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.