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Not Putting Sin to Death

This is my once-monthly Puritan post. I know that I’ve lost 50% of you with the word Puritan, but don’t be too hasty to run away; if you take the time to read this post, I know that you’ll benefit from it. I am simply sharing some of what John Owen says about putting sin to death.

I have been going through John Owen’s book Overcoming Sin and Temptation and trying to distill each chapter to its essence—to a few choice quotes that capture the flavor of what Owen is trying to communicate. So far we’ve looked at The Foundation of Mortification, we’ve been encouraged to Daily Put Sin to Death and seen that It Is the Holy Spirit Who Puts Sin to Death. Last month we saw that Your Spiritual Life Depends Upon Killing Sin.

Having laid all the groundwork of the first four chapters, Owen is now ready to proceed to his primary concern, which is a practical consideration of how to put sin to death. Here is how he will go about this in the chapters to come: First, he will show what it is and what it is not to mortify any sin; then he will give directions for things you will absolutely need if you are to mortify any sin; and finally, he will discuss the particulars of how we actually go about putting sin to death.

Owen first covers what does not mean to mortify sin; this is what I am writing about today. The big theme of this section, at least in my view, is the deceptive nature of the human heart. There are many ways and many times that we convince ourselves we have put our sin to death when in reality we have done anything but.

Mortification is Not the Utter Destruction and Death of Sin

To mortify a sin is not utterly to kill, root it out, and destroy it, that it should have no more hold at all nor residence in our hearts. It is true this is that which is aimed at; but this is not in this life to be accomplished. There is no man that truly sets himself to mortify any sin, but he aims at, intends, desires its utter destruction, that it should leave neither root nor fruit in the heart or life. … Now, though doubtless there may, by the Spirit and grace of Christ, a wonderful success and eminency of victory against any sin be attained, 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.

We should not expect that any one sin will be eradicated to the point that we can declare it fully and finally dead, never to appear in our lives again. In fact, the moment we do that, we invite Satan to tempt us in that very way. We aim at eradication, anticipate a great level of success, but know that it will only be completed destroyed when we are made perfect.

Mortification Is Not Simply Masking Over an Existing Sin

When a man on some outward respects forsakes the practice of any sin, men perhaps may look on him as a changed man. God knows that to his former iniquity he has added cursed hypocrisy, and is now on a safer path to hell than he was before. He has got another heart than he had, that is more cunning; not a new heart, that is more holy.

Do you see how deceptive the heart is? A man may forsake a sin, he may stop committing it for one reason or another, but that is not the same as actually putting that sin to death. Bad motives may cause us to mask over a sin for a time, but without the work of the Holy Spirit, that sin still lives on, even if it is quiet for a time.

Mortification Is Not the Improvement of a Quiet, Sedate Nature

The mortification of sin consists not in the improvement of a quiet, sedate nature. 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. Let now these men cultivate and improve their natural frame and temper by discipline, consideration, and prudence, and they may seem to themselves and others very mortified men, when, perhaps, their hearts are a standing sink of all abominations. Some man is never so much troubled all his life, perhaps, with anger and passion, nor does trouble others, as another is almost every day; and yet the latter has done more to the mortification of the sin than the former.

Some people, simply by virtue of the way God has made them, are quieter and more sedate and hence their sin may not be as prominently displayed (e.g. consider the man who is given to outbursts of anger versus the man who is given to a low, brooding kind of anger; both are sinful, but the one appears the bigger sinner). A man with a quiet kind of spirit may appear to have put sin to death simply because his sin is less tumultuous to begin with. This man needs to examine himself to see if he is putting sin to death or just allowing his quiet and sedate nature to give the appearance of putting sin to death.

Mortification Is Not the Diversion of Sin

A sin is not mortified when it is only diverted. … A man may be sensible of a lust, set himself against the eruptions of it, take care that it shall not break forth as it has done, but in the meantime suffer the same corrupted habit to vent itself some other way; as he who heals and skins a running sore thinks himself cured, but in the meantime his flesh festers by the corruption of the same humor, and breaks out in another place. … He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others, let him not think that he has mortified the sin that he seems to have left. He has changed his master, but is a servant still.

It is possible that a person can divert a sin in such a way that instead of manifesting itself in vanity it now manifests itself in contempt toward others. I guess they didn’t have Whack-A-Mole in Owen’s day, because I think that nicely illustrates his point! You whack at it here and it pops its head out over there. But you haven’t actually destroyed the thing.

Mortification Is Not Just Occasional Conquests Over Sin

Occasional conquests of sin do not amount to a mortifying of it. There are two occasions or seasons wherein a man who is contending with any sin may seem to himself to have mortified it:

Owen is going to give us two examples of occasions in which a person may seem to have put a sin to death, when really he has not. Again, consider the deception of the human heart.

When it has had some sad eruption, to the disturbance of his peace, terror of his conscience, dread of scandal, and evident provocation of God. This awakens and stirs up all that is in the man, and amazes him, fills him with abhorrency of sin and himself for it; sends him to God, makes him cry out as for life, to abhor his lust as hell and to set himself against it. … So it is in a person when a breach has been made upon his conscience, quiet, perhaps credit, by his lust, in some eruption of actual sin—carefulness, indignation, desire, fear, revenge, are all set on work about it and against it, and lust is quiet for a season, being run down before them; but when the hurry is over and the inquest past, the thief appears again alive, and is as busy as ever at his work.

In this case a person has had an eruption of sin—he has acted out sinfully in some way and is now dealing with the guilt and shame of that sin. Because of this shame he is disgusted with himself and promises that he will never commit that sin again. But instead of truly putting that sin to death, he just suppresses the sin for a time. Then, when the season is over, when his shame and guilt have dissipated, the sin comes back to life within him.

Here is a second occasion:

In a time of some judgment, calamity, or pressing affliction, the heart is then taken up with thoughts and contrivances of flying from the present troubles, fears, and dangers. This, as a convinced person concludes, is to be done only by relinquishment of sin, which gains peace with God. It is the anger of God in every affliction that galls a convinced person. To be quit of this, men resolve at such times against their sins. Sin shall never more have any place in them; they will never again give up themselves to the service of it. Accordingly, sin is quiet, stirs not, seems to be mortified; not, indeed, that it has received any one wound, but merely because the soul has possessed its faculties, whereby it should exert itself, with thoughts inconsistent with the motions thereof; which, when they are laid aside, sin returns again to its former life and vigor.

A man has experienced judgment for a sin or he has experienced some kind of calamity and his reaction has been to seek to gain peace with God by promising never to commit a certain sin again. And for a time he is able to suppress that sin. But again, he has not truly put that sin to death, so it lies quietly, waiting for another opportunity to manifest itself.

And that is this month’s lesson from Owen. Next month we’ll look at what it does mean to put a sin to death. We are getting closer to the lesson we want to learn—How do I destroy sin?