Mortification Chapter 7

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

The ways and means whereby a soul may proceed to the mortification of any
particular lust and sin, which Satan takes advantage by to disquiet and
weaken him, come next under consideration.
Now, there are some general considerations to be premised, concerning
some principles and foundations of this work, without which no man in the
world, be he never so much raised by convictions, and resolved for the mortification
of any sin, can attain thereunto.
General rules and principles, without which no sin will be ever mortified,
are these:
16 eagerness, liveliness, speed
There Will Be No Mortification Unless a Man Be a Believer
Unless a man be a believer—that is, one that is truly ingrafted into Christ—
he can never mortify any one sin; I do not say, unless he know himself to be
so, but unless indeed he be so.
Mortification is the work of believers: “If you through the Spirit” (Rom.
8:13), etc.—you believers, to whom there is no condemnation (v. 1). They
alone are exhorted to it: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon
the earth” (Col. 3:5). Who should mortify? You who [are] “risen with
Christ” (v. 1); whose “life is hid with Christ in God” (v. 3); who “shall appear
with him in glory” (v. 4). An unregenerate man may do something like it; but
the work itself, so as it may be acceptable with God, he can never perform.
You know what a picture of it is drawn in some of the philosophers—Seneca,
Tully, Epictetus17—what affectionate discourses they have of contempt of the
world and self, of regulating and conquering all exorbitant affections and passions!
The lives of most of them manifested that their maxims differed as
much from true mortification as the sun painted on a sign-post from the sun
in the firmament; they had neither light nor heat. Their own Lucian18 sufficiently
manifests what they all were. There is no death of sin without the
death of Christ. You know what attempts there are made after it by the
papists, in their vows, penances, and satisfactions. I dare say of them (I mean
as many of them as act upon the principles of their church, as they call it)
what Paul says of Israel in point of righteousness: They have followed after
mortification, but they have not attained to it. Wherefore? “Because they seek
it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law” (Rom. 9:31-32). The
same is the state and condition of all among ourselves who, in obedience to
their convictions and awakened consciences, do attempt a relinquishment of
sin—they follow after it, but they do not attain it.
It is true, it is—it will be—required of every person whatsoever that hears
the law or gospel preached, that he mortify sin. It is his duty, but it is not his
immediate duty; it is his duty to do it, but to do it in God’s way. If you require
your servant to pay so much money for you in such a place, but first to go and
take it up in another, it is his duty to pay the money appointed, and you will
blame him if he does it not; yet it was not his immediate duty—he was first to
take it up, according to your direction. So it is in this case: sin is to be mortified,
but something is to be done in the first place to enable us thereunto.
17 Seneca (c. 4 B.C.–65 A.D.) was a Roman playwright, orator, and philosopher. “Tully” is an older way of
referring to Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 B.C.), a Roman statesman, lawyer, and philosopher. Epictetus
(c. 55–c. 135 A.D.) was a Greek Stoic philosopher.
18 Lucian of Samosata (c. 120–c. 190 A.D.) was a Greek satirist who mocked Greek philosophy and mythology.
I have proved that it is the Spirit alone that can mortify sin; he is promised
to do it, and all other means without him are empty and vain. How shall he,
then, mortify sin that has not the Spirit? A man may easier see without eyes,
speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit. Now,
how is he attained? It is the Spirit of Christ: and as the apostle says, “If we
have not the Spirit of Christ, we are none of his” (Rom. 8:9); so, if we are
Christ’s, have an interest19 in him, we have the Spirit, and so alone have power
for mortification. This the apostle discourses at large, “So then they that are
in the flesh cannot please God” (v. 8). It is the inference and conclusion he
makes of his foregoing discourse about our natural state and condition, and
the enmity we have unto God and his law therein. If we are in the flesh, if we
have not the Spirit, we cannot do anything that should please God. But what
is our deliverance from this condition? “But you are not in the flesh, but in
the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you” (v. 9)—“You believers,
that have the Spirit of Christ, you are not in the flesh.” There is no way
of deliverance from the state and condition of being in the flesh but by the
Spirit of Christ. And what if this Spirit of Christ be in you? Why, then, you
are mortified; “the body is dead because of sin” or unto it (v. 10); mortification
is carried on; the new man is quickened to righteousness. This the apostle
proves from the union we have with Christ by the Spirit (v. 11), which will
produce suitable operations in us to what it wrought in him. All attempts,
then, for mortification of any lust, without an interest in Christ, are vain.
