15. The Actual Practice of Mortification
In the previous thirteen chapters Owen has shown us the nature of Biblical mortification. He has given us its foundation in Christ and the work of the Spirit, and outlined for us general as well as particular principles for its accomplishment. We have come to understand that while we are commanded to mortify the lusts of the flesh, the Spirit is the efficient cause of this transforming work. We also know now that the vigour and comfort of our spiritual lives depends on mortifying the flesh. Thus we must set ourselves as Spirit indwelt believers to fulfilling our calling.
All that Owen has said to this point, however, he regards as advice preparatory to the actual work of mortification. In chapter fourteen he will tell us how to actually effect the work of mortification. The foundation he has laid in the previous chapters is crucial, to say the least, but in this chapter he will get to the actual business of mortification. In general, “directions for this work are very few,” that is, in respect to actually doing it: we are to set faith at work on Christ, and rely on the Holy Spirit because we know that the Spirit performs the necessary work. Let’s look at this in more detail now.
A Detailed Discussion of the Argument of Chapter Fourteen
Set Faith on Christ for the Killing of Your Sin
What Does It Mean To Set Faith on Christ?
The first thing a person is to do in the actual process of mortifying sin is to fill their soul with all the provisions the Lord Jesus offers them in this work. Ponder the fact that in your weakness you are not able to secure mortification from any besetting sin, but that through Christ who strengthens you, you will certainly and ultimately put it to death (Phil 4:13). As Owen says,
In thy great distress and anguish, consider that fulness [sic] of grace, those riches, those treasures of strength, might, and help, that are laid up in Him for our support, John i.16, Col. i.19. Let them come into and abide in thy mind...To act faith upon the fulness that is in Christ for our supply is an eminent way of abiding in Christ….115
Paul describes sin as a task master and it is only those Christians who are unfamiliar with God’s blinding holiness who have never seen sin as such. But for those of us who have longed for deliverance from sin, and have thought we were delivered from certain ones only to fall back again, we realize the sheer power of indwelling lust and sin. But, there is hope in Christ. To those who have experienced the ravages of sin and suffered its inroads, Owen has a pastoral word. Pay careful attention to each word:
Let, then, thy soul by faith be exercised with such thoughts and apprehensions as these: I am a poor, weak creature; unstable as water, I cannot excel. This corruption is too hard for me and is at the very door of ruining my soul; and what to do I know not. My soul has become as parched ground, and an habitation of dragons…Behold, the Lord Christ, that hath all fulness of grace in his heart, all fulness of power in his hand, he is able to slay all these enemies. There is sufficient provision in him for my relief and assistance. He can take my drooping, dying soul and make me more than a conqueror (italics mine).116
For those of us who are wearied by our constant struggle against certain sins, Owen does well to remind us of the words of Isaiah:
Isaiah 40:27 Why do you say, Jacob, Why do you say, Israel, “The Lord is not aware of what is happening to me, My God is not concerned with my vindication”? 40:28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is an eternal God, the creator of the whole earth. He does not get tired or weary; there is no limit to his wisdom. 40:29 He gives strength to those who are tired; to the ones who lack power, he gives renewed energy. 40:30 Even youths get tired and weary; even strong young men clumsily stumble. 40:31 But those who wait for the Lord’s help find renewed strength; they rise up as if they had eagles’ wings, they run without getting weary, they walk without getting tired.
So we must remember that his grace is sufficient for us. It may not take away the temptations, but it is strength enough that we not fall into sin and misery. His grace is strength enough to keep us from turning to other things to try and satisfy our roaming hearts.
What Are My Expectations and What Ground Is There for Them?
