7. To Mortify Sin—Positively Considered
In the previous chapter (5) we learned what mortification is not. Mortification is not the killing or eradication of any sin. Sin will be with us for as long as we are in these bodies. Mortification is not the dissolution of a sin either, that is, a quitting or forsaking of sin in terms of its outward actions. We must remember that God looks on the heart and it too must be cleansed of sin. Indeed, Jesus put the primary, though not exclusive, focus on the heart. Also, mortification is not acquiring a sedate or quiet nature. Some men are more naturally given to this particular demeanor than others, but this does not indicate that they have mortified even one sin. Neither is mortification the diversion of some sin. Old men don’t often pursue the lusts they had when they were young, but their hearts are no less full of lust, now diverted toward other things. Owen argued that this was true because they never really mortified any sin, they simply changed the objects of their sinful affections. They diverted their sinful lusts; they didn’t mortify them. Finally, mortification of sin is not the same thing as reacting earnestly to sin when it has erupted unexpectedly or when we are in some grave situation and need God’s help. Thus mortification is not the same thing as having occasional victory over sin.
We turn now to our review of chapter 6 and Owen’s positive comments on the meaning of mortification. There are three main points he wishes to make. He argues that mortification involves: (1) the habitual weakening of sin; (2) constant fighting against sin, and (3) having victory and success over sin.
A Detailed Discussion of the Argument of Chapter Six: To Mortify Sin Consists in Three Things
A Habitual Weakening of It
Owen begins this section by emphasizing the fact that “every lust is a depraved habit or disposition, continually inclining the heart to evil.”64 Truly every man’s condition is accurately captured in Genesis 6:5: “every inclination of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil all the time.” Such is our desperate and pitiful condition. Therefore, it is important to realize at the outset that sin will set itself against your soul with violence and impetuousness. It will strive to “darken the mind, extinguish convictions, dethrone reason, interrupt the power and influence of any considerations brought to hamper it, break through all into a flame,” …remain alive and vigorous, “to rise up, conceive, tumultuate, provoke, entice, [and] disquiet.”65 As the apostles Peter and James noted:
1 Peter 2:11 Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles to keep away from fleshly desires that do battle against the soul.
James 1:14-15 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown it brings forth death.
There are, however, two limitations to the idea that every lust equally impels one to commit sins. First, some lusts, through one’s natural temperament, or through certain occasions and opportunities, (i.e., temptations) may be greatly strengthened above other lusts in that man or similar lusts in another man. Perhaps Satan has got the man into a particular habit and way of thinking so that now certain sins manifest themselves much more often and with greater power. In any case, all it takes is one lust, deeply rooted in our behavior, to bring about darkness of the soul. We may still recognize in our minds what is right, but our emotions and affections, being so captivated, are unable to respond.
Second, not all sins impel equally, that is, in terms of our inward awareness of them and their outward manifestation. Paul makes a distinction between uncleanness and all other sins:
1 Corinthians 6:18 Flee sexual immorality! Every sin a person commits is outside of the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body.
Therefore, says Owen, “the motions of that sin are…more discernible” than others, like the love of the world, for example. The “love of the world,” as John says (1 John 2:15-16), may have captivated the soul of a man more than immorality, but it is harder in some ways for both him and others to detect it. Thus, it follows that the world often times sees the man who struggles against immorality as less mortified than the man who is worldly. This, of course, is not necessarily the case at all; it’s just that the “motions” of immorality are more apparent to us than worldliness—especially when large numbers of people do not even understand what worldliness is!
So in this section Owen has shown us both the captivating power of sin as well as two ways in which it appears that every lust does not always act with the same intensity to bring about sin. Now that we understand these things, Owen brings us to his first main point:
I say, then, that the first thing in mortification is the weakening of this habit [of sin], that it shall not impel and tumultuate as formerly; that it shall not entice and draw aside; that it shall not disquiet and perplex the killing of its life, vigour, promptness, and readiness to be stirring. This is called “crucifying the flesh with the lusts thereof,” Gal 5:24; that is, taking away its blood and spirits that give it strength and power,—the wasting of the body of death “day by day,” 2 Cor 4:16.66
The two passages Owen cites are worth reading in this connection:
Galatians 5:24 Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
2 Corinthians 4:16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day.
Owen compares the mortification of sin to a man nailed to a cross. Just as such a man may initially struggle and cry out, demanding to be let down, so sin also struggles with great violence until eventually its lifeblood is taken from it and its strength dissipated though mortification. It may let out a violent cry near the end of its life, but it will die. This, Owen says, is described in Romans 6:6:
Romans 6:6 We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.
