6. To Mortify Sin—Negatively Considered
In chapter one Owen laid the foundation for his whole discourse concerning the mortification of sin in believers. Drawing on Romans 8:13 he noted five related things: (1) mortification is a duty; (2) it is for believers only; (3) there is a promise attached to this duty—a promise of life; (4) the Spirit is the efficient cause of mortification; (5) there is a conditionality to the process.
In chapter two he explained why it is necessary even for the most mature believers to make it their business all their days to mortify sin. In chapter three he delved further into the role of the Spirit as the efficient means of the process of mortification and in chapter four he discussed the promise of life associated with the duty of mortification. This is, in short version anyway, the substance of what he wants to say. Where, then, do chapters five through fourteen fit in? Owen begins chapter five with the following words:
Suppose a man to be a true believer, and yet finds in himself a powerful indwelling sin, leading him captive to the law of it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing his thoughts, weakening his soul as to duties of communion with God, disquieting him as to peace and perhaps defiling his conscience, and exposing him to hardening through the deceitfulness of sin, —what shall he do? what course shall he take and insist on for the mortification of this sin, lust, distemper, or corruption, to such a degree as that, though it be not utterly destroyed, yet in his contest with it, he may be enabled to keep up power, strength, and peace in communion with God?58
Back to our question. How do chapters five through fourteen fit in with his discourse? Answer: They constitute, in light of what Owen has already said in chapters one through four, a detailed answer to the question he poses here. Every genuine believer longs for the presence of God, to know him intimately, and to be free from the shackles of sin. Many of us, dare I say all of us who are mature, live “smack-dab” in the middle of Owen’s question. We all want “victory” over sin, the world, and the devil, to use modern jargon (and biblical too; 1 John 2:13-14), but we’re not sure on exactly what “course” to take to get there. Owen has told us that the path to holiness is through mortification. Chapters five through fourteen are intended to “show us the course,” practically speaking, in this matter of overcoming sin. They are intended to show us how to apply his teaching up to this point, i.e., his teaching in chapters one through four.
Owen’s desire in chapters five through fourteen is to teach us how the truth of Romans 8:13 applies to our daily experience, how we can “keep up power, strength, and peace in communion with God.” In chapters five and six Owen talks about what it means to mortify any sin, both the positive and negative aspects. In chapters seven and eight he gives some general principles for the mortification of sin, and in chapters nine through thirteen he gets really specific in dealing with sin, enumerating nine practical principles (stated and explained), building on the general principles he has already explained. The final chapter, fourteen, deals at greater length with faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit in this business of mortification. So now you know where we’re going, let’s turn to the relationship of chapters five and six to each other.
Chapter five concerns itself with what it means to mortify any one sin, that is, negatively speaking. In chapter six Owen will deal with what it means to mortify sin, positively speaking. These are two very important chapters. They build on previous discussions and have the power to set believers free from wrong assumptions about this process—assumptions which can prove very disheartening and disastrous, if adhered to. Let us turn now to a summary of chapter five and Owen’s argument regarding what it means to put sin to death, viewed from a negative perspective.
A Detailed Discussion of the Argument of Chapter Five
The point of this chapter is to discuss the mortification of sin viewed from a negative angle, that is, what it is not.
To Mortify A Sin Is Not…
To Utterly Kill It
To mortify any sin is not utterly to kill it, root it out, or destroy it. It is true that this is what we aim at, but it is not accomplished in this life. Owen reminds his readers of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:12: “Not that I have already attained all this or have already been made perfect, but I press on….” Paul, as a choice saint, is an example to all of us regarding the theology we are to believe and the life we are to live. Thus there is no perfection—as Christ himself is perfect—in this life. There is no man who intends to put to death some sin, who does not intend to totally root out both the fruit and the root, but sinlessness is never achievable. But this does mean that such a man may have no success at all in his struggle against sin. Indeed, by the power of the Spirit and grace of Christ, he may have eminent success and walk in constant victory over it. In fact, a large part of the normal Christian life is to have constant victory over sin. But again, this is not the same thing as saying he has eradicated it or his sinful nature. It is Christ himself who will transform our sinful bodies (bodies of humiliation) into his glorious body at his return (Phil 3:21).
The Dissimulation of It
By dissimulation Owen means the quitting or forsaking of a sin in respect to its outward aspects, even to the degree that men regard such a person as a “changed” man. The problem with simply changing the outside, is that the inside remains corrupt and God can “see” the inside:
God knows that to his former iniquity he hath added cursed hypocrisy, and is got in a safer path to hell than he was in before. He hath got another heart than he had, that is more cunning; not a new heart, that is more holy.59
Though Owen does not mention it, one can scarcely read these words of his without the teaching of Jesus coming to mind. To the Pharisees, who loved to put on shows to appear deeply religious and spiritual, Jesus saved his most bitter denouncements:
Matthew 23:25 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 23:26 “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup so that the outside may be clean too.
Therefore, the business of mortification does not just involve cleaning the outside of the cup, so to speak. It involves a work much deeper than that. It involves the whole person and nothing less than the whole person. There is no such thing in Jesus, Paul, or Owen, about cosmetic surgery only.
