Chapter seven picks up right where chapters five and six left off. We gave an overview of the remainder of Owen’s book in our summary of chapter five. First, we said there that chapters five and six deal with showing what it means to mortify any one sin, both positively and negatively considered. It was Owen’s design to dispel common myths about mortification and to present a clear picture of exactly what is meant. Much of the same confusion over these issues exists today as it did almost four hundred years ago when Owen wrote. Second, chapters seven and eight are designed to give general directions as to the process of mortification. Third, chapters nine through fourteen draw out particulars whereby a person can mortify any sin which hinders their walk with Christ. So then, since we are dealing with chapter seven here in this lesson, we will consider general directions regarding “the ways and means whereby a soul may proceed to mortification of any particular lust or sin, which Satan takes advantage by to disquiet and weaken him.”68
The argument of chapter seven is really quite simple and straightforward. The basic foundation for mortification is that a man or woman be a believer. Otherwise one’s house is built on quick sand. In keeping with this foundation, which Owen has spoken about several times already, faith is the instrument whereby sin is mortified. With this twin foundation, Owen states his first general principle concerning the need to have a vital interest in Christ if mortification is ever to be a reality.
We have already seen in Romans 8:13 and Colossians 3:5 that mortification is the work of believers. Men may attempt it and even some philosophers such as Seneca, Tully, and Epictetus have written passionate discourses on renouncing the world and the passions thereof, but they are unable to mortify even one sin in the biblical sense. Stoicism can hardly be matched to the biblical doctrine of dealing with sin. The same is true of the papists who attempt mortification in ways not ordained by God, by their “vows, penances, and satisfactions.” As Paul has said, they ignore God’s method for righteousness, trying to establish their own by their works.(Rom 9:31-32).
It is the duty of all men who hear the gospel to mortify sin, but it is not their immediate duty. First, they must come to Christ in faith and receive the Spirit of God. Then, with the indwelling Spirit, without which no man is a Christian or knows anything real of Christ (Rom 8:9), they are no longer “in the flesh and dead in sin,” but are alive and “quickened unto righteousness.” To labor to mortify a sin as an unbeliever is to labor in the fire, as Owen says, with all one’s work being consumed as he builds. It is a futile process.
When Peter preached his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, he did not call on the Israelites to mortify sin, per se, but rather he called them to repentance, conversion, and trust in Christ. Owen says:
I say, then, that mortification is not the present business of unregenerate men. God calls them not to it as yet; conversion is their work,—the conversion of the whole soul,—not the mortification of this or that particular lust. You would laugh at a man that you should see setting up a great fabric [building], and never take any care for a foundation; especially if you should see him so foolish as that, having a thousand experiences that what he built one day fell down another, he would yet continue in the same course.69
A man who is not regenerate, that is, does not believe in Christ and therefore does not possess the Spirit, works in vain to mortify sins. Though he use a multitude of remedies, he will never be healed. He is responding incorrectly to the problem of sin in his life. When God causes his conscience to be wracked because of his sin and his heart discouraged, he should come to God through Christ, not set about the task of trying to assuage his conscience without God by his own effort. Religions that teach this send men to hell, not to God.
Owen laments the fact that many are led to believe that this is what God wants of them, when nothing could be farther from the truth. If a man should have what appears to him to be some measure of success in putting down the practice of some disquieting sin, he ends up deluding his own soul and further from God than he otherwise would have been, i.e., in his moment of need. He “mortifies” sin out of self-love, not for the love of God. In the end he comes to believe that his condition before God is really not that bad and so he becomes hardened in a kind of self-righteousness. And, in the end, it is very difficult to dislodge such a person from their self-righteousness.
But when a person, during the course of a long life, seems to never really put down sin, she, after much striving perhaps, decides to throw in the towel and give herself over to sin. After all, what’s the use of trying so hard? You might as well try and dislodge a nail from wood with your bare hands, as cast off some sins with your power. In the end, in many cases, the sin destroys them.
Men who live apart from Christ are spiritually dead according to the apostle Paul (Ephesians 2:1). They do not, as of yet, have the one faculty or instrument, as Owen refers to it, to affect the process of mortification; they do not have a genuine and living faith in Christ. It is madness to attempt to carry out a certain work without the necessary tools or instruments. So it is in the case of the person who attempts mortification without a Spirit-inspired love for Christ and a living faith in him. It is faith, according to Peter, that purifies the heart (Acts 15:9).
After making clear that mortification is the business of believers and not unbelievers; those who possess the Spirit, not those who are still dead in their sins, Owen states the first general rule for the believer who wants to mortify sin. It goes as follows: Be sure to get an interest in Christ; if you intend to mortify any sin without it, it will never be done. Now there may be some who object to the idea that unbelievers do not need to mortify sin.