Again, Owen makes several observations from this verse. What is the end or goal of the crucifixion of the sinful nature? It is so that we might no longer be slaves to sin, that we might not be compelled to obey its every little wish. And this deliverance from sin applies not only to carnal and sensual sins, such as the lust of the flesh and eyes, and the pride of life, but also deliverance from the opposition that exists between us and God by virtue of our depraved nature, that is, in our minds and wills. Sin, whether it be impelling us to do acts of evil or hindering us from doing what is good, is weakened by crucifying the very body from which it springs. Anything less is simply shooting at the fruit and missing the root.
Therefore, the mortification of sin first involves the weakening of sin by crucifying its lusts, striking at the very root of its origin. Mortification also involves constant fighting and contending against sin.
In Constant Fighting and Contending against Sin
There are at least three aspects to fighting and contending against sin which every person must realize, if they are to defeat sin. First, they must realize that they have an enemy. Second, they must seek to understand the ways, wiles, and devices of their enemy. Third, the height of the contest is to load the enemy down with all sorts of things destructive to his plans.
To Know You Have an Enemy
Some Christians, being unacquainted with the holiness of God, are thoroughly unacquainted with their own sinfulness and the enemy within. The first step to mortification of sin is to clearly recognize and admit that we have a ruthless enemy and that we are to treat sin as such. Sin is a deadly foe who takes no prisoners. All who sin, die. Sin is to be destroyed by all possible means—all the means ordained by God.
To Seek To Understand Your Enemy
As in any battle, the general in charge would do well to know his opponent. He would do well to know his strategies, methods, advances, tactics, as well as the occasions of his success. In this way, he can anticipate and overcome the enemy, knowing beforehand his every move. Owen describes practical spirituality in these terms:
And, indeed, one of the choicest and most imminent parts of practically spiritual wisdom consists in finding out the subtleties, policies, and depths of any indwelling sin; to consider and know wherein its greatest strength lies,—what advantages it uses to make of occasions, opportunities, temptations,—what are its pleas, pretences, reasonings,”—what its stratagems, colours, excuses; to set the wisdom of the Spirit against the craft of the old man; to trace this serpent in all its turnings and windings; to be able to say, at its most secret and (to a common frame of heart) imperceptible actings, “This is your old way and course; I know what you aim at;”—and so to be always in readiness is a good part of our warfare.67
To Load the Enemy Down
Owen says that we ought to daily load sin down with all things which are grievous, killing, and destructive to it. We should labor to give sin new wounds each and every day and that this is the height of contending against sin and mortifying it. He will take up this principle in much more detail in chapters nine through fourteen.
In Success against Sin
Owen argues that another evidence of true mortification is frequent success against sin and its motions. This is not simply momentary victory over sin, but rather the bringing of any sinful impulse to the Law of God (to see it for what it really is; heinous) and the love of Christ (to escape condemnation), condemning it thoroughly, and bringing destruction on the very root of the lust or desire. Owen says that when a man has brought sin to such a place of death, in both the root and the fruit, and he can with a calm attitude seek out sin and defeat it, he will experience peace all the days of his life and in him is sin truly mortified. Thus genuine success over sin is a true sign of biblical mortification.
A Summary of Chapter Six
In chapter five Owen mentioned several points in order to clarify what mortification is not. Here in chapter six, he has explained what true mortification is and what it involves. First, it involves a habitual weakening of sin at its very root. This is done by crucifying sin and its lusts. Second, true mortification consists in constantly fighting and contending against sin. In this battle we must realize that we do indeed have a deadly enemy—the stratagems of whom we must take pains to learn and be able to identify—and that we must bring all our resources to bear on him. Third, true mortification, based as it is upon the prior work of God in giving us his Spirit and a new nature, involves enduring success over sin.
In chapters seven and eight Owen will lay down two general rules for the duty of mortification. These refer to points he’s already made about the necessity of being a believer (7) and the necessity of sincere and complete obedience (8). Without these no man will ever mortify a single sin. In chapters nine through fourteen he will outline specific principles for the mortification of sin.