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.