Owen has claimed that mortification is not the work of unregenerate men. Those who think they are believers because they go to church need to realize that this does not make them a Christian. They may love Christian religion and yet be a stranger to Christ and therefore not possess the life of His Spirit (Rom 8:9). A person must trust Christ; they must have the Spirit; they must be regenerate.
Well then, what is the unbeliever to do? Since mortification is decidedly not his business, according to Owen, what should he do? Should he just sin to his heart’s content? Owen anticipates this objection:
You will say, “What, then, would you have unregenerate men that are convinced of the evil of sin do? Shall they cease striving against sin, live dissolutely, give their lusts their swing, and be as bad as the worst of men? This were a way to set the whole world into confusion, to bring all things into darkness, to set open the flood-gates of lust, and lay the reins upon the necks of men to rush into all sin with delight and greediness, like the horse into battle.70
To this question Owen gives four responses. First, he says that it may be regarded as the good wisdom, mercy, and love of God that he should use whatever ends he chooses to restrain men from acting on every lust they experience. This includes their own delusion as to how to keep from sinning. Second, God is often times pleased to restrain men from sin through the preaching of his word, even though such men are often times not converted. While the word is preached so that they might come to Christ in faith, those that do not are nevertheless often held back from committing vile sins. The word has a powerful affect on people. Third, though men are restrained from sin through the work of the Spirit and the preaching of the word, this does not mean, in any way, that they are somehow saved or spiritual; they are still dead in their sins and under the power of darkness. Fourth, let people know that mortification is indeed their duty, but in its proper place. They must be converted first, and then rely on the indwelling Spirit (through genuine faith) to carry out the process of mortification.
At this point, Owen brings his discussion to bear on preachers or those who seek this “employment.” He says that they must be careful, in their duty of pleading with men about their sins, to do so with the goal of helping them see their real condition overall. Otherwise, to rail against sin without bringing men to Christ, may certainly sober them up, but it may simply lead to a formal or external change, with no genuine internal change; they may remain unconverted. In this case, you have not brought them to Christ for cleansing, but have left them to their own hypocritical devices and strength in the matter of dealing with their sin:
To inveigh against particular sins of ignorant , unregenerate persons, such as the land is full of, is a good work; but yet, though it may be done with great efficacy, vigour, and success, if this be all the effect of it, that they are set upon the most sedulous endeavors of mortifying their sins preached down, all that is done is like the beating of an enemy in an open field, and driving him into an impregnable castle, not to be prevailed against. Get you at any time a sinner at the advantage, on the account of any one sin whatever? Have you anything to take hold of him by?—bring it to his state and condition, drive it up to his head, and there deal with him. To break men of particular sins and not to break their hearts, is to deprive ourselves of advantages of dealing with them.71
In summary, Owen has said that true mortification is only for those who are true believers in Christ. Such a believer possesses the Spirit and is regenerate; he has the life of God in him. He must then exercise genuine faith in the process of killing sin. Thus Owen’s first general rule for the mortification of sin is that the believer make sure he/she develops an interest in Christ, without which there will be no mortification of sin. [We may add here, and Owen will develop these ideas later, that such disciplines as Scripture reading and especially meditation, along with prayer and joyful fellowship with other saints, are key ways the Lord uses to kindle our understanding of him and our thirst to know and love him more. Of course, our response to trials is very important in our daily fellowship with the Lord as is the habit of gratefully doing good works and gently sharing the gospel with out friends.]
But the unregenerate person, no matter how serious or religious, cannot mortify sin and it is dangerous to teach them to do so for they will do it inevitably out of self love and not because they love God. Indeed, they are really not mortifying sin anyway and it is a delusion to make them think that they are. In the end their pride will be their downfall as they become entrenched in their own self-righteousness. This does not mean that the unbeliever is free before God to do whatever he pleases and sin to the extent of his lusts. God is pleased to use manifold ways in restraining such evil and the utter confusion that would result. Preachers nonetheless need to deal with men by bringing them to Christ in light of their sin, not to simply inveigh against sin in itself.
70 VI: 38.
71 VI: 39. Owen’s advice to preachers here is strong medicine. But explaining to people the nature of sin and speaking to their particular sins was certainly the job of the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles. And it is our job as well. But, we must carry out this ministry with deep humility as Isaiah himself came to understand (Isa 6:1-8). Above all, it must be done in love and respect for where others are at (Col 4:5-6). Do not transgress the fruit of the Spirit to share his message!!! Rather, let your light shine before men by doing good deeds, and out of this context speak the truth into their lives. You are not the be-all to end-all; you’re a sinner like they are—a thirsty sinner who by the grace of God knows where the water is!