Mortification Chapter 9

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

The foregoing general rules being supposed, particular directions to the soul
for its guidance under the sense of a disquieting lust or distemper, being the
main thing I aim at, come next to be proposed. Now, of these some are previous
and preparatory, and in some of them the work itself is contained. Of
the first sort are these ensuing:
Consider Whether Your Lust Has These Dangerous Symptoms
Accompanying It
Consider what dangerous symptoms your lust has attending or accompanying
it—whether it has any deadly mark on it or no; if it has, extraordinary
remedies are to be used; an ordinary course of mortification will not do it.
You will say, “What are these dangerous marks and symptoms, the desperate
attendancies of an indwelling lust, that you intend?” Some of them I
shall name:
Inveterateness.33 If it has lain long corrupting in your heart, if you have
suffered it to abide in power and prevalency, without attempting vigorously
the killing of it and the healing of the wounds you have received by it for some
long season, your distemper is dangerous. Have you permitted worldliness,
ambition, greediness of study to eat up other duties, the duties wherein you
ought to hold constant communion with God, for some long season? Or
uncleanness to defile your heart with vain and foolish and wicked imaginations
for many days? Your lust has a dangerous symptom. So was the case
with David: “My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness”
(Ps. 38:5). When a lust has lain long in the heart, corrupting, festering,
cankering,34 it brings the soul to a woeful condition. In such a case an ordinary
course of humiliation will not do the work: whatever it be, it will by this
means insinuate itself more or less into all the faculties of the soul, and habituate
the affections to its company and society; it grows familiar to the mind
and conscience, that they do not startle at it as a strange thing, but are bold
with it as that which they are wonted35 unto; yea, it will get such advantage
by this means as oftentimes to exert and put forth itself without having any
notice taken of it at all, as it seems to have been with Joseph in his swearing
by the life of Pharaoh [Gen. 42:15-16]. Unless some extraordinary course be
taken, such a person has no ground in the world to expect that his latter end
shall be peace.
For, first, how will he be able to distinguish between the long abode of
an unmortified lust and the dominion of sin, which cannot befall a regenerate
person? Secondly, how can he promise himself that it shall ever be otherwise
with him, or that his lust will cease tumultuating and seducing, when he
sees it fixed and abiding, and has done so for many days, and has gone
through a variety of conditions with him? It may be it has tried mercies and
afflictions, and those possibly so remarkable that the soul could not avoid
taking special notice of them; it may be it has weathered out many a storm,
and passed under much variety of gifts in the administration of the word; and
will it prove an easy thing to dislodge an inmate pleading a title by prescription?
Old neglected wounds are often mortal, always dangerous. Indwelling
33 the state of being hardened, habitual, deep-rooted
34 festering, corroding, infecting
35 accustomed
distempers grow rusty and stubborn by continuance in ease and quiet. Lust
is such an inmate as, if it can plead time and some prescription, will not easily
be ejected. As it never dies of itself, so if it be not daily killed it will always
gather strength.
Secret pleas of the heart for the countenancing36 of itself, and keeping up
its peace, notwithstanding the abiding of a lust, without a vigorous gospel
attempt for its mortification, is another dangerous symptom of a deadly distemper
in the heart. Now, there be several ways whereby this may be done.
I shall name some of them; as—
When upon thoughts, perplexing thoughts about sin, instead of applying
himself to the destruction of it, a man searches his heart to see what evidences
he can find of a good condition, notwithstanding that sin and lust, so
that it may go well with him. For a man to gather up his experiences of God,
to call them to mind, to collect them, consider, try, improve them, is an excellent
thing—a duty practiced by all the saints, commended in the Old
Testament and the New. This was David’s work when he “communed with
his own heart,” and called to remembrance the former lovingkindness of the
Lord [Ps. 77:6-9, 10, 11]. This is the duty that Paul sets us to practice (2 Cor.
13:5). And as it is in itself excellent, so it has beauty added to it by a proper
season, a time of trial or temptation, or disquietness of the heart about sin,
it is a picture of silver to set off this golden apple, as Solomon speaks [Prov.
