Mortification Chapter 2

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

Having laid this foundation, a brief confirmation of the aforementioned principal
deductions will lead me to what I chiefly intend, that:
The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning
power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the
indwelling power of sin. So the apostle, “Mortify therefore your members
which are upon the earth” (Col. 3:5). To whom does he speak? Such as were
“risen with Christ” (v. 1); such as were “dead” with him (v. 3); such as whose
life Christ was and who should “appear with him in glory” (v. 4).
Do you mortify;
do you make it your daily work;
be always at it while you live;
cease not a day from this work;
be killing sin or it will be killing you.
Your being dead with Christ virtually, your being quickened with him,
will not excuse you from this work. And our Savior tells us how his Father
deals with every branch in him that bears fruit, every true and living branch.
“He purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit” (John 15:2). He prunes it,
and that not for a day or two, but while it is a branch in this world. And the
apostle tells you what was his practice: “I keep under my body, and bring it
into subjection” (1 Cor. 9:27). “I do it,” says he, “daily; it is the work of my
life: I omit it not; this is my business.” And if this were the work and business
of Paul, who was so incomparably exalted in grace, revelations, enjoyments,
privileges, consolations, above the ordinary measure of believers,
where may we possibly bottom11 an exemption from this work and duty
while we are in this world? Some brief account of the reasons hereof may be
Indwelling Sin Always Abides, Therefore It Must Always
Be Mortified
Indwelling sin always abides while we are in this world; therefore it is always
to be mortified. The vain, foolish, and ignorant disputes of men about perfectly
keeping the commands of God, of perfection in this life, of being wholly
and perfectly dead to sin, I meddle not now with. It is more than probable
that the men of those abominations never knew what belonged to the keeping
of any one of God’s commands and are so much below perfection of
degrees that they never attained to a perfection of parts in obedience or universal
obedience in sincerity. And, therefore, many in our days who have
11 found, base (find a basis for)
talked of perfection have been wiser and have affirmed it to consist in knowing
no difference between good and evil. Not that they are perfect in the
things we call good, but that all is alike to them, and the height of wickedness
is their perfection. Others who have found out a new way to it, by denying
original, indwelling sin, and tempering the spirituality of the law of God
unto men’s carnal hearts, as they have sufficiently discovered themselves to
be ignorant of the life of Christ and the power of it in believers, so they have
invented a new righteousness that the gospel knows not of, being vainly
puffed up by their fleshly minds. For us, who dare not be wise above what is
written, nor boast by other men’s lines of what God has not done for us, we
say that indwelling sin lives in us, in some measure and degree, while we are
in this world. We dare not speak as “though we had already attained, or were
already perfect” (Phil. 3:12). Our “inward man is to be renewed day by day”
while here we live (2 Cor. 4:16), and according to the renovations of the new
are the breaches12 and decays of the old. While we are here we “know but in
part” (1 Cor. 13:12), having a remaining darkness to be gradually removed
by our “growth in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18); and
“the flesh lusts against the Spirit . . . so that we cannot do the things that we
would” (Gal. 5:17), and are therefore defective in our obedience as well as in
our light (1 John 1:8). We have a “body of death” (Rom. 7:24), from whence
we are not delivered but by the death of our bodies (Phil. 3:20). Now, it being
our duty to mortify, to be killing of sin while it is in us, we must be at work.
He that is appointed to kill an enemy, if he leave13 striking before the other
ceases living, does but half his work (Gal. 6:9; Heb. 12:1; 2 Cor. 7:1).
Indwelling Sin Not Only Abides, But Is Still Acting
Sin does not only still abide in us, but is still acting, still laboring to bring forth
the deeds of the flesh. When sin lets us alone we may let sin alone; but as sin
is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for
the most part deep when they are still, so ought our contrivances against it
to be vigorous at all times and in all conditions, even where there is least suspicion.