We should raise our hearts up to an expectation of deliverance from the perplexity, discomfort, and problems of our sins. It may tarry for a while, yet we should wait for it and expect Christ to give it at his appointed time. As Owen says,
“If thine eyes are towards him, ‘as the eyes of a servant to the hand of his master,’ when he expects to receive something from him,—thy soul shall be satisfied, he will assuredly deliver thee; he will slay the lust, and thy latter end shall be peace.” 117
The ground of our expectation of Christ’s relief is fairly simple and straightforward. In the nature of the case, he must do it. We are unable on our own to accomplish the work of mortification, yet we are commanded to do it. Therefore, He must be the One who does it in us as we trust him for it. All the good works we do to mortify sin are important, but in and of themselves “they can do nothing” (John 15:5). It is only by the indwelling Spirit that we can mortify sin. If He does not do it, we shall never have relief. Indeed, all the things we are commanded to do in order to mortify sin, if they are not animated by this expectation, are simply works done in the flesh. It is Christ who “dwells in our hearts by faith” that does his work of mortification (cf. Eph 3:16-17).
The warrant for this ground is also straightforward and simple, though it is profound. We ought to expect Christ to deliver us when, through the eye of faith, we comprehend his mercy and faithfulness. In order to establish the mercy of God, Owen cites several texts which we would do well to read and meditate upon. They include:
Isaiah 66:13 As a mother consoles a child, so I will console you, and you will be consoled over Jerusalem.”
Hebrews 2:17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. 2:18 For since he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
Owen says that we ought to consider the High Priesthood of Christ as One; he is sympathetic, tender, and kind to us. In his sufferings nothing was added to his power and ability, but what is made clear to us is that because he suffered he is able to help those who are tempted. Owen says,
Did the sufferings and temptations of Christ add to his ability and power? Not, doubtless, considered absolutely and in itself. But the ability mentioned here is such as hath readiness, proneness, willingness to put itself forth, accompanying of it; it is an ability of will against all dissuasions. He is able, having suffered and been tempted, to break through all dissuasions to the contrary, to relieve poor tempted souls.118
Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. 4:16 Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.
Owen translates the expression “whenever we need help” (charin eis eukairon boetheian) in Hebrews 4:16 as “grace for seasonal help.” By “seasonal help” Owen says the writer means “help when I desperately need it.” When I am overcome by sin, as if to the point of death and being lost forever, grace will come in and we must receive it.
Yea, let me add, that never any soul did or shall perish by the power of any lust, sin, or corruption, who could raise his soul by faith to an expectation of relief from Jesus Christ.119
Not only are we to consider his mercy to us, which is abundant, but we are to remember and rely on his faithfulness. In so doing your soul will rise to expect deliverance from Him. Just as God has promised the rain for parched land, so he will bring relief to your soul in his time. And we need to count on this for he who has promised is faithful. We must wait for him as David says,
Psalm 130:6 I yearn for the sovereign Master, more than watchmen do for the morning, yes, more than watchmen do for the morning. 130:7 O Israel, hope in the Lord, for the Lord exhibits loyal love, and is more than willing to deliver.
So we see that the reason we can humbly expect deliverance from the hand of Jesus is because, as a merciful High Priest, he understands our situation and has all power to deliver us. Also, let us remember that he is faithful to his promises and he has covenanted with us to release us from the guilt, power, and reign of sin.
What Are the Advantages of Expecting Christ’s Help?
Nothing moves the heart and hands of God more than his children relying wholeheartedly on him for deliverance, mercy, and help. Just a one man is moved to help another who depends on him thoroughly, so God is infinitely more “countenanced” to move toward us in our suffering in order to rescue us and set our feet on solid ground. After all, it was he who raises our hearts through his inner promptings and the promises of his word to ask, seek, knock. Surely this “must needs be a great engagement upon him to assist us accordingly.”120
There is yet another great advantage to the saint who depends wholeheartedly on the Master for deliverance:
It engages the heart to attend diligently to all the ways and means whereby Christ is wont to communicate himself to the soul; and so takes in the real assistance of all graces and ordinances whatever. He that expects anything from a man, applies himself to the ways and means whereby it may be obtained…It is the expectation of faith that sets the heart on work.121
Some Final Thoughts: “Setting Faith on Christ”
Owen tells us that when we set faith on Christ for deliverance, we are to focus primarily on the death of Christ, his blood and cross. We are to think long and hard about Christ crucified and slain. The reason for this is because mortification proceeds from the death of Christ. Christ died to destroy the works of the Devil, free us from the penalty, power, and someday presence of sin. He died to redeem us from all iniquity—to purify a people for himself, zealous for good works. Our washing, cleansing, and purging from sin is everywhere ascribed to the blood of Christ (see 1 John 1:7; Heb 1:3; 9:14; Rev 1:5). According to Hebrews 9:14 we aim at a conscience purged from dead works, purged of them entirely so that they have absolutely no place in us anymore. This comes through the blood of Christ.
