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Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Chapter 5)

Today we continue reading the classics together by turning to the fifth chapter of John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation. If you’d like to know more about this project, you can read about it right here: Reading Classics Together.

This is the first chapter in the book’s section—a section that turns the focus from introductory materials to “the nature of mortification.” In this portion of the book he will answer this question: “Suppose a man to be a true believer, and yet finds in himself a powerful indwelling sin, leading him captive to the law of it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing his thoughts, weakening his soul as to 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, though 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?”

Through the coming chapters, he will approach it in this form:

  1. Show what it is to mortify any sin, and that both negatively and positively, that we be not mistaken in the foundation.
  2. Give general directions for such things as without which it will be utterly impossible for anyone to get any sin truly and spiritually mortified.
  3. Draw out the particulars whereby this is to be done.

In this chapter, chapter 5, he looks at the negative aspect of the first point, seeking to teach “what mortification is not.”

Summary

The chapter follows this outline:

  1. Mortification is not the utter destruction and death of sin
  2. Mortification is not the dissimulation of a sin
  3. Mortification is not the improvement of a quiet, sedate nature
  4. Mortification is not the diversion of sin
  5. Mortification is not just occasional conquests over sin

Discussion

I was glad to see in last week’s discussion that many people found more benefit in the chapter than I did. It’s strange how these things work. Though I certainly did not dislike the chapter, I found it perhaps just a bit lacking compared to the ones preceding it. So I was glad to find myself feasting again this week as I read the opening chapter of the heart of the book.

In this chapter Owen describes what mortification of sin is not, certainly an important thing to know for anyone who wishes to be serious about destroying indwelling sin. With hearts that are deceitful and desperately wicked, it makes good sense that we would accept all manner of substitutes for the genuine work of mortification. Yet all the while, our sin would not be truly mortified, but would instead go into hibernation for a while before reappearing and working its evil once again.

Owen offered five things we may confuse with mortification. Of these, two stood out to me above the others. The first is that we are prone to divert our sin rather than dealing with it properly. In other words, we may see a sin in our lives and guard against allowing it to erupt in a particular form, yet all the while we allow it to erupt in a different, more subtle form. I thought here of Jerry Bridge’s book Respectable Sins and had to agree that we can channel one sin into another, perhaps allowing a sin that is overt to become one that is somehow more respectable in our eyes. I was struck by his description of old men who see certain lusts of youth fall away. I have known men who wished to be old so they could escape lusts that have plagued them, convinced that old age would bring respite. Yet, if Owen is correct here, those sins, if not dealt with now, will simply morph into other sins with the onset of old age. “He has changed his master, but is a servant still.”

The second point that jumped out to me was that mortification is not just occasional conquests over sin. In this case I did not understand “occasional” as meaning “every now and again” as much as “at particular occasions.” We have all experienced “eruptions” of sin that have scared us. Perhaps we have exploded in temper and been terrified by the violence we committed (or very nearly committed) and vowed to stay in control the next time. Or perhaps we have allowed a lust to lead us to a point where we very nearly committed a grave sin. In these cases our natural temptation is to castigate ourselves and to abhor our sin. But we can too easily allow abhorrence to take the place of true mortification. We can take comfort in our own disgust of sin. Owen’s descriptive metaphor is well worth reading again:

The whole man, spiritual and natural, being now awakened, sin shrinks in its head, appears not, but lies as dead before him: as when one that has drawn nigh to an army in the night, and has killed a principal person—instantly the guards awake, men are roused up, and strict inquiry is made after the enemy, who, in the meantime, until the noise and tumult be over, hides himself, or lies like one that is dead, yet with firm resolution to do the like mischief again upon the like opportunity. … 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.

This speaks of the necessity of true mortification and not some cheap and easy substitute. Any man can vow to avoid sin and can do so for a time through his own power. Only through the Spirit can we truly root out the sin that plagues us. Only in His power can it be truly put to death.

Next Time

Next Thursday we will continue with the sixth chapter of the book. Though we are now well into our study, it is not too late for you to join and you’ll find yourself only 25 or 30 pages behind.

Your Turn

I would like to know what you gained from this chapter. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Do not feel that you need to say anything shocking or profound. Just share what stirred your heart or what gave you pause or what confused you. Let’s make sure we’re reading this book together. The comments on previous chapters have been great and have aided my enjoyment of the chapter. I trust this week will prove the same.