10. Particular Direction #1: Consider Dangerous Symptoms Attending Sin
In chapter seven and eight Owen set forth two general rules for the proper understanding and practice of mortification. First, a person must develop a love for and interest in Christ. In saying this, Owen is trying to cut off those papists who reduce mortification to the practice of certain religious rites, etc., but who advance no real knowledge of or love for Christ. Thus they have religion, but no power and the whole system, Owen would say, is to no avail. They are working for grace and not from grace. But Owen has shown us through Romans 8:13 and many other texts that God has already accepted us by faith and given us his Spirit as the true efficient cause of mortification.
The second general principle that Owen outlined was in chapter eight and had to do with what he calls a universality of obedience. Actually, what he was saying is that true mortification springs from the proper foundation of a sincere and diligent frame of heart toward a universality of obedience to God. The person who simply tries to overcome a perplexing lust, as Owen refers to them, without desiring obedience in all areas of life, is building his house on quicksand and in the end will mortify no sin.
Having outlined these two general principles, Owen proceeds now in chapters nine through fourteen to give “particular directions” for the practice of mortification. These particular directions can be divided into two categories: (1) those which are preparatory to mortification, and (2) those which describe the actual work of mortification. The first particular direction is preparatory to the work of mortification and concerns dangerous symptoms attending any lust and the characteristics of these symptoms.
A Detailed Discussion of the Argument of Chapter Nine
Particular Principle #1: Consider What Dangerous Symptoms Attend Your Sin
The first particular principle Owen suggests is as follows:
Consider what dangerous symptoms thy lust hath attending or accompanying it,—whether it hath any deadly mark on it or no; if it hath, extraordinary remedies are to be used; an ordinary course of mortification will not do it.
You will say, “What are these dangerous marks and symptoms, the desperate attendencies of an indwelling lust, that you intend?”77
The rest of the chapter is taken up with demonstrating some of the “dangerous symptoms,” that is, “desperate attendencies” of indwelling lusts.
Owen argues that if we have allowed some sin to lay long in the heart, “to abide in power and prevalency,” and we have received many blows from it without attempting to kill it or nourish the wounds which it has inflicted, then that lust is dangerous:
Hast thou permitted worldliness, ambition, greediness of study, to eat up other duties, the duties wherein thou oughtest to hold constant communion with God, for some long season? Or uncleanness to defile thy heart with vain, and foolish, and wicked imaginations for many days? Thy lust has a dangerous symptom….When a lust hath lain long in the heart, corrupting, festering, cankering, it brings the soul to a woful [sic] condition. In such a case, an ordinary course of humiliation will not do the work.78
These are the kinds of lusts and sins, says Owen, that make their way into all the faculties of the soul, including the emotions where they often take up residence, as it were. As a result they become familiar to the mind and cause no great alarm when they appear; they can ply their trade without the slightest bit of resistance. Owen says they are dangerous for two reasons: (1) The person who lives in such a condition becomes increasingly unable to distinguish between the long abode of an unmortified sin and the dominion of sin, the latter of which can only properly be said of a non-Christian, and (2) the person who sees his lust so fixed in his soul lacks hope, struggling to believe that things will change and his peace restored? Comparing sin to an inmate Owen says:
Old neglected wounds are often mortal, always dangerous. Indwelling distempers grow rusty and stubborn by continuing ease and quiet. Lust is such an inmate as, if it can plead time and some prescription, will not easily be ejected. As it never dies of itself, so if it be not daily killed it will always gather strength.79
2. The Heart’s Countenancing of Itself
Our hearts have a tendency to speak peace to us, all the while knowing that we possess some lust which we are not even attempting to mortify. This is another “dangerous symptom of a deadly distemper in the heart.” Owen says we do this in several ways, two of which are as follows.
