In chapter five Owen showed what mortification does not mean. It is not any of the following: (1) the utter eradication of sin; (2) ceasing the outward practice of some sin; (3) the improvement of an already quiet nature; (4) the diversion of one sin for another, or (5) the occasional conquest of some sin due to dangerous circumstances or for whatever reason. These things, says Owen, are not true mortification. He balanced this out in chapter six, however, with a clear description of what it does mean to mortify sin. It means to (1) constantly weaken the power of sin throughout life; (2) to constantly fight against sin, and (3) to have continual and habitual success against sin.
With both a negative and positive description of mortification Owen thus laid the groundwork for what is to follow in his discourse, namely, general and particular principles for the process of putting sin to death; now that we understand what mortification is, he proceeds to show us how to accomplish it. Thus he sets out in chapter seven and eight to give some general principles for mortification upon which he will build in chapters nine through fourteen with specifics. In chapter seven we saw that mortification is strictly for the Christian and that non Christians who assign the duty to themselves either wind up deluded as to their own righteousness or after much failure simply give up hope. They must first be converted to Christ and born again. Then they may begin the process of mortification through the Spirit who has come to take up residence within them. Therefore, Owen’s first general principle is: Be sure to get an interest in Christ; if you intend to mortify any sin without it, it will never be done. Here in chapter eight Owen will proceed to give his second and last general principle concerning mortification. It is this: Without sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained.
The argument of chapter eight involves three distinct yet related ideas: (1) there will be no mortification without a genuine desire for universal obedience, i.e., obedience in all areas of one’s life; (2) partial obedience will not lead to true mortification because it proceeds from self-centeredness and therefore rests on a corrupt foundation, and (3) God sometimes allows a lust to overtake us as chastisement for our lack of obedience in other areas of our lives. Let’s take a closer look at these three principles.
In the process of mortification it is not enough to simply try and put down a lust because it has caused you much grief and heartache, all the while leaving other known sins to flourish. There must be obedience in all areas, a universal obedience as Owen refers to it:
A man finds any lust to bring him into the condition formerly described; it is powerful, strong, tumultuating, leads captive, vexes, disquiets, takes away peace; he is not able to bear it; wherefore he sets himself against it, prays against it, groans under it, sighs to be delivered; but in the meantime, perhaps, in other duties,—in constant communion with God,—in reading, prayer, and meditation,—in other ways that are not of the same kind with the lust wherewith he is troubled,—he is loose and negligent. Let not that man think that ever he shall arrive to the mortification of the lust he is perplexed withal.72
Owen says that this principle can be seen in the life of Israel and also stands to reason. First, with Israel, Isaiah excoriates the nation for her duplicity with regard to universal obedience to God. He says (esp. vv. 5-7):
58:1 “Shout loudly! Don’t be quiet! Yell as loud as a trumpet! Confront my people with their rebellious deeds; confront Jacob’s family with their sin! 58:2 They seek me day after day;
they want to know my requirements, like a nation that does what is right and does not reject the law of their God.
They ask me for just decrees; they want to be near God.
58:3 They lament, ‘Why don’t you notice when we fast?
Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?’
Look, at the same time you fast, you satisfy your selfish desires, you oppress your workers. 58:4 Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls, and fist fights.
Do not fast as you do today, trying to make your voice heard in heaven. 58:5 Is this really the kind of fasting I want?
Do I want a day when people just humble themselves, bowing their heads like a reed and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes? Is this really what you call a fast, a day that is pleasing to the LORD? 58:6 No, this is the kind of fast I want. I want you to remove the sinful chains, to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke, to set free the oppressed, and to break every burdensome yoke. 58:7 I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood! 58:8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise; your restoration will quickly arrive; your godly behavior will go before you, and the LORD’s splendor will be your rear guard. 58:9 Then you will call out, and the LORD will respond; you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’ You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully. (NET Bible)
Isaiah says that it is hypocritical to fast and seek God on the one hand, and oppress people on the other. As the apostle John put it: “anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). Obedience must be universal if we are to have victory over any sin through mortification. But, second, this principle also stands to reason. If someone has some bodily ailment brought on by a misuse of the body through negligence or poor diet, or what have you, it is vain to attempt to treat the malady without curbing one’s lifestyle, at least in regards to the activities that brought the sickness on.
