Mortification is only for believers and is ultimately caused by the Spirit who indwells us. In light of this truth, and the fact that believers are commanded to this divine duty, Owen begins in chapter six to clearly define what mortification is and what it is not. In chapters seven and eight he lays out two general principles without which no mortification will be ever be achieved. First, unless a person be a believer there will be no mortification (chapter seven) and second, without sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience, there will be no mortification (chapter eight). Thus, having laid the groundwork with these two general principles, Owen outlines nine particular principles for the mortification of sin. These are spelled out in chapters nine through thirteen. 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). There are two more particular principles, numbers eight and nine. Principle eight will be outlined in this chapter and nine in the following.
The particular principle Owen wishes to argue in this chapter is this: Use and exercise thyself to such meditations as may serve to fill thee at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of thine own vileness. First, Owen will give two practical principles to accomplish this task and then he will defend the idea against potential detractors.
How is it that a man can come to a personal realization of his own vileness before God and be humbled? The scripture affirms that true humility is a result of knowing God and meditating on his awesome greatness. This is the first practical principle. As Owen says,
Be much in thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God and thine infinite, inconceivable distance from him. Many thoughts of it cannot but fill thee with a sense of thine own vileness which strikes deep at the root of any indwelling sin…Be much in thoughts of this nature, to abase the pride of thy heart, and to keep thy soul humble within thee. There is nothing will render thee a greater indisposition to be imposed on by the deceits of sin than such a frame of heart. Think greatly of the greatness of God.102
The following texts from Job and Habakkuk urge this attitude upon the saints:
Job 42:5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye has seen you. 42:6 Therefore I despise myself, and I repent in dust and ashes!
Habakkuk 3:16 I listened and my stomach churned; the sound made my lips quiver. My frame went limp, as if my bones were decaying, and I shook as I tried to walk. I long for the day of distress to come upon the people who attack us.
The second practical principle is that we think much about our own “unacquaintedness” with him. It is true that we do know God through Christ, but consider how little ground we have really “taken” in our relationship with him. “We know…but we do not know as we ought!” Think about the testimony of that wise man, Agur, in Proverbs 30:2-4:
Proverbs 30:2 Surely I am more brutish than any other man, and I do not have human understanding; 30:3 I have not learned wisdom, nor do I have knowledge of the Holy One. 30:4 Who has ascended into heaven, and then descended? Who has gathered up the winds in his fists? Who has bound up the waters in his cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is the name of his son? —if you know!
The psalmist said the heavens cannot contain Him!! How infinite! How immense! How little we know him! As Owen says, “Canst thou look without terror into the abyss of eternity? Thou canst not bear the rays of his glorious being.”103
Owen rightly points out that the practice of this second principle be in keeping with the filial boldness with which we, through Christ, draw nigh unto the heavenly throne (cf. Heb 4:15-16). The two truths must be kept together in our experience. Thus, we are not to conclude from our scant knowledge of God that we are somehow not his sons or daughters. On the contrary, we are to joyfully experience our sonship by striving to know him deeply and by continuing to recognize our bankruptcy in this relationship—a relationship planted, watered, and nourished by the grace of God (cf. John 15:6).
Consider, then, I say, to keep thy heart in continual awe of the majesty of God, that persons of the most high and eminent attainment, of the nearest and most familiar communion with God, do yet in this life know but a very little of him and his glory. God reveals his name to Moses, [for example]—the most glorious attributes he has manifested in the covenant of grace, Exod xxxiv. 5, 6; yet all are but the “back parts” of God. All that he knows by it is but little, low, compared to the perfections of his glory.104
But someone may reply that Moses (Owen’s example above) was under the shadow of the Law, yet now we have the full light of the gospel; we have God “revealed,” as it were. We are no longer left with just his “back parts,” but we now see his “face.” Therefore, there are those who disagree with Owen. They claim that we should not attempt to abase our pride with ideas of how little we really know of God. They maintain that we do know him well through the gospel and that to deny this is injurious to one’s faith. To this Owen raises several considerations.
First, he agrees with them that the gospel is a far greater revelation of God than the law: “Our day is more clear than theirs was, the clouds are blown away and scattered, the shadows of the night are gone and fled away, the sun is risen.”105 Thus Owen is not arguing that Christians do not know God and enjoy this knowledge. He is simply saying that this story has two sides. Second, Moses’ “sight” of God was indeed a gospel sight, but it was low and mean in comparison, not with today, but with the perfections of God himself. Third, even Paul when considering the enormous spiritual blessings afforded under the new covenant, says we still look in a glass “darkly,” as it were (1 Cor 13:12). Our vision is still seriously impaired; we see “in part” in comparison with how we shall see when “the perfect” comes. Even the Queen of Sheba, when she saw Solomon face to face, had to confess that all the stories she had heard faded in comparison. So it is with our present knowledge and experience of God; it pales in comparison to what we will “see” in the future. We know as children: in weakness, frailty, and incompleteness. This should humble us, for right now we do not “see him,” John says (1 John 3:2), but someday we will. Our arrogant souls would do well to fixate on this truth.
