Mortification Chapter 5

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

These things being premised, I come to my principal retention,1 of handling
some questions or practical cases that present themselves in this business of
mortification of sin in believers.
The first, which is the head of all the rest, and whereunto they are
reduced, may be considered as lying under the ensuing proposal: Suppose a
man to be a true believer, and yet finds in himself a powerful indwelling sin,
leading him captive to the law of it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing
his thoughts, weakening his soul as to duties of communion with
God, disquieting him as to peace, and perhaps defiling his conscience, and
exposing him to hardening through the deceitfulness of sin, what shall he do?
What course shall he take and insist on for the mortification of this sin, lust,
distemper, or corruption, to such a degree as that, though it be not utterly
destroyed, yet, in his contest with it, he may be enabled to keep up power,
strength, and peace in communion with God?
In answer to this important inquiry, I shall do these things: (1) Show what
it is to mortify any sin, and that both negatively and positively, that we be
not mistaken in the foundation; (2) Give general directions for such things as
without which it will be utterly impossible for anyone to get any sin truly and
spiritually mortified; (3) Draw out the particulars whereby this is to be done;
in the whole carrying on this consideration, that it is not of the doctrine of
mortification in general, but only in reference to the particular case before
proposed, that I am treating.
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.
He would so kill it that it should never move nor stir anymore, cry or call,
seduce or tempt, to eternity. Its not-being is the thing aimed at. 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
1 contention, concern
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. This Paul assures us of: “Not
as though I had already attained, either were already perfect” (Phil. 3:12). He
was a choice saint, a pattern for believers, who, in faith and love, and all the
fruits of the Spirit, had not his fellow in the world, and on that account
ascribes perfection to himself in comparison of others (v. 15); yet he had not
“attained,” he was not “perfect,” but was “following after” (v. 12): still a vile
body he had, and we have, that must be changed by the great power of Christ
at last (v. 21). This we would have; but God sees it best for us that we should
be complete in nothing in ourselves, that in all things we must be “complete
in Christ,” which is best for us (Col. 2:10).
Mortification Is Not the Dissimulation of Sin
I think I need not say it is not the dissimulation2 of a 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.
Mortification Is Not the Improvement of a Quiet,
Sedate Nature
The mortification of sin consists not in the improvement of a quiet, sedate
nature. Some men have an advantage by their natural constitution so far as
that they are not exposed to such violence of unruly passions and tumultuous
affections as many others are. Let now these men cultivate and improve their
natural frame and temper3 by discipline, consideration, and prudence, and
they may seem to themselves and others very mortified men, when, perhaps,
their hearts are a standing sink of all abominations. Some man is never so
much troubled all his life, perhaps, with anger and passion, nor does trouble
others, as another is almost every day; and yet the latter has done more to
the mortification of the sin than the former. Let not such persons try their
mortification by such things as their natural temper gives no life or vigor to.
Let them bring themselves to self-denial, unbelief, envy, or some such spiritual
sin, and they will have a better view of themselves.
2 making unlike; process of becoming unlike
3 character, disposition
Mortification Is Not the Diversion of Sin
A sin is not mortified when it is only diverted. Simon Magus for a season left
his sorceries; but his covetousness and ambition, that set him on work,
remained still, and would have been acting another way. Therefore Peter tells
him, “I perceive you are in the gall of bitterness” [Acts 8:23]—
“Notwithstanding the profession you have made, notwithstanding your relinquishment
of your sorceries, your lust is as powerful as ever in you; the same
lust, only the streams of it are diverted. It now exerts and puts forth itself
another way, but it is the old gall of bitterness still.” A man may be sensible of
a lust, set himself against the eruptions of it, take care that it shall not break
forth as it has done, but in the meantime suffer the same corrupted habit to vent
itself some other way; as he who heals and skins a running sore thinks himself
cured, but in the meantime his flesh festers by the corruption of the same
