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.