This is my once-monthly post on the Puritan John Owen. In this series of posts I am sharing some of what John Owen says about putting sin to death, or what he calls mortification. 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, to understand that It Is the Holy Spirit Who Puts Sin to Death and to acknowledge that Your Spiritual Life Depends Upon Killing Sin. Then we saw What It Is Not to Put Sin to Death and What It Is to Put Sin to Death. He now moves on to the actual directions for how to put sin to death; first he deals with a couple of foundational issue (which is what I’m looking at today) and in the months that follow he’ll move on to very specific instructions.
#1 – There Will Be No Mortification Unless a Man Be a Believer
Unless a man be a believer—that is, one that is truly ingrafted into Christ—he can never mortify any one sin; I do not say, unless he know himself to be so, but unless indeed he be so. … There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.
There’s a Tweet-worthy phrase: There is no death of sin without the death of Christ. That’s a compact summary of a whole lot of theology! Though it is somewhat obvious, he wants us to know that only Christians, only those who have the Holy Spirit to help them, can put sin to death. Here are a few more helpful quotes.
A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.
Mortification is not the present business of unregenerate men. God calls them not to it as yet; conversion is their work—the conversion of the whole soul—not the mortification of this or that particular lust. … Let the soul be first thoroughly converted, and then, ‘looking on him whom they had pierced,’ humiliation and mortification will ensue.
This is the usual issue with persons attempting the mortification of sin without an interest in Christ first obtained. It deludes them, hardens them—destroys them.
In classic Puritan fashion, Owen now anticipates and answers an objection: “Shall [unregenerate men] cease striving against sin, live dissolutely, give their lusts their swing, and be as bad as the worst of men?” Here is his answer:
God forbid! It is to be looked on as a great issue of wisdom, goodness, and love of God, that by manifold ways and means he is pleased to restrain the sons of men from running forth into that compass of excess and riot which the depravity of their nature would carry them out unto with violence.
Let men know it is their duty, but in its proper place; I take not men from mortification, but put them upon conversion. He that shall call a man from mending a hole in the wall of his house, to quench a fire that is consuming the whole building, is not his enemy! Poor soul! It is not your sore finger but your hectic fever that you are to apply yourself to the consideration of. You set yourself against a particular sin and do not consider that you are nothing but sin.
We are not to command men to pursue morality without first encouraging them to pursue Christ.
#2 – There Will Be No Mortification of Any Sin Without Sincerity and Diligence in a Universality of Obedience
This is his second foundational issue and what he means is that you cannot focus all of your energy on putting sin to death if that comes at the expense of your other Christian duties–prayer, reading Scripture, and so on. The mortification of sin is your duty, but not your whole duty.
A man ﬁnds any lust to bring him into the condition formerly described; it is powerful, strong, tumultuating, leads captive, vexes, disquiets, takes away peace; he is not able to bear it; wherefore he sets himself against it, prays against it, groans under it, sighs to be delivered: but in the meantime, perhaps, in other duties—in constant communion with God—in reading, prayer, and meditation—in other ways that are not of the same kind with the lust wherewith he is troubled—he is loose and negligent. Let not that man think that ever he shall arrive to the mortiﬁcation of the lust he is perplexed with. This is a condition that not seldom befalls men in their pilgrimage.
Owen loves medical metaphors, and here is a good one:
He that has a ‘running sore’ upon him, arising from an ill habit of body, contracted by intemperance and ill diet, let him apply himself with what diligence and skill he can to the cure of his sore, if he leave the general habit of his body under distempers, his labor and travail will be in vain.
And then he sums it all up like this: “Let not any man think to do his own work that will not do God’s. God’s work consists in universal obedience. … If we will do anything, we must do all things.”