First, when we recognize some sin in our heart, and neglect to apply diligence in the mortification of it, but instead turn to look for the good in our heart so that it might go well with us—that our consciences might be assuaged—sin has taken a dangerous root. Now Owen is not saying that we should never think about our experiences of God and call them to mind frequently so that we might be comforted and encouraged, but when we do this in order to escape a guilty conscience, we are in a dangerous posture. Listen to Owen:
For a man to gather up his experiences of God, to call them to mind, to collect them, consider, try, and improve them, is an excellent thing,—a duty practiced by all the saints, commended in the Old Testament and the New….And as it is in itself excellent, so it hath beauty added to it by a proper season, a time of trial or temptation, or disquietness of the heart about sin….But now to do it for this end, [that is,] to satisfy conscience, which cries and calls for another purpose, is a desperate device of a heart in love with sin. When a man’s conscience shall deal with him, when God shall rebuke him for the sinful distemper of his heart, if he, instead of applying himself to get that sin pardoned in the blood of Christ and mortified by his Spirit, shall relieve himself by any such other evidences as he hath, or thinks himself to have, and so disentangle himself from under the yoke that God was putting on his neck, his condition is very dangerous, his wound hardly curable.80
A second way in which the heart of a man or woman countenances itself (i.e., speaks peace to itself) is by turning the grace of God into license. People who apply grace and mercy to unmortified sin, or sin not sincerely endeavored to be mortified, are deceitful and entangled in the love of sin. To indulge in sin because you know that God will forgive you is the height of hypocrisy and turns the grace of God into an occasion for license, the very thing Paul warned against in Romans 6:1-2:
6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase? 6:2 Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (NET Bible)
Thus both by the craft of Satan himself and our own remaining unbelief we twist that which is meant to set us free from sin and turn it into an opportunity for the flesh. Though Owen does not mention it here, we would do well to read Titus 2:10-11 to see what the true effect of grace is:
2:10 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. 2:11 It trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age (See also 1 Cor 15:10).
Such a person who has a secret liking for sin, but will not practice it at any given moment simply because people are present or some circumstance prevents them, and who relieves his conscience by ways other than mortification and the blood of Christ, that person is corrupt, and will, “without speedy deliverance, be at the door of death.”
3. The Frequency of Sin’s Success
Another dangerous symptom, according to Owen, is the frequency of sin’s success in obtaining the prevailing consent of the will toward that sin. What Owen means by this is that sin has success when it obtains the delight of the will, even if the act cannot be committed or sin cannot be “finished” (as James says) at that particular time. This too, is a bad state for a person to be in—“dangerous” in Owen’s words. And, according to Owen, it does not matter whether this state arises as a result of a choice of the will or inadvertently. He says,
When we are inadvertent and negligent, where we are bound to watchfulness and carefulness, that inadvertency doth not take off from the voluntariness of what we do thereupon; for although men do not choose and resolve to be negligent and inadvertent, yet if they choose the things that will make them so, they choose inadvertency itself as (i.e., since) a thing may be chosen in its cause.81
According to Owen, men should not think that the evil in their hearts is somehow overlooked just because their consent surprises even them. But why is it not overlooked? Because it is often times a state of affairs brought about by their own previous negligence.
4. When Judgment Only Motivation for Mortification
Some of us only talk about not sinning in the context of judgment for sin. “I better not do that because God will punish me for it.” While this statement is prima fascia true, such truth itself becomes corrupt in the hands of sinners. We are trying, in effect, to overcome sin by bringing in the law and its punishments; we have exchanged the gentle yoke of Christ, for the iron yoke of the law. Punishment for sin is not the primary or central reason for mortifying the deeds of the flesh. Such a perspective reveals, according to Owen, that sin has taken great possession of our will. Instead we ought to bring in “gospel weapons” to deal with sin—weapons such as (1) the death of Christ; (2) the love of God; (3) the detestable nature of sin; (4) the preciousness of communion with God, and (5) a deeply grounded abhorrency of sin as sin. Owen says this was the attitude of Joseph in the Old Testament (Gen 39:9) and Paul in the New Testament. Read 2 Corinthians 7:1 for example and note the movement from the grace of God (through promises) to the command to grow in holiness:
7:1 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.
Summarizing, Owen says,
But now if a man be so under the power of his lust that he hath nothing but the power of law to oppose it withal, if he cannot fight against it with gospel weapons, but deals with it altogether with hell and judgment, which are the proper arms of the law, it is most evident that sin hath possessed itself of his will and affections to a very great prevalency and conquest.
Such a person hath cast off, as to the particular spoken of, the conduct of renewing grace, and is kept from ruin only by restraining grace.82
Owen tells us that when we are driven to take a stand against sin we should ask ourselves whether this is because we are afraid of “getting caught” (i.e., God punishing us), or whether we truly hate sin and love Christ. The overriding orientation of the believer should be the latter posture because he is “no longer under the law, but under grace.”