Sin does not only abide in us, but “the law of the members is still
rebelling against the law of the mind” (Rom. 7:23); and “the spirit that dwells
in us lusts to envy” (James 4:5). It is always in continual work; “the flesh lusts
against the Spirit” (Gal. 5:17); lust is still tempting and conceiving sin (James
1:14); in every moral action it is always either inclining to evil, or hindering
12 gaps, broken areas
13 cease
from that which is good, or disframing14 the spirit from communion with
God. It inclines to evil. “The evil which I would not, that I do,” says the apostle
(Rom. 7:19). Whence is that? Why, “Because in me (that is, in my flesh)
dwells no good thing.” And it hinders from good: “The good that I would
do, that I do not” (v. 19)—“Upon the same account, either I do it not, or not
as I should; all my holy things being defiled by this sin.” “The flesh lusts
against the Spirit . . . so that you cannot do the things that you would” (Gal.
5:17). And it unframes our spirit, and thence is called “the sin that so easily
besets us” (Heb. 12:1); on which account are those grievous complaints that
the apostle makes of it (Romans 7). So that sin is always acting, always conceiving,
always seducing and tempting. Who can say that he had ever anything
to do with God or for God, that indwelling sin had not a hand in the
corrupting of what he did? And this trade15 will it drive more or less all our
days. If, then, sin will be always acting, if we be not always mortifying, we
are lost creatures. He that stands still and suffers16 his enemies to double
blows upon him without resistance will undoubtedly be conquered in the
issue. If sin be subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of
killing our souls, and we be slothful, negligent, foolish, in proceeding to the
ruin thereof, can we expect a comfortable event?17 There is not a day but sin
foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on; and it will be so while we live in
this world.
I shall discharge him from this duty who can bring sin to a composition,18
to a cessation of arms in this warfare; if it will spare him any one day, in any
one duty (provided he be a person that is acquainted with the spirituality of
obedience and the subtlety of sin), let him say to his soul, as to this duty,
“Soul, take your rest.” The saints, whose souls breathe after deliverance from
its [i.e., sin’s] perplexing rebellion, know there is no safety against it but in a
constant warfare.
Indwelling Sin Is Not Only Active, But Will Produce
Soul-Destroying Sins If Not Mortified
Sin will not only be striving, acting, rebelling, troubling, disquieting, but if let
alone, if not continually mortified, it will bring forth great, cursed, scandalous,
soul-destroying sins. The apostle tells us what the works and fruits
14 dismantling, undoing
15 course, path, way or manner of life
16 allows, permits, tolerates
17 result, outcome
18 truce, cessation of hostilities
of it are. “The works of the flesh are manifest, which are, adultery, fornication,
uncleanness, lasciviousness,19 idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance,
emulations,20 wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness,
revelings, and such like” (Gal. 5:19-21). You know what it did in David
and sundry21 others. Sin aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to
tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost
sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could;
every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would
be atheism, might it grow to its head.22 Men may come to that, that sin may
not be heard speaking a scandalous word in their hearts—that is, provoking
to any great sin with scandal in its mouth; but yet every rise of lust, might it
have its course, would come to the height of villainy: it is like the grave that
is never satisfied. And herein lies no small share of the deceitfulness of sin, by
which it prevails to the hardening of men, and so to their ruin (Heb. 3:13)—
it is modest, as it were, in its first motions and proposals, but having once got
footing in the heart by them, it constantly makes good its ground, and presses
on to some farther degrees in the same kind. This new acting and pressing
forward makes the soul take little notice of what an entrance to a falling off
from God is already made; it thinks all is indifferently well if there be no further
progress; and so far as the soul is made insensible23 of any sin—that is,
as to such a sense as the gospel requires—so far it is hardened: but sin is still
pressing forward, and that because it has no bounds but utter relinquishment
of God and opposition to him; that it proceeds toward its height by degrees,
making good the ground it has got by hardness, is not from its nature, but its
deceitfulness. Now nothing can prevent this but mortification; that withers
the root and strikes at the head of sin every hour, so that whatever it aims at,
it is crossed in. There is not the best saint in the world but, if he should give
over this duty, would fall into as many cursed sins as ever any did of his kind.
