The Mortification of Sin (A Puritan Guide) Paperback – Apr 10 2012
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About the Author
Dr. John Owen (1616-1683), theologian, was born of Puritan parents at Stadham in Oxfordshire in 1616. At twelve years of age he was admitted at Queen's College, Oxford, where he took his B.A. degree in 1632 and M.A. in 1635. During these years he worked with such diligence that he allowed himself but four hours sleep a night, and damaged his health by this excessive labour. In 1637 he was driven from Oxford by his refusal to comply with the requirements of Laud's new statutes. Having taken orders shortly before, he became chaplain and tutor in the family of Sir Robert Dormer of Ascot in Oxfordshire. At the outbreak of the civil troubles he adopted Parliamentary principles, and thus lost both his place and the prospects of succeeding to his uncle's fortune. For a while he lived in Charterhouse Yard, in great unsettlement of mind on religious questions, which was removed at length by a sermon which he accidently heard at St Michael's in Wood Street.
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As you read the book, you should be aware that Owen uses a few terms for sin that we may be unaccustomed to. When he uses the word "lust," he uses it in the Biblical sense to mean any natural, sinful desire (not necessarily sex-related, as we are used to thinking of it). He also uses the term "distemper," which typically refers to an illness or disease, but in this case it refers to spiritual illness, ie. sin. Of course, like all good Puritan theologians, Owen makes good use of the Scriptures and includes many references throughout the book to support his statements.
In his introduction to the book, J. I. Packer remarks that many of today's readers will find it difficult to relate to and to take to heart what Owen has to say for four reasons. He believes that today's churches don't emphasize enough: 1) God's holiness, 2) The significance of motivating desires within, 3) the need for self-scrutiny, and 4) the life-changing power of God. Owen believes that mortifying sin - putting sin to death - is essential to the life and spiritual health of every believer. He uses Romans 8:13 as his key verse: "For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (New King James). In this verse we see the what, who, why, how, and condition of mortifying sin. Owen says, "The vigor, power, and comfort of our spiritual life depend on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh," and he goes on to define mortification of sin, explaining the duty and importance of this, followed by the dangers of neglecting this duty, and finally offers some instruction and directions for specifically addressing sin in one's life.
Owen explains what it means to mortify sin and why it's important:
"Indwelling sin is compared to a person, a living person, called the old man, with his faculties and properties, his wisdom, craft, subtlety, strength; this must be killed, put to death, mortified, that is, have its power, life, vigour and strength to produce its effects, taken away by the Spirit."
While it's true that a believer has been forgiven of his sins, the price having been paid and peace with God obtained by Christ, the fact is that we still reside in this life in a "body of death" from which we will not be delivered until the end of life here on earth.
"Now, though doubtless there may be attained by the Spirit and grace of Christ, a wonderful success and eminency of victory against any sin, so that a man may have almost constant triumph over it; yet an utter killing and destruction of it, that it should not be, is not in this life to be expected...Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin, or it will be killing you. Your being dead with Christ virtually, your being quickened (alive) with him, will not excuse you from this work."
Owen puts forth two principles that govern the process of the mortifying of sin. First, he clarifies that only true believers in Christ can begin to mortify sin. If a person is an unbeliever, repentance and conversion must come first, for the work of putting sin to death can only be done with the help of the Holy Spirit, and "how shall he mortify sin who has not the Spirit?" Owen remarks.
Secondly, Owen observes that "without sincerity and diligence in the universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained." In other words, we don't get to just pick and choose certain sins to address simply because they are inconvenient, bothersome or uncomfortable to us, while neglecting other sins. "Hatred of sin as sin, not only as galling or disquieting; a sense of the love of Christ in the cross; lie at the bottom of all true spiritual mortification."
Owen goes on to offer practical ways of dealing with sin in one's life. He states that mortifying a specific sin involves three things:
1) Habitual weakening of it; 2) Constant fight and contending against sin; and 3) Success in weakening indwelling sin.