Many men that are galled with and for sin, the arrows of Christ for conviction,
by the preaching of the word, or some affliction having been made sharp
in their hearts, do vigorously set themselves against this or that particular lust,
wherewith their consciences have been most disquieted or perplexed. But,
poor creatures! They labor in the fire, and their work consumes. When the
Spirit of Christ comes to this work he will be “like a refiner’s fire and like
fullers’ soap,” and he will purge men as gold and as silver (Mal. 3:2-3)—take
away their dross and tin [Isa. 1:25], their filth and blood (Isa. 4:4); but men
must be gold and silver in the bottom, or else refining will do them no good.
The prophet gives us the sad issue of wicked men’s utmost attempts for mortification,
by whatsoever means that God affords them: “The bellows20 are
burned, and the lead is consumed of the fire; the founder melts in vain. . . .
Reprobate silver shall men call them, because the LORD has rejected them”
(Jer. 6:29-30). And what is the reason hereof? They were “brass and iron”
19 share or stake
20 blacksmith’s device for blowing air into fire
when they were put into the furnace (v. 28). Men may refine brass and iron
long enough before they will be good silver.
I say, then, mortification is not the present business of unregenerate men.
God calls them not to it as yet; conversion is their work—the conversion of
the whole soul—not the mortification of this or that particular lust. You
would laugh at a man that you should see setting up a great fabric, and never
take any care for a foundation; especially if you should see him so foolish as
that, having a thousand experiences that what he built one day fell down
another, he would yet continue in the same course. So it is with convinced
persons; though they plainly see that what ground they get against sin one
day they lose another, yet they will go on in the same road still without inquiring
where the destructive flaw in their progress lies. When the Jews, upon the
conviction of their sin, were cut to the heart and cried out, “What shall we
do?” (Acts 2:37), what does Peter direct them to do? Does he bid them go
and mortify their pride, wrath, malice, cruelty, and the like? No; he knew that
was not their present work, but he calls them to conversion and faith in Christ
in general (v. 38). Let the soul be first thoroughly converted, and then, “looking
on him whom they had pierced” [Zech. 12:10; John 19:37], humiliation
and mortification will ensue. Thus, when John came to preach repentance and
conversion, he said, “The axe is now laid to the root of the tree” (Matt. 3:10).
The Pharisees had been laying heavy burdens, imposing tedious duties, and
rigid means of mortification, in fastings, washings, and the like, all in vain.
Says John, “The doctrine of conversion is for you; the axe in my hand is laid
to the root.” And our Savior tells us what is to be done in this case; says he,
“Do men gather grapes of thorns?” (Matt. 7:16). But suppose a thorn be well
pruned and cut, and have pains taken with him? “Yea, but he will never bear
figs” (vv. 17-18 [cf. also James 3:12]); it cannot be but every tree will bring
forth fruit according to its own kind. What is then to be done, he tells us,
“Make the tree good, and his fruit will be good” (Matt. 12:33). The root must
be dealt with, the nature of the tree changed, or no good fruit will be brought
This is that I aim at: unless a man be regenerate, unless he be a believer,
all attempts that he can make for mortification, be they never so specious and
promising—all means he can use, let him follow them with never so much
diligence, earnestness, watchfulness, and intention of mind and spirit—are to
no purpose. In vain shall he use many remedies; he shall not be healed. Yea,
there are sundry desperate evils attending an endeavor in convinced persons,
that are no more but so, to perform this duty:
The mind and soul is taken up about that which is not the man’s proper
business, and so he is diverted from that which is so. God lays hold by his
word and judgments on some sin in him, galls his conscience, disquiets his
heart, deprives him of his rest; now other diversions will not serve his turn;
he must apply himself to the work before him. The business in hand being
to awaken the whole man unto a consideration of the state and condition
wherein he is, that he might be brought home to God, instead hereof he sets
himself to mortify the sin that galls him—which is a pure issue of self-love,
to be freed from his trouble, and not at all to the work he is called unto—
and so is diverted from it. Thus God tells us of Ephraim, when he “spread
his net upon them, and brought them down as the fowls of heaven, and chastised
them” (Hos. 7:12), caught them, entangled them, convinced them that
they could not escape; says he of them, “They return, but not to the Most
High” [Hos. 7:16]—they set themselves to a relinquishment of sin, but not
in that manner, by universal conversion, as God called for it. Thus are men
diverted from coming unto God by the most glorious ways that they can fix
upon to come to him by. And this is one of the most common deceits
whereby men ruin their own souls. I wish that some whose trade it is to
daub21 with untempered mortar in the things of God did not teach this deceit
and cause the people to err by their ignorance. What do men do, what oftentimes
are they directed unto, when their consciences are galled by sin and
disquietment from the Lord, who has laid hold upon them? Is not a relinquishment
of the sin, as to practice, that they are, in some fruits of it, perplexed
with, and making head against it, the sum of what they apply
themselves unto? And is not the gospel end of their convictions lost thereby?