Indwelling Sin Is to Be Opposed by the Spirit and the
New Nature
This is one main reason why the Spirit and the new nature are given unto us—
that we may have a principle within us whereby to oppose sin and lust. “The
flesh lusts against the Spirit.” Well! and what then? Why, “the Spirit also lusts
19 wantonness, inclination to lust
20 jealousies, especially of power and position
21 various
22 ultimate outcome
23 apathetic, callous, uncomprehending
against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17). There is a propensity in the Spirit, or spiritual
new nature, to be acting against the flesh, as well as in the flesh to be acting
against the Spirit (2 Pet. 1:4-5). It is our participation of the divine nature that
gives us an escape from the pollutions that are in the world through lust; and
there is a law of the mind (Rom. 7:23), as well as a law of the members. Now
this is, first, the most unjust and unreasonable thing in the world, when two
combatants are engaged, to bind one and keep him up from doing his utmost
and to leave the other at liberty to wound him at his pleasure; and, secondly,
the most foolish thing in the world to bind him who fights for our eternal condition
and to let him alone who seeks and violently attempts our everlasting
ruin. The contest is for our lives and souls. Not to be daily employing the
Spirit and new nature for the mortifying of sin is to neglect that excellent
succor24 which God has given us against our greatest enemy. If we neglect to
make use of what we have received, God may justly hold his hand from giving
us more. His graces, as well as his gifts, are bestowed on us to use, exercise,
and trade with. Not to be daily mortifying sin is to sin against the
goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace, and love of God, who has furnished us
with a principle of doing it.
The Results of Neglecting the Mortification of Indwelling Sin
Negligence in this duty casts the soul into a perfect contrary condition to that
which the apostle affirms was his: “Though our outward man perish, yet the
inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). In these the inward man
perishes, and the outward man is renewed day by day. Sin is as the house of
David, and grace as the house of Saul. Exercise and success are the two main
cherishers of grace in the heart; when it is suffered to lie still, it withers and
decays: the things of it are ready to die (Rev. 3:2); and sin gets ground toward
the hardening of the heart (Heb. 3:13). This is that which I intend: by the omission
of this duty grace withers, lust flourishes, and the frame of the heart grows
worse and worse; and the Lord knows what desperate and fearful issues it has
had with many. Where sin, through the neglect of mortification, gets a considerable
victory, it breaks the bones of the soul (Ps. 31:10; 51:8), and makes
a man weak, sick, and ready to die (Ps. 38:3-5), so that he cannot look up (Ps.
40:12; Isa. 33:24); and when poor creatures will take blow after blow, wound
after wound, foil after foil, and never rouse up themselves to a vigorous opposition,
can they expect anything but to be hardened through the deceitfulness
of sin, and that their souls should bleed to death (2 John 8)? Indeed, it is a sad
24 assistance, relief
thing to consider the fearful issues of this neglect, which lie under our eyes
every day. See we not those, whom we knew humble, melting, broken-hearted
Christians, tender and fearful to offend, zealous for God and all his ways, his
Sabbaths and ordinances, grown, through a neglect of watching unto this duty,
earthly, carnal, cold, wrathful, complying with the men of the world and things
of the world, to the scandal of religion and the fearful temptation of them that
know them? The truth is, what between placing mortification in a rigid, stubborn
frame of spirit—which is for the most part earthly, legal, censorious,25
partial, consistent with wrath, envy, malice, pride—on the one hand, and pretenses
of liberty, grace, and I know not what, on the other, true evangelical
mortification is almost lost among us: of which afterward.
It Is Our Duty to Perfect Holiness in the Fear of God and
Grow in Grace Every Day
It is our duty to be “perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1); to
be “growing in grace” every day (1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18); to be “renewing our
inward man day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). Now, this cannot be done without
the daily mortifying of sin. Sin sets its strength against every act of holiness
and against every degree we grow to. Let not that man think he makes any
progress in holiness who walks not over the bellies of his lusts. He who does
not kill sin in his way takes no steps toward his journey’s end. He who finds
not opposition from it, and who sets not himself in every particular to its mortification,
is at peace with it, not dying to it.
