John Owen on the Mortification of Sin Part III

As a pastor, Owen was extremely concerned about mere professors of religion who demonstrated little or no victory over sin. As we have observed in Owen's thought, there is a close connection between true mortification and eternal life. There is a certainty to mortification since the Spirit has been procured to perform this duty in the life of the believer.[1] Nevertheless, Owen recognized that even a believer might have seasons in which mortification may be neglected. The “best of saints” can fall into the most cursed sins through the neglect of mortification.[2] Owen described this negligence as a “breaking of the bones of the soul,” a dereliction that makes a man sick and ready to die.[3] A “professor” who is negligent in this duty despises the goodness of God who furnished him with the necessary “principle of doing it.”[4]

Moreover, there are manifold dangers that accompany the neglect of mortification. First, a believer’s neglect results in a hardened heart by the deceitfulness of sin.[5] The consciousness of indwelling sin becomes seared, and the spiritual duties of prayer, hearing, and reading will leave the hearer unaffected.[6] Owen wrote, “Sin will grow a light thing to thee; thou wilt pass it by as a thing of nought; this it will grow.”[7] Lust always works towards the hardening of the heart, and if neglected, the conscience will be seared. Second, a believer who is negligent about mortification subjects himself to some temporal correction, or judgment from God. Owen recognized that this type of chastisement is not to be equated with eternal vengeance; rather God may visit a believer with the rod to correct the believer’s complacency.[8] Third, although a man believe in Jesus Christ, a willful neglect of mortification may result in a loss of peace and strength all his days.[9] The comfort of the spiritual life depends on the mortification of sin, to neglect this is to danger a believer’s well being.

Owen is emphatic that there is a danger of eternal destruction for those who persistently neglect mortifying the sinful deeds of the flesh.[13] Continuance in sin is a sure indicator that one is outside of Christ. It is no surprise that one of Owen’s first general principles of mortification is that one must be a believer.[14] There is no death of sin if one does not have an interest in Christ. Since it is impossible for a man to mortify a sin if he has not been ingrafted into Christ, continuance in sin may indicate that he is being pursued for destruction.[15] Just as there is an inseparable connection between true mortification of sin and eternal life, there is also “such a connection between continuance in sin and eternal destruction.”[16] Although God exercises the prerogative “to deliver some from the continuance of sin so that they may not be destroyed,” he certainly will not deliver any who persistently continue in sin.[17] The threats of everlasting destruction and separation from God are to be set before those who persist in rebellion.[18] Owen is concerned that persistent sin in the life of “professor” may be a sure indicator that he lies under sin’s dominion and is being pursued for destruction.[19] In his comments on Hebrews 10:38 Owen wrote, “If any man “depart” from him, “draw back” through unbelief, “God’s soul hath no pleasure in him;”—that is, his indignation shall pursue him to destruction…”[20] To walk after the ways of the flesh is inconsistent with life in the Spirit. Owen calls those who are entangled to destruction to “give the best evidence for his person that he can.”[21] A man is to evaluate his ways to see whether he is walking after the things of the Spirit. Owen observed, “There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, Rom 8:1. True; but who shall have comfort of this assertion? Who may assume it to himself? ‘They that walk after the Spirit, and not after the flesh.’”[22] As sure as there is an intimate connection between the mortification of sin and eternal life, there is also connection between the continuance of sin and eternal destruction.

For Owen, in the end, the issue of the mortification of sin is a pastoral issue. Owen’s “principle intention” in his discourse was to handle practical cases that often arise in the lives of those who are seeking to fulfill their duty to mortify sin.[23] Since the Spirit acts upon the believer so that every act is an act of his own obedience, Owen was concerned to offer biblical direction for believers to help them mortify sin. He provides the following case study:
Suppose a man to be a true believer, and yet finds himself a powerful indwelling sin, leading him captive to the law of it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing his thoughts, weakening his souls as to the 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, thought 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?[24]

In this scenario, Owen believed that the man: (1) should have a clear understanding of true mortification, (2) should be provided with general directions, and (3) should be provided with particulars for the achievement of the duty.

Owen viewed true mortification as having three dominant characteristics. In order for the man in the above scenario to properly mortify his sin, he must understand what mortification is designed to accomplish. First, mortification is a habitual weakening of a particular sin or what Owen calls lust.[25] Sin gains its ascendancy through temptation.[26] Therefore a believer must attack the principle or root to make any progress in the work of mortification. “A man may beat down the bitter fruit from an evil tree until he is weary; whilst the root abides in strength and vigour; the beating down of the present fruit will not hinder it from bringing forth more.”[27] The indwelling disposition of sin must be weakened if true mortification is to be accomplished. Second, true mortification is exhibited through constant “fighting and contending against sin.”[28] A believer must know his enemy well. Owen wrote, “it is feared that many have little knowledge of the main enemy that they carry about with them in their bosoms…the contest is vigorous and hazardous—it is about the things of eternity.”[29] Furthermore, to properly contend with sin, a man must become familiar with all of the “ways, wiles, methods, advantages, and occasions of its success;” this is the beginning of mortification.[30] The words of David, “My sin is ever before me,” are the words of all of those who are acquainted with ways of sin. Third, true mortification will be accompanied with frequent success against any lust.[31] Not just a disappointment of sin, but a real “victory and pursuit of it to a complete conquest.”[32] True mortification does not begin in a believer until he understands what mortification is designed to accomplish.
[1] VI.6.
[2] VI.12.
[3] VI.13.
[4] Ibid.
[5] VI.52.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] VI.5 3.
[9] Ibid.
[13] VI.54.
[14] VI.33.
[15] VI.54.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid. Owen recognized that it is purely God’s sovereign initiative to rescue his own from sin’s dominion. Yet for those who persist in sin by their willful choice, God will execute his righteous judgment.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] VI.24.
[24] Ibid.
[25] VI.28.
[26] VI.29
[27] VI.30.
[28] Ibid.
[29] VI.31.
[30] Ibid.
[31] VI.32
[32] Ibid.

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