To undertake the process of mortifying any one sin without due regard for one’s obligation to universal obedience is to place the success of mortification on less than solid footing. Indeed, one’s whole perspective is corrupt and needs to be changed. Both a hatred for sin as sin and the love of Christ stand at the heart of all true mortification. The desire to throw off some sin simply because it is disquieting and troubling does not give rise to a proper, biblical attitude toward mortification. To want to put sin down, simply because it has taken away your peace, is a sure recipe for failure. What about the other sins in your life—the ones you know about that have not taken away your peace? Indeed, you may be comfortable to have them. But, it will not do to pass over them lightly simply because they don’t seem to bother you as much or plague you as often as this one troubling sin. They are no less sins in God’s eyes and must also be dealt with through mortification. All sins grieve the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us. As Owen says, “Dost thou think he [the Spirit of God] will ease thee of that which perplexeth thee, that thou mayest be at liberty to [do] that which no less grieves him?”73
Paul made it clear in 2 Corinthians 7:1 that the Christian is to set himself against everything (i.e., every sin) that is sinful in his life, not just certain sins that at the moment seem to be particularly troublesome.
Therefore since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness out of reverence for God.
How does a person know, asks Owen, if God has not permitted and tolerated a certain lust within them to grow and become strong as a chastisement for unconfessed sin in other areas, including the sin of lukewarmness? “The rage and predominancy of a particular lust is commonly the fruit and issue of a careless, negligent course in general, and that upon a double account”74:
First, there is a natural effect of unmortified sin. When we guard our hearts and watch them closely we are able, if we’re willing, to put sin down at its first signs. But if we should leave our post, and our heart become unguarded, sin through the affections will make its way into our thoughts and become lodged there. We may even give occasion for that sin in our behavior, giving yet a firmer foothold to it. Thus, through failure to guard our heart—and we should guard it for from it flows the wellspring of life—we are overtaken in sin. Some men spend the rest of their days in sorrow dealing with such sin—sin that could have been prevented through watchfulness (Prov 4:23).
Second, as Owen has already pointed out, God may permit sin to overtake us in order to chasten us, that is, to prevent or cure some other evil in us. This was Paul’s experience in 2 Corinthians 12:7:
Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me, so that I would not become arrogant.75
Owen suggests that this might have been the case with the apostle Peter also. Perhaps God permitted him to deny his Master three times so as to cure him of his vain confidence.
The end result is that without the desire for universal obedience no attempt at mortification will work because such desire is almost certainly proceeding from a corrupt, self centered heart. Owen concludes:
Whilst there abides a treachery in the heart to indulge to any negligence in not pressing universally to all perfection in obedience, the soul is weak, as not giving faith its whole work; and selfish, as considering more the trouble of sin than the filth and guilt of it; and lives under a constant provocation of God: so that it may not expect any comfortable issue in any spiritual duty that it doth undertake, much less in this under consideration, which requires another principle and frame of spirit for its accomplishment.76
Owen has suggested two general principles for our consideration. The first one was to get an interest in Christ. This may seem obvious, but many people think of mortification in a stoic sort of way. To foster a personal interest in Christ, however, helps us understand that it is in the context of a relationship with Christ that mortification grows. The second principle is that true mortification is impossible for the person who does not develop a sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience. First, the foundation of mortification is a hatred for sin as sin and a love for Christ. Therefore, to want freedom from sin simply because it hinders us or robs us of our peace is a corrupt foundation. Such a person inevitably treats lightly those sins which do not give him grief or unsettle him in some way. Second, and in contrast, the kind of mortification which is sponsored by the Spirit, is the kind that has at its very foundation a hatred for all sin in one’s life and a corresponding determination to set oneself against everything that contaminates us and ruins our complete or universal obedience to God. This, and this alone, is in keeping with the death of Christ, i.e., the gospel of God’s grace. As you examine your life and bring it to the Lord, ask yourself whether there are certain besetting sins in your life as a result of his chastening. Has God allowed certain sins to overtake you because you have not given yourself to wholehearted obedience? Let us search our lives under his watchful eye and Scripture in order to see if there be some wicked way within us which we have failed to confess and mortify.
75 The precise identification of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is difficult to say with certainty, since he does not tell us. Accordingly, there have been numerous guesses, from poor eye-sight, to poor speaking skills and a host of others. Owen seems to imply that it may have been a constant temptation to a certain sin (e.g., spiritual pride)—a temptation brought on by a demon that God sent for this particular purpose.