humor,4 and breaks out in another place. And this diversion, with the alterations
that attend it, often befalls men on accounts wholly foreign unto grace: change
of the course of life that a man was in, of relations, interests, designs, may effect
it; yea, the very alterations in men’s constitutions, occasioned by a natural
progress in the course of their lives, may produce such changes as these. Men
in [old] age do not usually persist in the pursuit of youthful lusts, although they
have never mortified any one of them. And the same is the case of bartering of
lusts, and leaving to serve one that a man may serve another. He that changes
pride for worldliness, sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt
of others, let him not think that he has mortified the sin that he seems to
have left. He has changed his master, but is a servant still.
Mortification Is Not Just Occasional Conquests Over Sin
Occasional conquests of sin do not amount to a mortifying of it. There are
two occasions or seasons wherein a man who is contending with any sin may
seem to himself to have mortified it:
When it has had some sad eruption, to the disturbance of his peace, terror
of his conscience, dread of scandal, and evident provocation of God. This
awakens and stirs up all that is in the man, and amazes him, fills him with
abhorrency of sin and himself for it; sends him to God, makes him cry out as
for life, to abhor his lust as hell and to set himself against it. The whole man,
spiritual and natural, being now awakened, sin shrinks in its head, appears
not, but lies as dead before him: as when one that has drawn nigh5 to an army
4 bodily fluid, thought to be the physical root of the passions
5 near
in the night, and has killed a principal person—instantly the guards awake,
men are roused up, and strict inquiry is made after the enemy, who, in the
meantime, until the noise and tumult be over, hides himself, or lies like one
that is dead, yet with firm resolution to do the like mischief again upon the
like opportunity. Upon the sin among the Corinthians, see how they muster
up themselves for the surprise and destruction of it (2 Cor. 7:11). So it is in a
person when a breach has been made upon his conscience, quiet, perhaps
credit, by his lust, in some eruption of actual sin—carefulness, indignation,
desire, fear, revenge, are all set on work about it and against it, and lust is quiet
for a season, being run down before them; but when the hurry is over and the
inquest6 past, the thief appears again alive, and is as busy as ever at his work.
In a time of some judgment, calamity, or pressing affliction, the heart is
then taken up with thoughts and contrivances of flying from the present troubles,
fears, and dangers. This, as a convinced person concludes, is to be done
only by relinquishment of sin, which gains peace with God. It is the anger of
God in every affliction that galls a convinced person. To be quit of this,7 men
resolve at such times against their sins. Sin shall never more have any place
in them; they will never again give up themselves to the service of it.
Accordingly, sin is quiet, stirs not, seems to be mortified; not, indeed, that it
has received any one wound, but merely because the soul has possessed its
faculties, whereby it should exert itself, with thoughts inconsistent with the
motions thereof; which, when they are laid aside, sin returns again to its former
life and vigor. So they are a full instance and description of this frame of
spirit whereof I speak:
For all this they sinned still, and believed not for his wondrous works.
Therefore their days did he consume in vanity, and their years in trouble.
When he slew them, then they sought him: and they returned and inquired
early after God. And they remembered that God was their rock, and the
high God their redeemer. Nevertheless they did flatter him with their
mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues. For their heart was not
right with him, neither were they steadfast in his covenant. (Ps. 78:32-37)
I no way doubt but that when they sought, and returned, and inquired early
after God, they did it with full purpose of heart as to the relinquishment of
their sins; it is expressed in the word “returned.” To turn or return to the Lord
is by a relinquishment of sin. This they did “early”—with earnestness and
6 inquiry, investigation
7 to be freed or released from this
diligence—but yet their sin was unmortified for all this (vv. 36-37). And this
is the state of many humiliations in the days of affliction, and a great deceit
in the hearts of believers themselves lies oftentimes herein.
These and many other ways there are whereby poor souls deceive themselves,
and suppose they have mortified their lusts, when they live and are
mighty, and on every occasion break forth, to their disturbance and disquietness.



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