Once again, don’t run away from this blog post just because it has a Puritan flavor to it. I mentioned last month that I’ve been running through John Owen’s 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. I recently summarized the first chapter, The Foundation of Mortification and then the second chapter, Daily Put Sin to Death.
Today I am offering up this short summary of chapter 3, “The Holy Spirit Puts Sin to Death.” This chapter was often focused rather narrowly on the Roman Catholic Church, so I passed quickly over those parts (not that they are any less true today). Here is what Owen says about the work of the Holy Spirit in mortifying sin.
“The next principle relates to the great sovereign cause of mortification. [The Holy Spirit] only is sufficient for this work; all ways and means without him are as a thing of naught; and he is the great efficient of it—he works in us as he pleases.”
Other Remedies Are Vain
In vain do men seek other remedies; they shall not be healed by them. … The reasons why [some] can never, with all their endeavors, truly mortify any one sin, among others, are:
Because many of the ways and means they use and insist upon for this end were never appointed of God for that purpose. (Now, there is nothing in religion than has any efficacy for compassing an end, but it has it from God’s appointment of it to that purpose.)
Because those things that are appointed of God as means are not used by them in their due place and order—such as are praying, fasting, watching, meditation, and the like. They have their use in the business at hand; but whereas they are all to be looked on as streams, they look on them as the fountain. … So they are always mortifying, but never come to any sound mortification.
Men are galled with the guilt of a sin that has prevailed over them; they instantly promise to themselves and to God that they will do so no more; they watch over themselves and pray for a season until this heat waxes cold and the sense of sin is worn off—and so mortification goes also, and sin returns to its former dominion. Duties are excellent food for an unhealthy soul; they are no physic for a sick soul. He that turns his meat into his medicine must expect no great operation. Spiritually sick men cannot sweat out their distemper with working. But this is the way of men who deceive their own souls.
If the Spirit Alone Mortifies Sin, Why Are We Exhorted to Mortify It?
It is no otherwise the work of the Spirit but as all graces and good works which are in us are his. He ‘works in us to will and to do of his own good pleasure’ (Phil. 2:13); he works ‘all our works in us’ (Isa. 26:12)—‘the work of faith with power’ (2 Thess. 1:11; Col. 2:12); he causes us to pray, and is a ‘spirit of supplication’ (Rom. 8:26; Zech. 12:10); and yet we are exhorted, and are to be exhorted, to all these.
He does not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience. The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.