Mortification Chapter 6

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

What it is to mortify a sin in general, which will make further way for particular
directions, is next to be considered.
Mortification Consists in a Habitual Weakening of Sin
Every lust is a depraved habit or disposition, continually inclining the heart
to evil. Thence is that description of him who has no lust truly mortified:
“Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually” (Gen.
6:5). He is always under the power of a strong bent and inclination to sin.
And the reason why a natural man is not always perpetually in the pursuit of
some one lust, night and day, is because he has many to serve, every one crying
to be satisfied; thence he is carried on with great variety, but still in general
he lies toward the satisfaction of self.
We will suppose, then, the lust or distemper whose mortification is
inquired after to be in itself a strong, deeply-rooted, habitual inclination and
bent of will and affections unto some actual sin, as to the matter of it, though
not, under that formal consideration, always stirring up imaginations,
thoughts, and contrivances about the object of it. Hence, men are said to have
their “hearts set upon evil” [Eccles. 8:11], the bent of their spirits lies toward
it, to make “provision for the flesh” [Rom. 13:14]. And a sinful, depraved
habit, as in really other things, so in this, differs from all natural or moral
habits whatsoever: for whereas they incline the soul gently and suitably to
itself, sinful habits impel with violence and impetuousness;8 whence lusts are
said to fight or wage “war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11)—to rebel or rise up
in war with that conduct and opposition which is usual therein(Rom. 7:23)—
8 vehemence
to lead captive, or effectually captivating upon success in battle—all works
of great violence and impetuousness.
I might manifest fully, from that description we have of it (Romans 7),
how it will darken the mind, extinguish convictions, dethrone reason, interrupt
the power and influence of any considerations that may be brought to
hamper it, and break through all into a flame. But this is not my present business.
Now, the first thing in mortification is the weakening of this habit of sin
or lust, that it shall not, with that violence, earnestness, frequency, rise up,
conceive, tumultuate,9 provoke, entice, disquiet, as naturally it is apt to do
(James 1:14-15).
I shall desire to give one caution or rule by the way, and it is this: Though
every lust does in its own nature equally, universally, incline and impel to sin,
yet this must be granted with these two limitations:
One lust, or a lust in one man, may receive many accidental10 improvements,
heightenings, and strengthenings, which may give it life, power, and
vigor, exceedingly above what another lust has, or the same lust (that is, of the
same kind and nature) in another man. When a lust falls in with the natural
constitutions and temper, with a suitable course of life, with occasions, or when
Satan has got a fit handle to it to manage it, as he has a thousand ways so to
do, that lust grows violent and impetuous above others, or more than the same
lust in another man; then the steams of it darken the mind so, that though a
man knows the same things as formerly, yet they have no power nor influence
on the will, but corrupt affections and passions are set by it at liberty.
But especially, lust gets strength by temptation. When a suitable temptation
falls in with a lust, it gives it a new life, vigor, power, violence, and rage,
which it seemed not before to have or to be capable of. Instances to this purpose
might be multiplied; but it is the design of some part of another treatise11
to evince this observation.
Some lusts are far more sensible and discernible in their violent actings
than others. Paul puts a difference between uncleanness and all other sins:
“Flee fornication. Every sin that a man does is without the body; but he that
commits fornication sins against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18). Hence, the
motions of that sin are more sensible, more discernible than of others; when
perhaps the love of the world, or the like, is in a person no less habitually predominant
than that, yet it makes not so great a combustion12 in the whole man.
9 agitate, disturb, stir up
10 non-essential, incidental
11 See Owen’s Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It, reprinted in this volume.
12 consuming as by fire; tumult
And on this account some men may go in their own thoughts and in the
eyes of the world for mortified men, who yet have in them no less predominancy
of lust than those who cry out with astonishment upon the account of
its perplexing tumultuatings, yea, than those who have by the power of it
been hurried into scandalous sins; only their lusts are in and about things
which raise not such a tumult in the soul, about which they are exercised with
a calmer frame of spirit, the very fabric of nature being not so nearly concerned
in them as in some other.
I say, then, that the first thing in mortification is the weakening of this
habit, that it shall not impel and tumultuate as formerly; that it shall not
entice and draw aside; that it shall not disquiet and perplex the killing of its
life, vigor, promptness, and readiness to be stirring. This is called “crucifying
the flesh with the lusts thereof” (Gal. 5:24); that is, taking away its blood and
spirits that give it strength and power—the wasting of the body of death “day
by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).
As a man nailed to the cross he first struggles and strives and cries out
with great strength and might, but, as his blood and spirits waste, his strivings
are faint and seldom, his cries low and hoarse, scarce to be heard; when
a man first sets on a lust or distemper, to deal with it, it struggles with great
violence to break loose; it cries with earnestness and impatience to be satisfied
and relieved; but when by mortification the blood and spirits of it are let
out, it moves seldom and faintly, cries sparingly, and is scarce heard in the
heart; it may have sometimes a dying pang, that makes an appearance of great
vigor and strength, but it is quickly over, especially if it be kept from considerable
success. This the apostle describes, as in the whole chapter, so especially
Romans 6:6.
“Sin,” says he, “is crucified; it is fastened to the cross.” To what end?
“That the body of death may be destroyed,” the power of sin weakened and
abolished by little and little, that “henceforth we should not serve sin,” that
is, that sin might not incline, impel us with such efficacy as to make us servants
to it, as it has done heretofore. And this is spoken not only with respect
to carnal and sensual affections, or desires of worldly things—not only in
respect of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—but
also as to the flesh, that is, in the mind and will, in that opposition unto God