Owen goes on to teach that all supplies of the Spirit, all communications of grace and power flow from the death of Christ as their ground and assurance. Romans 6:2 makes this clear:
Romans 6:2 Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
We have been buried with Christ through baptism into his death so that we might be dead to sin. We were then raised to life with Christ so that we might walk in newness of life. Our old man was crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be destroyed. Owen explains further:
We are crucified with him meritoriously, in that he procured the Spirit for us to mortify sin; efficiently, in that from his death virtue comes forth for our crucifying; in the way of representation and exemplar we shall assuredly be crucified unto sin, as he was for our sin. This is that the apostle intends: Christ by his death destroying the works of the devil, procuring the Spirit for us, hath so killed sin, as to its reign in believers, that it shall not obtain its end and dominion.122
Thus, when we set faith on Christ for the mortification of sin we are to do so with his death as the focus. We are to expect to receive spiritual power from this and our experience is to be increasingly conformed to that of Christ in his death. According to Owen, we are to bring, by faith, the crucified Messiah into our hearts on a daily basis.
Rely on the Spirit: He Performs the Necessary Work
Owen concludes his work on mortification with a reminder of the centrality of the Spirit in the process of putting sin to death. He lists six important truths regarding mortification and the work of the Spirit. They are: (1) the Spirit alone clearly and fully convinces the heart of the evil, corruption, lust, or sin to be mortified; (2) the Spirit alone reveals the fulness of Christ for our relief. This keeps us from turning to false ways and concoctions; (3) the Spirit alone establishes the heart in expectation of relief and deliverance; (4) the Spirit alone brings the cross of Christ into the heart with its sin killing power, for by the Spirit we are baptized into the death of Christ; (5) the Spirit is the author and finisher of our sanctification; gives new supplies and influences of grace for holiness and sanctification, when the contrary principle is weakened and abated, Eph 3:16-18; (6) In all the soul’s addresses to God, the Spirit supports them all. The power, life, and vigor of prayer comes from the Spirit as does the efficacy to prevail in prayer (Rom 8:26). Let thus, therefore, consciously rely on the Spirit.
A Summary of Chapter Fourteen
In this, his final chapter on mortification, John Owen focuses on the actual practice of mortification. What he has said in chapters 1-13 has been preparatory to this point. Now he seeks to give some counsel for the “down and dirty,” holy habit of putting sin to death. To get all the way through the first thirteen chapters and stop there would be a travesty. As Owen says, we must actually put sin to death if we are to enjoy the power, comfort, and vigor of the Christian life.
Now the advice Owen gives us is quite simple. We need to act faith on Christ and rely on His Spirit to carry on the work. We must constantly call to mind the resources Christ possesses to the effecting of mortification. He is able and has all power to deliver us from sin. Further, because he is merciful and faithful to his people (according to his promises), we can humbly expect him to deliver us. We do not demand it, but as people sinking in quicksand, we quickly look into his eyes and grasp his outstretched hand by faith. Now those who realize that Christ is more than willing to save and deliver, they take to themselves in humility, and with both eyes on Christ, all the means He has made available and through which he has chosen to work. This, of course, includes scripture meditation, prayer, the sacraments (e.g., the Lord’s Supper), and fellowship.
So when we turn to Christ, using by faith the means he has appointed for us, we are to bring Him into our hearts as the crucified one. We are to meditate on his death, cross, and atonement for sin. Through his death flows all the blessings we have ever had or ever will have, including deliverance from sin. We act faith on Christ by bringing Him crucified into our heart. This is central to the holy habit of mortifying sin.
We also bring to mind the Spirit who has been given to us for this end. We consciously rely on Him to convict of sin, exposes us to the riches of Christ, establish hope for deliverance in our hearts, bring the cross to bear on our sin, and to be the author, sustainer, and finisher of our sanctification. He supports us in all our strivings to know God and secure freedom from sin.