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.