which is in us by nature. Of whatsoever nature the troubling distemper be, by
whatsoever ways it [might] make itself out, either by impelling to evil or hindering
from that which is good, the rule is the same; and unless this be done
effectually, all after-contention will not compass the end aimed at. A man may
beat down the bitter fruit from an evil tree until he is weary; while the root
abides in strength and vigor, the beating down of the present fruit will not hinder
it from bringing forth more. This is the folly of some men; they set themselves
with all earnestness and diligence against the appearing eruption of lust,
but, leaving the principle and root untouched, perhaps unsearched out, they
make but little or no progress in this work of mortification.
Mortification Consists in Constant Fighting and Contending
Against Sin
To be able always to be laying load on sin is no small degree of mortification.
When sin is strong and vigorous, the soul is scarce able to make any head
against it; it sighs, and groans, and mourns, and is troubled, as David speaks
of himself, but seldom has sin in the pursuit. David complains that his sin had
“taken fast hold upon him, that he could not look up” (Ps. 40:12). How little,
then, was he able to fight against it! Now, sundry things are required unto
and comprised in this fighting against sin:
To know that a man has such an enemy to deal with it, to take notice of
it, to consider it as an enemy indeed, and one that is to be destroyed by all
means possible, is required hereunto. As I said before, the contest is vigorous
and hazardous—it is about the things of eternity. When, therefore, men have
slight and transient thoughts of their lusts, it is no great sign that they are mortified,
or that they are in a way for their mortification. This is every man’s
“knowing the plague of his own heart” (1 Kings 8:38), without which no
other work can be done. It is to be feared that very many have little knowledge
of the main enemy that they carry about with them in their bosoms. This
makes them ready to justify themselves and to be impatient of reproof or
admonition, not knowing that they are in any danger (2 Chron. 16:10).
To labor to be acquainted with the ways, wiles, methods, advantages,
and occasions of its success is the beginning of this warfare. So do men deal
with enemies. They inquire out their counsels and designs, ponder their ends,
consider how and by what means they have formerly prevailed, that they may
be prevented. In this consists the greatest skill in conduct. Take this away, and
all waging of war, wherein is the greatest improvement of human wisdom and
industry, would be brutish. So do they deal with lust who mortify it indeed.
Not only when it is actually vexing, enticing, and seducing, but in their retirements13
they consider, “This is our enemy; this is his way and progress, these
are his advantages, thus has he prevailed, and thus he will do, if not prevented.”
So David, “My sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3). And, indeed, one
13 privacy, seclusion, leisure
of the choicest and most eminent parts of practically spiritual wisdom consists
in finding out the subtleties, policies, and depths of any indwelling sin;
to consider and know wherein its greatest strength lies—what advantage it
uses to make of occasions, opportunities, temptations—what are its pleas,
pretenses, reasonings—what its stratagems, colors,14 excuses; to set the wisdom
of the Spirit against the craft of the old man; to trace this serpent in all
its turnings and windings; to be able to say, at its most secret and (to a common
frame of heart) imperceptible actings, “This is your old way and course;
I know what you aim at”—and so to be always in readiness is a good part of
our warfare.
To load it daily with all the things which shall after be mentioned, that
are grievous, killing, and destructive to it is the height of this contest. Such a
one never thinks his lust dead because it is quiet, but labors still to give it new
wounds, new blows every day. (So the apostle, Col. 3:5.)
Now, while the soul is in this condition, while it is thus dealing, it is certainly
uppermost; sin is under the sword and dying.
Mortification Consists in Frequent Success
Frequent success against any lust is another part and evidence of mortification.
By success I understand not a mere disappointment15 of sin, that it be
not brought forth nor accomplished, but a victory over it and pursuit of it to
a complete conquest. For instance, when the heart finds sin at any time at
work, seducing, forming imaginations to make provision for the flesh, to fulfill
the lusts thereof, it instantly apprehends sin and brings it to the law of God
and love of Christ, condemns it, follows it with execution to the uttermost.
Now, I say, when a man comes to this state and condition, that lust is
weakened in the root and principle, that its motions and actions are fewer
and weaker than formerly, so that they are not able to hinder his duty nor
interrupt his peace—when he can, in a quiet, sedate frame of spirit, find out
and fight against sin, and have success against it—then sin is mortified in some
considerable measure, and, notwithstanding all its opposition, a man may
have peace with God all his days.
Unto these heads, then, do I refer the mortification aimed at; that is, of
any one perplexing distemper, whereby the general depravity and corruption
of our nature attempts to exert and put forth itself:
First, the weakening of its indwelling disposition, whereby it inclines,
14 embellishments concealing the truth
15 undoing of an intended end or use
entices, impels to evil, rebels, opposes, fights against God, by the implanting,
habitual residence, and cherishing of a principle of grace that stands in direct
opposition to it and is destructive of it, is the foundation of it. So, by the
implanting and growth of humility is pride weakened, passion by patience,
uncleanness by purity of mind and conscience, love of this world by heavenlymindedness:
which are graces of the Spirit, or the same habitual grace variously
acting itself by the Holy Ghost, according to the variety or diversity of
the objects about which it is exercised; as the other are several lusts, or the
same natural corruption variously acting itself, according to the various
advantages and occasions that it meets with.
The promptness, alacrity,16 vigor of the Spirit, or new man, in contending
with, cheerful fighting against, the lust spoken of, by all the ways and
with all the means that are appointed thereunto, constantly using the succors
provided against its motions and actings, is a second thing hereunto
Success unto several degrees attends these two. Now this, if the distemper
has not an unconquerable advantage from its natural situation, may possibly
be to such a universal conquest as the soul may never more sensibly feel
its opposition, and shall, however, assuredly arise to an allowance of peace
to the conscience, according to the tenor of the covenant of grace.


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