25:11]. But now to do it for this end, to satisfy conscience, which cries and
calls for another purpose, is a desperate device of a heart in love with sin.
When a man’s conscience shall deal with him, when God shall rebuke him
for the sinful distemper of his heart, if he, instead of applying himself to get
that sin pardoned in the blood of Christ and mortified by his Spirit, shall
relieve himself by any such other evidences as he has, or thinks himself to
have, and so disentangle himself from under the yoke that God was putting
on his neck, his condition is very dangerous, his wound hardly curable. Thus
the Jews, under the gallings of their own consciences and the convincing
preaching of our Savior, supported themselves with this, that they were
“Abraham’s children,” and on that account accepted with God; and so countenanced
themselves in all abominable wickedness, to their utter ruin.
This is, in some degree, a blessing of a man’s self, and saying that upon
one account or other he shall have peace, “although he adds drunkenness to
thirst” [Deut. 29:19]. Love of sin, undervaluation of peace and of all tastes
of love from God, are enwrapped in such a frame. Such a one plainly shows
36 sanctioning, approving
that if he can but keep up hope of escaping the “wrath to come,” he can be
well content to be unfruitful in the world, at any distance from God that is
not final separation. What is to be expected from such a heart?
By applying grace and mercy to an unmortified sin, or one not sincerely
endeavored to be mortified, is this deceit carried on. This is a sign of a heart
greatly entangled with the love of sin. When a man has secret thoughts in his
heart, not unlike those of Naaman about his worshipping in the house of
Rimmon—“In all other things I will walk with God, but in this thing, God
be merciful unto me” [2 Kings 5:18]—his condition is sad. It is true, indeed,
a resolution to this purpose, to indulge a man’s self in any sin on the account
of mercy, seems to be, and doubtless in any course is, altogether inconsistent
with Christian sincerity, and is a badge of a hypocrite, and is the “turning of
the grace of God into wantonness”37 [Jude 4], yet I doubt not but, through
the craft of Satan and their own remaining unbelief, the children of God may
themselves sometimes be ensnared with this deceit of sin, or else Paul would
never have so cautioned them against it as he does (Rom. 6:1-2). Yea, indeed,
there is nothing more natural than for fleshly reasonings to grow high and
strong upon this account. The flesh would fain38 be indulged unto upon the
account of grace, and every word that is spoken of mercy, it stands ready to
catch at and to pervert it, to its own corrupt aims and purposes. To apply
mercy, then, to a sin not vigorously mortified is to fulfill the end of the flesh
upon the gospel.
These and many other ways and wiles a deceitful heart will sometimes
make use of to countenance itself in its abominations. Now, when a man with
his sin is in this condition, that there is a secret liking of the sin prevalent in
his heart, and though his will be not wholly set upon it, yet he has an imperfect
velleity39 toward it, he would practice it were it not for such and such considerations,
and hereupon relieves himself other ways than by the
mortification and pardon of it in the blood of Christ; that man’s “wounds
stink and are corrupt” [Ps. 38:5], and he will, without speedy deliverance, be
at the door of death.
Frequency of success in sin’s seduction, in obtaining the prevailing consent
of the will unto it, is another dangerous symptom. This is that I mean:
When the sin spoken of gets the consent of the will with some delight, though
it be not actually outwardly perpetrated, yet it has success. A man may not
37 lack of discipline
38 eagerly, gladly
39 inclination, desire
be able, upon outward considerations, to go along with sin to that which
James calls the “finishing” of it [1:14-15], as to the outward acts of sin, when
yet the will of sinning may be actually obtained; then has it, I say, success.
Now, if any lust be able thus far to prevail in the soul of any man, as his condition
may possibly be very bad and himself be unregenerate, so it cannot possibly
be very good, but dangerous; and it is all one upon the matter whether
this be done by the choice of the will or by inadvertency,40 for that inadvertency
itself is in a manner chosen. When we are inadvertent and negligent,
where we are bound to watchfulness and carefulness, that inadvertency does
not take off from the voluntariness of what we do thereupon; for although
men do not choose and resolve to be negligent and inadvertent, yet if they
choose the things that will make them so, they choose inadvertency itself as
a thing may be chosen in its cause.