To Acquire a Sedate or Quiet Nature
The mortification of sin consists not in the improvement of a quiet, sedate nature. Owen says that just because a person has come by a quiet disposition naturally does not mean for one minute that they have mortified sin. There are men, he says, who struggle with sins such as anger, malice, etc. all the days of their lives who have done more to mortify the flesh than the quiet, sedate man:
Some men have an advantage by their natural constitution so far as that they are not exposed to such violence of unruly passions and tumultuous affections as many others are…Some man is never so much troubled all his life, perhaps, with anger and passion, nor doth trouble others, as another is almost everyday; and yet the latter has done more to mortification sin than the former.60
To Divert Sin
“A sin is not mortified when it is only diverted.” Owen says that a person might set himself against a sin with determination; he might take care that he makes no unnecessary provisions so that a it might spring to life, but in the end he merely exchanges one sin for another. This exchanging of one sin for another or the diversion of a sin can happen, Owen says, at any time, but is common when people change relationships, interests, and pursuits. Getting older also diverts 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. This is true because they never really mortified sin, they simply changed the objects of sinful affections. Or as Owen puts it:
Notwithstanding the profession thou hast made, notwithstanding thy relinquishment of thy sorceries, thy lust is as powerful as ever in thee; the same lust, only the streams of it are diverted…He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others, let him not think he has mortified the sin he seems to have left. He hath changed his master, but is a servant still (italics mine).61
To Occasionally Have Victory Over It
“Occasional conquests of sin do not amount to a mortifying of it.” There are two occasions when a man or woman may think they have mortified a sin and they may have indeed gained an upper hand, but this does not amount to mortification.
First, there are times in our lives when sin erupts and we think, say, or do something for which we really feel guilty, lose our peace, cause someone else great harm, and for which we expect God to severely chasten us. Indeed, we may abhor our sin, renounce it, and cry out to God for mercy and help. So sin shrinks for a moment, but only to seek another opportune time. Thus, while our repentance was sincere, we have not followed through on the process of mortifying the particular sin in question.
The whole man, spiritual and natural, being now awakened, sin shrinks in its head, appears not, but lies as dead before him: as when one hath drawn nigh to an army at night, and hath killed a principal person,—instantly the guards awake, men are roused up, and strict inquiry is made after the enemy, who, in the meantime, until the noise and tumult be over, hides himself, or lies like one that is dead, yet with firm resolution to do the like mischief again upon the like opportunity.62
There is a second situation in which sin has not been mortified—even when people think it has been. Whenever we find ourselves in a situation of intense suffering, or death appears imminent, we resolve to turn from sin and make peace with God. Many even say something like, “if you get me out of this one, God, I’ll serve you forever…no strings attached.” This problem is perfectly described in Psalm 78:32-37:
78:32 In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe. 78:33 So he ended their days in futility and their years in terror. 78:34 Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. 78:35 They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer. 78:36 But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues; 78:37 their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant.
Again as Owen points out, this sudden compulsion to turn from sin, does not constitute mortification, for when things have calmed down again, we have a convenient way of forgetting both our sin and the magnitude of God’s grace in the preservation of our lives. Some men claim that…
…sin shall never more have any place in them; they will never again give themselves up to the service of it. Accordingly, sin is quiet, stirs not, seems to be mortified; not, indeed, that it hath received any one wound, but merely because the soul has possessed its faculties, whereby it should exert itself, with thoughts inconsistent with the motion thereof [i.e., thoughts which oppose sin]; which, when they [i.e., thoughts against sin] are laid aside, sin returns again to its former life and vigor.63
To Mortify A Sin Is To…
The mortification of any sin does consist in the following three things, which we will only mention here and describe in detail in chapter six: (1) to weaken it; (2) to contend against it, and (3) to have success against it.
A Summary of Chapter Five
Let’s briefly summarize this important chapter. This chapter is indeed important for it tells us what mortification is not; thus there should be no confusion in our minds. Mortification is not equivalent to utterly killing sin once and for all. Sin persists in us until glorification. That point was firmly established in chapter two. Mortification is not simply a matter of outward change, where a person throws off some sinful habit or pattern. This person may appear changed, and indeed, in a certain sense they are, but this does not mean they’ve actually mortified that sin; it does not necessarily mean that they’ve actually put it to death, along with its lusts. Further, mortification is not the improvement of a quiet and sedate nature. There are people who struggle greatly with anger, let’s say, who have made far greater strides in the mortification of that sin than men who seem to have it all together in that (or any other) area. Neither is mortification the diversion or exchange of one sinful habit for another. In this case, the former lust was never mortified, the proof residing in the fact that such lust has now secured a new object. And finally, mortification is not the same thing as having occasional victory over sin. We may renounce a certain sin as a result of having been driven to despair because of its untimely outburst, but this is not mortification. Also, simply renouncing sin because we’re in some perilous situation requiring God’s immediate attention is not the same thing as mortifying sin. Mortification is much more than this. We proceed now to chapter six to find out more about mortification of sin, but now from a positive perspective.