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.