Setting the Direction for the Work of Mortification

Having looked at the necessity and that nature of mortification, it is now time to set ourselves toward the work itself. John Owen in his book, “Of the Mortification of Sin in the Believer”, puts forth both general and particular directions for the work itself. In other words, he gets his reader to consider their own sin so as to know their enemy. He also gets his reader to consider how he has done in the fight so far.

In setting general directions, Owen mentions two. The first is that the work of mortification is the work of the believer, not the unregenerate person. Only the believer has God given power through the Spirit to battle sin. Secondly, if a believer is to battle sin, they have to seek to be diligent and universally obedient in other matters of the faith. Battling sin without the means of grace given us (prayer, meditation, the church, bible reading…) is like entering battle alone, without a sword.

It is the particulars, however, that I would like to spend some time focusing on. The first is to consider if our sin has what Owen calls “dangerous symptoms” accompanying it. Consider the following. Has your sin been so long standing that it has grown familiar and no longer troubles you as it once did? Have you been seeking evidences of your good standing with God to satisfy your conscience without dealing with your sin? Have you been prone to say, quite quickly, that your sin is covered by grace (which is true) in order to soften its blow? Have you justified yourself by noting that you didn’t follow a particular sin as far as you could have? Have you tried to deal with your sin out of a sense of God’s punishment rather than a hatred for that which is an affront to God? Have you been resistant against the ways God has already been dealing with your sin? The point of all of these questions is to recognize that there are many dangerous games we play in regard to sin, all of which work against its mortification.

So, we need to develop a clear and abiding sense of the guilt, danger and evil of our sin. This is Owen’s second particular direction. Consider as Owen says, “there is inconceivably more evil and guilt in the evil of our heart that does remain, than there would be in so much sin if you had no grace at all.” (p.98). We have tasted the goodness of the Lord and have known him through the fellowship of the Spirit, yet we love our sin. How much more awful is that than one who has never known Christ? We, who have had more opposition to our sin, have very often given ourselves up to it. Consider also the danger sin puts us in of a hardened heart, temporal discipline, loss of peace and communion with God. Consider that the end of sin is destruction so that we may flee from it to Christ wherein we find hope. Consider again that to indulge sin, especially willfully, is to drive the nails once again into Christ’s hands and feet. Only a crucified, unrisen Christ will allow us the comfort to play with sin. When we sin, we wound him afresh.

In addition, Owen says that we have to be watchful. Without extraordinary watchfulness, your nature will prevail against your soul. We need to be aware of the ways in which we have been tempted to sin in the past and of that within us that would eagerly respond to such temptations. Let us watch so as to fight against the first inclinations of sin. In the words of Owen, “Do not say, ‘Thus far it shall go, and no farther.’ If it have allowance for one step, it will take another. It is impossible to fix bounds to sin.” (pp.109-110). Fighting sin in the early stages is easier than restraining it once it picks up speed.

Finally, do not speak peace to yourself before God speaks it, but listen to what God is saying to your soul. We do not like to be uncomfortable so we quickly claim the promises of God and the weight of sin does not have its proper impact. God reserves the privilege to speak peace to whom, and in what degree, he pleases, even among those on whom he has bestowed grace. When we sin, we feel the Lord’s indignation (Psalm 38:3-5). While we claim the promises of God to forgive, we dare not lose sight of his heart toward sin and the indignation he feels every day (Psalm 7:11). We lose sight of his indignation when we make light of his holiness. He will speak peace, but let him speak true words of peace in his time, so that even the indignation we feel will work for our good.

Do you long to be holy? That is a good thing, and we can start on that path now. Indeed, we are commanded to pursue holiness, even now (Heb. 12:14). So, as we set ourselves for the work of mortification, as we roll up our sleeves, let us pray that the Lord will fill us with a longing to be holy. Next time we will look at the means of mortification, but I’ll leave you once again with the words of Owen.

“Longing desires after anything, in things natural and civil, are of no value or consideration, any further but as they incite and stir up the person in whom they are to a diligent use of means for the bringing about the thing aimed at. In spiritual things it is otherwise. Longing, breathing, and panting after deliverance is a grace in itself, that has a mighty power to conform the soul into the likeness of the thing longed after.....Assure yourself, unless you long for deliverance you shall not have it.” (p.106-107)

* Quotes referenced from: Kapic, K., & Taylor, J. (Eds.). (2006). Overcoming Sin and Temptation. Three Classic Works by John Owen. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.