent way of abiding in Christ….115
Paul describes sin as a task master and it is only those Christians who are unfamiliar with God’s blinding holiness who have never seen sin as such. But for those of us who have longed for deliverance from sin, and have thought we were delivered from certain ones only to fall back again, we realize the sheer power of indwelling lust and sin. But, there is hope in Christ. To those who have experienced the ravages of sin and suffered its inroads, Owen has a pastoral word. Pay careful attention to each word:
Let, then, thy soul by faith be exercised with such thoughts and apprehensions as these: I am a poor, weak creature; unstable as water, I cannot excel. This corruption is too hard for me and is at the very door of ruining my soul; and what to do I know not. My soul has become as parched ground, and an habitation of dragons…Behold, the Lord Christ, that hath all fulness of grace in his heart, all fulness of power in his hand, he is able to slay all these enemies. There is sufficient provision in him for my relief and assistance. He can take my drooping, dying soul and make me more than a conqueror (italics mine).116
For those of us who are wearied by our constant struggle against certain sins, Owen does well to remind us of the words of Isaiah:
Isaiah 40:27 Why do you say, Jacob, Why do you say, Israel, “The Lord is not aware of what is happening to me, My God is not concerned with my vindication”? 40:28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is an eternal God, the creator of the whole earth. He does not get tired or weary; there is no limit to his wisdom. 40:29 He gives strength to those who are tired; to the ones who lack power, he gives renewed energy. 40:30 Even youths get tired and weary; even strong young men clumsily stumble. 40:31 But those who wait for the Lord’s help find renewed strength; they rise up as if they had eagles’ wings, they run without getting weary, they walk without getting tired.
So we must remember that his grace is sufficient for us. It may not take away the temptations, but it is strength enough that we not fall into sin and misery. His grace is strength enough to keep us from turning to other things to try and satisfy our roaming hearts.
We should raise our hearts up to an expectation of deliverance from the perplexity, discomfort, and problems of our sins. It may tarry for a while, yet we should wait for it and expect Christ to give it at his appointed time. As Owen says,
“If thine eyes are towards him, ‘as the eyes of a servant to the hand of his master,’ when he expects to receive something from him,—thy soul shall be satisfied, he will assuredly deliver thee; he will slay the lust, and thy latter end shall be peace.” 117
The ground of our expectation of Christ’s relief is fairly simple and straightforward. In the nature of the case, he must do it. We are unable on our own to accomplish the work of mortification, yet we are commanded to do it. Therefore, He must be the One who does it in us as we trust him for it. All the good works we do to mortify sin are important, but in and of themselves “they can do nothing” (John 15:5). It is only by the indwelling Spirit that we can mortify sin. If He does not do it, we shall never have relief. Indeed, all the things we are commanded to do in order to mortify sin, if they are not animated by this expectation, are simply works done in the flesh. It is Christ who “dwells in our hearts by faith” that does his work of mortification (cf. Eph 3:16-17).
The warrant for this ground is also straightforward and simple, though it is profound. We ought to expect Christ to deliver us when, through the eye of faith, we comprehend his mercy and faithfulness. In order to establish the mercy of God, Owen cites several texts which we would do well to read and meditate upon. They include:
Isaiah 66:13 As a mother consoles a child, so I will console you, and you will be consoled over Jerusalem.”
Hebrews 2:17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. 2:18 For since he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
Owen says that we ought to consider the High Priesthood of Christ as One; he is sympathetic, tender, and kind to us. In his sufferings nothing was added to his power and ability, but what is made clear to us is that because he suffered he is able to help those who are tempted. Owen says,
Did the sufferings and temptations of Christ add to his ability and power? Not, doubtless, considered absolutely and in itself. But the ability mentioned here is such as hath readiness, proneness, willingness to put itself forth, accompanying of it; it is an ability of will against all dissuasions. He is able, having suffered and been tempted, to break through all dissuasions to the contrary, to relieve poor tempted souls.118
Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. 4:16 Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.
Owen translates the expression “whenever we need help” (charin eis eukairon boetheian) in Hebrews 4:16 as “grace for seasonal help.” By “seasonal help” Owen says the writer means “help when I desperately need it.” When I am overcome by sin, as if to the point of death and being lost forever, grace will come in and we must receive it.
Yea, let me add, that never any soul did or shall perish by the power of any lust, sin, or corruption, who could raise his soul by faith to an expectation of relief from Jesus Christ.119
Not only are we to consider his mercy to us, which is abundant, but we are to remember and rely on his faithfulness. In so doing your soul will rise to expect deliverance from Him. Just as God has promised the rain for parched land, so he will bring relief to your soul in his time. And we need to count on this for he who has promised is faithful. We must wait for him as David says,
Psalm 130:6 I yearn for the sovereign Master, more than watchmen do for the morning, yes, more than watchmen do for the morning. 130:7 O Israel, hope in the Lord, for the Lord exhibits loyal love, and is more than willing to deliver.
So we see that the reason we can humbly expect deliverance from the hand of Jesus is because, as a merciful High Priest, he understands our situation and has all power to deliver us. Also, let us remember that he is faithful to his promises and he has covenanted with us to release us from the guilt, power, and reign of sin.
