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.