Here men abide and perish.
This duty being a thing good in itself, in its proper place, a duty evidencing
sincerity, bringing home peace to the conscience; a man finding himself
really engaged in it, his mind and heart set against this or that sin, with
purpose and resolution to have no more to do with it—he is ready to conclude
that his state and condition is good, and so to delude his own soul.
When his conscience has been made sick with sin, and he could find no
rest, when he should go to the great Physician of souls, and get healing in his
blood, the man by this engagement against sin pacifies and quiets his conscience,
and sits down without going to Christ at all. Ah! How many poor
souls are thus deluded to eternity! “When Ephraim saw his sickness, he sent
to king Jareb” (Hos. 5:13), which kept him off from God. The whole bundle
21 cover, as with plaster
of the popish religion is made up of designs and contrivances to pacify conscience
without Christ; all described by the apostle (Rom. 10:3). By this
means men satisfy themselves that their state and condition is good, seeing
they do that which is a work good in itself, and they do not do it to be seen.
They know they would have the work done in sincerity, and so are hardened
in a kind of self-righteousness.
When a man has thus for a season been deluded, and has deceived his
own soul, and finds in a long course of life that indeed his sin is not mortified,
or if he has changed one [but] he has gotten another, he begins at length
to think that all contending is in vain—he shall never be able to prevail; he is
making a dam against water that increases on him. Hereupon he gives over,
as one despairing of any success, and yields up himself to the power of sin
and that habit of formality that he has gotten.
And this is the usual issue with persons attempting the mortification of
sin without an interest in Christ first obtained. It deludes them, hardens
them—destroys them. And therefore we see that there are not usually more
vile and desperate sinners in the world than such as, having by conviction
been put on this course, have found it fruitless and deserted it without a discovery
of Christ. And this is the substance of the religion and godliness of the
choicest formalists in the world, and of all those who in the Roman22 synagogue
are drawn to mortification, as they drive Indians to baptism or cattle
to water. I say, then, that mortification is the work of believers, and believers
only. To kill sin is the work of living men; where men are dead (as all unbelievers,
the best of them, are dead), sin is alive, and will live.
It is the work of faith, the peculiar work of faith. Now, if there be a work
to be done that will be effected by only one instrument, it is the greatest madness
for any to attempt the doing of it that has not that instrument. Now, it
is faith that purifies the heart (Acts 15:9); or, as Peter speaks, we “purify our
souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit” (1 Pet. 1:22); and without it, it
will not be done.
What has been spoken I suppose is sufficient to make good my first general
Be sure to get an interest in Christ—
if you intend to mortify any sin without it,
it will never be done.
22 Roman Catholic
You will say, “What, then, would you have unregenerate men that are convinced
of the evil of sin do? Shall they cease striving against sin, live dissolutely,
give their lusts their swing,23 and be as bad as the worst of men? This
were a way to set the whole world into confusion, to bring all things into
darkness, to set open the floodgates of lust, and lay the reins upon the necks
of men to rush into all sin with delight and greediness, like the horse into the
God forbid! It is to be looked on as a great issue of the wisdom, goodness, and
love of God, that by manifold ways and means he is pleased to restrain the
sons of men from running forth into that compass of excess and riot which
the depravity of their nature would carry them out unto with violence. By
whatsoever way this is done, it is an issue of the care, kindness, and goodness
of God, without which the whole earth would be a hell of sin and confusion.