And let not men think that the evil of their hearts is in any measure extenuated41
because they seem, for the most part, to be surprised into that consent
which they seem to give unto it; for it is negligence of their duty in
watching over their hearts that betrays them into that surprise.
When a man rights42 against his sin only with arguments from the issue
or the punishment due unto it, this is a sign that sin has taken great possession
of the will, and that in the heart there is a superfluity of naughtiness
[James 1:21]. Such a man as opposes nothing to the seduction of sin and lust
in his heart but fear of shame among men or hell from God, is sufficiently
resolved to do the sin if there were no punishment attending it; which, what
it differs from living in the practice of sin, I know not. Those who are Christ’s,
and are acted43 in their obedience upon gospel principles, have the death of
Christ, the love of God, the detestable nature of sin, the preciousness of communion
with God, a deep-grounded abhorrency of sin as sin, to oppose to
any seduction of sin, to all the workings, strivings, rightings of lust in their
hearts. So did Joseph. “How shall I do this great evil,” says he, “and sin
against the LORD,” my good and gracious God? [Gen. 39:9]. And Paul, “The
love of Christ constrains us” [2 Cor. 5:14]; and, “Having received these
promises, let us cleanse ourselves from all pollution of the flesh and spirit”
(2 Cor. 7:1). But now if a man be so under the power of his lust that he has
nothing but law to oppose it with, if he cannot fight against it with gospel
weapons, but deals with it altogether with hell and judgment, which are the
40 negligence
41 made less serious
42 seeks to correct or amend
43 activated
proper arms of the law, it is most evident that sin has possessed itself of his
will and affections to a very great prevalency and conquest.
Such a person has cast off, as to the particular spoken of, the conduct of
renewing grace and is kept from ruin only by restraining grace; and so far is
he fallen from grace and returned under the power of the law. And can it be
thought that this is not a great provocation to Christ, that men should cast
off his easy, gentle yoke and rule, and cast themselves under the iron yoke of
the law, merely out of indulgence unto their lusts?
Try yourself by this also: When you are by sin driven to make a stand,
so that you must either serve it and rush at the command of it into folly, like
the horse into the battle, or make head against it to suppress it, what do you
say to your soul? What do you expostulate44 with yourself? Is this all—“Hell
will be the end of this course; vengeance will meet with me and find me out”?
It is time for you to look about you; evil lies at the door [Gen. 4:7]. Paul’s
main argument to evince that sin shall not have dominion over believers is
that they “are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). If your contendings
against sin be all on legal accounts, from legal principles and
motives, what assurance can you attain unto that sin shall not have dominion
over you, which will be your ruin?
Yea, know that this reserve will not long hold out. If your lust has driven
you from stronger gospel forts, it will speedily prevail against this also. Do
not suppose that such considerations will deliver you, when you have voluntarily
given up to your enemy those helps and means of preservation
which have a thousand times their strength. Rest assuredly in this, that
unless you recover yourself with speed from this condition, the thing that
you fear will come upon you. What gospel principles do not, legal motives
cannot do.
When it is probable that there is, or may be, somewhat of judiciary hardness,
or at least of chastening punishment, in your lust as disquieting—this
is another dangerous symptom. That God does sometimes leave even those
of his own under the perplexing power at least of some lust or sin, to correct
them for former sins, negligence, and folly, I no way doubt. Hence was
that complaint of the church, “Why have you hardened us from the fear of
your name?” (Isa. 63:17). That this is his way of dealing with unregenerate
men, no man questions. But how shall a man know whether there be anything
of God’s chastening hand in his being left to the disquietment of his
44 discuss earnestly
Examine your heart and ways. What was the state and condition of your
soul before you fell into the entanglements of that sin which now you so complain
of? Have you been negligent in duties? Have you lived inordinately to
yourself? Is there the guilt of any great sin lying upon you unrepented of? A
new sin may be permitted, as well as a new affliction sent, to bring an old sin
to remembrance.