Nothing moves the heart and hands of God more than his children relying wholeheartedly on him for deliverance, mercy, and help. Just a one man is moved to help another who depends on him thoroughly, so God is infinitely more “countenanced” to move toward us in our suffering in order to rescue us and set our feet on solid ground. After all, it was he who raises our hearts through his inner promptings and the promises of his word to ask, seek, knock. Surely this “must needs be a great engagement upon him to assist us accordingly.”120
There is yet another great advantage to the saint who depends wholeheartedly on the Master for deliverance:
It engages the heart to attend diligently to all the ways and means whereby Christ is wont to communicate himself to the soul; and so takes in the real assistance of all graces and ordinances whatever. He that expects anything from a man, applies himself to the ways and means whereby it may be obtained…It is the expectation of faith that sets the heart on work.121
Owen tells us that when we set faith on Christ for deliverance, we are to focus primarily on the death of Christ, his blood and cross. We are to think long and hard about Christ crucified and slain. The reason for this is because mortification proceeds from the death of Christ. Christ died to destroy the works of the Devil, free us from the penalty, power, and someday presence of sin. He died to redeem us from all iniquity—to purify a people for himself, zealous for good works. Our washing, cleansing, and purging from sin is everywhere ascribed to the blood of Christ (see 1 John 1:7; Heb 1:3; 9:14; Rev 1:5). According to Hebrews 9:14 we aim at a conscience purged from dead works, purged of them entirely so that they have absolutely no place in us anymore. This comes through the blood of Christ.
Owen goes on to teach that all supplies of the Spirit, all communications of grace and power flow from the death of Christ as their ground and assurance. Romans 6:2 makes this clear:
Romans 6:2 Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
We have been buried with Christ through baptism into his death so that we might be dead to sin. We were then raised to life with Christ so that we might walk in newness of life. Our old man was crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be destroyed. Owen explains further:
We are crucified with him meritoriously, in that he procured the Spirit for us to mortify sin; efficiently, in that from his death virtue comes forth for our crucifying; in the way of representation and exemplar we shall assuredly be crucified unto sin, as he was for our sin. This is that the apostle intends: Christ by his death destroying the works of the devil, procuring the Spirit for us, hath so killed sin, as to its reign in believers, that it shall not obtain its end and dominion.122
Thus, when we set faith on Christ for the mortification of sin we are to do so with his death as the focus. We are to expect to receive spiritual power from this and our experience is to be increasingly conformed to that of Christ in his death. According to Owen, we are to bring, by faith, the crucified Messiah into our hearts on a daily basis.
Owen concludes his work on mortification with a reminder of the centrality of the Spirit in the process of putting sin to death. He lists six important truths regarding mortification and the work of the Spirit. They are: (1) the Spirit alone clearly and fully convinces the heart of the evil, corruption, lust, or sin to be mortified; (2) the Spirit alone reveals the fulness of Christ for our relief. This keeps us from turning to false ways and concoctions; (3) the Spirit alone establishes the heart in expectation of relief and deliverance; (4) the Spirit alone brings the cross of Christ into the heart with its sin killing power, for by the Spirit we are baptized into the death of Christ; (5) the Spirit is the author and finisher of our sanctification; gives new supplies and influences of grace for holiness and sanctification, when the contrary principle is weakened and abated, Eph 3:16-18; (6) In all the soul’s addresses to God, the Spirit supports them all. The power, life, and vigor of prayer comes from the Spirit as does the efficacy to prevail in prayer (Rom 8:26). Let thus, therefore, consciously rely on the Spirit.
In this, his final chapter on mortification, John Owen focuses on the actual practice of mortification. What he has said in chapters 1-13 has been preparatory to this point. Now he seeks to give some counsel for the “down and dirty,” holy habit of putting sin to death. To get all the way through the first thirteen chapters and stop there would be a travesty. As Owen says, we must actually put sin to death if we are to enjoy the power, comfort, and vigor of the Christian life.
Now the advice Owen gives us is quite simple. We need to act faith on Christ and rely on His Spirit to carry on the work. We must constantly call to mind the resources Christ possesses to the effecting of mortification. He is able and has all power to deliver us from sin. Further, because he is merciful and faithful to his people (according to his promises), we can humbly expect him to deliver us. We do not demand it, but as people sinking in quicksand, we quickly look into his eyes and grasp his outstretched hand by faith. Now those who realize that Christ is more than willing to save and deliver, they take to themselves in humility, and with both eyes on Christ, all the means He has made available and through which he has chosen to work. This, of course, includes scripture meditation, prayer, the sacraments (e.g., the Lord’s Supper), and fellowship.
So when we turn to Christ, using by faith the means he has appointed for us, we are to bring Him into our hearts as the crucified one. We are to meditate on his death, cross, and atonement for sin. Through his death flows all the blessings we have ever had or ever will have, including deliverance from sin. We act faith on Christ by bringing Him crucified into our heart. This is central to the holy habit of mortifying sin.
We also bring to mind the Spirit who has been given to us for this end. We consciously rely on Him to convict of sin, exposes us to the riches of Christ, establish hope for deliverance in our hearts, bring the cross to bear on our sin, and to be the author, sustainer, and finisher of our sanctification. He supports us in all our strivings to know God and secure freedom from sin.