This, then, is the first general principle of our ensuing discourse:
Notwithstanding the meritorious mortification, if I may so speak, of all and
every sin in the cross of Christ; notwithstanding the real foundation of universal
mortification laid in our first conversion, by conviction of sin, humiliation
for sin, and the implantation of a new principle opposite to it and
destructive of it—yet sin does so remain, so act and work in the best of believers,
while they live in this world, that the constant daily mortification of it is
all their days incumbent on them. Before I proceed to the consideration of the
next principle, I cannot but by the way complain of many professors26 of these
days, who, instead of bringing forth such great and evident fruits of mortification
as are expected, scarce bear any leaves of it. There is, indeed, a broad
light fallen upon the men of this generation, and together therewith many spiritual
gifts communicated, which, with some other considerations, have won-
25 critical
26 those who make a religious confession; professing Christians
derfully enlarged the bounds of professors and profession; both they and it are
exceedingly multiplied and increased. Hence there is a noise of religion and
religious duties in every corner, preaching in abundance—and that not in an
empty, light, trivial, and vain manner, as formerly, but to a good proportion
of a spiritual gift—so that if you will measure the number of believers by light,
gifts, and profession, the church may have cause to say, “Who has born me
all these?” But now if you will take the measure of them by this great discriminating
grace of Christians, perhaps you will find their number not so multiplied.
Where almost is that professor27 who owes his conversion to these days
of light, and so talks and professes at such a rate of spirituality as few in former
days were, in any measure, acquainted with (I will not judge them, but
perhaps boasting what the Lord has done in them), that does not give evidence
of a miserably unmortified heart? If vain spending of time, idleness, unprofitableness
in men’s places, envy, strife, variance, emulations, wrath, pride,
worldliness, selfishness (1 Corinthians 1) be badges of Christians, we have
them on us and among us in abundance. And if it be so with them who have
much light, and which, we hope, is saving, what shall we say of some who
would be accounted religious and yet despise gospel light, and for the duty we
have in hand, know no more of it but what consists in men’s denying themselves
sometimes in outward enjoyments, which is one of the outmost branches
of it, which yet they will seldom practice? The good Lord send out a spirit of
mortification to cure our distempers, or we are in a sad condition!
There are two evils which certainly attend every unmortified professor—
the first, in himself; the other, in respect of others.
In himself. Let him pretend what he will, he has slight thoughts of sin; at
least, of sins of daily infirmity. The root of an unmortified course is the digestion
of sin without bitterness in the heart. When a man has confirmed his
imagination to such an apprehension of grace and mercy as to be able, without
bitterness, to swallow and digest daily sins, that man is at the very brink
of turning the grace of God into lasciviousness and being hardened by the
deceitfulness of sin. Neither is there a greater evidence of a false and rotten
heart in the world than to drive such a trade. To use the blood of Christ,
which is given to cleanse us (1 John 1:7; Titus 2:14); the exaltation of Christ,
which is to give us repentance (Acts 5:31); the doctrine of grace, which
teaches us to deny all ungodliness (Titus 2:11-12), to countenance28 sin is a
rebellion that in the issue29 will break the bones. At this door have gone out
27 Where, I wonder, is that professor
28 approve, condone
29 outcome
from us most of the professors that have apostatized in the days wherein we
live. For a while most of them were under convictions; these kept them unto
duties, and brought them to profession; so they “escaped the pollutions that
are in the world, through the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet.
2:20): but having got an acquaintance with the doctrine of the gospel, and
being weary of duty, for which they had no principle, they began to countenance
themselves in manifold neglects from the doctrine of grace. Now, when
once this evil had laid hold of them, they speedily tumbled into perdition.30
To others. It has an evil influence on them on a twofold account: It hardens
them, by begetting in them a persuasion that they are in as good condition
as the best professors. Whatever they see in them is so stained for want31
of this mortification that it is of no value with them. They have a zeal for religion;
but it is accompanied with want of forbearance and universal righteousness.
They deny prodigality,32 but with worldliness; they separate from
the world, but live wholly to themselves, taking no care to exercise lovingkindness
in the earth; or they talk spiritually, and live vainly; mention communion
with God, and are every way conformed to the world; boasting of
forgiveness of sin, and never forgiving others. And with such considerations
do poor creatures harden their hearts in their unregeneracy.
They deceive them, in making them believe that if they can come up to
their condition it shall be well with them; and so it grows an easy thing to have
the great temptation of repute in religion to wrestle with, when they may go
far beyond them as to what appears in them, and yet come short of eternal
life. But of these things and all the evils of unmortified walking, afterward.


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