Owen offers a few danger signs that indicate that serious attention and action need to be taken. One of these signs is inveterateness - something you have been allowing and tolerating for a long time. The conscience becomes seared by regularly ignoring a particular sin:
"When a lust hath lain long in the heart, corrupting, festering, cankering, it brings the soul to a woeful condition...it grows familiar to the mind and conscience, that they do not startle at it as a strange thing...Indwelling distemper grows restive an d stubborn by continuance in ease and quiet... As it never dies of itself, so if it be not daily killed, it will always gather strength."
Another bad sign is when attempts are made to excuse, justify, or rationalize away sin. When we don't consider the seriousness of sin, but just say to ourselves, "It's just a little thing," and when a certain sin is frequently successful this enables and strengthens it. If sin is consented to, even if only inwardly and not actually acted upon, it has been successful. There may be a number of self-centered reasons that a person may choose not to act on a sinful thought or idea, such as the inconvenience of doing so or the possible negative consequences. But being negligent and careless regarding sin is, practically-speaking, the same as being willing to accept and tolerate it. This is also dangerous.
Owen explains, "Mortification prunes all the graces of God, and makes room for them in our hearts to grow. The life and vigour of our spiritual lives consists in the vigour and flourishing of the plants of grace in our hearts." Owen goes on to compare the heart of the believer with a garden in which herbs and useful plants have been planted, but when left unattended weeds and thorns will grow around them and make them weak and unhealthy. He explains,
"The heart is like the sluggard's field, so overgrown with weeds that you can scarce see the good corn. Such a man may search for faith, love and zeal, and scarce be able to find any; and if he do discover that these graces are there, still alive and sincere, yet they are so weak, so clogged with lusts, that they are of very little use; they remain indeed, but are ready to die."
This is why we need to often search our hearts and work to root out the weeds of sin. We always have to be diligent in this because as long as we live in these mortal bodies, we will never be able to completely root out or destroy all indwelling sin. This can be discouraging to some, but it should serve to humble us and cause us to constantly look to and depend on Christ, for without Him we can do nothing.
When addressing specific sin, Owen suggests considering the guilt of sin, the dangers of sin, and the evil of sin. Sin grieves the Holy Spirit and shames and insults the person, work and name of Christ, who died to pay for it. Grace weakens the power of sin, but strengthens the guilt of sin. However, the heart is deceptive and will try to minimize sin.It also pleases the Enemy and damages your testimony and effectiveness for the Kingdom of God.
Next Owen offers further practical advice and direction for dealing with sin, including:
1) Keep one's conscience sensitive to the guilt of it by bringing it under the lens of both the Law and the Gospel. Owen points out that it's the law of God which shows us our sin and holds up before us the standard of holiness. God uses his Law not only to convict lost men, but to expose sin in converted men as well, and to bring us to sorrow and repentance over it.
2) Avoid opportunities and situations which may give sin an advantage. "Men will do this with respect to their bodily infirmities and distempers: the seasons, the diet, the air that have proved offensive shall be avoided. Are the things of the soul of less importance?"
3) Take action at the first notice of sin arising. If you give sin and inch, it will take a mile. Make every effort to stop sin in its tracks and nip it in the bud as soon as it rears its ugly head. "It is impossible to fix bounds to sin. It is like water in a channel; it if once break out, it will have its course."
4) Continually encourage and stimulate the desire for deliverance from sin's power. We can become accepting and tolerant of a particular sin, especially if it's part of our natural temperament.
5) Read and contemplate often on the greatness, majesty, and holiness of God. This will always help to give you a right view of your sinfulness.
In the last chapter, Owen reminds us of the roles of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, whom we have helping and sanctifying us. As our great High Priest, Christ suffered and died to destroy sin and to present us holy and blameless (Col. 1:22), and He continues to intercede for us before the Father. We have also been given the Spirit, "who alone clearly and fully convinces the heart of the evil, and guilt, and danger of the corruption, lust or sin to be mortified; Without this conviction, there will be no thorough work made." The Spirit also assists, empowers, and encourages us, and intercedes for us when we pray.
I leave with you this encouraging reminder from Owen: "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." When you are in the midst of the struggle, remember, "In thy greatest distress and anguish, consider that fullness of grace, those riches, those treasures of strength, might and help, that are laid up in [Christ] for our support."