Have you received any eminent mercy, protection, deliverance, which
you did not improve in a due manner, nor were thankful for? Or have you
been exercised with any affliction without laboring for the appointed end of
it? Or have you been wanting of the opportunities of glorifying God in your
generation, which, in his good providence, he had graciously afforded unto
you? Or have you conformed yourself unto the world and the men of it,
through the abounding of temptations in the days wherein you live? If you
find this to have been your state, awake, call upon God; you are fast asleep
in a storm of anger round about you.
When your lust has already withstood particular dealings from God
against it. This condition is described, “For the iniquity of his covetousness
I was angry and struck him; I hid and was angry, and he went on backsliding
in the way of his heart” (Isa. 57:17). God had dealt with them about their
prevailing lust, and that several ways—by affliction and desertion; but they
held out against all. This is a sad condition, which nothing but mere sovereign
grace (as God expresses it in the next verse) can relieve a man in, and which
no man ought to promise himself or bear himself upon. God oftentimes, in
his providential dispensations,45 meets with a man, and speaks particularly
to the evil of his heart, as he did to Joseph’s brethren in their selling of him
into Egypt. This makes the man reflect on his sin, and judge himself in particular
for it. God makes it to be the voice of the danger, affliction, trouble,
sickness that he is in or under. Sometimes in reading of the word God makes
a man stay on something that cuts him to the heart, and shakes him as to his
present condition. More frequently in the hearing of the word preached—his
great ordinance for conviction, conversion, and edification—does he meet
with men. God often hews men by the sword of his word in that ordinance,
strikes directly on their bosom-beloved lust, startles the sinner, makes him
engage unto the mortification and relinquishment of the evil of his heart.
Now, if his lust has taken such hold on him as to enforce him to break these
bands of the Lord and to cast these cords from him—if it overcomes these
45 provisions, orderings
convictions and gets again into its old posture; if it can cure the wounds it so
receives—that soul is in a sad condition.
Unspeakable are the evils which attend such a frame of heart. Every particular
warning to a man in such an estate is an inestimable mercy; how then
does he despise God in them who holds out against them! And what infinite
patience is this in God, that he does not cast off such a one, and swear in his
wrath that he shall never enter into his rest [cf. Heb. 4:3]!
These and many other evidences are there of a lust that is dangerous, if
not mortal. As our Savior said of the evil spirit, “This kind goes not out but
by fasting and prayer” [Matt. 17:21], so say I of lusts of this kind. An ordinary
course of mortification will not do it; extraordinary ways must be fixed
This is the first particular direction: Consider whether the lust or sin
you are contending with has any of these dangerous symptoms attending
of it.
Before I proceed I must give you one caution by the way, lest any be
deceived by what has been spoken. Whereas I say the things and evils abovementioned
may befall true believers, let not any that finds the same things in
himself thence or from thence conclude that he is a true believer. These are
the evils that believers may fall into and be ensnared with, not the things that
constitute a believer. A man may as well conclude that he is a believer because
he is an adulterer, because David that was so fell into adultery, as conclude it
from the signs foregoing, which are the evils of sin and Satan in the hearts of
believers. The seventh chapter of the [book of] Romans contains the description
of a regenerate man. He that shall consider what is spoken of his dark
side, of his unregenerate part, of the indwelling power and violence of sin
remaining in him, and, because he finds the like in himself, conclude that he
is a regenerate man, will be deceived in his reckoning. It is all one as if you
should argue: A wise man may be sick and wounded, yea, do some things
foolishly; therefore, everyone who is sick and wounded and does things foolishly
is a wise man. Or as if a silly, deformed creature, hearing one speak of
a beautiful person, saying that he had a mark or a scar that much disfigured
him, should conclude that because he has himself scars, and moles, and warts,
he also is beautiful. If you will have evidences of your being believers, it must
be from those things that constitute men believers. He that has these things
in himself may safely conclude, “If I am a believer, I am a most miserable
one.” But that any man is so, he must look for other evidences if he will have

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