There is a peculiar convincing power in the word, which God is oftentimes
pleased to put forth, to the wounding, amazing, and, in some sort, humbling
of sinners, though they are never converted. And the word is to be
preached though it has this end, yet not with this end. Let, then, the word be
preached and the sins of men rebuked, [and] lust will be restrained, and some
oppositions will be made against sin; though that be not the effect aimed at.
Though this be the work of the word and Spirit, and it be good in itself,
yet it is not profitable nor available as to the main end in them in whom it
is wrought; they are still in the gall of bitterness and under the power of
Let men know it is their duty, but in its proper place; I take not men from
mortification, but put them upon conversion. He that shall call a man from
mending a hole in the wall of his house, to quench a fire that is consuming
the whole building, is not his enemy. Poor soul! It is not your sore finger but
your hectic fever that you are to apply yourself to the consideration of. You
set yourself against a particular sin and do not consider that you are nothing
but sin.
Let me add this to those who are preachers of the word, or intend,
through the good hand of God, that employment: It is their duty to plead with
men about their sins, to lay load on particular sins, but always remember that
23 liberty, sway
it be done with that which is the proper end of law and gospel—that is, that
they make use of the sin they speak against to the discovery of the state and
condition wherein the sinner is; otherwise, haply,24 they may work men to formality
and hypocrisy, but little of the true end of preaching the gospel will be
brought about. It will not avail to beat a man off from his drunkenness into
a sober formality. A skillful master of the assemblies lays his axe at the root,
drives still at the heart. To inveigh25 against particular sins of ignorant, unregenerate
persons, such as the land is full of, is a good work; but yet, though
it may be done with great efficacy, vigor, and success, if this be all the effect
of it, that they are set upon the most sedulous26 endeavors of mortifying their
sins preached down, all that is done is but like the beating of an enemy in an
open field, and driving him into an impregnable castle, not to be prevailed
against. Get you at any time a sinner at the advantage, on the account of any
one sin whatsoever? have you anything to take hold of him by?—bring it to
his state and condition, drive it up to the head, and there deal with him. To
break men off particular sins, and not to break their hearts, is to deprive ourselves
of advantages of dealing with them.
And herein is the Roman mortification grievously peccant;27 they drive
all sorts of persons to it, without the least consideration whether they have a
principle for it or no. Yea, they are so far from calling on men to believe, that
they may be able to mortify their lusts, that they call men to mortification
instead of believing. The truth is, they neither know what it is to believe nor
what mortification itself intends. Faith with them is but a general assent to
the doctrine taught in their church; and mortification the betaking of a man
by a vow to some certain course of life, wherein he denies himself something
of the use of the things of this world, not without a considerable compensation.
Such men know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God [Mark
12:24]. Their boasting of their mortification is but their glorying in their
shame. Some casuists28 among ourselves, who, overlooking the necessity of
regeneration, do avowedly give this for direction to all sorts of persons that
complain of any sin or lust, that they should vow against it, at least for a season,
a month or so, seem to have a scantling of light in the mystery of the
gospel, much like that of Nicodemus when he came first to Christ [John 3:1-
21]. They bid men vow to abstain from their sin for a season. This commonly
24 by chance
25 denounce, censure
26 constant, persistent
27 offending, faulty
28 those who rigidly apply ethical rules
makes their lust more impetuous. Perhaps with great perplexity they keep
their word; perhaps not, which increases their guilt and torment. Is their sin
at all mortified hereby? Do they find a conquest over it? Is their condition
changed, though they attain a relinquishment of it? Are they not still in the
gall of bitterness? Is not this to put men to make brick, if not without straw,
yet, which is worse, without strength? What promise has any unregenerate
man to countenance him in this work? What assistance for the performance
of it? Can sin be killed without an interest in the death of Christ, or mortified
without the Spirit? If such directions should prevail to change men’s lives,
as seldom they do, yet they never reach to the change of their hearts or conditions.
They may make men self-justiciaries29 or hypocrites, not Christians.
It grieves me oftentimes to see poor souls, that have a zeal for God and a
desire of eternal welfare, kept by such directors and directions under a hard,
burdensome, outside worship and service of God, with many specious
endeavors for mortification, in an utter ignorance of the righteousness of
Christ and unacquaintedness with his Spirit all their days. Persons and things
of this kind I know too many. If ever God shine into their hearts, to give them
the knowledge of his glory in the face of his Son Jesus Christ [2 Cor. 4:6], they
will see the folly of their present way.

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