But why is it that we, who have received the gospel and know Christ, really possess so little knowledge of God? The reason is simple: God is incomprehensible. That is, we gain our knowledge of his essential being by negating that which he is not. We say that he is infinite and immortal, that is, that he is not finite and not mortal like us. Thus he is totally other and “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen nor can see” (1 Tim 4:16). The result is that we do not know by experience anything of his essential nature. Owen clearly points out that in his essence no man has ever seen or will ever see God, and to make from our senses some sort of conception of his being would be to instantly fall prey to idolatry. We simply cannot know the essence of the divine being. We know God by what he does, not by what he is.
Another reason we know so little of God is because of the means by which he has ordained that we know him, i.e., by faith. Faith is an “assent upon testimony and not an evidence upon demonstration.” Thus it always has room to grow; “we see in a glass darkly.” We can always trust more completely, give ourselves more fully, submit more dutifully; thus our knowledge of God is always deepening, expanding, reaching out, and maturing. But even when we have made strides in our faith, it is only the “back parts” of his perfections that we really see. Let our souls remember this when they lift themselves up with pride.
There are some who might further object that what Owen describes here is true, but only of those who do not know God through Christ or those who are so weak in their faith that such is their present lot. Therefore, the rest of us need not meditate on such things in order to humble our souls. The bottom line is—these objectors would point out—mature Christians certainly know God better than Owen so disparagingly thinks. Certainly we as Christians are now “light in the Lord” and not in the darkness as Owen seems to be arguing. Owen summarizes their complaint:
The light of the gospel whereby now God is revealed is glorious; not a star, but the sun in its beauty is risen upon us, and the veil is taken away from our faces. So that though unbelievers, yea, and perhaps some weak believers, may be in some darkness, yet those of any growth or considerable attainments have a clear sight and view of the face of God in Jesus Christ.106
To this objection Owen gives four basic responses. First, all Christians know enough to obey, love, serve, and delight in Him further than what we have currently attained. Our darkness and ignorance is no plea for disobedience and negligence. In fact, none of us can say that we have been thoroughly transformed into the knowledge which we have so graciously received. Further, we must remember that if we had used our talents just a bit more faithfully we might have been entrusted with even more.
Second, the argument that says we have a greater revelation in Christ than was available in the OT is true, but it cuts both ways. Not only does it teach us that through Christ we can know God more fully than those in the OT dispensation, but it also quells any human pretension to fully understanding God. The incarnation was as much a veiling of God as it was an unveiling. Like a vast uncharted ocean; there are always new places to go, frontiers to be explored and smells to breathe in. Every revelation leads to questions, perplexities, resolutions, and discomforts.
Third, in response to the idea that Owen refers to unbelievers, it must be said that the difference between unbelievers and believers is not in what they know, per se, but in the manner in which they know it. Unbelievers do not know savingly, by genuine faith and heavenly light, but merely by a disinterested knowledge that stops well short of trust; they are unacquainted with the Referent for the language, though they may know it, i.e., the language, better than the believer. Thus Owen is not referring to unbelievers as his detractors might suppose.
Fourth, the gospel was not intended to unveil God’s essential glory, but only to make known to his creatures what was of first importance for encouraging us to trust Him, to delight in Him through enjoyment and obedience. As Owen says,
The intendment of all gospel revelation is, not to unvail [sic] God’s essential glory, that we should see him as he is, but merely to declare so much of him as he knows sufficient to be a bottom of our faith, love, obedience, and coming to him,—that is, of the faith which here he expects from us; such services as beseem poor creatures in the midst of temptations.107
In short, the revelation of God is directed not toward comprehensive knowledge, as if that were either desirable or possible for creatures, but toward love and trust. But herein we encounter yet another limiting factor. This time, however, it relates not to Scriptural revelation, but to the recipients of that revelation meaning the church, i.e., people as fallen human beings. We ought to be humbled by the fact that we are weak, stubborn, and dull at times, despite God’s continual work of grace in our hearts. The pangs of spiritual poverty ought to gnaw at our pride, whittling it away.
Owen’s point in this chapter is simple. As a Christian, you are to use and exercise thyself to such meditations as may serve to fill thee at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of thine own vileness. There are two practical principles Owen gives to help us in this. First, we should constantly be meditating on the excellency of God and, in this light, our own vileness. Second, we must be constantly reminded of how little we know our Father and how much more of the promised land is being offered to us. All Christians need to know God better and this must be our constant longing, hope, and passion. Do not let other Christians use the stunning revelation of the gospel or their own salvation experience to keep you from the gnawing hunger to know God better. Do not let what you know get in the way of what you have to learn. If you know Christ, you have set sail through a vast uncharted ocean. Much awaits you.
In the thirteenth chapter Owen will give his last particular principle regarding mortification. It is central to the Christian life for it deals with the issue of inner spiritual peace. Most Christians would die for two things: more power to fulfill God’s will and more peace in the process. Read on in chapter thirteen.
102 VI: 63.