5. Judiciary Hardness
There are times, says Owen, when God leaves us under the perplexing power of some lust or sin as chastening punishment for previous sin, negligence, and folly. This may be the very thing for which Israel is making her complaint before God in Isaiah 63:17:
63:17 Why, Lord, do you make us stray from your ways, and make our minds stubborn so that we do not obey you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your inheritance! (NET Bible)
Thus the question arises as to how we can know whether this “dangerous symptom” attends our lusts.
But how shall a man know whether there be any thing of God’s chastening hand in his being left to the disquieting of his distemper? Ans. Examine thy heart and ways. What was the state and condition of thy soul before thou fellest into the entanglements of that sin which now thou so complainest of? Hadst thou been negligent in duties? Hadst thou lived inordinately to thyself? Is there the guilt of any great sin lying upon thee unrepented of? A new sin may be permitted, as well as a new affliction sent, to bring an old sin to remembrance.83
Owen concludes by saying that if we have received any mercy, protection or deliverance from God and have not been thankful, if we have not labored to mortify sin, if we have given way to temptations in the world, and this is now our state, we are to “awake [and] call upon God” because we are “fast asleep in a storm of anger” all around us.84
6. Resisting God’s Chastening
At times we would rather stay in our sin than repent when God chastens us. We refuse to let go of that attitude or thing even after God has graciously disciplined us for it. Isaiah 57:17 talks about this issue and how God disciplines by affliction and desertion:
57:17 I was angry because of their sinful greed; I attacked them and angrily rejected them, yet they remained disobedient and stubborn. (NET Bible)
Owen says that if a man continues in such sin after the prolonged discipline of God there is nothing that can bring him back except the sovereign grace of God. But no person should presume upon God to do this or promise himself such deliverance from the Lord. God may not deliver, but instead allow you to continue in your folly.
There are times when God will visit men for their evil and he did just that in the case of Joseph’s brothers. This made them reflect on their sin and judge themselves for it. He might also speak loud and clear through the danger, sickness, and trouble that a man finds himself in. He also speaks clearly through the preaching of his word—that great ordinance for the conviction, conversion, and edification of his people—startling sinners, calling them to relinquish the lust in their hearts and so return to him. But the soul that does not repent when God has done all this is truly in a very sad condition. Owen says:
Unspeakable are the evils which attend such a frame of heart. Every particular warning to a man in such an estate is an inestimable mercy; how then doth he despise God in them who holds out against them! And what infinite patience is this in God, that he doth not cast off such a one, and swear in his wrath that he shall never enter into his rest!
This is the first particular direction: Consider whether the lust or sin you are contending with hath any of these dangerous symptoms attending of it.85
Owen warns his readers that just because they struggle with lusts that are common to all believers does not mean that they are in fact believers. These are the kinds of sins a believer may fall into, but they do not constitute what a believer is. You might as well call yourself a believer, Owen says, because you commit adultery; after all king David, a believer after God’s own heart, committed adultery! No, these struggles with sin belong to the Christian due to the reality of indwelling sin and will someday be dealt with at glorification. The unbeliever has no such hope. Therefore, a person must realize that one becomes a believer through faith in Christ, not by possessing sinful struggles common to all men, believer and unbeliever alike. A person must look for other evidences indicative of belief if he is to rightly determine his state. Owen says that to argue the opposite is to suggest that since wise men sometimes do foolish things, to do foolish things is to be a wise man.
A Summary of Chapter Nine
In this chapter Owen laid out for us a particular principle and six ways of determining its relevance to our lives. The principle is: Determine what dangerous symptoms attend your lust because if there are any, a normal course of mortification will not do. Now, to determine whether any dangerous symptoms exist, a person should look for six things. They are: (1) the inveterateness of sin, that is, the length of time the sin(s) has been allowed to abide in the heart and therefore its strength; (2) the ways in which the heart denies the presence of sin and seeks to find comfort even when it knows there is unmortified sin; (3) the frequency of sin’s success in securing the delight of the will, even if such a lust cannot—for whatever reason—be immediately acted on; (4) the desire to mortify sin only in light of possible punishments; (5) a judiciary hardness whereby God allows a certain lust to perplex you because of unconfessed sin in other areas, and (6) continuous resisting of God’s chastening hand—chastening which comes through confrontation, preaching, and difficult circumstances. In the next chapter Owen will build upon this foundation by bringing in another particular principle: dealing with sin by seeking a clear and abiding sense of its guilt, danger, and evil.