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 am convinced you’ll benefit from it. I can say that on good authority because the essence of the post comes from John Owen.
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. And that brings us to chapter 4.
The theme of the chapter is this: A God-honoring life is one in which we are putting sin to death. Owen summarizes like this: “The life, vigor and comfort of our spiritual life depend much upon our mortification of sin.” I take life to be the existence of the spiritual life, vigor to be the extent of it, and comfort to be the Holy Spirit’s assurance of its existence. He approaches this topic under several headings.
Life, Vigor, and Comfort Are Not Necessarily Connected to Mortification
This is a very important from a pastoral perspective. “I do not say they proceed from it, as though they were necessarily tied to it. A man may be carried on in a constant course of mortification all his days; and yet perhaps never enjoy a good day of peace and consolation. … The use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours; the bestowing of it is God’s prerogative.” In other words, God does not owe you life, vigor and comfort in exchange for putting sin to death. But under most circumstances these are the outcome.
Mortification Is Not the Immediate Cause of Life, Vigor and Comfort
Owen next wants to ensure that what he says about the importance of putting sin to death does not infringe upon the gospel. “In the ways instituted by God to give us life, vigor, courage, and consolation, mortification is not one of the immediate causes of it. … Adoption and justification … are the immediate causes.” So do not allow yourself to think that putting sin to death is what saves you; these benefits are the result of your salvation, not the cause of it.
The Vigor and Comfort of Our Spiritual Lives Depend on Our Mortification of Sin
With that background in place, he can now discuss the importance of putting sin to death. “In our ordinary walking with God, and in an ordinary course of his dealing with us, the vigor and comfort of our spiritual lives depend much on our mortification, not only as a causa sine qua non, but as a thing that has an effectual influence thereinto.”
He now goes on to show some of the negative results of allowing sin to continue. Unmortified sin:
- Deprives us of vigor and comfort. “Every unmortified sin will do two things: it will weaken the soul and deprive it of its vigor. It will darken the soul and deprive it of its comfort and peace.”
- Weakens the soul and deprives it of its strength. “An unmortified lust will drink up the spirit and all the vigor of the soul, and weaken it for all duties.” When he speaks of duties, he speaks of the means of grace, and particularly reading Scripture, praying and gaining the spiritual benefit that comes from doing these things.
- Untunes and unframes the heart itself by entangling its affections. “It diverts the heart from the spiritual frame that is required for vigorous communion with God; it lays hold on the affections, rendering its object beloved and desirable, so expelling the love of the Father.” Unmortified sin becomes our delight; we learn to love it.
- Fills the thoughts with contrivances about it. “Thoughts are the great purveyors of the soul to bring in provision to satisfy its affections; and if sin remain unmortified in the heart, they must ever and anon be making provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.” When sin goes untouched, it becomes the meditation of our heart, taking the place that should be filled with the Lord.
- Breaks out and actually hinders duty. “The ambitious man much be studying, and the worldling must be working or contriving, and the sensual, vain person providing himself for vanity, when they should be engaged in the worship of God.” Sin steals the time, attention and affection that we need to maintain our communion with God.
Owen has a couple of other important points to make:
As sin weakens, so it darkens the soul. “It is a cloud, a thick cloud, that spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favor. It takes away all sense of the privilege of our adoption; and if the soul begins to gather up thoughts of consolation, sin quickly scatters them.” When we continually choose sin over sanctification, which is what we do when we refuse to put sin to death, sin then destroys the comfort that the Holy Spirit seeks to provide. Our souls become darkened to his goodness and to the privileges of our adoption.
Mortification prunes all the graces of God and makes room for them in our hearts to grow.“The life and vigor of our spiritual lives consists in the vigor and flourishing of the plants of grace in our hearts. Now, as you may see in a garden, let there be a precious herb planted, and let the ground be untilled, and weeds grow about it, perhaps it will live still, but be a poor, withering, unuseful thing.” When we allow sin to take root, it eventually takes over the graces of God that should be evident in our lives and that should be used to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Here is a final, closing statement from Owen which aptly summarizes the whole basis and purpose of putting sin to death: “Mortification is the soul’s vigorous opposition to self, wherein sincerity is most evident.” Just hang on to that: when you put sin to death, you are vigorously opposing your very self. No wonder, then, that it is such grueling work.